Here’s another “what it’s like here” blog postings…trying to do more of these as I soak up my experiences and store them as proteins in my brain.
Short-distance regional buses are extremely convenient most of the year. I can’t believe there aren’t any of these in more rural areas in the States. I have no idea what I will do when I don’t have a car in Vermont and there aren’t any buses to take me to town. Anyways, this is not most of the year, and bus travel is extremely frustrating. But the reasons it is frustrating will give a nice window into how it’s so great most of the year…as my AP Bio teacher explained, “we will learn about the normal by studying the abnormal.” A few primers: the buses are owned by the drivers, I think, but they are regulated and belong to a company (maybe it’s a cooperative thing). There is a team of “ayudantes” (meaning helpers). Each ayudante works a specific bus or two, in a team with the driver. The ayudante loads and unloads your packages, looks and listens for cues that someone wants to get off and takes your money so the driver doesn’t need to be distracted. The prices are standard and printed, and the ayudante is generally good at knowing what a specific mid-route to mid-route fare is. Children and seniors get discounts, and if you carry a child or two or three on your lap or within your seat’s legroom, they go free. I’ve seen grown children (I’d say at least up to age 10) transported this way. You can bring livestock. I’ve seen chickens in sacks, puppies and kittens with their heads sticking out of sacks, and my own kitten was once allowed on in a cardboard box that she kept popping out of.
So today I walked up to the bus stop, planning to catch the 8am. It actually leaves from the main town in my district at a few minutes before the hour, depending on how many people are on it. Fuller means leaving earlier. The few minutes I spend brushing seeds and dirt off myself, finishing dressing and primping (one must look presentable getting on a bus; it’s a respect for the other passengers thing to not be sweaty and smelly when you are in their proximity) are always a bit of a suspenseful game. If there are others waiting, we inevitably begin the discussion. Which buses are running today? The little ones=groan and complaint about how they fill them up so much, the big ones=general happiness because they are almost never too full and they circulate air much better. The little ones are Toyota coasters, the big ones are repurposed school buses. Will it be really full today? If it’s on or around the 15th or the end of the month, when people get paid, it will be fuller. If the seniors are getting their bonus checks, it’s going to be REALLY full. Why is it still not coming? This is the most suspenseful question. A little later than 8am could be good, because it means it was waiting a little longer to grab more passengers and so there aren’t too many people riding today. Too early and it’s going to be really full and possibly standing-room only. Today was the third option: much after 8am, because the bus had already stopped many times to pick up passengers and it was consequently too stuffed to pick me up. Generally speaking, there is a seat or standing room for me, but since it’s Christmas season, everybody is going to Santiago to receive and send packages, buy presents and food, etc. Other full times of the year: Easter and Mother’s Day. My next option is to stay at the top of the road for an hour, wait for the next bus. I never do that. I’ve learned some patience, but not much. I could wait half an hour for the bus passing in the opposite direction, and arrive in the starting town in time to secure myself a seat. I have never done that, but today I considered it. What I do do is walk 20 minutes to the Pan-American highway (yup, I’m that close. I’ve sometimes fantasized about packing a bag, grabbing the cat, and flagging down a ride and heading north through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico into the States…). I could wait for a cab or a ride (known as “bote,” like a boat), but the cab drivers drive a steep bargain for what is only a 20-minute walk. From there it’s generally easy to catch a bus serving a longer route heading to Santiago. Today I think I was out there in the hot sun for 40 minutes trying to get one to stop, but 4 passed by too full for passengers (we were quickly amassing by the side of the road…bad news because a bus driver can’t just let some on and there’s no queue of who was there first). Finally one stopped and I stood for the whole 30 minute trip. I arrived just as the 9am bus from my route was arriving.
The bus terminals in Latin America bring me great joy, normally. In our terminal, which is quite small, there are vendors of seasonal produce (right now: tangerines and pidgeonpeas), pirated music and DVDs (generally young guys with fashion tshirts, distressed jeans and gelled hair who mumble: “musicapeliculacomica”), shaved-ice-and-sugar-syrup treats from a cart (called raspado but pronounced ras-pow), newspaper vendors, an agricultural supply store, shoeshines, a butcher, 2 across-Panama courier services, a farmacy, 2 restaurants, several sundry/basic foodstuffs stores, a guy who walks around selling peppermint sticks and Panamanian candies (older guy who yells “pe-per-meeen-eh, man-hares, dulce de laaayche”), a bakery where things actually taste as good as they look because there is a constant demand and thus renewal of the supply, ATMs, lottery ticket sellers, clean bathrooms, and a random touchscreen thing that is supposed to help tourists. My favorite discovery back in my early days was that one can obtain ice cream in at least 5 of these establishments. A cone runs about 35 cents, a cup 40. The ice cream is nothing gourmet, and you have to know which flavors to say no to. The stores only keep one or two at scooping temperature, so you sometimes have to shop around so as not to get the rum raisin (heavy on the imitation rum) or orange-pineapple (it’s neon and gross). I have plenty more to opine on the ice cream, but that’s for another posting. The terminal around major holidays is mayhem. People who generally don’t leave their homes are suddenly all there, crowded and messing up the pedestrian flow. Little kids are running into me and my laptop bag, old people just suddenly stop mid-stride because they. (Syntax joke there…get it?) There are purchases and parcels creating a smaller lane to walk through. More people than usual are crowded to check out the lottery tickets on sale. It’s not joyful this time of year…it’s hot and stressful and makes me grumpy.
Now, after a day of errands in Santiago (though one clearly does not have to leave the terminal area to do most normal Panamanian errands…I have a different set of needs like wireless internet, the post office and a real supermarket), I have to plan when I arrive back at the terminal. On big bus days, I worry less, and can arrive fairly close to the hour and still have a seat. Today was a little bus day, so I knew I should get there at about 20 past the hour to make sure I could get a seat. Some days I’ve actually gotten there as the previous bus was leaving, on purpose, and staked out a claim on the next bus with a few others. It’s cutthroat. There are certain accepted practices, so getting there an hour early does not mean you have to sit on the bus for an hour until it leaves. Once your packages are stowed (just recently the ayudantes have taken to writing the package destination and number of packages directly on the bags, so now all my eco-friendly bags have marker stains…thanks guys), you can put something on a seat to save it and go get snacks. Sometimes people will sit, get up for one snack, return and eat snack, then get up for another snack for the road, etc. I’m sure I’ve done that, what with all the cold drinks and ice cream and fried green bananas and coffee. I never leave valuables, and today all I had were my water bottle and my eggs (never stow eggs, tomatoes or bananas…or anything else smashable). That would be enough to save a seat though. So I left those on an empty seat (for the first half of an hour the buses are just seats with stuff on them, very few human beings sit in the bus because it’s so hot and because there is so much to do in the terminal). Nowhere had ice cream. It was 2:30pm and probably the heavy flow of hot and crabby people had used up today’s supply by mid-morning. I went to the supermarket across the street, and luckily there were some single-serve sundae cups (much more expensive at 85 cents, but much higher quality ice cream with caramel…mmm). When I returned with my treat, all the seats were full! Including mine! The guy in my place totally had a guilty look in his eye, so I said, what happened, I had my water bottle and eggs right there. He hemmed and hawed about not knowing who they belonged to and how he thought they were for the next seat over (which only made sense because he moved them to the next seat over). But the ayudante, who knows me (they all do, I should really get a frequent rider card with 10th ride free or something) came and used his power on the guy. I think the nosy señora across the aisle thought I was a rude “gringa” who should wait my turn, the way she kept staring at me. She tried to boss a lot of riders around, but I still felt her glare fixed on me especially. I was there first and had saved my spot in the accepted way, so I didn’t feel that bad. It was nice to have the ayudante step in to help me. I’m glad I always take the extra second to greet him and say some generic thing like, “oh there’s a lot of people today, huh?” Without fail, people who don’t live that far away from Santiago but who don’t have their own bus route will wait until a driver starts his engine, and then sardine-pack themselves into the bus, only to stop it 2 minutes outside of town, 3 minutes outside of town, 4 minutes outside of town, etc. So there are people leaning all over the seated passengers, the seated passengers get cramped, and the driver will continue to let people on despite our protests because each passenger means more money for him. That happens often with the little buses which have the obvious disadvantage of being little (fewer passengers fit in the seats). But generally my bus travel is much easier than today. I walk the ten minutes to the road, get on, sit for half an hour (music is generally too loud but I’ve gotten used to it and know most of the songs by heart), get off, do my stuff, return to the terminal, save my place, get ice cream, go back. Today made me appreciate how well this system normally works. And I did get where I needed to go and back home again, so how much can I complain, especially since there was time for ice cream.