Sunday, March 30, 2008

Public Transport a la Guanaca

Empty bus (a rare sighting)...

I thought it was about time that I dedicated a posting to the buses in El Salvador. I will dedicate this post to Maxito because I think I drug him onto nearly every bus that Salvador offers. In order to keep things in perspective, I will mention this. Costa Rica, for all it's faults and frustrations, has an AMAZING bus system. Quirky at times, but overall you can get pretty much anywhere in the country in relative (relative) comfort. "Comfort" is not a word that is often used when describing buses in El Salvador.

There are three types of buses here. The bus (pronounced boos), which is generally a modified Bluebird School bus. "Modified" meaning that rails run down each side of the aisle so that passengers standing have something to hold onto. A turnstile was also installed in the front of the bus to count passengers for some sort of accounting purposes. The turnstile is pretty self-explanitory with two exceptions; peddler and panhandlers are allowed to crawl over the top of the turnstyle and are not charged the fare. The general rule for children is that if they can be carried or if they fit into the turnstile with their parent, they are not charged. I have seen many a child's eyes bulge as they are squished between mom and the turnstile. I have also noticed that the cutoff seems to have less to do with the child's age than mom's dimensions.

The normal carrying capacity on the average school bus is posted at 77. A Salvadoran will see your 77 and raise you infinity. I have never, ever seen anyone denied passage on a bus because it was too full. There is always room for three more. Surprisingly, there is always also just enough room for the fare collector to shimmy through the aisle collecting fares. If things get a little squishy, there is always the option of opening up the back door and hanging off the back bumper or luggage ladder to alleviate pressures inside. When Max and I rode to the beach we did not get on early enough to get a seat so we stood. Not wholly awful when the bus was moving, but it was Semana Santa and everyone was headed to the beach, so we ended up sitting, (er... "standing") in traffic for about an hour. Much like sardines in a tin can under a heat lamp. (I feel it is important to add here that school buses are generally designed for, well, school-aged children. This is not a problem for many, many Salvadorans, but for 5'9" gringas... well whether the bus is full or not, I generally look like Adam Sandler on the movie cover of Billy Madison. )
Nearly full bus...

The second type of public transportation is the busseta (boos-etta). Bussetas are the ones with fins. They are decked out to the nines in the personal style of the driver. They are often fitted with a sound system that will pump out reggae-ton at 8 decibels. There are racing stripes, airbrushed murals, even black lights. I thought of proposing to Mtv that they start a Latin American spin-off series called "Pimp My Bus." I think it would be a big hit. The main advantage of the busseta is that they go really really fast. They dart in and out of traffic. This is less fun if you are hanging out of the door (see Dec 10 entry) but I gotta say, I kinda dig it. It's just like a roller coaster, only without the killjoy safety standards.

Last, but not least, is the mini-bus (meeny-boos). This is a clear example of a situation in which if you didn't speak Spanish you would think that you know what is being talked about but still be wrong. Mini-van would be a more appropriate translation. Modified mini-van of course. In this case, there were modified by taking out the standard two rows of seating and putting in three facing forward and one half bench thing facing backward directly behind the driver and front seat leaving nearly 2inches of leg room between the bench and the first back seat. The mini-buses drive much like the bussettas, careening in and out of traffic, passing on double yellow lines on curving mountain roads, slowing to a near stop to let passengers on and off.

For example, I had to catch the bus from Planes de Renderos back to the city center. So, I see the mini-bus coming, I flag it down and as it nears I am asking "Al Centro?/To the Center?" (I can ask before they actually get to me one, because the fair collector is hanging out of the window and can hear me before he gets to me, and two, because they won't stop, they just slow so I gotta ask early.) So the mini-bus slows, I jump in and, too late, I realize that there is no room. Well, that's a lie, technically there was room. I was able to croutch on the floorboard just inside the van. There was no shutting the door, so I found myself clinging to a small girl in her school uniform as I fought centrifugal force* from tossing me onto the roadside. There is always, always room for one more. (I counted, there were 24 of us in that mini-van, not including small children sitting on laps.)

My last commentary on Salvadoran public transport will be to mention the sheer number of buses, bussetas and mini-buses that run these streets. Remember, this is the most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere, and as most of those people are very, very poor, only a very small percent of the population can afford a private car. Meaning that there are hundreds of buses that run in and out and around San Salvador. They are all numbered. For example, lines that run near my house are: buses 30, 30-B, 44, 9, 26, 46, 22; busettas 44, 9 and mini-bus 30-A. You may have noticed some repeats, that is a little something that keeps you on your toes, just because a bus and a busetta have the same route number, does not mean that they run the same route, they are sometimes/often/always drastically different.

Well, I guess that's enough of a rundown on Salvadoran transport. I will mention that although the system is much less comfortable than Costa Rica, I have heard that it is much better than other places like Guatamala. I will refer to Alicia on this one. From what I understand it is similar, only that the buses are ALWAYS squishy and involve significantly more livestock, you know, the quintessential chicken bus. It's all about perspective.

Centrifugal Force is a scientific term used to describe the phenomenon that hurls passengers out of buses, bussetas and mini-buses.)


Alicia Kaul said...

Ahhhh yes, the bus of the chicken... I actually had a chicken peck at my feet on the bus today - it's not a really great feeling (normally they keep the chickens tied up but one escaped). Luckily I didn't lose a toe or anything...Hope you're doing well Kelley!

Anonymous said...

To be correct for all us book nerds, the correct term is "Centripetal Acceleration". To break it down for us rednecks in the blog, horse goes left cowboy continues in the previous trajectory leaving said cowboy in the dirt. Let me know if you care.

quele said...

Yea! Thanks for the correction!

I went and got all technical... my first draft said "Bus goes really fast. Bus turns corner. Physics happens. Gringa flies out of bus." :)