Bus Rides in Asuncion

For some time now, I’ve wanted to find a way to describe the microcosm of Paraguay that comes to life each time one steps onto a bus here in Asuncion.  Buses are called colectivos and once you figure out where they go (which Rose did far earlier than I when we got here in February) they’re a cheap, sometimes suffocatingly hot, always entertaining way to get around the city and out to the countryside.

The buses spew a ridiculous amount of headache-inducing diesel exhaust and I’m pretty sure there’s a city-wide competition among the drivers to see who can obliterate their vehicle’s transmission the fastest.  Starts and stops are anything but smooth and when you want to get off, the driver rarely comes to a full stop to let you hop out the back, because apparently that extra half second is worth making passengers hit the ground running.  Not that the bus system overall is the least bit efficient or time-saving.  There are bus-stops but no one uses them.  Instead, to catch a bus, one merely has to raise a hand to flag down the driver, meaning that a quarter-mile stretch of road that has two bus stops might include 5 different passenger pick-ups.  Such is Paraguay.

The best part of a bus ride, though, is the collection of folks who hop on to try to convince you to buy an amazingly wide array of stuff.  Need a new toothbrush?  A bottle of vegetable oil perhaps?  Maybe your kid is having a birthday party tonight, and you forgot to buy noisemakers?  Fret not, my friend, if you stay on the bus long enough, the toothbrush guy, oil guy, and noisemaker guy will most certainly come to your aid, all of them crooning their sales pitch with the same nasally, thought-piercing melody.

John Gimlette, author of an excellent travel memoir/history of Paraguay titled At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, describes the colectivo experience quite well:

I always enjoyed bus journeys around Asuncion.  It wasn’t that the views were particularly good or that the buses were even comfortable–they tended to be raw-boned hulks that whined and belched their way across the city; it was the mercantes.

There was an understanding among drivers and vendors that–for a few stops at least–the vendors could ride along for nothing…we were always eager to see who’d climb on next.  There were like little dramas punctuating our journeys.  Some of their efforts to raise money were ingenious and others were just plain desperate.  Some got on and made speeches (“Only Christ can save us from drugs”) and then passed hats around for our coins. [NJC: I recently had a guy get on my bus, say he was only there to show us the way to Christ, pray on our behalf, then still ask for money] Others sold things–stickers, fizzy drinks, chipa, cigarettes one-by-one, hair-clips–anything worth a coin.   There was one man who had a string of balloons, each dangling a tiny polystyrene aeroplane.  When he moved up and down the bus with his flock of bombers fluttering along behind him, the coins jangled into his pockets.

When I leave Paraguay in about four weeks, colectivos will be one aspects of Asuncion life that I miss the most.

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~ by nickcain on May 23, 2009.

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