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Aug. 8, 2007

I know barely enough Spanish to order a plate of carne asada, and unlike Europe, Venezuela is not a country that makes allowances for American ignorance. Fortunately Ellen is fluent and makes enormous allowances for my ignorance, so we got by just fine. I'm not much of a talker anyhow.

At the end of the week I would return to Chicago while Ellen stayed behind. My return would entail a 12-hour overnight bus trip from the remote city of Mérida to Caracas, from where I would take the Metro to a second bus, which would in turn deliver me to the airport.

Ellen was concerned about my ability to find my way, but I was not. I'd already made the necessary legs at least once. Besides, all week it was I who had kept us from ever getting lost. All I needed to do was be able to buy my ticket in Caracas. "Uno para aeropuerto, por favore." We spent a few minutes rehearsing.

"What could possibly go wrong?" I boasted. "Nothing!"

Ellen trembled.

A surly teenager in a sparkly pink halter took my bus ticket in Mérida and told Ellen that I would be sitting in seat 15A. (Because we'd bought the ticket at an agency, this somehow meant I did not get a ticket receipt.) I kissed Ellen good-bye and boarded.

And found a gangling 10-year-old girl in 15A, a window seat. I looked at her. I looked at the seat number. I looked at her. Seat number. Her. Seat number. She giggled and bounced in the seat with a copy of what appeared to be the Venezuelan equivalent of Tiger Beat.

I tried to communicate that I owned that seat, but I wasn't sure how to say "15."

"Cinco, cinco, cinco, ah," I said.

"¡Oh!" she said. "¡Cinco!" And she pointed up the bus toward Row 5.

"No. ¿Cinco dieci? ¿Dieci cinco?" I may have been sputtering Italian here.

Two female relatives in the seat ahead of her turned around to see about the commotion. The seemed to be asking to see my ticket. "Non habla espanol," I said, and helplessly pointed out the bus to indicate where my ticket was.

I gave up. The bus was still fairly empty, so I settled in across the aisle. One of the women asked where I was going. "¿Caracas? ¿Valencia? ¿Caracas?" "¡Caracas!" She smiled and turned around.

Eventually someone came and wanted my seat, so I left the bus to find the girl in the pink halter.

"Excuse me," I said, "could you please tell me what seat I'm supposed to be in?"

Except I said it in Spanish. Clear, unequivocal Spanish.

"¿Dónde yo?"

She shot an angry, puzzled look. So I spoke louder. Maybe she was hard of hearing.

"¡Dónde yo! ¡Dónde yo!"

She wrote "15A" on her clipboard.

I pointed into the bus. "¡La niña! ¡La niña! ¡La niña!"

This somehow made her even angrier, probably because it meant she'd have to leave her station, board the bus and come sort it out.

Sure enough, the girl had been in the wrong seat. She moved to the aisle seat, 15B, freeing up 15A for me.

I sensed the girl had wanted the window seat and offered to swap. I pointed at my seat: "¿Preferado?" She declined, and she declined again when I offered some of my Cocosette candy bar as a peace offering.

A few minutes later the bus driver turned the lights off and the salsa music on. At 8:30 p.m. it was too dark to read and too loud to sleep ... and I obviously had no conversation partners.

This is not yet, by the way, the part of the story that answers the question of what could possibly go wrong.

At 5 a.m. the bus pulled into a small terminal. The driver stood at the head of the aisle and said something quick. We'd stopped for snacks and restrooms on the way to Mérida, so I figured that was what this was, or maybe we were dropping off passengers in Valencia. I pulled my hat down and tried to go back to sleep over the music, which had been playing all night.

That's when one of the women shook my shoulder. "¿Caracas?" She stabbed a finger toward the front of the bus.

And this! This is what could have possibly gone wrong: A transfer! I had no idea. Ellen had no idea. But thank God I'd established a rapport with this family, because they had an idea, and if it weren't for them I'd still be trying to make my way to Caracas.

The rest of the journey passed without incident. I had three hours to wander the city. I bought some cachapas for Nikki and stumbled upon a triathlon, then successfully made it to the airport, where I heard the most English I'd heard all week: Three hours of American tourists whining about how slow and long the lines were. Ignorance had been such bliss. ¡Ay carumba!

Photo taken: Aug. 4, 2007