Friday, February 26, 2016

All in all, I'd rather have cheap, bad buses

I've begun to treat my bus ride to work as a sign of how the day is going to go.
If I have an OK seat, not too crunched, and arrive not limping, I bounce away from the bus singing. Nod cheerily to the man with the wire cages full of puppies and the two guys who spend their days turning pallets into furniture by the side of the road.
It's an easy commute. I walk about 10 minutes to the Carreterra Masaya, the main road south out of Managua. Cross to a bus stop and wait.
A lot of buses are going my way, heading to towns in the south and passing my office about five km down the road. I rarely wait more than five minutes.
About a quarter of the time I'm on "la famosa banquita," as a newspaper described the little bench on the right in the photo above. It's less than ideal. The roof is often so low my chin is resting on my chest, and we passengers intertwine knees in an intimate way.
Those little benches are apparently illegal, the newspaper revealed this week.
The real surprise to me was that there are are rules. I thought it was a free-for-all. Buses cram in as many people as they can, stack freight on the roof or in the aisle. Seats are always ripped out and replaced with smaller versions, closer together. In Canada, I'm average size. On the buses, I am Andre the Giant. And the only gringo.
La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario reported this week that bus drivers in the north are angry they are being fined for having passengers standing in the aisle or sitting on that little bench, and for carrying too much freight or speeding.
I had no idea standing was prohibited. I can choose between three bus types most days. Minivans of varying sizes. Aged school buses. And those airport-shuttle-sized minibuses.
The shuttle buses are the worst. The aisles are about 10 inches wide, literally, and the ayudantes - the conductors who collect the money and encourage people into the bus at each stop - cram them with people. The process of fighting my way off, brushing bums and stepping on feet, begins to worry me long before my stop.
The minivans, if you wait for one with some space, are fine. Less so if people, doubled over under the low roof, are standing in every available spaces.
The aged school buses are slow and wrecked, but cheaper - 35 cents compared to 50 cents for the other two options - and they aren't crowded. A status thing, I think. Though they too have been reworked, seats replaced to allow more rows.
None of them have ever seemed to operate under any rules. People are jammed in relentlessly and even if you have a seat someone's sweaty stomach - or worse - will be resting on you shoulder, a baby balanced on your head, a satchel in your face.
In Belize, a somewhat more orderly country with rules against standing passengers, we were on a bus approaching a police checkpoint. The driver called out "Down." Everyone standing in the aisle crouched in a choreographed movement worth of Busby Berkeley and we sped through looking like a bus full of seated people.
That wouldn't work here. It is often impossible to move, let alone pretend to be seated.
The bus drivers say that if the police are going to start enforcing the rules, bus fares are going to have to increase 35 per cent
That seems reasonable. Bus prices are cheap, less than $3 Canadian for the 90-km trip to Leon. That's partly because they carry a lot of people and speed sometimes. Take that away, and prices will go up.
It's hard to criticize the government for working on bus safety. The boat disaster brought attention to the whole transportation issue.
And there have been a few bad bus crashes too. This week, Pedro GarcĂ­a Urbina was sentenced to one to four years in jail. His bus ran off the road Jan. 21. Eight people died, 66 were hurt and the court found he was speeding and the bus was overcrowded and badly maintained. (I don't know how fair the justice system is, but it's quick. Crash Jan. 21, guilty verdict less than six weeks later.)
I've had a few bad drivers, and obviously bad buses. It's very unpleasant to stand for four hours.
But mostly, the service is fast and acceptable.
And affordable.
All in, my stipend as a volunteer is about 10 per cent below B.C. minimum wage. My daily commute this month will me cost me less than $20. Somebody being paid minimum wage will pay $85 to take the bus to work in Victoria.
Today, I crossed the highway from work and was on a minibus in about three minutes. The interior was full, and I ended up in the front, arm out the window, watching to try and catch volcano Momotombo exploding.
Not today.
Postscript: Managua has a city bus system too, 12 cents with an electronic pass card, 25 cents if you're paying cash. My partner Jody Paterson wrote about her commute here.