El transporte

My coworker had invited me over to her parents’ house for lunch, and I was excited to meet her siblings and speak in Spanish all afternoon. I took the bus to her hometown and she picked me up at the station in her car. Her younger brother was in the passenger seat, and after introductions, we began chatting about – what else – life in Spain versus life in America. “Do you have a car at home, Sarah?” he asked me. “Yes,” I responded, “right now my parents are taking care of it.” “What kind of car is it? How big is it?” he asked. “Well, just average size I guess . . . about the size of this car, actually.” He turned around in his seat to stare at me, shocked. “What??? That’s all???” Confused, I qualified my statement, “Yeah, well, I’m single and I don’t have any kids, or pets, or any expansive hobbies . . . I don’t need a big car. Why are you staring at me like that?” I finished defensively. “I thought everyone in America had big cars, and they drove them everywhere, even across the street to the store, because gas prices there are so cheap that they don’t have to worry about having a car with good gas mileage.”


Foreign countries can be full of surprises. Even though you’re expecting it to be completely different, it’s always a revelation to discover that something that you took for granted as a universal occurrence – Driver’s Ed at 15 or 16 years of age, getting a car for your birthday or scrimping and saving to buy your first ever car, the thrill of independence when you can drive to school for the first time as a senior – turned out to be an experience particular to your time and location. Basic transportation, getting to and fro, is a whole different kettle of fish in most other countries.

In Mexico, buses were the most common way to get from here to there. When I was there (in 2005), a city bus trip was about 30 cents, which you gave to the bus driver as you got on. There were no bus stops – people just congregated on the sidewalk to flag down the bus as it passed by, and when you wanted to get off, you pushed the stop button or just shouted at the driver. Destinations were posted on the windshield. If there were set routes or times, I didn’t know them. Longer distances were also covered by bus, but by a much more sophisticated fleet of buses. These were Greyhound-type charter buses with bathrooms and air conditioning. They had fixed schedules and were more expensive (to the tune of $10, mind). You got an assigned seat, a place to put your luggage, and even juice and a snack as you boarded. In a country as small as Mexico, flying was reserved for international travel.

In Guatemala, city buses were very similar in terms of price and functioning, but city-to-city travel was often accomplished via “chicken bus”. Chicken buses are old American school buses which have gone to Central America to die. Some of them still have the lettering on the side stating to which county they used to belong; in Guatemala City I saw a bus from James City, Virginia, not far from where I lived at the time. Like local city buses, chicken buses that go from city to city are cheap and have no set schedule or route. You congregate on the side of the road and flag down a bus. Some chicken buses have destinations posted on the front windshield, and some are just painted a certain color to indicate the destination. Occasionally this painting will be in the pattern of the traditional clothing from the area where the bus is going. This makes it easy to tell a buses’ destination if you cannot read. Chicken buses also have the advantage of luggage storage – on the top of the bus. A porter puts your stuff up there, and when you advise the driver that you want to get off, the porter climbs out the window and onto the top of the bus while it is motion to find your bag. The bus stops, you get off, and the porter throws down your belongings, and off they go again. Flying again is reserved for international travel.

In Spain, city buses were much more tightly scheduled, often with stops and times available on the Internet. They were also more expensive, similar to city bus fares in America, so anywhere from 1 to 2 euros. Many bigger cities also had subways or light rails. Long distance buses similar to those used in Mexico were very popular, as were short-distance trains. There’s even a high speed line that goes from west to east, taking you from Sevilla to Barcelona in no time. Although the country is actually smaller than Mexico, cheap flights a la RyanAir were common to get from the south to the north, for example. And although, as my opening anecdote suggests, cars in Spain tended to be smaller, it was much more common for people to have cars, although I met many adults who had never even taken a driver’s ed course.

In Ecuador, especially in Quito, transportation is a problem. There are so many people in such a small space that if everyone had and drove cars, like in Spain, no one would be able to get anywhere. So Quito has come up with 2 very interesting solutions – pico y placa, and the bus lines. Pico y Placa is the name of a program that regulates who can drive when. “Pico” is short for “la hora pico”, which is rush hour. “Placa” is your license plate. So, depending on your license plate number, you are assigned a day of the week in which you cannot drive your car during rush hours. The idea is to cut down on the number of cars on the road. There are of course a lot of city buses in Quito, but they also have 3 bus lines that have dedicated lanes in the middle of the principal avenues. For example, the Ecovía line runs down the middle of the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, and no other cars or buses can drive in those lanes, which are separated from the rest of the road by curbs. There are little islands in the middle of the lanes at each stop, which you access by putting a quarter into the turnstile. City to city buses follow the Mexico/Spain model, and flights are used for international travel or to get to the Galapagos.


I can’t decide whether I prefer the transportation culture here in the US or that of Spain or Ecuador. It was certainly nice to spend an entire year not filling my car up with gas while I bused my way around the Iberian Peninsula. But I also like the freedom of my car. Thoughts?