Sunday, September 26, 2010

Trimet, it’s not

Having spent the years between graduating college and entering the Peace Corps in Portland without a car, I’ve been pretty accustomed to public transportation.  In PC Guate we’re not allowed to operate motor vehicles, so for the next two years I’ll still be relying on public transport, hitching rides, or transportation under my own steam.  So in some ways I was well prepared for this.  In other ways….. well, see what you think of my comparisons.  Here it is: Trimet Bus vs. Chicken Bus (Camioneta) 


Portland:  Trimet is a publically subsidized company that is a single, large corporation.  Every Trimet bus is maintained the same way, the drivers are trained the same way, and routes/policies/prices are clearly published and disseminated by the central administration that creates them.  

Guatemala:  The buses themselves are reclaimed Blue Bird school buses that have been retired from transporting US students and are now in various states of disrepair careening around the highways of Central America.  There are several private bus companies (and perhaps several independent contractors) designated by the color scheme and paint pattern on each bus.  Sometimes the buses are in competition, so two buses that travel the same route will come screaming into a stop together, fighting for passengers.  They take off just as quickly (occasionally with passengers jumping on while in motion) rushing to win the race to the next stop.  I have no idea if the bus drivers are trained at all, and while routes and prices seem to be fairly consistent, they may be changed at the whim of the operator.  Forget about policies. 

Route information
Portland:  Trimet has a map with route information for several buses at many bus stop shelters.  Each bus line is numbered, as is each bus stop.  The website generates travel itineraries accurate down to the minute for boarding times (admittedly the actual bus often doesn’t get there on time).  There is also a live-updated website, a phone hotline, and a phone app giving transit tracker arrival times and updates to route changes or delays.  Buses pass at designated time intervals, from every 15 minutes to every hour, depending on location and time of day. 

Guatemala:  Forget the technology.  Buses have a list of places they stop painted above their windshield and the ayudante hangs out the door as they pull up rattling off a list of destinations like an auctioneer.  Bus stops aren’t generally marked.  It’s best not to ask neighbors at the bus stop how to get anywhere or how much any fare costs since that invites pick-pocketing or misinformation for crimes of convenience.  Try to determine where you are going, how to get there, and how much it costs before making it to the bus stop.  This isn’t published anywhere, so try to find a local you trust who is familiar with the route you need.  Buses pass constantly (every 5 minutes or less) along the Pan American highway, but without scheduled times.  In more remote parts of the country they may pass every hour, but you won’t find anyone telling you to board Bus 12 at Stop 2840 at 5:07 p.m. 


Portland:  Trimet riders may buy long term bus passes, single use tickets, or pay with exact change in cash.  They show the driver their pass or slip their ticket/money into a money machine upon boarding the bus.  If they pay with a larger bill, no change is given.  Passengers receive a transfer stub as their receipt, so if they need to they can board another bus within a designated time window.  Occasionally the money machine breaks, causing free rides for anyone who boards before a Trimet agent is able to come out to the bus to fix the jam.

Guatemala:  Passengers board and settle in immediately.  After the bus is moving an Ayudante (“helper” who functions like the conductor on a train) weaves his way back through the bus collecting fare from each new arrival, with the fare varying based on where a person got on and what their destination is.  He remembers who has already paid and who has not, what the price is for each distance, and when people should get down.  Sometimes we run into Gringo price inflation… one friend of mine what charged 8Q for a 3Q distance.  Like in Portland, it’s best to have exact change, because a bigger bill may just get absorbed by the ayudante, even if he does have change.  There are no free rides.  There are no transfers between buses.  

Capacity and Comfort
Portland:  Buses are often at about 20% capacity during the day, but are well used and “full” by American standards during rush hour.  When there are fewer people than seats, everyone leaves buffer seats between themselves and their neighbor.  Generally, people space themselves out in an equidistant pattern within the bus and the front of the bus is often left open for the elderly or physically handicapped.  Buses “kneel” down to make the step into the bus less high, and have ramps or lifts to allow for wheelchairs.  In cases where each seat is full, people stand in the aisles as close as necessary, generally leaving a small buffer of air between each other, no matter how full the bus gets.  Any physical contact is immediately followed by, “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” or, “Pardon me.”  There is never more than one person per seat unless one of those people is in diapers on her parent’s lap.  In the summer there is air conditioning, in the winter there is heat (although the rain makes it more of a sauna feeling). 

Guatemala:  Buses vary between “mostly full” and “over flowing.”  An ayudante doesn’t turn down a passenger unless there are passengers on the steps with their backpack out the door and he is hanging onto the side of a bus with his arms through the window and his foot in the door to the gas tank.  There are always three adults per seat (designed for two children) leaving the person closest to the aisle with between one half cheek and one and a half cheeks on the seat.  With luck the person across the aisle is hanging off just enough you can wedge against one another for stability.  There are often also people standing in the aisles, which are generally wide enough for one leg to fit but not two, leaving people striking interesting yoga like poses to remain upright.  Every camioneta ride all but guaruntees full body contact with at least on neighbor. The ayudante must be nimble enough to navigate his way to the back of the bus through the crush of people after each group of people the boards to collect the fare.  I haven’t seen any accommodations for the elderly or handicapped, but given the opportunity people often leave space toward the front in case the driver gets robbed by gang members (not something I’ve seen or experienced yet).   Women carry cash in their bras without exception, valuable belongings are left home, and everyone’s backpack and purse is clutched close in defense against pick pocketing.  There is no AC or heating, but there is often some reggatón music playing to enliven the atmosphere.

Overall, I find the transportation system here is relatively reliable and cheap.  I run into delays just as much as I did in Portland, but they are due to overcrowded buses, not the lack of buses.  I confess that bus rides are my biggest anxiety in Guatemala, as the drivers go careening around corners in a way I’m convinced will capsize one day.  Since there are many bus companies and drivers, you never know whether the bus you board will flirt with the fringes of physics or merely speed at an alarming rate.  I also have a compulsion to use hand sanitizer within 30 seconds of getting off chicken buses (although let’s be honest, maybe I should have been more aware of that on Trimet as well).  For now I’ve always got another PCT on the bus with me, so we get into the sense of adventure together.  Once I’m at my site I’ll probably be rural enough that microbuses (mini vans) are more common than camionetas and I’ll just have the occasional stomach clenching ride into the nearest big city for supply runs.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the reminder that I was charged 8Q!! Good assessment, though. I'm not going to know what to do when I get a seat to myself back in the US. - Carolyn