Calmness,” said Aaron quietly, “is a drink we can buy in the bar next door. Come.”
- from One More For The Road, by Ray Bradbury
Buenos Aires – Virtually everyone who visits this town, and many who live here, comment regularly on the bus system. Apparently buses are the theme of the day, as my friend Sally has written up what she considers to be the difficulties in using buses in Costa Rica – perhaps we’ll start a trend. She enumerated many of the difficulties, most of which are duplicated or at least similar here – though I think they have it made. They have a bus map, drivers who give change, and electronic sensors, which I won’t even touch upon. We have the Guia T, a booklet that takes… some getting used to. I’ve mentioned it before in passing, but never really described trying to use it. The book is divided into three sections. Number 1 – a listing of every street in town, alphabetically, sort of – since many streets here are named after people, sometimes the streets are listed by first name and sometimes by last name, you have to check both… and, of course, since many streets signs, and people in general, refer to the streets only by last name, you might not know the first. The listing tells you on which map pages a range of addresses on that street will appear. In theory, though it’s often wildly incorrect. Number 2 – the maps, and the most useful part of the booklet in general, purely to have a pocket sized map book with you of the entire city (there are also two larger sizes available for those who want more detail). The maps, 30 some pages of them, are a grid breakup of the city, and each map is further broken down into 24 additional grid boxes. Each map has a page facing it with the same 24 grids, and ostensibly, each facing gridbox has a list of every bus line that passes through that box – not to say exactly where, but that it passes through that area. Sometimes the list is correct, sometimes not, and there are almost always at least a few bus lines that simply don’t make it into the grids. Number 3 – the bus listing. Supposedly every bus line contracted to the city, though it isn’t – there are often lines that are left out for one reason or another. It’s a simple listing of each bus route with a street by street rundown of where the bus line goes, each direction (and some bus lines have multiple routes, just to make it easier…). It’s often simply wrong, having buses running one direction on a street that’s one-way the other direction (not that I’d put it past some local bus drivers to do so).
Beyond the Guia T, you simply take your chances. When I first visited Buenos Aires a few years ago, it was common to find that bus stops were completely unmarked, or, eventually, you’d find out that they were marked by a small, couple of inch rectangle with a number on it tacked to a nearby house or tree or lazy dog that wasn’t expected to move much. It’s gotten better, and I find that most stops are marked in a somewhat more obvious fashion, at least in the center areas of town. Often, they even give some indication of the route the bus will follow from that point on – once again not always correct, but comforting to know they’re thinking of us.
You must have coins to ride the bus. Bus drivers do not, will not, provide change, and the machines do not accept bills, and, there’s no bus pass system (except for school kids and the retired, they get a discount and have to show their pass in order to get it – though they still have to have the coins for whatever amount it is they’re paying). You do have to either tell the bus driver where you’re going to so they can decide how much to charge you, or tell them how much you’re going to pay and let them decide if they’re going to accept your word (the choices are basically 75 centavos for short trips, 80 for longer, and $1.25 for anything that crosses the city limit) The machines vary between half a dozen different designs as to how you put your money in and retrieve your change and ticket, and sometimes, there will be a guy standing at a bus stop selling the tickets and actually giving change – you are, of course, trusting that the guy you’re handing money to is a legitimate bus company employee and is giving you the ticket you need. And, in a few places, mostly at the major stations, there are little booths for some of the more popular lines where you have to buy your tickets. They’re not always next to their associated bus stop.
A good part of this chaotic system, which amazingly enough functions pretty well once you get used to it, is that each bus line is run by a different company – contracted to the city to cover a certain route – and this explains why each bus line has a different color scheme for their buses, plus why things often just change – a company may decide they prefer to run the route slightly differently than their original contract, and simply do it. I’ve also seen bus drivers look ahead at traffic and just decide to “go around” one area or another. It also explains why there are no bus transfers between routes.
And, the biggest complaint one hears – that the bus drivers drive like maniacs here. It’s almost universally true. It’s amazing there aren’t more bus related accidents, these guys are slamming their feet down on accelerators and brake pedals with abandon, yelling out the window at this car or that other bus (remember, they’re rivals), sometimes stopping at bus stops, sometimes not (if you’re at a bus stop you have to flag down the bus when it comes or, if no one has signaled to get off the bus, it will simply pass you by). I’ve been told that the flagging system is to stick your hand in the air, generally in an upward direction – if you stick your hand out more or less pointing down, or below the horizontal, it’s to flag a taxi, not a bus, and the bus driver may just ignore you. Getting off, if there isn’t a line of people waiting to get on, is an exercise in daring, as the bus drivers open the door “when movement slows to below 5 km/hr”, but do not actually always stop – you very likely will have to exit while the bus continues to move, and if you’re not quick about it, the driver will start to accelerate while you’re still deciding on whether or not to leap to the pavement below.
Beyond getting me to my destination, there’s one thing I dearly love about these buses – the drivers decorate them. Sometimes very elaborately, and often with some theme. It would be worthy of a study of some sort. The other day I saw one that perfectly sums up the bus ride experience here…
…and yes, those are real bottles.