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Let me paint you a picture of a van. It's dark red. It's a Chevrolet Express. It's got a few knocks and bumps. Eleven people (including the driver) would be comfortable in it. Maybe you could squeeze two or three more in for a shortish journey. So for a 10 hour (scheduled time that is) journey, what would make you put 17 people in?
There we were at 6.45am sitting in this van. There were four Italians behind us on the back row. Claire and I had the middle (shortest) row of seats to ourselves. In front of us was a row of four people, two or three Mexicans and an Australian. Right up front was the driver, his girlfriend and one other Mexican. We couldn't work out what were waiting for. The came our final two passengers. Both Mexican, one was considerably wider than the other. Claire and I squeezed up a bit so that the smaller of the two was on the same bench seat as us and the larger one squeezed onto the fold out temporary seat on the end.
It was squashed but for a short ride to a bigger bus it would be ok. Only there was no bigger bus. Out of San Cristobal we zoomed, further and further away. Then came the speed bumps.
The road to Palenque passes over and around many mountains and small villages. According to the road signs Palenque is over 200km from San Cristobal. On that road there is approximately one speed bump for every kilometre. Our driver braked late and hard for each one and then accelerated hard away from them. That's not all though. Our driver also had to overtake every single vehicle on that road that was not going as fast as he was. That was pretty much everything! Now this van was quite powerful and certainly capable of overtaking but being mountain roads, they were very twisty. That didn't seem to bother our driver too much. The van was willing, the driver was willing, the other 16 people... a little bit nervous.
If only that were all. There was another van doing this trip that had obviously picked up people from another part of San Cristobal. It was pretty much identical except for being blue and having alloy wheels. Our driver didn't like to be behind this van, he liked to be in front. When he was in front of it, he seemed a little less scary. So, we were zooming along, perhaps 30 minutes into our journey, when our driver actually neglects to slow down (much, if at all) for one of the many speed bumps. This results in some sore bums and a broken rear bench seat for the Italians. About 20 minutes later, we reach a small town and pull over. The driver disappears somewhere and the other van catches us up. Suddenly, our driver is back and reversing the van up the kerb and back towards a shed / garage. The back doors of the van open and a sound very much like welding starts. That's right, the back seat was being welded (and set on fire) with the Italians still present. Well, as soon as they realised, they were out of the van so fast that Michael Schumacher would blink in amazement.
With the welding done, we were on our way again but some five minutes or so behind the first van. Plus, the two Mexicans in our row of seats had switched places and the wider one now took up more than a third of the main seat. Also, she didn't really make much of an effort when it came to corners. At the speeds we were doing those corners at, there was definate squeezing going on. I tried not to squash Claire when we turned right but the big Mexican just dozed and let gravity (or rather centrifugal force) do its work.
By this time, it was getting hot and thankfully the A/C was turned on. We also made a 30 minute stop for breakfast. I wasn't too hungry at this point and I think had I had something to eat...
One stroke of luck, the blue van had a space right next to the driver and the big Mexican decided to move to that van. More space!
The rest of the drive to Palenque was just more of the same. High speed cornering and speed bumps coupled with dubious overtaking.
So, how could this get any worse? Well, for one thing, although the journey to Palenque had been split into three bits, the journey back was just one long ride. Or it was supposed to be. About 30km in, we sped past a warning triangle. Personally I would have slowed down a bit when I saw it. Our driver waited until he could see what the triangle was for (a broken down 18 wheeler round a blind bend) before applying the brakes. For some reason he also felt compelled to see if he could help. In retrospect, this is kind of funny. You'll realise why shortly.
During this time, the blue van went past and did not stop so when our guy got back in, we were a couple of minutes behind. Naturally our guy wanted to make that time back up and he seemed to want to get about 5 seconds out of every corner judging by the way he kept cutting them at high speed. This style of driving had its toll on the tyres it would seem as on one sharp corner (with a steep slope down on one side) we slid round, the back of the van having a bit of a mind of its own. There was an uproar from the Italians behind us, partly because their seat was playing up again but also because they got thrown around a lot. That didn't seem to stop our driver much, but then we found out why.
We caught the other van up about 5 minutes later and our driver was flashing madly for another five minutes trying to get it to pull over. When we finally did, we got out and saw that we had a puncture. The tyre wasn't completely flat but it was nearly there. Now there's lots of talking and pointing among the Mexicans and since we couldn't do much to help, we sat across the road (much to the amusement of the locals).
It turned out that our van (behind the blue one at the time of the puncture) had no spare wheel and no tools (hence why stopping to help the lorry seems funny). But fortunately, the blue van did have these and about 30 minutes later we were off again.
For a while, our driver behaved himself but then he started to speed up again. At one sharp bend where the rock under the road had fallen away, and the road had partly fallen down a steep slope, our driver decided to start cutting corners again. The back wheel of the van could not have been more than an inch or two from the edge. Then we were back to speedy cornering and speed bumps. The journey seemed to drag on forever. Darkness fell and we drove on.
Finally we reached the level and slightly straighter road leading to San Cristobal. Eager to minimise our lateness, the driver really put his foot down. Round one bend at top speed were the lights of two large vehicles jostling for position on the road. Our driver just accelerated towards them and the leading one was only just able to get back on the correct side of the road in time. Almost there.
Back in San Cristobal, our driver decided to parallel park the van in a space just off the main square. Except that the space in question wasn't exactly the right size. No problem for our driver, what are bumpers for anyway? As quick as we could we were all out and running away. As we passed the place we had booked the tour in, I saw our driver talking animatedly with the tour people and I imagined that he was trying to claim back some of his expenses. That made me chuckle to myself.A game that I like
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