My family would not consider me an adventurous person. In fact if you said I was they would probably all roll around shaking with laughter and rattle on about how non-adventurous I am. I would agree that I do have some reasonable fears and see no point in taking unnecessary risks for the sole purpose of scaring myself half to death.
So you and they may be surprised to learn that Susan and I purposely and regularly risk life and limb to have wonderful adventures right in the heart of Puerto Vallarta.
These adventures are not for the fainthearted, they require some fortitude and an ability to laugh and say “que sera sera” (please don’t sing it, I beg you!) – and for people of faith, to trust in God.
The wonderful thing about these exciting and invigorating excursions into the unknown is they are both inexpensive and readily available. I am talking about the local bus system.
My thoughts on this amazing transportation system are divided into three groupings: The buses, the drivers and the riders. So I’ll start by describing the buses. These, even the newer ones, are extremely basic; and many are definitely not newer! The seats are either moulded plastic bucket seats or formed metal seats – no padding here, you need to grow or bring your own. Personally I favour taking a Obus-Form seat and back – most ‘gringos’ seem to have opted for the grow-your-own route – stuffing themselves with too many burritos and tortilla chips which have added several layers to the nether anterior regions. Oh the wonders of spandex!
The seats wouldn’t be that bad if the buses had working suspension systems and if the roads weren’t constructed of uneven stone blocks much like cobblestones. So the buses roll along, shaking and rattling and the passengers start singing the African-American spiritual song “Dem bones, dem Bones…”. The buses have ventilation vents in the roof but we have never witnessed one being open. The windows do open and that helps on the hot days (for us Northerners, every day in PV is a hot day). The seats on most buses are arranged in twos with a central aisle. But, for some unknown reason, a few routes have buses with single seats down the driver side and twos on the curb side. These buses seem to be the same width as the double seated variety. I suppose it does allow more standing room – but that seems to be taken up entirely by the people who could have been sitting on the missing seats. The first two seats on the bus, directly behind the driver, are reserved for people with children and other disabilities 🙂 and the elderly. These are quickly grabbed by the children coming out from school or young women in tight jeans. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to notice that. Back to the vehicles.
The fare is 7.5 Pesos each way, as far as the bus takes you (about 50c US). There are marked and unmarked bus stops. The buses don’t necessarily stop where the bus stop signs are located. You learn where the busses actually stop for passengers after running after the bus a few times. When you see the bus coming, you strain to read the route which is painted in whitewash on the left side of the front window. Some of the more sophisticated buses have plastic cut-out letters glued on. These are handy as they name the facilities they will be passing – Wal-Mart, Costco, the Marina etc. If you want the bus to stop you put up your hand. Even if you put up your hand really late the driver will apply the brakes and bring the bus to a rapid shuddering stop.
When you enter the bus you pay the driver – more about this transaction later, and try to find a seat before the bus lurches ahead. It’s three speeds are stopped, moving forward at full acceleration or screeching to a halt. I think the PV bus driving academy could have given Bob Newhart some lessons.
The bus interiors can keep you interested for hours. Many have been decorated in Christian themes by the drivers. The glass partition behind the driver often bearing a huge picture of El Señor (Jesus Christ). A very white, European looking El Señor! Sometimes the driver’s dashboard is draped as a shrine. There are often crucifixes hanging from the front. Rumour has it that the more crosses the crazier the driver.
We have learned to take note of which side of the bus the sun will be shining and to try to find seats on the other side. You can normally tell on less full buses, as the sunny side seats will be empty and most of the shade side occupied. At least the aisle seats, but more about that in a minute.
There are buttons to press to alert the driver that a passenger wishes to disembark at the next stop. Most make a whistling sound, rather like the whistle some kinds of men use to let women know they find them attractive or desirable. The whistle actually means “I want to get off”, so I suppose it’s not a bad choice.
The doors open with a swish some way before the stop; the passenger is advised to hang on tight as the bus may make sudden and drastic manoeuvres before finally stopping.
We have experienced a few breakdowns. One bus, I was sitting over the rear axle, lost a tyre. There was a loud bang followed by an even louder hissing sound, and the bus sank down where I was sitting. The driver got out and inspected the blown tyre. He shrugged, laughed and ushered us all off the bus. He then flagged down another bus and we all happily climbed aboard and continued our journey. There was no complaining, no grumpy faces. In fact the change of buses took on a festive atmosphere. I love Mexico.
We experienced a second blow-out on another route. The driver inspected the tyre, shrugged, got back on the bus and continued on, ignoring the floppity floppity noise.
The third occasion we went flying over a large hump in the road, there was another bang and scraping noise from under the bus. The driver got out, slid under the bus on his back to check it out. When he crawled back out he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and told us that was the end of the journey. We were within four or give blocks of our destination so just walked the rest of the way.
The drivers are amazing, all erratic and some clearly crazy. But they are incredibly skilled. I have never witnessed an accident involving a bus – now this could be partly because other vehicles are very respectful of the buses and get out of their way in a hurry. However, there are hundreds of buses plying the main routes all trying to race with each other, swerving in and around each other at tolerances you would find on an aerospace ISO milling machine. It is said that the only way to get two PV buses to pass more closely is to remove a layer of paint! One if the fun activities on the bus ride is to observe the drivers in action. They drive the gear shifting buses at speed while taking money, giving out tickets and making change! They have a wooden box next to them that holds the various denominations of coins in slots. They regularly sort out their cash while driving at breakneck speed over the cobblestones and in and out of traffic. Sometimes they become distracted from their money sorting to answer their mobile phones.
Many drivers have installed their own sound systems on their buses and play very loud Mexican Ranchero music that even drowns out the extremely loud rattling and engine sounds of the bus.
The first couple of trips we took on PV buses, Susan and I clung onto each other, eyes wide open, barely able to breathe. We were terrified of the speed and sudden changes of direction. But after a few trips we began to just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. How these buses stay (mainly) together over the rough roads at these speeds is a mystery. I think reentry in a space capsule might be less stressful on the machines.
Another mystery is how the drivers change speed for no apparent reason. Sometimes they seem to be dragging along as slowly as possible “perhaps they are early” we ponder, then suddenly, down goes the accelerator and we are off at full tilt, overtaking other buses, cutting off the taxis (and that’s a whole other story), screeching to halts at the stops and surging ahead again. Then as if they are shifting from Allegro to Adagio we find ourselves travelling sedately once again.
I like it when they stop to buy refreshments from street vendors. Bus driving is thirsty work.
The drivers are incredibly patient and vigilant for those who are trying to catch their bus. Quite the opposite of Bob’s Chicago bus drivers. They will remain stationary for long periods in case workers may be leaving a supermarket or changing buses. They often stop for people who signal from the sidewalk between stops. Many also allow buskers to ride the bus for free for several stops. Bringing a large mariachi bass fiddle onto a bus moving at speed is quite an art, and not always appreciated by those having to stand. Quite often we are entertained by guitar players, singers, and sometimes children performing to the accompaniment of parents. After the performance they travel the length of the bus hoping for ‘tips’. Sometimes there is a long story they have to tell loudly from the front of the bus, about the difficulty they are in. Unfortunately these are always told in rapid spanish and we have no idea of the particular dilemma they are so passionately describing. It is gratifying to see how many Mexicans, especially the younger ones, who are obviously fairly poor themselves, contribute to the funds of these performers.
Which brings me to the passengers. The buses are mainly occupied by Mexicans (it is Mexico remember), many snowbirds tend to prefer to take taxis which are omnipresent and relatively inexpensive, $5 – $6 for the average in-town trip. Our fellow travellers therefore were mostly working Mexicans and families. We found the behaviour/attitudes of the Mexicans strange when riding the bus. By and large we have found Mexicans (particularly the working and middle classes) to be very polite and friendly. We are constantly greeted with “Hola! Buenos Dias” by people we have seen only once before and by total strangers. Yet, on the buses there is a curious behaviour. People get on, see two empty seats together and sit in the aisle seat, leaving the window seats empty. If someone really wants to sit down and there is only the window seat available the person in the aisle seat often gives a little huff of annoyance and allows the newcomer to clamber over them to the window seat. Rarely, does the outside person move into the window seat or get up to allow the person to get by more easily.
Now we have figured out some of the why of this. Firstly, the aisle seats are much preferred, as the window seats get very warm, especially on the sunny side. Secondly the seats are not very wide, and unfortunately often not as wide as the hips of many of the travellers! Thirdly, once the bus fills up and there are people standing in the aisles, and the bus is travelling precariously, it can be a difficult manoeuvre to get out from a window seat into the aisle and to the exit door in time and in one piece.
Hearing all this you would probably be surprised to know that we often take a large container of gazpacho soup to church pot-luck suppers – a 30 minute bus ride. The soup is well mixed by the time we arrive and the stains wash out. But I’m not paying the taxi fare to the airport – which is the one area where they overcharge (proportionately that is).
Young teens and even younger children are great entertainment on the buses. They seem to enjoy watching and interacting with foreign visors. They love to engage in face-making games with us and to share silent jokes. The teens like to show off their English and engage us in conversation; telling us lengthy family histories. When they get off the bus before us, there is always a huge smile and wave goodbye.
We hear other visitors saying “oh but I’d have to take the bus…” as an excuse for not going somewhere. We on the other hand say “Oh good, we will get a bus ride…”
In Winnipeg we have to buy tickets or passes in advance or give the “exact” change. Drivers are fearful of being robbed or abused. In PV we travel by bus almost daily and have never seen an incident of any kind. This is a poor country, but the money is out in the open and the driver is happy to make change – but no really large notes please! People here are always asking us “Aren’t you scared in Mexico?”. You have to laugh.
Oh, yes, remember to keep your tickets, you never know when the inspector will get on the bus and ask to see them. One mystery we have not yet solved is the people with clipboards and scraps of paper who seem to be taking down the numbers of the buses and the times of arrival/departure from some of the stops. They seem to have some power over the drivers. I can’t believe anyone ever reads these handwritten reports. I have no idea of their purpose other than an employment opportunity for the reporters.
Next time you are in PV and want an inexpensive and stimulating adventure – take the bus, but be careful if you have a bad back, take padding. If you are feeling brave take the green bus and wait to find out where you end up?