I've never ridden a Greyhound bus. I've never been in a major U.S. bus station, or even picked anyone up from one. I remember dropping some of my teammates off at the Greyhound station in Joplin, but I never went in. This struck me as odd as I sat in a bus station in Puno, Peru, waiting for my 7:00am bus to La Paz. I've been blessed to be a part of a family that's always had a car, and eventually even a truck of my own to travel wherever and whenever I wanted. I've taken it for granted (that and a great many other things). I thought about this place - the experience - the whole system, and wondered if it was even remotely the same.
Central and South American bus terminals are amazing. The bigger ones are home to a hive of bus companies competing with each other on the same routes. Their marketing plans differ very little from each other - large, ugly signs, and someone with a tremendously loud and annoying voice chanting their destinations over and over. It's a bit of a train wreck - people of all shapes and sizes and nationalities milling about, large bags and suitcases with them, slamming into each other, crowding desks, pushing forward. I heard the lady at the Ormeno SA desk (my bus company du jour); say our bus was delayed for two hours. Awesome. I settled in to an uncomfortable molded orange plastic seat where I chatted with a couple from Ireland, and a trio of Australian ladies (2 in their 40's and one 8 year-old little girl), all of us on the same bus to La Paz.
I'd just finished chapter 8 of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" when our bus pulled up. On this particular leg, I sat in the bottom level of a double-decker bus. It was actually pretty nice. It was going well for the first hour - too well it turns out. Everything was great until the border crossing. As I've mentioned before, there's no such thing as a good border crossing. They all suck in some way. The inconvenience of getting on the bus, finding the right desk, watching everyone else - looking to make sure they don't have some form you don't have, hoping you have all the right stamps, etc. However, out of all the crossings I'd been through, this was the most chaotic. Unlike most border "towns" which have a visible, logical physical separation between the two countries, in this case there is an actual town built right on the border, completely obscuring the line between Peru and Bolivia. There was no space, no divider, no negative area to denote exit/entry. However, that wasn't the main problem. There were literally thousands of people in the streets. It reminded me of the scene from New Year's in Times Square, but on top of just the people, there were cars, bikes, rickshaws, horses, donkeys, cattle, street vendors, men, women, children, chickens, buses, vans, trucks, semis, and everything else in the street at the same time. You couldn't see the actual pavement. The bus went as far as it could without injuring or killing something.
We all got out for an attempt at the immigration procedures. It was a mess. We had to follow our fellow bus-mates through the throng of people, hoping someone at the front of the line knew where they were going. It was a challenge. I've never seen that many people in one place. Think of trying to get to the bathroom while at the most important game of the season at halftime, but you got a 5 minute delayed start. It was madness. Somehow, I kept my eyes on the trio of Australians (and the rest of the bus followed me - I was still the tallest person in the crowd. I was congratulated and thanked for my height afterwards). I followed them to the end of a long line in front of what appeared to be the Peruvian migration office. We waited there as people were processed; I took out my passport and put my wallet back in the cargo pocket of my pants. We continued forward, one by one. It was agonizing, and exhausting. We finally made it inside the structure, which was ridiculously undersized for the group of people waiting. It was about the size of a large two-car garage, with only two of four available windows open for people to line up in front of.
After about 30-35 minutes, I was finally next in line. The last of the Aussies was at the desk. I readied my passport and all the other forms I could manage, just in case. In the corner of my eye, I caught a vision of a younger guy to my right. He was new to the line - I hadn't seen him on the bus, or in our general area for the time I'd been here. He just kind of appeared. He angled toward me and toward the migration desk, and looked to have visions of cutting in front of me, never looking me in the eye. The woman in front of me left the desk, and at the same moment, the guy he bumped into my right shoulder, trying to step in front of me. I was in no mood for this, so I bumped him back pretty hard - enough to make the statement, and enough for him to lose his balance for a second, and wobble into someone in the next line. A split second after I made contact with my shoulder, I felt something on the outside of my right leg. I glanced down and saw a set of fingers prying open the cargo pocket of my pants. Yeah - the pocket where I just put my wallet. It's cliché, I know, but I can't explain it better than saying time slowed down like Neo dodging the bullets. It truly felt like that. Then it seemed to stop altogether, and a flood of thoughts and emotions ran through me in the course of about 3 nanoseconds:
The first: I was stunned - someone was trying to rob me! What the hell? Are you serious? I could instantaneously feel my blood pressure rising and my face getting red.
The second: I had that adrenaline-induced tremor rise up through my spine, tightening my stomach and making my body completely aware. I even processed the events - I bet that kid was just trying to distract me with the bump - the bastard.
The third: I looked down at the fingers inching their way into my pocket, and the initial feeling of shock quickly melted into pissed-off anger.
Time started to move again. My right hand moved faster than I thought it could, and actually before I realized it had. I grabbed all four foreign fingers with my hand and crushed them. I heard a small subdued yelp from my right, like someone stubbing thier toe in the night but trying not to wake anyone, but I didn't care, and didn't look. I pulled the fingers up and twisted them around - back against the wrist, applying more and more pressure until I felt a few pops between the finger joints and the wrist. I heard a second muffled shriek. I held on and my eyes followed the hand up the arm to the body to the face. It belonged to an older guy in his 40's. He had a dark, weathered face, short-cut hair and yellow-stained teeth, visible through his contorted mouth. His body was leaning to the right, attempting to relieve some pressure from his wrist. His face was a mix of shock and pain. He hadn't expected to get caught, and hadn't expected his hand to be in the position it was currently in. He extended his left hand toward the migration desk, in which I saw some documents and his passport - he proceeded to pass the incident off as his attempt to get to the window. He and I both knew better, partly evidenced by his unwillingness to make a scene. I moved my face right in front of his and said "Don't you ever touch me again". I knew he couldn't understand the words, but he got the message. I then realized I still had a hold of his fingers, and a few other people were watching. I released them sharply, throwing them down. He backed away, holding his hand, and then disappeared into the crowd behind me. The whole incident took a total of about six seconds.
I turned back to the desk and handed the attendant my passport. He had a smile on his face, as he'd seen the entire little drama. He gave me the appropriate stamp, and I was on my way. My heart was still pounding as I walked through the crowd and back out into the street. I was pissed off, but completely aware and alive. I looked around for the guy, but couldn't see him or the young guy who bumped me to distract me. I found the Australians again, and proceeded to the Bolivian side of the exchange. Fortunately, everyone kept their hands to themselves, and I made it through unscathed, but I now kept an eye on everyone. I could hear Chuckie's voice in Will Hunting's job interview in the back of my head: "You, You're Suspect" And they were too. Everyone. My wallet has a lanyard/rope attached to it, and I put it around my neck, under my shirt. I hate doing that, because it makes you look like a complete jackass, but it's the safest place.
We had to wait for about 30 minutes for the bus to plow through the crowd. It was a sweet feeling of refuge when I got back on. It was comfortable to be inside. In the quiet, out of the sun, away from people. We finally navigated our way out of the little town and returned to the highway, putting distance between me and the event which was still replaying over and over in my head. I took my wallet out and turned it over in my hands. That was a close one.