November 12, 2009

Four hours on public transportation in Guatemala City – just another day on the buses

Today, I took what might be one of my last long rides on Guatemala City’s public transport system, as we are leaving the city in a few days. I had a meeting with my research assistant in Santa Luisa, Zone 6, and we are living clear on the other side of the city in San Jose de Villanueva.

From where we live, I walk about five blocks to the bus stop where the suburban buses chug by every twenty minutes or so. The suburban buses are old school buses from the US, re-fitted to squeeze three adults onto each seat. The outsides are also painted turquoise and white. On this one, the sign that reads “No Standees” was still visible, although there were plenty of people standing up. In fact, at one point, there were at least eight people in the stairway, some of them hanging out the door. The busdriver’s helper was completely out of the open doorway, hanging onto the side of the bus, shouting to the people to move back to make more room.

That bus ride takes between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on traffic. From there, I walk downstairs to take the Transmetro, the new, bright green modern city buses that run along their own track. I can take the Transmetro the whole way into downtown in about 40 minutes. Today, however, I got off at the Trebol – a point where many highways meet at the edge of the city. The Transmetro is generally uneventful. Everyone waits in line to get on the Transmetro, and then it is quite orderly inside. The biggest drama associated with the Transmetro is that you need one quetzal coins to get on the bus, and, sometimes there is no one available to make change.

When I got off at the Trebol, I had to find where to take the 96 bus which takes me all the way to Santa Luisa. I asked the transit police officer, but he did not know. At least he pointed me in the right direction. I don’t generally like walking around the Trebol. There are plenty of unsavory looking types around, and it is renowned for petty theft. But, it was light outside, and safe enough. So, I kept walking, looking for someone to ask for directions. I found a government employee, still dressed in his uniform. He wasn’t sure, but a woman standing nearby overheard us, and told me I had to walk all the way down the street, past the two pedestrian bridges.

I set off down the road towards the pedestrian bridges. On the way, I passed by a plethora of people selling everything from T-shirts to razors to key chains to shampoos. It is not recommendable to buy the shampoo bottles from Trebol street vendors. That should be clear from the fact that the bottles do not look new. They aren’t. The vendors salvage Head and Shoulders and Pantene bottles from the city dump and pour some soapy substance inside, along with a lot of water. So, unless you want an unidentified liquid on your head, it is best to stay away from the bargain shampoos.

Finally, I made it to the second pedestrian bridge. Still, no 96 bus. So, I walked a couple of more blocks, until I saw a 96 bus in the distance. When I reached it, I asked the bus driver’s helper if he was headed to zone 6. He told me I had to keep walking, to the telephones. So, I kept walking until I saw a row of public telephones. Just past that, there was the 96 bus. The driver told me he was headed to zone 6, so I hopped on. The bus was full, so I had to stand up. That isn’t so much of a problem, but it means I can’t see the sights, as the windows are too low. Eventually, a few people got off, and I got to have a seat and watch zones 3, 1, 2, and 6 pass by. Finally, near two hours after leaving San Jose de Villanueva, I made it to Santa Luisa.

My research assistant met me at the bus stop and took me to her house. Her mother had been expecting us, and had prepared a delicious lunch of stewed chicken and dobladas. Dobladas are like thick, handmade tortillas, filled with cheese and locoro- a sort of squash blossom. The food was delicious!

After our meeting, I headed back out again, on my two hour journey home on the bus across Guatemala City. Of course, now that I have the hang of taking the buses in Guatemala City, we are getting ready to leave for Santo Domingo, where I have a whole new set of challenges to face.

Moving every three months to a new urban area ensures that things are never dull. In each city, there is so much to figure out. At times, this can be frustrating. But, at the same time, it keeps us on our toes, ensuring there is never a dull moment.

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