If you want to get to know a place, its people, learn the customs, etiquette, mores, then take the bus. A bus may not be the quickest method of transportation to your destination, nor the most direct, but there is no quicker way to immerse yourself in the local community and learn about its people. From the drivers, the routes, even the buses themselves, to the bus riders, taking a bus may be the single best way to know a place. And it’s ALWAYS an adventure.
Whenever I get on a bus I try to have my seven pesos in the palm of my hand. The bus drivers are so experienced at the payment transaction that they have the bus ticket in their hand before I reach them, so I press the peso coins into their hands as they hand me the ticket while simultaneously entering the flow of traffic and shifting gears. If I have coins smaller than pesos (which I often do in order to get rid of them), then I am prepared for the less than thrilled look I get from the glaring bus driver. Money is money, right? But when you see the wobbly, open coin box in which the drivers must organize the coins, you will understand their dislike of these tiny centavo coins.
The coin box is a simple square box with dividers running up and down. The various coins fit in the various columns made by the dividers. This box sits on a metal stand attached to the bus floor. Many the time I have seen coins go flying after the driver took a tope with too much speed. So then he steers the bus with his left hand, keeps the pedal to the metal, and bends over to collect the silvery specks from the bus’s floor. I have more than once seen my life flash before my eyes during one of these occurrences, certain we would end up splattered across the back of the bus directly in front, becoming a gruesome addition to the Julio Iglesias concert ad, or being thrown through the window of the corner OXXO.
When we first arrived in Merida and began taking buses to the mall, the movies, or Costco, there we many times when my lunch did not remain firmly seated in my stomach – nor my own body, for that matter. Some of the drivers are downright loco! I’m never surprised when I see a bus accident. Combine a large, metal bus with a powerful engine, the narrow streets of Merida, and a driver doing his best to get us all into heaven a little early (okay, I’ll probably go to Hell, but you get the idea), and you have a situation fraught with fright.
There are basically two types of bus drivers: The first is methodical and slow. He stops at stop signs (a rarity for many Yucatecan drivers), keeps both hands on the wheel except when shifting, and makes gentle arrivals at his stops. He is Ward Cleaver from “Leave It To Beaver”: Confident, kind, smiling, and all-knowing.
“Do you pass Walmart?”
“I’ll stop right in front for you.”
Just the kind of driver you want running things.
The other is Jack Black on acid. This guy must be paid by the fare, because it is his sworn duty to get around as many other buses as humanly possible, swerving the bus in and out of traffic as if he were driving a Maserati in his attempt to be the first to reach the next bus stop and its waiting riders. He has a CD player belting out Techno-Pop from a very loud speaker on the dashboard. He’s got a gallon of tea sitting between his seat and his side window, a bag of pork rind skins between his legs, and he’s steering the bus between all available lanes while stuffing skins in his mouth and taking a swig of tea as he grind-shifts gears and talks to his buddy sitting on the dashboard. And when he stops to pick up or let off passengers (and he HATES to stop to let someone off the bus – such a waste of time!), he hits the brakes 10 feet from the stop; the bus’s metal brakes screech like the best horror-movie scream queen and the bus hits its mark like it hit a brick wall. God help anyone standing and not strapped to one of the hold bars. I’ve seen women experience instant facelifts as their bodies were propelled forward and their skin left at the back of the bus.
For the most part I seem to be oh-so-fortunate enough to always board a bus with a Mr. Black driving. And I know that when those exit doors open I better hurl myself onto the sidewalk or the doors will quickly close and I’ll be stuck, half in and half out of the bus as the driver slams the gas pedal to the floor and I’m left hanging there, my head slapping every street sign as the bus speeds down the street.
These buses are something in and of themselves. They are basically metal boxes sitting on a metal frame. Whether these boxes are actually bolted to the frames I cannot say for certain. One time we had to swerve around a bus in the road whose rear axle lay about 50 meters behind the rest of the bus. I was not in the least surprised. Some of these buses look and feel as if they have been on the road for 20 years. The seats are graffiti-laden plastic sitting on metal frames that are usually bolted to the floor. I say usually because I have actually sat in a seat that rocked back and forth as if I was on a roller coaster. The entire two-seat assembly should have given up the ghost long ago, but, no, it kept rocking back and forth as the bus again and again jack-rabbit accelerated and brick-wall stopped. One time there were no seats in a space where clearly there should have been. I sat in the following row and when I looked down I was looking through the floor of the bus to the street.
Windshields are often…no, usually broken. (Don't let the photos fool you.) Some have a crack or two while others are downright shattered. Between the broken glass and the bus’s stops painted on the glass, I cannot see how the drivers can see through them. And when it rains the drivers must be going on memory.
The passenger windows are also often broken, and sometimes pieces of cardboard have replaced the missing glass. And air conditioning? Forgedaboudit. If you are fortunate enough to board a bus with a/c, it will either be dripping water down onto the seats below it at the back of the bus, blowing hot air, and/or making so much noise that you’d rather be sitting in a classroom in the open desert as someone pulls their fingernails down a chalkboard.
Recently a new bus company put 82 brand spankin’ new buses on the streets of Merida. The first morning, one of them was totaled. That afternoon I think I rode that bus to Costco.
I often wonder about the economics of city transportation in Merida. I mean, who can make any money on just seven pesos (about 40 cents) per rider? I suppose the city subsidizes the bus companies, who are all private, and I am very grateful. We go to the movies for 40 cents each. We go to the mall for 40 cents each. We can even go all the way to a little pueblo, Dzitya, for 40 cents each. So it is a service we appreciate.
The best part of riding Merida’s buses are the people. They are wonderful. High school students ride the buses home after school. They are never impolite, loud, or rude. When an elderly woman boards the bus they will rise and offer her their seat. We also see a lot of young mothers with their babies. The babies are never, ever crying or unhappy. I can’t figure it out, but it is the truth. Not like when we get on a plane and see a baby come on board and we have that “oh, no” dread. The babies on the buses in Merida are content, happy, and full of wonder. They look around to take in their surroundings and will smile at you if they make eye contact. I wonder why they are different.
And no one stinks! How can that be, you ask? Well, I don’t know. All I know is that I have been on many a bus that was crammed with people. Every seat was filled, and the aisles were shoulder to shoulder. The drivers will cram as many riders onto his or her bus as humanly possible, and often as inhumanely as possible. But I have never had a bad experience with my nose. I might have a case in court for frottage, but at least they smell good. Everyone is very clean – perhaps more so than me – and almost everyone wears perfume or cologne. Now I know a lot of people do not like perfumes or colognes on people in public places, but I very much appreciate it. Makes for a very pleasant experience.
One characteristic I find very endearing and enlightening about people in the Yucatan is their generosity. About twice per month we happen onto a bus where a street performer will be performing on the bus for coins. We have seen singer/guitarists, magicians, and clowns, and I am always astonished as to the number of riders who pull out their coins and drop a few into the performers’ hands. And that is true everywhere in Merida; Meridians who don’t have much themselves are very generous with what they do have.
We have learned several bus routes in our years in Merida. We tend to use the same routes as we tend to need to go to the same places. Our next goal is to expand our knowledge a bit and discover what other parts of Merida we can travel to on a bus. We just have to make certain we bring our cups and hard hats.