Charle Mansoon Save the Chicken Express
I climbed aboard the old bus, looked around, and finally sat next to a chicken on the front seat. Sandra stood behind me and waited. She spoke to the man sitting behind the chicken. “May I have the chicken’s seat?” He glared at her. Then he slowly picked up his chicken and put it under his seat.
Sandra and I had been traveling the Andes for a month by bus on the way to Cuzco, Peru. We always took the seat next to the doors. We figured that if the bus started to fall off a cliff, then maybe we had a chance of jumping out. This bus was an old Ford school bus, the kind that I used to ride in to school as a kid. And it was about the same age. The seats were spaced like we were children too, because my knees jammed into the railing in front of me. The bus was blue and white, with Incan eagles and snakes painted in bright red, yellow, orange, green, purple and violet patterns. It would have gotten some attention in the USA. It had broken windows, crunched corners, and torn up seats. Mud covered it halfway up the sides. There were two spider web cracks on the windshield that looked like bullet holes but were probably from flying rocks. In the front of the bus was a large picture of a white Christ with a golden halo. A metal crucifix stood between the split windshield, and a plastic Madonna was mounted on the dashboard. She leaned out with her arms outstretched like she was either going to fly or dive. She first got my attention when I was walking by her. My backpack hooked onto her arm.
The top of the bus had a carrying rack. Onto it the driver’s helper hoisted immense bags of potatoes and grain, and boxes and baskets filled with all kinds of supplies for the villages on the way to Cuzco. With each loud thud on the roof the bus sank lower and lower on its leaf springs.
Sandra spoke fluent Spanish. She was teaching me and I was picking it up fast. We had met a month ago in Northern Peru. Since then, we had been hiking the mountains together, sharing ten-cent meals served on banana leaves and fifty-cent beds in hotels with cold rooms and colder showers. But mostly, we were sharing the wild beauty of the Andes. We were also protecting each other from the dangers of the road. It was rough cheap traveling where you had way more time than money and thought that nothing the locals did was too tough for you.
We had just finished camping for three days along the roadside. A landslide had blocked the mountain pass and everyone had to wait for the bulldozers to arrive. Eventually there were over one-hundred buses waiting on either side. In the meantime, a whole little community had grown up along the treacherous mountainous roadside. Instant little fast food stalls sprang up with Quechua women selling corn and beans and chicken. They did fantastic business, and their prices were higher than in the towns too. We had nothing else to do but wait and mingle with the locals and other travelers on their buses.
The bus was loading up with Quechua Indians. They wore bright cotton garments and handmade woolen ponchos. The women had large bowler hats perched on their heads while the men pulled knitted stocking caps over their ears. Their faces never showed a feeling that I could see. After all the seats were full, more people kept climbing on. They sat in the aisles, on laps, and finally, on the luggage rack on the top of the bus. The bus sank further down. The driver finally shut the door. Outside, a woman banged on it. He opened it and she quickly climbed on with a goat and bag of live chickens. The driver argued with her over how much she should pay for the animals’ fare. They got loud. The Billy goat stuck its head into my bag of fruit and yanked out a green banana. I yanked it back. The goat tried again. I slapped him. He butted at me. Then I popped him a good one on the nose. He left me alone.
A fat, bearded white man who was sitting across from me started laughing. “Hi. My name is Christer. From Germany.” He stuck out his hand. “You know, these people here, they so natural. Not corrupted by modern society. They let goat ride on bus. Ha ha ha. And got good beer too.” He offered me one. I took it. He and his traveling buddy were quite drunk. The Indians watched us as we spoke–they stared at us like we were aliens from outer space.
We watched the goat argument. The woman refused to get off the bus. Finally the driver took her money. She tied the goat to the handrail and sat down in the aisle. Then the goat shit. The Germans laughed very hard at that. Red faces and tears in their eyes. Sandra was laughing hard too. That called for another round of beers. Sandra joined us. The bus began rolling.
We were over 4000 meters high and climbing a steep mountain trail. The sky was dark blue with grand white clouds. The valley below was a pattern of lush green fields and forests. The mountains were shades of black, gray, and white. The road was just wide enough for one bus. Three days a week the buses traveled one way on the road, three days a week the other. On Sundays, anything went. The one rule on Sunday was that whenever two vehicles met going in opposite directions, the one going uphill had right-of-way. Today was Sunday, and while we were climbing, we met another bus. The two drivers got out and argued. Finally the other driver began slowly backing his bus uphill. He went at a crawl for about 500 meters until they found a space wide enough to pass each other. The drivers yelled at each other as they passed. They were commenting on the profession and lineage of the other driver’s mother.
“Yeah man, I tell you, ‘dese people, they so natural,” Christer grunted. “They free. They get mad, they argue, they fight. None of this western shit of false manners. They say whatever they feel. Yaa, this is the life. Eet’s natural.” He handed me another beer, swigged at his own, and stuck his arm out the window.
Along the roadside I saw a shrine of crosses, rock piles, painted signs, and burned out candles. I looked down into the deep valley opposite the shrine. The road was so narrow that I could not see its edge. Just deep space. At the bottom of the gorge, next to a crashing river, I saw the hulk of an old bus. A crushed, battered rusted old bus. Parts of it littered the mountainside. No one could have survived that fall.
I nudged Christer and pointed to the bus. “That bus accident. Here — Eet natural.”
The bus lugged along slowly in first gear. The driver had the throttle to the floor as the bus groaned up the mountain. The top of the pass was close to 4400 meters and we were already above the tree line. A cold sleet was blowing across the pass. Soon it would be dark. Sandra and I put on our wool ponchos. While I was pulling it over my head, my stocking cap came off. My ponytail flopped out down my back.
“CHARLE MAN-SOON!” a small Quechua Indian man shouted behind me, pointing at my hair. “CHARLE MAN-SOON! MAN-SOON MAN-SOON!” other men shouted.
One of the men handed me a tabloid. It was filled with gory photographs, except for a few titles that were in Spanish. On the cover was a picture of Charles Manson, the leader of the mass murderer cult. The photo showed Manson’s deranged eyes, sick smile, and his long long hair. The man pointed to Manson’s hair, then to mine. “Tu, Charle Man-soon. TU.” The man had a goofy shit-eating smile. Just a few months ago the whole Manson story had broken over the U.S. media. But I was in the Andes, thousands of miles away from western civilization, the media, pop culture. Shit culture. And these people, who lived without electricity, phones, schools, books–they thought I was Charles Manson.
I got up, stepped over the goat, and pointed to the picture of Christ in the front of the bus. I put my finger on Christ’s long blond locks. “No. Yo Jesus. Yo soy Jesus Christo. No MAN-SOON.” The men shook their heads and pointed to the tabloid. “No. Tu Man-soon. Charle Man-soon.”
I showed Christer the picture of Manson on their Andes Inquirer. “Yes, these people, they so natural.”
Just as the bus pulled up to the summit, the engine died. the driver sat there and turned the key. The engine turned over and over but did not kick in. It wound down slower and slower. The Germans looked worried. “You think we get stopped here? I will starve here. Freeze too,” Christer said.
“Eet’s natural,” I said.
The starter finally ground to a stop. Then the solenoid began clicking. The driver and his helper hopped out and opened the hood. I got out and walked over to the edge of the road. I looked into the gorge below. It was a thousand meters straight down. I pissed my beer off the cliff. The ridge was so steep that my piss fell a hundred meters before it hit any rocks. I felt very powerful. If the bus went over the edge, there was nothing to stop it til it hit bottom. I zipped up and turned around to find all the Indians staring at me. I guess they had never seen a white man piss before and they were curious as to whether I did it like they did. They watched my every move. Maybe I should start speaking in tongues, grab a chicken, do an incantation. They would expect that sort of stuff from Charles Manson anyhow.
I walked back to the bus. The driver and a few others were looking at the engine. They were pointing to various parts, guessing as to what that was, what might be wrong, and what they should do. It was `basic engine anatomy 101′. One man began praying. Somebody said that the problem could be the battery. Then everyone agreed that it was the battery. “But, what is a battery?” somebody else asked. Profound silence. “Where is the battery?” another asked. They looked around. There was no battery. “Then someone has stolen the battery!” a small man exclaimed. “But we had a battery when we left!” the driver insisted. “Maybe, but perhaps they stole it while you were driving. Some thieves use magic, you know.”
I went inside the bus and looked under the driver’s seat. There was the battery. They examined it and concluded that it was thee battery. They looked around for tools to take it out, but no one could find any. Finally the driver just pried the battery cables off and pulled it out. The posts bent dangerously. Christer grimaced. The driver talked with an old man about carrying the battery to the nearest town to get it charged. He was a weathered old man, covered in a wool poncho and woolen cap. He tied a chord around the battery and slung it over his back. Then he stuck a wad of coca leaves in his mouth, started chewing, and began playing his bamboo flute. He walked off into the storm to the next village.
“How far is the village?” Christer asked the driver.
“Oh, maybe 20 kilometers, but it is up and down, so it is much farther. We are here all night.”
Christer groaned. “I’ll die of hunger. And that old man, he has no shoes. He will never get there.”
“That old man, he has never had shoes in his life,” the driver said. “You give him shoes now and he dies.”
Christer looked at me and shook his head.
“But eet’s natural,” I said.
We climbed back aboard the bus. It was cold and dark and crowded. The Billy goat butted at anyone who came by. Another woman climbed into the bus carrying a baby. As she stepped by us, her baby burped very loudly. Far too loud for such a small creature. Like a giant toad with a bad bellyache. Then the vomit squirted out–right on top of Christer’s head. He cussed and cussed in German.
“But eet’s natural,” I explained to Christer as I handed him a handkerchief.
“SHUT UP YOUR GODDAMN FACE!” he thanked me.
Night descended. The sleet turned to snow. The wind blew so hard that the bus rocked. A chicken got loose in the dark and flapped and flew around the bus. It landed on me. I hit it good. SQUAWK SQUAWK SQUAWK! It flew over to Christer and landed in his lap. “WHAT THE FOOCK!” he grunted. In the dark somebody was climbing over the seats, chasing the chicken. The bus echoed with squawks.
“WHAT DA HELL EES HAPPENING NOW?” Christer’s voice bellowed in the darkenss.
“I’d recognize that sound anyplace,” I said to Christer. “Why, it sounds just like somebody fucking a chicken. Ees it you, Christer? Ees dot you fawking dot chicken? Here, you know, eet’s nat-u-ral.”
“AWW FOOCK YOU AGAIN YANKEE!”
“Christer, your English improves by the moment.”
“OWWW!” I shouted. Sandra had just elbowed me hard in my ribs. Far harder than anything I’d done to any goat or chicken–as of yet anyhow.
“You’re such a rude asshole!” she says.
“I’m freezing!” Christer shouts.
I fumbled through my backpack until I found a blanket. I threw it over to Christer. “Just don’t return it covered with bloody feathers.”
There was no room to stretch out. I had cramps in my legs. I could not sleep with the cold, the snow, the wind, the noise, the animals. Even cuddling up to Sandra couldn’t put me to sleep. In the middle of it, Sandra decides that we should set up our tent. We dragged our stuff out of the bus. We set it up on the road, because that was the only level place. We anchored it uphill of the bus. That way, if the bus rolled off the cliff in middle of the night, at least we’d have a good view of the action.
The road was rocky and the tent leaked some water. But inside it, we snuggled together. Our bags zipped together to make one big bag. We had bought our sleeping bags separately, before we ever knew each other. Yet we were `zipper-compatible’. So we figured we were meant to be. The sound of sleet on the tent was soft. We loved each other up real good, then fell straight asleep.
When I got out of the tent in the morning, we were in the middle of a cloud. But it was no longer snowing. Sandra gathered brush and built a small fire. We melted snow and boiled water for tea. I roasted Peruvian choclos corn on the coals of the fire. The kernels of this corn were so large that I picked them off one at a time to eat. With a little bit of lemon and salt and a lot of hunger, it was delicious. After we finished, we sat around the fire.
Others gathered with us. And then there was Christer. His lips were blue, snot ran from his nose deep into his mustache, his eyes had goo in their corners, and the baby puke had crystallized in his hair. But other than that, he looked great. He practically stood in the fire while he ate the rest of our corn in big bites. He grunted while he chewed. His beard filled up with kernels.
“Tanks, man, but I’m still starving. You got any more?”
“Hey man, you just ate all the rest of our food. Three ears of corn, two bananas, and an orange. At least you could have saved some of it for that pretty little chicken girlfriend of yours.”
“Fawck you again, Yankee. I’m about ready to eat her too.”
“Just be sure you kill her first.”
When I went back into the bus, some of the Quechua Indians began chanting “Charle–ManSOON–Charle–ManSOON–Charle–MAN–SOON.” That good ole Andes cheerleader team spirit. I raised my arms and accepted their boos graciously.
A little while later the old man returned carrying the recharged battery. He was soaked and had some snow on his poncho. He was still chewing coca leaves.
“He’s back already!” Christer shouted. “That man must be sixty, and he walks forty kilometers all night barefoot with a twenty-kilo battery, and he’s back in the morning. Now that is strong, man.”
They put the battery back in and the driver turned the engine over. It cranked, but it did not start. The engine was turning slower and slower.
“STOP STOP!” I shouted in Spanish. The driver turned the key off. I asked the man for whatever tools he had. Then we went outside and opened the hood. A crowd of Indians gathered around us. I dug out my Swiss army knife and popped off the distributor cap. I told the driver to turn the engine over. As the rotor turned, I saw that the points had no gap between them. None. I told the driver to stop. Then I loosened the retaining screw, opened up the point gap, and then re-tightened the retaining screw. I cleaned the contacts, put the distributor cap back on and told the driver to turn the engine over. The driver turned the key and the engine immediately kicked in. He revved it.
Everyone cheered, “AYEEEEE AYEEEE AYEEEEE!” We got back on the bus. Now they cheered me as I climbed up the stairs. “AYE CHARLE MAN-SOON. AYE AYE AYE!”
I took my hat off, pulled the rubber band from my ponytail, let my hair fly, and bowed to them. They cheered some more.
“HE IS CHRIST! HE NOT CHARLE MAN-SOON,” the Indian man shouted.
“NO,” I shouted. “I AM TOO CHARLE MAN-SOON. NOW GIVE ME SOMETHING TO EAT.” I pointed my fingers out at him like I was throwing a curse. “Charle Man-SOON hungry. Gimmee FOOD.”
He looked surprised, then serious. He dug into a bag and handed me some baked potatoes. I tossed one to Christer. It bounced off his head. Christer picked it up and started eating it. “More food,” I said to the man. He looked around hopelessly. Then he pointed to a bag in front of him. In it was a live chicken. I handed it to Christer.
“Go ahead Christer. You can have it. Here, you know, eet’s natural.”