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The first several weeks I spent in Chile were an exercise in figuring out just what was going on. It wasn’t so much the language as the culture, in that I couldn’t get why I had to go to a notary to rent an apartment (all contracts are legalized here, regardless of what they’re for), didn’t speak cellphone, had a tough time figuring out the city busses, etc.

Things were strange. Tiny coffee, mayonnaise on hotdogs, and all the rest. There was so much strange and so little just-what-I-expected that I’d buried the story of the “pirate bus” in the back of my brain. That is, until we left a friend at Lo Vasquez after the overnight bikeride, and when I asked a friend if we knew if he’d made it back to Santiago ok, she said, “Yeah, he made it back, you know, in a bus pirata.”

Bus pirata? But of course! Bus pirata.

I had been in Santiago about four days when the girl in the upper bunk at my hostel mentioned that she was going to Valparaíso to see some friends for the long weekend. It was early April, 2004, and there was a three-day-weekend. I had just gotten the keys to my new apartment and parked my stuff there, packed a small bag and headed off. We met up at Universidad de Santiago metro station, which was roiling with activity, or so I thought. When we got to the actual bus station there were people everywhere. Standing sitting, carrying bags, children, parcels, boxes. Line after lines of humans trying to buy bus tickets to get out of dodge for the weekend.

A guy came up to the group of us, FOB (fresh off the boat) gringos, one and all, and hissed at us in a tone from a PSA about not taking candy from strangers, bus to the coast? bus to the coast? a la costa? We looked at each other, looked at the lines and followed the guy to a gas station about a block away. We settled on a price, hopped on the bus and waited. I remembered times in my life when I’d been bamboozled for a buck or two with the “special bus” routine, including a time on the Mexico-Guatemala border when I was greener than a fresh garlic scape and lost about $5 and about four gallons of frustration to the scam, all before midnight.

What would they do to us? And why had I agreed to this? I imagined the legit bus line snaking towards the door, but advancing slowly, people purchasing their tickets and being shown to a tall pullman-style bus, with assigned plush seats. I was in a glorified children’s school bus, orange and brown, striped and dirty. I was waiting for the reveal (get off the bus, it’s a big, fat joke, and no trip to the coast for you, and while you’re at it, give me all your money!). And then the bus filled up, with regular Chileans, big and small, parcel-toting and baby juggling. And we started pulling out of the gas station.

With the exception of my own doomsday thinking, and the fact that they wouldn’t let me open the curtains on the bus (sure sign of a bus pirata), so that the police could not see us and fine the driver, and possibly cart us all off the bus, the whole shebang was utterly normal. We arrived safely at the appointed destination, paid the same as all the other passengers, recovered our belongings and were cast into the hill-hugging coastal warren that is Valparaíso.

In fact, in the end it was so normal, so unnotable (and this in the maelstrom of strange that is moving to a new country), that I almost assumed that illegal buses were part of the landscape. I’d never even told the story, figuring it was another one of those “gringa thinks something is amazing, and it is so bosTEZo (yawn).

It wasn’t until just a week or so ago, when I found out that our friend who we’d left at Lo Vasquez had taken an illegal bus, and that that was mention-worthy, that I even remembered that I’d had a similar experience. Which sort of makes me wonder what other memories are sloshing around in a jar full of ho-hum that will feed my story repertoire for the foreseeable future.

Pirate bus. Too bad it didn’t have a skull and crossbones flag. That might have made it more memorable from the get-go.