San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Observations of a bus rider

As you’ve probably noticed, the world has changed drastically since the invention of the text message. Now, when a play or movie ends, the audience gathers around the exit not to discuss the work they’ve just seen or to congratulate the actors, but to squint at those tiny screens to read the messages that piled up while they were watching the show.

Because of the text message, bus riding is no longer as entertaining as it used to be. Buses once served as information centers and offered a chance to observe the changes in the world around us: who’s gotten older, who’s limping, who’s pregnant. Now it seems that most passengers are engaged in reading and tapping out messages, which at least gives kids an incentive to read and write. There is one advantage, however, in that buses are now a lot quieter, to the delight of those who use bus time for reading or napping.

Additionally, the Transport Ministry has become stricter in enforcing traffic laws. No longer can  the bus driver make deliveries, tossing the newspaper or handing out a package to someone along the route. No more are livestock, chickens, ducks, puppies, kittens or the occasional snake allowed on board. Nor can the driver help himself to a banana or cookie from somebody’s grocery bag as our local driver used to do, and which we all thought was kind of cute.

But buses are still the place to go to see what’s new in the fashion world, especially in the early mornings when the work force is en route. That’s where we first learned about tube pants, one-armed blouses and green fingernails. And while men’s styles are less picturesque, there are always T-shirts to read. And now and then, human-interest stories can still be found aboard buses.

One day, a young boy boarded the bus with just enough money for the student discount fare, but because he was not in a school uniform the driver would not let him on. He stood in the doorway, not sure what to do or how to get home, until a woman in the front seat dug into her purse and paid the extra cost for the regular fare.

Two buses of the same line but going in opposite directions stopped, causing a traffic jam in both directions, so that the drivers could talk for a minute and pass something from one to the other. Was it change for passengers with big bills or a new directive from the ministry? No; it was a package of cookies.

On one occasion, an inconsiderate driver left his car in the no-parking zone near a corner, making it impossible for the bus to make the turn. The bus driver honked and waited for a response while cars backed up for more than a block, all blasting horns as if that would somehow move the errant car. Finally, the bus driver, with the help of a cuidacarro, or car watchman, began to push the car, setting off the alarm and creating even more chaos. That brought the owner on the run.

A bus driver coming into the station after a late-night run between Heredia and Alajuela turned off the lights, relaxed and put in a call to his wife, when he felt a hand on his shoulder, scaring him into thinking it was an assault. But it was only a passenger who, plugged into his iPod, was unaware that the ride had ended.

Daily life in Costa Rica is seen from a seat on a bus. Helen ran to catch the early bus for work, followed by her mother, carrying the forgotten lunch bag she had left on the table. At the stop in front of Mónica’s house, she saw her grown sons off to work with a blessing and kisses. And Mariana, running late one morning, got a ride to the stop with her dad on a motorcycle. She made the bus but in the rush forgot to take off her motorcycle helmet.

One man got into a conversation with the passenger next to him and discovered they were cousins and there was a whole branch of his family he didn’t know. Two women carrying on a conversation across the aisle about the pleasures and pains of large families soon found other passengers agreeing with them.

When I wanted to bring a Christmas tree home on the bus, I planned on taking the 11 a.m. run, which never has many passengers, and there was my neighbor, who also had a Christmas tree she wanted to avoid getting crushed in the later crowds.

Sights observed from a bus give one a lift. A sign that originally read “Ruta provisional,” or “Provisional route,” with an arrow pointing to the right, was vandalized to read “Puta provisional with an arrow.

Falling asleep on buses is common, and many a passenger wakes up too late and has to trudge back to their stop, unless they do what one woman did: After settling into the seat beside me on an express bus between Alajuela and San José, she asked if I fell asleep on buses. When I replied, “No,” she explained that she did, and would I wake her when we got to Hospital México?

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