Friday, 24 January 2014

Planes, Trains....and Autobuses

Forgive me, but I feel a small diversion into the world of public transport in Central America is necessary...
Despite having spent a few weeks there and having travelled a lot by bus and train, public transport in Mexico is still a mystery for the most part. Before I arrived there I'd read somewhere that 'buses run to a schedule that only they know' and that if you were used to greyhound buses in the USA then you'd be pleasantly surprised. The former is very true, the latter often so.

There are about a hundred bus companies running in Mexico, or so it seems, none of which seem to publish their full timetable or give you any obvious clue where they run to. This means when you decide you want to go somewhere you have to turn up at a bus station and pick a company to start with and join the inevitable queue to buy a ticket. Upon reaching the front of the queue you are then told (unless you've been lucky enough to pick the right company) that they don't run there, but that X,Y or Z company does. You then join a new queue and start the process all over again.

There are also often a multitude of different ticket types too, ranging in price. Some bus terminals we discovered even have two different classes of bus station, usually side by side. One is fancier with electronic price boards and sells 'premium' tickets, the other more run down selling 'regular' tickets...and rarely does either tell you that the other exists, especially if you find yourself in the more expensive one!

One of our best discoveries (quite by accident) was the first class service run by Primera Plus. Buses in Mexico are often fairly rough and overcrowded, with people standing in the aisle once the seats are full, so you can imagine our surprise when one day we were greeted by a coach driver in a suit along with a woman who resembled an airline hostess who proceeded to hand us each a bag containing a complimentary drink, sandwich and cookies. We were then met at the bus door by an armed police officer who checked our bags before wishing us a good journey. On board the bus we found seats that looked like they'd been taken out of the business class section of a plane...leg rests that folded down to turn the seat into a kind of bed, electric points, free wifi and and headrest tv monitors with free films! At a cost of about $4 more than a regular ticket, even on a budget, for a long journey more than reasonable.

It's not just buses though that surprise here. Everywhere there are little things that you don't expect to see. The pedestrian crossing signs use the common red and green men, but here often the green man is animated so that he's running, something that has been a constant source of entertainment to us. Buses and trains are often segregated too with designated carriages/sections for women and children. On one station platform there were phone chargers for nearly every brand of phone provided free of charge and a free shoe shine station at the base of an advertising sign!

Average buses about town though are very different. Blowing exhausts, screeching brakes and things held together with gaffer tape are commonplace. Buses don't usually leave until it's almost impossible to squeeze another person in and journeys, although very cheap, can be hot and uncomfortable. This is also the land of speed bumps...I have never experienced so many anywhere else in the world. This only slows down already slow bus journeys to almost walking pace at times. At every stop you also pick up a new trader who tries their best to sell you something you never knew you needed...pens with built in lights, tiny screwdriver sets or tights, usually for 5 pesos a time. It's an assault on the senses too to travel by bus. Often there's a TV that's playing a film, whilst at the same time 80's power pop is blaring from the stereo and at least one passenger is competing with music from their phone. Sleeping is impossible.

In Belize and Guatemala most of the buses are the old US blue bird school buses, usually painted in bright colours. Some have luggage compartments underneath, on others you have to carry your bags on your lap or pile them up at the back. That is if you're lucky enough to even get on the bus in the first place. Queues mean nothing, it's sharpened elbows and every man for himself. There have been times we've had to wait an hour for the next bus...fighting through the crowd with a backpack on leaves you at a distinct disadvantage.

The best bus ride I've had yet has to be a crazy collectivo ride we took in Guatemala. The van stopped and the driver got out, asking where we were headed. When we said La Maquina (about an hour away) he looked a little uncertain and mimed what I took to mean 'it's cold' by wrapping is arms around himself. Slightly bemused as it wasn't cold at all we headed to the bus, only to discover that he actually meant 'there are already twice as many people in there as the van is designed to carry so it'll be a squeeze to get in'. The bus had 18 seats and at one point during that journey there were 26 people in that van plus a couple of babies. I was wedged in against the sliding door, my backside inches from Sharen's face and my face, neck bent sideways against the roof, uncomfortably close to a young Guatemalan guy, who decided it was a great opportunity to practice his English! Luckily he was a nice guy and didn't take advantage of the close proximity to pose creepy questions as some guys have tended to do. I can't remember a time when I was more uncomfortable though. By the time we got to our destination discomfort had turned to pain and cramp, but it was getting late and we weren't sure when the next van would come or if indeed there would be one, so beggars can't be choosers I guess. The funniest part of the journey was when the driver insisted we had to try and shut the door because we were going past a police checkpoint and it was illegal to have the door open. No mention of the ridiculous number of people on the bus! It's the same for taxis though, as many people as you can fit in if you ask for collectivo rates seems to be the way it works. Another time the conductor on a blue bird bus orchestrated a 'group squat' while passing a police point so they couldn't see that anyone was standing!

I'm writing this as we're preparing to pack our things and catch a bus probably to Dangriga to venture up the Cayes over the next week or two. Who knows what public transport adventure will greet us next!

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