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In Mexico: good bus, bad bus

Marvin West

The majority of Mexicans don't own cars. Very few own airplanes. Passenger trains are extinct. Burros are notoriously slow. This makes bicycles and bus service very important.

Something, perhaps need, causes south-of-the-border bus service to be very good, almost fantastic.

Old friend Guadalupe Guzman describes Mexico buses this way: Find a place where two roads come together. Wait in the shade. The bus will come, it's just a matter of when.

'Tis true. The bus goes almost everywhere. And the price is right.

Elite or luxury or executive-class buses streak between major cities. They offers refreshments and toilet, air-conditioning, assigned reclining seats, movies with English subtitles and space for your legs. There may be a steward on board to smile and serve snacks.

First-class buses follow many of the same routes and cost a few pesos less. They also connect smaller cities, station to station. They are a little less fancy but big and clean and comfortable.

Second-class buses go tooling along from town to town. What you get for a few pesos is bumpy but dependable transportation and surprising entertainment. Look out a dusty window and see the country as it really is. Listen to blaring radios tuned to different stations. Try to follow spirited conversations, each a little louder than the others.

Third-class buses make all the stops, a village here, a crossroads there, anywhere anybody waves an arm. They wiggle and squeeze their way through tiny communities. They connect common people with the marketplace. The equipment is almost always ancient and often stuffed to overflowing.

The stories you hear about drunk cowboys, auto tires in the aisles, live chickens under seats and goats tied to the roof are hatched on third-class buses. There are also smiles and smells and crunched toenails.

Some big, fast buses behave badly. They come hurtling over hills and skidding around curves as if the highway center line was their private monorail. If you see 'em coming, search for a shoulder to lean on.

Sometimes there is no warning. Texas motorcyclists Paul Lister and good buddy Greg were riding in middle Mexico, side by side in broad daylight, enjoying the weather and scenery. A big, bad bus, out of control, going 80 or 90 miles an hour, ran over them from behind. The driver was asleep until contact. He woke up enough to really put the peddle to the metal.

As tourists go, Paul and Greg were not bad gringos. They patronized local merchants. They gave trinkets to children. They tried to speak Spanish. When the big, bad bus went past, they and their bikes went flying in several directions.

Paul said he never knew what hit him. Spectators said he looked like Superman -- or the guy in the circus who is shot from a cannon. His flight pattern just missed the rear wheels of the bus.

Paul remembers waking up face down. He heard Greg saying "Paul, Paul." That probably meant Greg was alive. Paul's careful inventory located key body parts. His fiberglass helmet was cracked but his head seemed intact. Greg's knees looked like meatloaf in the raw.

The police report said passengers screamed for the bus driver to stop. And he did, 70 miles down the road, at a police roadblock.

Once in a while high-speed buses slide off the edge of highways, skid in loose gravel and tumble over cliffs. News reports tell how many died. The body count was just 12 in a recent accident near Mexico City. Twenty-six others required repairs.

Sometimes buses go wild in the city and pedestrians are smashed. News reports may mention that the driver fled.

Some bus stories are intimidating. In a TV interview, a Mexico City driver said he didn't think anyone could operate a bus in that tangled mess without a few shots of tequila during the day.

There are bus stories of lifted luggage and other painful losses, like cameras, wallets, necklaces and purses. There are also bus stories with little winks and grins. A certain blue Toyota with Ontario tags, parked at a bus stop just outside Ajijic, got pushed gently into the next block by a bus.

Sometimes common people not only catch the bus, they beat it up. In Chiautla, angry residents burned four mini-buses after one crash too many. The straw that lit the torch was a speeding driver, age 18, who ran into a telephone pole.

There are beautiful bus stories, too. We're still smiling about a stalled bus on the last hill between Guadalajara and Chapala. Red mesh bags of potatoes had been placed along the highway as hazard warnings to approaching motorists.

In rainy season, an old bus might get stuck in the mud. In such dilemmas, it is customary for everybody to get off and push.

There's a good yarn about the dilapidated old bus in Batopilas. Each morning, after much coughing and wheezing, it departs just a little late. The driver has a bucket up front and makes regular stops to fill the radiator. Some days he pauses to ponder other maintenance problems. Once a hose ruptured and a backpacker, bless his foresight, provided duct tape.

Unbelievably, buses and passengers eventually arrive at the predetermined destination. Some exit laughing. Some are nervous wrecks.

Between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido is a notorious stretch of highway scarred by an occasional bus robbery in the middle of the night. If this possibility scares you, standard advice is take the day bus. That said, a survivor of many night rides insists she has never had a problem, unless you count the time the bus caught fire in the jungle and everyone had to hop out.

Passengers spent long hours in deep blackness, waving white sweaters and sweatshirts, hoping 18-wheelers would miss what was left of their bus. There was also the hope, and possible prayer, that no hungry animals would come that way looking for dinner in the dark.

Here's a coaching tip: Don't be alarmed if police or soldiers stop your bus. They might be looking for drugs or guns or bank robbers or ousted politicians. They might be telling the driver that the bridge around the curve has just fallen into the ravine. Don't be scared unless those who stop the bus start taking up a collection. In that case, give generously.

Here's another tip: If you're going any real distance, pack a small picnic and that precious water bottle. And carry coins and small bills. The second-class bus is entry-level capitalism. During the wait for seats to fill up, a parade of sales people get a shot at early arrivals. The ice cream man has good reason to hurry. Others selling soft drinks, cookies and rolls take their time. Magazine salesmen are tempting but everything is in Spanish. Just say no to the marketing major's long-winded presentation about a booklet on folk medicine.

When the bus stops, especially at railroad crossings, vendors may climb aboard to offer food and drink and maybe straw hats and copper pots. Be tolerant of the intrusion. People on and off the bus have to eat.

At short stops in small towns, it is not uncommon to be serenaded by local musicians. Whether their music is good or bad, they always accept donations.

From our limited experience, it appears there is far more good than bad in buses.

It also appears that second and third-class buses take on the personality of the driver. Look for displays on the sun visor, an assortment of collectibles, maybe a photo of the dear, sweet wife or a big-chested girlfriend or the Holy Mother.

It is not unusual to see relatives aboard. One driver took his aging grandfather for a ride most every day. The old man wore his military uniform, including medals and ribbons, and sat up straight in the seat behind his grandson. The driver talked a lot, to passengers as they came and went. The old-timer neither spoke nor saluted.

Like old soldiers, buses never die -- and only reluctantly do they fade away. They are much too valuable to abandon. Bus age is measured by whether any go-go remains. There's a really old one in Cordoba that looks to have rolled a millions miles. A mechanic, asked how long buses last, pondered the question. He thinks the answer is forever. When things break, they are repaired. When parts wear out, replacements are salvaged from wrecks.

That mechanic said that particular bus had been running seven days a week, 15 hours a day -- for more than 30 years. Faithful. Long-suffering. Good bus. Very good.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2005 by Marvin West © 2005
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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