Total Bus Anarchy: It’s a Beautiful Thing

A lot of expats complain about the buses in Lima. They drive too fast. They are dangerous. They seem to be totally unregulated. But I love them. This might warrant a word of explanation. I don’t love that the bus drivers seem reckless, that the bus I am riding could break down at any time, or that there are no emissions standards, so on any busy street I eventually find myself holding my breath through a cloud of black bus exhaust, from some huge retired Bluebird school bus with an oil leak, enjoying a second life as a public transport.

But I lived in Boston without a car for years, relied on the buses to go everywhere outside of walking distance,  and I find the bus system here vastly superior. There *is* a city bus system, of sorts. It has an extremely limited route, and I’ve only taken it once… but as far as I can tell it is clean and efficient. It just doesn’t go anywhere I need to go. Most of the buses here are run by what seems like hundreds of independent bus companies, or maybe even just some guy who scraped up the money for a single bus, put a decal of Jesus (or Optimus Prime, or a naked lady…) on the back window, and picked a route to drive.

There are several things the Lima bus system has in its favor, compared to the Boston system:

1) even without speaking the language, it is much easier to find a bus that’s going where I need to go– I never have to ride the bus from one suburb into the city center and back out to reach a neighboring suburb, just because it’s a weekend.

2) I have never, ever had to sit around at a bus stop waiting for forty-five minutes or an hour because I *just* missed the last scheduled bus. Here, there’s always another bus right away!

3) Everyone takes the buses here, and nobody rides for free (no subsidized bus passes), so they seem a lot safer/nicer than the buses I had to ride back in Boston– where only people too poor to afford a car would ride the bus. On the buses here, I never find myself surrounded by reeking unwashed drunks, ranting schizos, and sketchy characters I am half afraid will rob me and/or follow me home when I get off the bus. It’s all just people who, like me, are trying to get from one place to another.

4) The buses here are cleaner. Yes, there is city grime in the upholstery seams, and the seats are often quite worn, but because somebody (not some vast bureacracy) owns each bus and takes care of it, I rarely see obscene graffiti scrawled on the seat-backs, I have never had to sit inches from a wall of discarded chewing gum, I have never seen empty soda bottles and other trash migrating around the floors, I have never shuffled to an empty seat in the back of the bus only to find that it was used as a urinal, and I have never been forced to stand when there are empty seats, because all the empty seats are either wet or covered in something sticky/gross.

5) The doorman is awesome!  The bus driver is not the only bus employee. There is always a doorman. It’s his job to collect fares, and lean out the door shouting the destinations at passers-by. If I’m not sure the bus is going where I need to go, I can ask and he’ll tell me. His presence also means that the bus driver never has to sit and wait while a line of people queue up and drop their change in the fare box one by one. It also means that going a short distance on the bus costs less than riding a long distance. This guy is amazing! He remembers everyone who got on the bus in the last three or four stops, and periodically squeezes up and down the aisles collecting fares and handing out little paper ticket stubs. If you tell him where you’re going and it’s not that far, he’ll charge you 50 centimos instead of 1 sol, and he will also let you know where to get off the bus, which is really handy if I’m going somewhere unfamiliar.

6) Yes, the buses here can be crowded at certain times of day. But I have never been on one as crowded as some of the green-line trains I had to ride in Boston, smashed against a wall out of reach of any handhold, praying I wouldn’t be crushed at every sharp turn in the tracks, and sometimes missing my stop and having to catch a second train going back, because I was trapped and unable to reach the door in time. Here… I’ve passed up a lot of buses that were too crowded. I’m willing to stand in the aisle, but I prefer not to be snuggled into strangers’ armpits. One of my first crowded-bus experiences in Lima was getting onto a bus, getting the last seat, and then having ten or fifteen people get on at the next two stops. I found myself sitting with my face inches from some random guy’s crotch, and it smelled like something had died in his pants. So the buses here are not rainbows and unicorns and magic or anything, but…  if the bus is too crowded, you can always pass it up and see if the next bus is less crowded. That is the wonderful thing: there is ALWAYS another bus!  My long conditioning in Boston– where it was not uncommon to stand in a pile of slush, on a 20-degree day in a brisk wind waiting forty-five interminable minutes for a bus– has made me immune to bus waits here. Often there’s another bus to the same destination in under a minute. My husband and I have stood at bus stops for a whopping five minutes, letting three or four buses go by because they were too crowded. Eventually, there will be a bus we are willing to board.

The crazy driving is a little nerve-wracking, but… it’s nothing compared to the last hired van I rode up highway 1 in Viet Nam, playing chicken with tour buses and cargo trucks at 3am. And it doesn’t require the absolute disregard for my own life (or the absolute faith in 500 strangers’ driving skills) I needed just to walk across a busy street in Sai Gon.  All the positive aspects of the buses here make the slightly elevated risk of accidents seem… less important. Until I see the actual accident statistics, it’s difficult to feel like they are any riskier than those in Boston, and they seem much safer than most of the transports I survived in Viet Nam.

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4 Responses to Total Bus Anarchy: It’s a Beautiful Thing

  1. Sayre says:

    They’ve just redesigned our bus system here and boy, you should hear the complaints! The cost of gas has me thinking that I need to try to bike/bus commute a few times a week – once Corky’s schedule is more normal. I’m still trying to figure out this new schedule though.. it really is wacky. I’m sure quite a few people in Tallahassee (including me) would prefer the Lima bus system!

  2. sinpolaris says:

    You be far braver than I. I have seen these “combis” of which you speak and I have not yet dared them. I have stuck to the taxis and they are an adventure onto themselves, but they are my mode of Lima transportation at the moment. However, your posting has made me rethink and maybe I will give them a shot. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Hacking Away « Sin Polaris

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