If you’re visiting Oaxaca — a beautiful city and one of my favorites — chances are pretty good you’ll need to catch a bus fairly often. This, as anyone who’s attempted it will tell you, is no mean feat.
First you’ll have to figure out where to get the bus you want. You can usually get a local bus on any corner it passes but there are exceptions. Drivers will sometimes pick up passengers in the middle of the block, sometimes in the middle of the street. Sometimes you’ll be standing on the same corner where you’ve always caught the bus and the one you’re waiting for will pass you by for no apparent reason.
Oddly, I’ve never had a full bus pass me by (there’s always room for one more) but I have had virtually empty ones fly by me. I don’t take this personally.
After you locate where to catch your bus you’ll no doubt be surprised — as I have on several occasions — that bus drivers may change their routes at any time, skipping your stop entirely. These route changes invariably seem to happen in the evening, leaving you standing on an increasingly deserted corner in a questionable part of town as the sun dips further below the horizon. It’s best to have an alternative travel arrangement in mind for times such as these. Of course, that usually means catching another local bus.
Once you decide where to catch your bus you have to figure out which of the many buses hurtling by is the one you want since many, many buses pass the same corner on their way to completely different places. This can be little tricky because local buses have more signs on their windshields than you can count.
OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. You could theoretically count them but they’re usually whizzing by so fast it’s virtually impossible to do so. Fortunately, each bus has a large sign above the windshield announcing its destination. Unfortunately, this is usually worthless. That’s because it’s apparently on some sort of roller and there always seems to be two names showing, neither of which is completely visible. It may be the top half of one destination and the bottom half of the other or three-quarters of one and one-quarter of another. You get the picture.
Ah, but there’s no reason to overly concern yourself with what that sign says and whether it’s the bus you want. Clearly realizing that people wouldn’t be able to tell where the bus was headed from the sign on top, there are several other ways bus companies aid the weary traveler. One is the placement of many other signs on the windshield. There may be as many as 10.
I can’t tell for sure since, as I said, there’s never enough time to count them all. These signs may be taped to the windshield, stuck on with suction cups or written directly on the glass. It’s usually a combination of all three. As a bus careens toward you at warp speed, you have at least a second or two to read all the signs, trying to determine if that bus goes to the destination you want.
As difficult as this may be during the day, it’s damn near impossible to do at night with the glare of the headlights basically rendering all the signs useless until the last microsecond.
But the help doesn’t stop there. Most bus drivers have a trusty sidekick, someone with a serious death wish who thinks nothing of loosely holding on with one hand to a railing of a bus that’s doing 40 or 50 miles per hour while leaning out the front door shouting something that, even for native speakers, is largely unintelligible. My guess is he’s shouting the destinations. For all I know he could be shouting some ancient death chant since his demise appears to be imminent. The Doppler effect further complicates understanding this rant.
Once you’ve made a decision that the approaching bus is the one for you, you’ve got a 50% chance he’s actually going to stop. Slow down, sure. Stop, not so sure. Just do what I do — make believe you’re a train robber in the wild west, grab the railing and hop on. Once aboard, snag the first available seat or you’ll soon be doing the Funky Chicken down the aisle as the driver gets back up to Mach 1.
One of the more amusing things I’ve seen on a local bus was a sign above the driver that read, “Please Do Not Distract The Driver.” That’s because he’s already distracted enough. In addition to the requisite crucifix and rosary dangling from the rear-view mirror, you will almost certainly find a small altar somewhere on the dashboard, blinking lights ringing the windshield, photographs of his wife, girlfriend or family (or all of these), a curtain covering the top half of the windshield and, of course, a radio blaring but a radio that seems only to emit static. And then there are the dozen or so destination signs covering the entire right side of windshield.
I try to sit in the front of the bus because I just love watching these guys shift gears. It’s beautiful. The gear shift is this long, usually bent, stick on the floor with two buttons on top of it. The driver switches between the two buttons when shifting but there are times he steps on what I believe is the clutch without shifting. There are also times he presses the buttons without stepping on the clutch. The buttons and clutch each produce slightly different sounds and all apparently do something but I don’t have a clue what. I’ve missed my share of stops because I was mesmerized by what was going on.
If you get on a bus and it turns out it’s the wrong one, don’t panic. You’ll eventually get to where you want to go because there’s a bus going to virtually every part of every city in Mexico. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. And remember, life’s a journey not a destination.
Joseph Sorrentino is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.