Out here in Olancho, where only the coffee growers, business owners, politicians, church officials and development organizations have vehicles–most of which are four-wheel drive trucks–the mode of transportation is 1970s and 80s yellow school buses brought down from the States. You can find them on the main, paved road and on the dirt roads en route to the north coast. They cross rivers, meander up twisting mountain passes, and slop their way through the mud of the rainy season. They are packed with people, chickens, pigs, sacks of beans, com, coffee, and the occasional mattress tied to the top. The ride is long, hot, crowded, and uncomfortable, especially when two or three other people are jammed into your seat. It is because of this, and the fact that I do not have a car, that I often seek out the coveted jalon.
A jalon is a ride in anything but a bus, and jaloning is hitch-hiking. In Olancho, jaloning is as common as pistol-packing cowboys, cattle ranching and com fields. Thus, one can do it with relatively little fear, my only criteria being “if the driver looks drunk or crazy, or both, don’t ride.” But, before one can jalon, one must learn the art of catching a jalon.
Unlike in the States, an extended right arm with right thumb pointed to the sky does not work. Here, the sign is a process that begins with your right hand at waist level. Once the coming, possible jalon is within a 100 feet or so, you begin making a clockwise circle with your hand, index finger pointing outward while, at the same time, raising your hand up to eye level and in the direction you and the oncoming truck is going. When you get it down, it is one quick, swift motion that’s repeated two to three times before the truck passes. One can easily spot an experienced jaloner along the roadside based upon their jalon-seeking gestures.
If your wave is heeded, the truck will slow down and come to a stop some 50 feet beyond where you’re standing. You quickly grab your belongings, run up to the window, tell the diver your destination, and with luck they will take you the whole way. The driver then tells you to hop in back. As you’re taking a seat, he quickly speeds away.
Later on, when you approach your drop-off point, you slap the side of the truck, signaling to the driver that you want off. He stops; you jump out and go up to the door to thank him, offering “Que le vaya bien” (Happy trails!). In the event that their face emits a look of “1 would like some money,” one can quickly throw out “Que Dios le page” (May God pay you), and, in most instances, all will be considered settled. Again, you thank them and go on your way.
Over the past year and a half, I have received many a jalon. I find no truer sense of the word “freedom” than when I am sitting by the road, waiting for a ride. I usually have my pack at my feet, all the bare essentials and needs, aside from water, inside it. Always, I have a book in my hands, a prerequisite for the waiting.
Most times I have• all day, or at least a couple of hours to get where I’m going. There’s no sense of hurry. “All in due time” is how I say it. It’s this being able to take the time to do what some would call “nothing” that I fmd liberating. Sitting and watching the day pass is my peace of mind.
I am on the back of a flatbed truck with 1 foot high sideboards. We are flying down the dirt road towards San Francisco de La Paz. Santana is jamming “Vive La Vida” in my earphones. The sun is shining hot. The tires are kicking up a cloud of dust behind us. Pine-forested mountains fill my vista. Suddenly, we pass a school bus.
I am smiling