Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The wheels on the bus: Sometimes they roll, sometimes they squeal, sometimes they throw you from side to side

Photo by fellow bus veteran Paul Willcocks
This morning I took the city bus that makes a loud thump somewhere around the rear axle every time it stops. Yesterday I rode home on the one that has three seat backs broken off, which I’m fond of because nobody but me takes those spots and it means I always get a seat.

Spend more than an hour on Nicaraguan city buses every work day and you start to get familiar with their idiosyncrasies. Their personalities emerge. They drive up to your stop looking the same, but then the door clatters open and you realize it’s this one or that one, each offering their own distinct experience.

There’s the one with padded, comfy seats that must be a retired long-distance bus; I’ve only been on that one once, but its cheerful yellow and black seats come to mind often when I’m being bashed around on one of the more typical molded-plastic ones.

Then there’s the bus that always has good tunes playing, and usually a girl curled up on the engine cover near the driver. (A lot of the drivers like to bring their girlfriends along, and I sense a certain status comes from being the woman who gets to sit where no other passengers are allowed.)

I’ve learned to avoid the bus that has had a bunch of seats taken out to create more standing room, because it doesn’t have enough handholds for a rider to stay stable as the driver rockets around corners and lurches to sudden stops. But I’m always pleased to board the one with dark-grey, military-feeling seats- old army bus, maybe? - which are sturdy, fitted, and wide enough that you rarely feel your fellow passenger’s meaty thigh pressed into yours, as is the case on every other bus.

Bus to San Carlos
If I time my commute right, I miss the peak of the rush and get a seat, or at least get a standing spot ample enough to take a wide stance and keep my balance. On the worst days, we are crushed three deep in the aisle, and I am helpless against unpleasantness turns of event like a tall man’s sweaty butt pressed into the small of my back, or a short woman’s head prickling under the arm I’ve got raised overhead to clutch the metal support bar.

(Even seated, you'll likely endure some uncomfortable moments when travelling by bus in Nicaragua. One of my grandsons had a woman’s very ample, bare belly pressed into his cheek for a good while on our trip to San Carlos.)

Everyone puts their bus face on during transit times, and I’ve come to do the same. It’s a kind of checked-out state of being – not blank, exactly, but not really there.  It lets you survive the various indignities of bus rides at peak hours without, for instance, saying something rude to the woman who just tore your shirt by squeezing past you with her giant, bejewelled purse, or going all Peter Finch on the pushing, roiling mob that is fighting to get on and off the bus at each stop. When you’re wearing your bus face, it’s like you’re plankton in the ocean, uncomplaining and accepting as the waves buffet you here and there.

The rules for giving up your seat are obviously more complicated here than in Honduras, where any woman getting on a bus will always find a man willing to jump up to offer her his seat. Here, the only ones guaranteed to be offered a seat are women with babies in arms, or super-old and rickety people. Personally, I really feel for short people, who don’t have the arm length to grab the overhead bar and hold on for dear life, and thus get knocked around more than most if they don’t get seats.

But while the scene can be a bit chaotic on Managua’s city buses, the system itself is smooth as glass. There are loads of buses covering dozens of routes, so you can get yourself pretty much anywhere within five or 10 minutes of arriving at your bus stop, presuming you can figure out the rather busy bus map. The system uses cards that can be preloaded at any big bus stop; I throw $5 on mine from time to time and then just tap it on a machine as I enter the bus to deduct that trip’s fare.

And what a deal: You can ride any route from one end to the other for 2.5 córdobas - about 12 cents. My walk/bus combination trip to work every day costs me $5 for an entire month, which is what I would pay in just one day if I went by cab.

So for those kinds of savings, I guess I can handle a stranger’s hot butt plastered into my back once in a while. I can live with having my breasts crush into the ear of a seated passenger while I'm being squeezed airless by an unruly stream of people working their way to the back door of the bus. I can stifle the scream when I see a vendor with a teetery platter of sticky coconut sweets cram onto a packed bus and push their way through the sea of people, selling as they go.

I’ll just put my bus face on and roll with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They even have a "card system" there. Translink here in the lower mainland still can't figure that one out yet.