January 15, 2011
How To Ride a Bus in Paraguay
This past week I've reacquainted myself with the world of buses. I've been taking them back and forth from the capital area to our home all along, but the inner city ones are those I typically avoid at all costs. A few errands couldn't wait, though, and the mechanic is still "working on" our car, so I enjoyed some bus hopping several days this week.
Public transportation here is a culture all of it's own. There are buses that run different routes, so one must either know the number of the bus that passes the desired destination, or read all the little signs on the front window as the bus approaches the stop. The catch is that you have to read them in time to realize this is your bus and flag it down.
Flagging the bus is quite simple, as one merely straightens his arm at a 45 degree angle or 2:00 (as if pointing to a passing airplane or cloud), and points the index finger straight out. If you don't do this, the bus speeds past the stop and you are stuck waiting a bit longer for the next one.
Of course, within a big city like Asuncion, there are many different ways to arrive from Point A to Point B. This makes for some confusion if it SEEMS the bus should pass by your destination but the bus actually takes some crazy route. This has happened to me more times than I care to admit. I am getting better at it, though, and hardly ever jump the wrong bus these days. I have learned to ask the driver--even if the sign clearly states what I want to know--if he'll pass where I want to be, and MOST TIMES, they tell the truth. I've been warned that they will all say yes to practically any question, but I've had one or two tell me to wait for another bus and let me get off theirs before I pay.
Once on, you will probably be standing until someone else gets up. You can hold the rails on the backs of the seats, where a headrest would normally be, or the overhead bars, as you stand. The frequent starts, stops, speed bumps, almost-wrecks, and lane changes mean that you'll be slung around and someone will probably crash into you at least once, but really, the locals are born with their "bus feet," it seems, and they don't lose their balance nearly as much as I do.
There are signs posted all over the inside of the bus advertising the rates and telling you that you cannot be charged more than that, but this is often ignored. I've learned to ask a fellow rider at the bus stop and that have that exact change ready when I board. I'd been overcharged way too many times before learning that trick. There are also signs that tell you to allow older folks, pregnant women, disabled people, or women with small children, to have your seat. However, it's sad how seldom this rule is observed. Men do get up for women with babies, in my experience, but nothing burns me up more than a bus full of young men sitting down while an 80-yr-old grandma bounces around the bus because she has no seat. And when I get up to offer my seat, the older people look so shocked and thank me like I've just given them a new ox. It's probably the same shocked look I shoot at the men still in their seats around us.
Other signs state the maximum capacity and that this cannot be exceeded for any reason. However (you knew there'd be a HOWEVER, didn't you?), I'm told that on long rides, anyone over the maximum limit doesn't have to be counted, thus the driver and his helper can pocket their fares. Needless to say, we pack in like cattle (that's the Paraguayan term for it) on the long rides, and no matter how many folks are standing as tight as possible, there's always room for more at the next stop.
You never know what will happen on the bus, but I've had some great conversations with strangers and met some really nice people. Lots of times people have their hands full with grocery bags or whatever they've just bought from the market, so merely offering a little help starts a conversation. And anything is fair game for carrying. The strangest thing we've ever seen was a sheep who took a long ride in the suitcase compartment under the seats, with his legs bound. I know he was glad to finally get to his stop! If you come for a visit, make sure we throw some bus rides in while you're here. :)