16 January 2009


In previous posts, I have written about my experiences in the Peace Corps serving in a small town called Glória. I served along with Brunie who had been there a year before I arrived. She spoke Portuguese beautifully and fit in into the culture as I never could.

After writing my previous post, I thought of the many bus rides I took in Brazil and decided to tell another tale of a short, by equally memorable, adventure involving a bus.

        On a Monday afternoon after Brunie and I had spent a weekend in the capital city, we caught a 2:00 pm bus back to Glória, a trip of 126 kilometers, close to 80 miles. At home, that might have been a 90 minute trip, but not in Brazil’s interior. There were frequent stops on the unpaved road, so it usually took about four hours to traverse that distance.
        We knew that many people from the interior seldom traveled in any kind of motorized transportation. As a result, they often suffered from motion sickness. We always chose aisle seats across from each other, if available, glad not to be between a sick passenger and a window.
        Three employees worked on each vehicle. One was the driver, of course. Another took care of the luggage compartment under the bus and was also the mechanic. If the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, we hoped he could repair it. The third man collected fares. He had to keep track of where each person got on and off so he knew how much to charge. Many people couldn’t count, so they just handed the man some bills. Sometimes he didn’t give them the right change. It could be because he himself couldn’t count well, but he might have been pocketing the extra money. If I were close to the front of the bus, I watched him closely.
        Rain swept across the countryside in sheets. The windows were closed. We could hardly breathe. The dense atmosphere was humid enough to keep our clothes clinging to our damp bodies.
        The bus stopped at each small town, but it didn't seem to have any other regular stops. People stood up and went to the front of the bus and asked the driver to stop anywhere along the road. Other passengers stood at the side of the road, ready to flag down the bus. Most wore a hat or a sheet of plastic to protect them from the rain. Each time the vehicle stopped, the mechanic, in a plastic raincoat, emerged to open the luggage compartment for new passengers or departing ones.
        Many Brazilians carried their packages with them, especially if their possessions were alive. That day I counted three piglets and five chickens. One passenger had an unidentified creature moving inside a cloth sack.

        In the back of the bus sat the man everyone called O Crente. ‘Crente’ literally meant ‘believer,’ but was used to refer to Protestants, mostly conservative evangelicals, as opposed to members of the majority religion, Roman Catholicism.
        O Crente, The Believer, caught the bus in his own town every night at about 2:30 in the morning and returned home the same day on the 2:00 pm bus from the capital. Each time we traveled to the capital city, he was already on the bus when we boarded at 3:00 am. He read the Bible out loud to his captive audience, both coming and going. He didn't read it in a normal speaking voice. He read it dramatically, shouting the passages with passion, like the most extreme of fire and brimstone preachers. Most Brazilians thought he was crazy. I found him so annoying that I chose to sit as far from him as possible. Because he lived in the town beyond Glória, I knew he would be with us for the entire trip. That day there had been no empty seats near the front. With the rain and O Crente, it was going to be a long four-hour ride.
        I wasn’t sure what O Crente did in the capital from 7:00 am until he caught the afternoon bus. Maybe he had relatives there. Most likely, he read the Bible in public places. I also wasn’t sure how he was able to afford bus fare 6 days a week without a job. He solicited donations from passengers, but never gathered more than a few centavos. I donated nothing ---I wasn’t about to to encourage him ---but I often wondered how much of a donation he would accept in exchange for a few minutes of silence.

        I tried to read, but couldn't concentrate on my book with O Crente yakking behind us. One couldn't carry on a conversation with that man screaming the scriptures. I couldn’t even watch the scenery in the passing hinterland. The side of the road could barely be seen through the pelting rain and steamed windows. Several times, the wheels spun on the mud while the bus tried to climb a small grade. Leaning my head back,  I closed my eyes, allowed my paperback book to drop to my lap, tuned out O Crente, and started to doze in the stuffy bus.
        Suddenly, the back of the bus lurched sideways. At once, I recognized a skid. I grabbed the back of the seat in front of me. In a second, the bus was in a deep ditch on the right side of the road, leaning on its side, its left wheels off the ground. I had been hurled off my seat partially by the movement of the bus and partially by the force of the female passenger to my left. I still held onto the seat, but I had twisted my wrist. I had to untangle my legs from Brunie and an elderly woman who had been sitting to her right.
        People yelled in frantic Portuguese. Children cried. Chickens squawked and piglets squealed their disapproval. The driver yelled orders to the passengers.

        “Quick, get out of the bus," someone screamed in a high-pitched voice. "The driver is saying that everyone should get off." 
        I pulled myself to my feet. I held my hand out to the woman who had been to my left. Her face had lost its color and her hand trembled as I helped her scramble into the tilted aisle. We helped the old woman who sat beside Brunie to her feet. Once she headed toward the rear emergency exit, we scurried to the front door.
        Outside my sandals sank into the mire beside the road.
        "You okay?" Brunie asked.
        "I think so. I feel like I'll have a few bruises," I answered, rubbing my wrist. “How about you?”
        Brunie had hurt her elbow, but otherwise was okay.
        "I was dozing,” I said. “I never expected anything like this." Up to that point I had been calm, but suddenly felt like my blood sugar had dropped to zero. I leaned on Brunie for a few minutes until my dizziness passed.

        I noticed that the luggage compartment had been thrown open by the force of the skid. I recognized my own suitcase and Brunie's covered with mud in the ditch. Several people were grabbing at their own cloth sacks, probably filled with flour, rice, or cornmeal. To protect them from the rain, they carried them into the sloping bus. Several wooden liquor crates were broken ---some of the bottles smashed.
        We waited until most of the Brazilians had picked up their own possessions, before venturing near the vehicle. Just as I leaned over to grab my suitcase, O Crente grabbed one of the liquor bottles which hadn't broken. Smashing the bottle against the side of the bus, he yelled, "Diabo! Demonio!" Glass fragments and whiskey splattered onto my legs. Reaching for another bottle, the man yelled again. Brunie and I backed away.
        "What in the hell is going on?" I asked. O Crente was yelling and speaking so fast, I couldn’t understand his Portuguese.
        Another man grabbed a bottle by its neck, pushing the broken end toward O Crente who was reaching into the crate.
        Brunie answered me, "The Crente is blaming the desastre of the bus on the liquor. He says it's the devil's work ---he's trying to break the rest of the bottles. The man in white owns a bar in the next town. It's his whiskey."
        I found it quaint that the Brazilians referred to even the most minor of accidents as a ‘disaster.’ Luckily, no one had been seriously hurt in this one.
        The bus driver, the mechanic, the fare taker, and several passengers pulled the men apart. O Crente continued to make aggressive gestures toward the tavern owner waving his Bible in the air. Eventually several men wrestled him to the ground ending the ruckus.
        By the time everyone was calm, O Crente and several other men were covered with mud. O Crente wrapped a handkerchief around his bloody hand ---he seemed to have the only injury. Several men placed themselves strategically between the combatants. The men covered in mud stood with their heads tilted toward the pelting rain, trying to wash brown slime from their faces.

        The bus employees and several of the male passengers spoke for several minutes, with broad hand gestures, some arguing, and finally hand shakes. The driver crawled through the back door and moved unsteadily to the front of the slanting bus. He started the engine. Several men picked through the mud to find pieces of broken glass and move them out of the way. The mechanic explained that everyone was needed on the right side of the bus to push it back onto the road.
        To me it looked hopeless. I was sure no amount of mere human effort would upright the huge vehicle. And if the bus tilted more, passengers could be crushed. I might have refused to help but I didn't want to admit I was afraid. I placed myself near the back end, thinking I could scramble out of the way, if the bus toppled over. Feet slipped from under the passengers as we tried to push. Several landed on their knees in the mud.
        When that didn't work, the bus employees asked the women to get in the bus and stand or sit as close to the left side as possible while the men pushed on the right side. But that strategy didn't work either. The mechanic took some pieces of thick jute rope from his large metal tool chest. He tied them around the posts between windows on the left of the bus. The men pulled on the ropes while the women stayed inside on the left. Then everyone tried pulling on the ropes. Nothing worked.
        An hour passed. The rain subsided to a gentle drizzle. Most of the men gathered in small groups, smoking. A few people crawled back onto the bus to escape the rain, although everyone was thoroughly soaked by then. A few old women, a middle-aged couple, Brunie, and I sat on our luggage a few meters from the bus, under a lone tree. The main topic of conversation was how to get the bus back on the road and how long we would wait for help.
        O Crente sat apart from the others on a stump, reading loudly from his muddy Bible. I wondered if he were reading the story of Noah. Besides the mud that covered him, he wore a look that told the world that no one understood his wisdom, that everyone else was a sinner who needed salvation while he had discovered the one true path to paradise.
        Another hour went by before the first vehicle approached. The bus driver flagged down the jeep. Everyone watched as the two drivers spoke. The jeep’s owner shook his head saying he couldn't help; his jeep was too small. He said to wait. Soon, his friend would be coming in his truck; they had both been to the market in one of the interior towns.

        In another thirty minutes, a truck filled with goods and passengers, turned the bend, followed by a second truck from the market. The bus passengers buzzed with expectant excitement. The mechanic tied ropes to the jeep and both trucks. The fare taker organized the passengers from both the bus and the trucks to push on the right side of the bus while the jeep and the trucks strained to pull the bus from the ditch. It seemed like even that wouldn't work. Then, suddenly, the bus bounced onto all its wheels, the tires grabbed, and the driver was able to steer it onto the muddy road.
        Many handshakes and "obrigados" followed. The luggage compartment was refilled. Passengers reentered the bus. Packages were redeposited on the overhead racks and under the seats. The bar owner and O Crente were kept at a safe distance from each other, the latter loudly proclaiming that his prayers had resulted in a miracle that saved us from the satanic whiskey.

        Settling into my seat, soaked through to the skin, I looked at Brunie. Laughing, I said, "We must look like a couple of drowned rats."
        Brunie laughed. "I probably don't look that good."
        I ran my fingers through my wet hair. "How often does this happen?"
        She wiped her face with paper from the roll of toilet tissue she always carried in her purse. "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Of course, when we tell everyone in Glória, we'll hear all kinds of stories about desastres."
        "We were supposed to be back by six. It'll be after nine 'til we get home. Our literacy students will be waiting for us."
        Brunie assured me that by now everyone in Glória knew the bus was late and everyone in town knew exactly which residents of Glória were expected on the bus. The literacy students would not even show up. She fumbled in her mesh bag. Handing me an orange, she said, "It will be good to be home, won’t it?"
        I nodded. I was finally feeling as if Glória really was my home, at least for the next few years.
(Text and illustrations ©2009, C.J. Peiffer)


  1. My PC partner and I had a bus "desastre" on our first trip to our site. Hell of a way to start off your Peace Corps tour.

    Our future home was 100km from our jump off city, Ponta Pora, Mato Grosso, which is on the Paraguayan border. Our bus left around 3:00 for the 2 hr trip. I happened to be watching the driver via the inside mirror when all of a sudden his eyes tripled in size as he frantically began turning the steering wheel left and right trying to prevent the bus from leaving the road. He didn't. Seems the steering had gone out on the old bus. Luckily for us, this was savanna country....flat with low brush; not trees.

    The bus leaned, bounced and tumbled its way across the bar ditch, but didn't flip. It came to rest in a cloud of red Mato Grosso dust with two stunned gringos trying to figure out what had just happened.

    My partner and I stayed with the bus but everyone else would hop a ride with whatever type of transportation came down the road over the next hours. The replacement bus gathered us up and we finally arrived at our PC site around midnight.

    And the bus trip in the rainy season? For another time.

    Gene Whitmer
    MT/ES 64-67

  2. WOW. Thanks for sharing your amazing adventures!