Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cross Dressing Cookie Salesman

In Ecuador, the majority of people use buses to get from here to there. It’s the cheapest, most regular and accessible form of transportation within the country. Within any town or city, a bus will cost you no more than $0.25. For travel between major cities, it is possible to catch flights throughout the day for $100. A great deal granted, but it doesn’t beat the $12, 10-hour, overnight bus ride between Quito and Guayaquil.

It doesn’t take an anthropologist to realize that the bus in Ecuador is a cultural happening. Most buses have salsa music and ballads blaring through the speakers during your ride. On any trip longer than 30 minutes, the majority of people will be found open-mouth sleeping despite this fact. Babies and small children are immune to the noise and bumps in the road as well.

People lean on you. Unlike in the West where touching people you don’t know in crowded spaces is considered taboo, here you will not only get touched, but often leaned on while riding the bus. People will grab an arm or shoulder and use you as leverage when they are about to fall. You can even have your head touched while it lays on your seat’s headrest. I know, I know. This sounds unimaginable; but here it is acceptable. There are actually times when you’ll feel little fingers rubbing your hair while you lay there. Or, people resting their hands on the top of your chair will bounce their fingers off your forehead when you hit a pothole. I know my cousin Maisha and some other people are gasping out loud right now, but it’s true. When a person is standing on the bus, they will always lean on someone’s seat. I feel like an inordinate amount of the time it happens to be mine, but I could just be paranoid. In the process of leaning on the seat, they inevitably lean on the seat’s occupant. No matter. Here, it is not considered an inconsideration. You will be ruthlessly leaned on and/or bumped in the middle of your R.E.M. cycle without having the person apologize for waking you up or even look in your direction. The rules of engagement here are different, and commonly accepted. As long as I’m not the only one being mistakenly slapped or nudged out of my sleep, who am I to complain?

I learned about the varying conceptions of personal space during my first time in South Africa. The trains are so full that you have to literally push the people bursting out of the doors in, in order to create your space. Sometimes you need a running start, and it always takes more than one try. Inevitably, someone’s bag gets caught outside the door when it closes. It is not a question of whether or not you will be discomforted. The question is how bad and for how long. Usually it’s a combo of someone grabbing the hand bar directly over your head (you know what that means….armpit) and a fellow passenger’s elbow or book bag crammed into the small of your back, disrupting your balance. Sometimes, someone’s just stepping directly on your ankle. Every time the train stops at a station you have to use every muscle in your body to not fall over and have everyone leaning against you collapse. I’ve seen 15 people pileups. Of course, this is just an exaggerated version of what happens on the bus in Philly during rush hour. How uncomfortable your ride to and from school or work is may be the most accurate indicator, we have today, of personal income.

Here, overnight bus trips usually feature one group of young backpackers who got drunk before they got on. This process usually includes some kind of hard liquor. They couldn’t pick tonight to just drink beer, nooo. They need to have something strong since it’s going to be a long ride. They want to get twisted. Minutes after leaving the station they befoul the bathroom. In general, you don’t want to use the bathroom. Take care of your business before you get on the bus. Take your contacts out in your seat, eat a good dinner and bring your water, but don’t drink too much. Need nothing from the back of the bus. Once, and no I’m not lying, somebody broke out a guitar at 12:30 am. The other feature attraction of long bus rides is the movies. Let’s see. Last trip from Riobamba to Guayaquil I lucked out with not only Top Gun, but also some B movie with Jean Claude Van Damme and Mickey Rourke as the bad guy. Who knew Mickey Rourke knew karate? You didn’t. If you want to understand something about the insidious nature of the Americanization of cultures throughout the world, watch Top Gun or a bad Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Yes, I said bad Jean Claude Van Damme movie. We’re not even talking about BloodSport here. This is washed-up Van Damme, with washed Mickey Rourke as his foil.

Like many countries, Ecuador has a long, strong tradition of people selling things on the bus. Men jump on to the bus as it still moves with pans of fresh tortillas filled with chicken or cheese. Or maybe they’ll have coconut water in a bag, or baked corn patties, or roasted pork with corn or pinchos (shishkabobs with marinated, grilled chicken wings stretched to fit on the skewer horizontally). This is the not the worst part of the trip. These guys yell out something like “Corviche!, Corviche!, Corviche!” loud enough to be heard over the music. This is a loud, but short announcement. However, guys selling less appetizing things like packaged cookies or herbal remedies need a little something to help sell their product. So, they spruce up their product presentation with a little speech. A five minute soliloquy most often is the format. Then, they walk around and hand out samples of the product to each passenger. This allows you to touch and feel the six pack of cookies, read its content, and see how good it feels in your hands. It’s as if you were test driving a car or holding a pair leather gloves. Just the smell of the plastic packaging and the hard texture of the cookie inside will be enough to tempt you. When you’re lucky you will get a not-so-serious presenter who tosses in jokes about sexual impotence or children wanting their mother’s milk.

Yesterday, Sylvie and I got lucky. A guy hops on the bus with his hat on sideways to the back (good sign). He’s carrying a small, black gym bag. Don’t worry, this is typical. It’s only after 7 minutes into his routine that we even know he’s selling galletas (cookies). He’s working the crowd really well. Bus riders are used to these presentations, so you’ve got to be good to have the group openly laughing and watching in audience-like fashion. First, he tells us he used to be a criminal, but there was too much competition. Later in his act he tells us he’s actually Noboa’s son (the richest man in Ecuador who recently lost his third presidential bid) and he’s here to give us money. He says sometimes he wakes up, looks in the mirror and wonders if that is a butt or a face he’s looking at. Then, he brings on his “wife”, a man about his same age with a blonde wig on sideways. They do a five minute, R-rated, un-PC version of a Honeymooners skit. Everything but “bang, zoom” was included. At one point, the “husband” asks his wife a question, and his “wife” says one of the passengers knows the answer, but has to whisper it in “her” ear. Who would be the lucky man to have the “wife” leaning over him to share the secret while being watched by the entire bus?!? I don’t have to tell you do I?

The “wife” starts making eyes at me. You know how there are those moments in life when someone is about to be embarrassed, and you pray to God it’s not you, but you eagerly wait to see someone else get embarrassed so you can laugh, and then you get a direct unmistakable signal that verifies beyond a shadow of a doubt that yes, indeed, it will be you? Just as the “dammit, nope, it’s me” realization came, “she” is there leaning over me, saying “ummm hummm, uhhh huhhh, ooohhh”, and everyone is laughing. Thankfully, my wife is there for me to look at and pretend the event is not happening. After that, they finish their routine and the husband verifies for the passengers and driver that his partner is not a homosexual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They then go passenger-by-passenger threatening them with attention as they refuse to take back their cookies instead of the money that’s supposed to replace them. At the first woman who refuses, they stop and the de-wigged “wife” starts making Jerry Lewis faces at her. She was gonna pay, it was just a question of how painful it was going to be (sidenote: Sylvie and I are watching seasons of 24 on dvd. I’m Jack. She’s Chloe. Or, I’m President Logan and she’s his crazy wife.). These guys were fantastic at extortion. They sold 5 times more cookies than any other salesmen I’ve seen thus far. Just the threat of them pausing too long by your seat had people, particularly men, whipping change out of their pockets. I guess that’s one of the small prices you pay for being homophobic. I paid, but it was more out of appreciation and admiration of the show. Anytime someone puts that much thought, time and effort into selling you a snack pack of cookies, you need to come up off your $0.25.


mdcphilly said...

Great bus ride description Umi. You nicely captures the essence of the Ecuadorian bus traveling experience!

Break out the "Tropico!"

(Visitors: Tropico is the cheapest aguadiente--foul tasting sugar cane liquor--Ecuador has to offer.)

Michael Felberbaum said...

Hilarious! I wish I coulda been there.