The boots cost Minton 75 bucks, but his solitary bus ride cost him more than that—$120.
THE PAN-AMERICAN LOCAL
It was while traveling along the knobby spine of the Andes 14 years ago that I briefly became an aficionado of the brinkman's sport of high-altitude bus racing. My South American Handbook had warned me, "Bus travel in Colombia is far from dull.... Breakdowns are many. It is not for weak hearts, queasy stomachs or long legs." My initiation came one rainy night on a bus that was racing between Ipiales, Colombia, and Quito, Ecuador. I was accompanied by a litter of kittens, a parrot, two sheep, some chickens and 60 Ecuadorians, packed as tight as the Marx Brothers in the stateroom of A Night at the Opera.
I was stuffed behind the driver's seat, shoehorned between the bus wall and a sack containing coconuts and other, unidentified, goods—many of which were smuggled, I assumed—owned by a tomato-cheeked woman who yammered constantly into the driver's ear.
An anaconda tattoo coiled up and down the biceps of our driver as he fought the wheel with his right hand while cleaning the misty windshield with his left elbow. He seemed to be listening attentively to Tomato Cheeks while he played bumper cars with the back of a bus that was leading the race. With last-second jerks of the wheel, he managed to yank our bus away from the edge of a narrow 8,000-foot precipice and pull ahead of the competition. We were so high that if we had been a plane, we would have crashed because of ice on our wings.
Racing is serious business for South American bus drivers, because whoever gets to the stop first gets the passengers. The competition is dicey because buses never are inspected, rarely have major maintenance work done and routinely wear tires as bald as a Boy Scout's knee. On the Pan-American Highway, bus racers can earn great, if short-lived, reputations.
Ours was a star. At times, steering seemed to him to be an afterthought. He could barely see the road anyway; the windshield was covered with decals of the South American bus driver's Holy Trinity—the Virgin Mary, Ch� Guevara and Mickey Mouse. A cabbie we had just squeezed against the side of a tunnel slipped up off our driver's left flank and yelled, "Assassin!" Skidding giddily around bumpy, shadowy mountain curves, our driver overtook two more buses, and we passed through the town of Ibarra like an empanada through a Norteamericano tourist. Like a 747 captain minimizing turbulence, our driver assured us that no more than two wheels were ever over the edge.
I was not reassured, however, when we screamed up on a battered yellow school bus and tried to pass it on the outside. On this route, the outside was about six inches wide and 7,343 feet down. Portions of the mountain crumbled off and dropped the full 7,343 feet. Then the driver hit the brakes. Screeeech! He downshifted. Another horrendous screech. The gearshift broke off in his hand. He waved it at the end of his anaconda.
I was looking for a parachute. Tomato Cheeks didn't pause. She reached into her mysterious bag of coconuts and contraband and drew forth some kind of metal rod, which the driver duly substituted for the broken shift on the fly, and life went on.
HUB KITTLE'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE