This is the 3rd blog featuring our friend Madeleen's experiences here in Cuenca. You can read her other contributions by searching this blog. We appreciate her permission to share another of her stories with you.
Hang on for the ride!
GRINGOS ON THE BUS
Since we do not have a car and live at least 15 minutes away from Cuenca by car in Challuabamba, we need to rely on the Ecuadorian bus system, which will get you just about anywhere, but not always in the same or predictable fashion. To catch a bus, we have to hail one on the Autopista, a highway that connects Cuenca to Azogues, a town about 30 kilometers North East of Cuenca. Depending on what bus you take and at what time, it takes approximately 30 minutes to get from Challuabamba to Cuenca.
There is no such thing as a bus stop sign on the Autopista, but it is understood that “the bus stop” is at a convenient place where the bus driver can see you and put the brakes on hard to pick you up or at a spot that has been “designated” by the local people. That means we have to look where other people are waiting. If no one is waiting, we take our chances.
To hail the bus down, you hold your arm out vertically, not all the way up in the air as we do in the U.S. However, it is not guaranteed that the bus will stop for your signal as we have experienced. It particularly hurts when the bus only runs every 40 to 50 minutes and doesn't bother to stop. Cursing the bus driver only momentarily makes you feel better. The day a city bus driver did not stop for us, we had to backtrack to the Autopista to catch a different kind of bus. We were picked up by a Provincial bus, full of indigenous folks resting or sleeping on reclining chairs which did not straighten up anymore from overuse. A sour smell of unwashed masses pervaded the bus making our nostrils itch.
There are at least two choices of buses for us; one is the above mentioned Provincial Azogues-Cuenca bus and the other is the city bus or bus urbano. The Azogues-Cuenca bus is more comfortable than the city bus. The fair is 30 cents per person, or sometimes 40 cents or even 50 cents per person. If we are going back to Challuabamba from Cuenca we catch this same bus at the bus terminal where we have to go through a turn stile and pay 10 cents a person more. Why is beyond us as well as the reason why the bus ride costs more or less from one day to the next. Since we are usually the only gringos, paranoia creeps in wondering if these prices only vary for us. Best to pay whatever they want and call it good. At least until we can confidently say in Spanish go to hell on the horse you rode in on.
The Azogues bus has a TV screen mounted in front of the bus, right behind the driver, however it has never been on while we were on the bus and from the dirt on the screen I doubt it is ever on. Instead, next to it, there is a religious image one can stare at or gain some confidence from: a Maria in her blue robe blessing the passengers or a pieta-type Jesus Christ hanging his head down with the caption: Solo Dios Sabe Mi Destino (only God knows my destiny). The Ecuadorians have obviously more faith in God than we do. In our opinion, the slogan should be” Only the Driver Knows My Destiny“. No one else seems to share this sentiment with us and perhaps these bus matters are best left up to the divine rather than to our lack of faith. We hope, however, that the passengers are praying vehemently to God, when the driver does not turn the windshield wipers on until it is nearly impossible to see through the giant raindrops covering the windshield.
The Azogues bus has some good features: lots of blue and white fringes and tassels hang from the windows as well as over the windshield with the addition of various mascots such as a little bear, a bird, a baby shoe or rosary swinging back and forth in front of the driver and of course the usual loud music. The ride is quite speedy and comfortable, except for when you are sitting way in the back of the bus. We ended up back there one day, attempting to look at the bus schedule for a connecting bus. Every time the bus hit the slightest bump or made a turn, our butts lifted off the seat as if we were riding a wild horse. Trying to follow the fine red and blue lines of the bus guide was impossible.
The city bus has several advantages over the Provincial bus in that it gets you straight into Cuenca center, it is cheaper, only 25 cents, and the price does not change coming or going. But it does take longer, since it goes through more neighborhoods and makes more stops. Some of the younger passengers have student cards and adults have monthly bus passes. Every time a quarter is dropped in the slot of the money box, there will be a mechanical sound “dadong” that confirms the receipt of the money. Otherwise, the machine will say : “Estudiante” or” Gracias” whenever someone boards the bus. After a while it sounds like a musical score: Dadong, Gracias, Gracias, Estudiante, Estudiante, Estudiante, Gracias, Dadong.
And once in a while, the candy man will entertain the bus passengers. A young man boards the bus with a box of chocolate bars and eloquently addresses the crowd gesturing towards the heart holding up two chocolate bars. He then proceeds to hand out two bars to each passenger on the bus. Back at the front of the bus, he continues his spiel and guilt trips the passengers into buying the two bars for 50 centavos. He walks through the bus for a second time and collects either the two bars or 50 cents. What a deal.
One afternoon after my writers group and after doing a few errands, we were later than usual returning home. We decided to take the city bus, so we would not have to change to another bus at the bus terminal. We walked down to Calle Larga to catch the bus, but it turned out we were waiting for the bus in the wrong spot; buses do not necessarily take the same route coming and going, so we had to hike close to 10 blocks uptown to Calle Pio Bravo for our bus number 9. By the time we got there at 5 p.m., hot and sweaty, a mass of working people were waiting for the same bus. A snotty little kid with a blue balloon kept swatting us as we waited. Irritated and too tired to say anything, I stayed out of his way as much as I could, a close eye on his blue balloon. The kid's young mother told the boy and his slightly older brother to sit next to me on the window sill while she went to buy some avocadoes and some candy. Still swatting the balloon, it all of a sudden lost air and became a sloppy piece of rubber. I was delighted. The little kid tried to blow it back up, but couldn't and then insisted I blow it up. No way. I told him I did not know how, but then his older brother tried to show me how to do it.
Just in time the bus showed up and we piled in. By now the bus was already full, no seats to be had, standing room only. As usual, we were the only gringos on the bus. If we had been in Europe, the younger people would have gotten up for us grey haired over 60 folks. I started to feel resentful looking at the many young men occupying many of the seats, but then reminded myself they probably worked really hard and could not wait to have a seat and a snooze. Indeed, people of all ages were sleeping as the bus lurched forward, racing when traffic allowed and coming to sudden stops when someone wanted to get off.
No one seemed to care or notice, when a puppy followed an indigenous couple crossing the street in front of the bus. The bus sped up, the puppy changed its mind in the middle of the street, and turned back where it came from. The women on the street were yelling at the foolish animal. My stomach did a rapid double time, sure the puppy was going to be dead meat. The bus barely missed it. It took me a while to catch my breath, and settle down my intestines. I did not dare consider that the bus driver had actually aimed for the dog.
At Challuabamba the bus emptied out. I watched the older men and women walk home loaded with packages knowing they still had to cook and take care of the family after a hard day of work. I felt for them, but vowed I was not going to take the commuter bus home again if I could help it. After all it was their bus, not mine.
Telling a Cuencano about living in Challuabamba, he asked if we had a car. No, we take the bus, we proudly said. His eyebrows went way up and when we told him about our variable fares and buses passing us by, he shrugged his shoulders and laughed. “They probably think you are “crazy gringos”. We laughed too, but we didn't feel so great. We hailed a taxi to Challuabamba after that conversation, which cost us merely $5 that day, although we had paid $6 or even $8 for the same ride at other times. The Cuencano gave us the following bit of advice: you give the driver the change you know is right and if the driver wants more, you say “pfft”, throw your arm up, not unlike “up yours”, and walk away. Sure, we'll do that.