05 December, 2006

Damsel in Distress

Part II - Ten Day Jaunt in Mexico

Today's plan was to travel to Guanajuato, a five-hour bus ride away from Mexico City. One of the more picturesque and gorgeous colonial towns in Mexico, according to my Rough Guide, "Guanajuato is home to one of the country's finest Baroque churches, a thriving student life, and a relaxed cafe and bar culture". As if that wasn't enough to entice any tourist, the historic town center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Zone in 1988. With no traffic lights and no garish neon signs, Guanajuato was recommended to me by my friend Pei, who took Spanish courses there last year and who simply insisted that I had to see it for myself.

The taxi was late of course, this being Mexico. This thought crossed my mind as I waited impatiently at Hostel Moneda for the cab to take me to the bus terminal Norte. Yes, it would have been easier to just hail one of the ubiquitous green-and-white cabs on the street, but at the risk of your safety. Every guidebook strongly advised against doing so due to unscrupulous or fake drivers looking to relieve tourists of their belongings. Taking the subway was also an option (only 20 cents!), but it involved two transfers and not something I looked forward to while weighed down with luggage..The girl at reception finally got hold of the driver who arrived 15 minutes later, and in due time I was deposited at terminal Norte.

As I boarded the Primera Plus first-class bus, the ticket checker asked me which drink I preferred, at the same time pointing to the selection laid on the table in front of him. Thinking that they were for sale, I declined. He then burst out in his best English, “It’s free!”. Pleasantly surprised, I chose the Boing! Tamarind drink, which he duly put in a plastic bag along with the free sandwich. Wow, can this get any better?. Well, in fact it could. The seats were comfy, the legroom was to die for and akin to sitting in the exit row of an airplane, the interior was very clean and airconditioned. Moreover, English movies (of questionable taste with children present) provided entertainment during the ride.

Another surprise was in store – this Korean girl I spotted at Hostel Moneda was also taking the same bus to Guanajuato. I introduced myself, found out her name was Su (let's call her "Crazy Su", an apt nickname as I found out later), exchanged some pleasantries, and told her that if she was interested we could split the cab from the Guanajuato bus terminal into downtown. She was travelling by herself for three months in Latin America, on a yet-to-be-decided itinerary, and spoke no Spanish and barely any English. Props to her for bravery.

A little later, the conductor approached Crazy Su with a grave look on his face. Indicating to a ticket stub in his hand, he explained something to her in rapid fire Spanish, only to be met by a blank stare. Su called out to me and asked, “Do you speak Spanish?”. I replied in the affirmative, and walked over to her seat to try and help out. The conductor explained to me that Crazy Su's bus ticket was expired, invalid, and thus she couldn’t go to Guanajuato!!! Simultaneously amused and shocked at the situation, I translated this to her, repeating the key parts slowly until she understood the implications. Shocked, Crazy Su looked on the verge of tears, and wondered aloud, “Why???”.

The conductor pointed out that the ticket was for the previous day (Thurs), and not for today’s (Fri) travel. As I translated back and forth and asked questions, the crux of the matter came out. Apparently, Crazy Su had bought the ticket a day in advance (Thurs), but due to her limited language skills had been unable to explain to the ticket agent (whose English no doubt was flawless) that she wanted to travel the next day (Fri), and not on the same day as most travellers usually do. To resolve the issue, the conductor explained, she had to pay an additional half-price of the original fare ($12.50 more on top of the original fare of $25). At this point, Crazy Su almost burst out crying, but in the end had no choice but to shell out, and the conductor was kind enough to accompany her to the Primera Plus ticket counter to prevent any more mix-ups.

After the brief delay, our bus departed terminal Norte, and we were on the way to Guanajuato. I could barely contain my excitement, at the same time pleased that I had saved the day. Recounting the events in my mind made me chuckle, as I sipped the Boing! tamarind drink and tried to ignore the gory movie being shown.

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