On the Bus


In most European buses, silence prevails. The route is tedious and speeds well within legal limits. The only complaints come from those picky retirees, who mutter, scowling, when the driver accelerates up to 30km/h, brakes hard, or passes the bus stop by a few milimeters, “this city seems to have a plot to kill old people on the public transport service”. But otherwise, in these latitudes, clearly-established routes, times, and tickets allow the users of public transportation to feel calm, get where they go on time and, above all, feel secure.

Now, let me tell you about riding a city bus in Latin America.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Panamá, Guatemala: the story does not change. There will be no clear bus stop, and no published timetable. You may come to your door or walk to the nearest corner at 8:35am or at 3:41pm, and a bus may pass, or not. The buses have determined destinations, running from point A to B, but not definite routes.

So which bus do you choose? Impossible for a foreigner to choose at all. This kind of knowledge must be inculcated since childhood, and even the most experienced of Latino commuters has taken the wrong bus, at least once in her life. The routes that these buses run are not announced at bus stops, but rather are displayed in tables attached to the bus windshield, or have been stenciled or handwritten on a scrap of paper to warn pedestrians which route will follow. Unfortunate for short-sighted travellers, who should hope for a bus with a mozo. On some buses, the mozo (boy), who hangs by a hand from the side of the bus, shouting at cars, throwing compliments to girls on the sidewalk and announcing the route to whomever pays attention. 

The Stop. It may be a roundabout, or around the corner, or at the intersection, or at a place of your choosing. Stretch your hand, whistle or shout, and a seasoned driver will set the bus perpendicular to oncoming traffic just to pick you up. Get your money, ears and courage ready. You'll need to pay in cash. The driver may take your notes and coins with one hand to give change, while the other hand steers, holds a boli - a plastic bag of soft drink or juice, punctured with a hole for slurping, or fiddles with the radio volume, blasting cumbia, reggaeton or more picturesque local music like vallenato, bachata, salsa, corridos or racheras.

The driver is usually a sort of middle-aged sprinter who dashes through the city ready to to commit the most brutal recklessness in the name of speed. Going at full throttle is how you win "the penny war": beating other companies' buses to pick up the passengers that wait ahead. 

But at those speeds, Latin public bus drivers also find it necessary to keep a prayer card, a picture or an image of the Virgin to extend her blessing to the car, and the driver, and then, if she can reach, the bus passengers. Save your life and get out of the bus by ringing the bell. If the driver, distracted by music or engaged in a struggle with a rival driver, does not stop, it is legitimate to ask something like, "Hey, are you taking me to your mother's house?" 

You won't find safety, comfort, tranquility in these buses, but you will inevitably find music, entertainment, conversation and an adrenaline rush.  These buses represent the lives of their drivers, who paint, pimp, decorate, call priests in to bless, and sometimes simply love their buses, which have become an aesthetic and cultural reference point for the Latin American nations. They call it the Micro in Argentina, Trufi in Bolivia, Liebre o Cuncuna in Chile, Buseta in Colombia, Lata in Costa Rica, Guagua in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, pesero or camión in México, Combi in Peru and Demonios Rojos in Panama.

This last, the Panamanian demonio rojo, or red devil, is the most powerful and flamboyant expressions of folklore, hybridization and joy in Latin America. Now adorned with graffiti, cornices, posters, paint and lights, these old American school buses were once driven into Panama to find a second life as public service buses and eventually became rolling exhibitions of the color and warmth of the Latin people. But the Panamanian government would like to modernize its cities by putting these carnivalesque buses out of circulation, replacing them with buses that look as flat, boring and safe as those in Europe. This then, is a tribute to buses in danger of extinction. The endangered Panamanian Red Devil.