Central American Journey

El Salvador and beyond…


A Rant about the Buses in San Salvador

There are many things to tell you about the buses in San Salvador.  I’ll start with the positive.  They are cheap!  It costs $.20 per ride if you take the large buses, or $.25 if you take the microbuses.  They also come very quickly.  I don’t think we’ve had to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus ever.  Sometimes the drivers let people on who try to sell you candy or snacks, so you could eat without leaving your seat (I have never bought anything on the bus).  Also, since the large buses seem to all be repurposed school buses (usually) or transit buses from the U.S., they reuse a vehicle which I imagine would otherwise go in the landfill (or at least parts of it would).  So, yay, for sort-of being environmentally friendly.  I think that might be the end of the good list.

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This used to be a school bus in the US.

The first thing we noticed, before we ever got on a bus was that, if you were new to El Salvador, there is no easy way to figure out the bus system.  There are no maps available.  We learned that each route (maybe each bus, but I don’t think so) is privately owned by a different company.  They apparently don’t make maps of their routes.  This is the only route I’ve found and it is unofficial.  Some website just decided to make it.  It’s also not on an actual map; so it’s not that helpful because I don’t know the landmarks.  And there are no signs for bus stops.  Really.  You have to just know where a bus stop is, or if you’re lucky during busier times you’ll probably see other people standing around waiting.  But not all buses stop at all bus stops and you don’t necessarily know that.  Sometimes you can wave to a driver who will stop at an unofficial stop, but it depends.  The way that people who live here do it, is to ask someone (or lots of people) where the bus stop is or where this particular bus goes.  We’ve tried that several times.  We’ve had people who have helped us, but most people have either spoken too quickly for us to understand (with multiple tries) or also didn’t know the answer to our question.

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Some are decorated quite colorfully inside.

Now on to the physical discomfort.  As I discussed in my last post, I am fat.  And every single large bus (those are the cheaper, more prevalent ones) has been retrofitted with a turnstile.  Not just one kind of turnstile, but many different types/shapes of turnstiles.  I can barely fit through them, if I turn sideways.  Two times, pretty early on in our time here, I was not able to physically fit through the gate.  The first time, I just stood there because I didn’t know what else to do and we would be getting off not that far away.  Luckily no one else needed to board the bus in that time.  The second time I was with Andrew and our host mom Melba, and I ran around and entered through the “exit” door which doesn’t have a turnstile (usually – we came across one the other day that did).  But one day I was traveling, again with Andrew and Melba, carrying my big hiking backpack so I knew I wouldn’t fit through the turnstile.  Melba asked the bus driver if they could pay him my fare while I entered through the back door.  He said no.  They aren’t allowed to let anyone or anything enter through the exit door.  So, we took a microbus when one came along.

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This is a retrofitted turnstile.

Then the other physically uncomfortable part is just how high the steps are from the ground.  I don’t really remember having a problem with them when I was a kid riding the bus to school.  Maybe I just liked jumping up and down a lot more then.  Maybe the tires here are taller.  I don’t know.  I do know I’m less agile than when I was a wee one.  Either way, I’ve hurt myself twice coming out of the bus.  Both times I was exiting onto ground that was both uneven and on the edge of the road and therefore lower than street level.  My knee has mostly recovered, but I still get twinges.

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This one is a tour-style bus with super hard plastic seats.

The bus drivers really seem to experience a lot of time pressure, which I judge by their crappy driving.  We’ve had drivers that run red lights, that speed past other cars and buses weaving in and out (really only the microbuses are capable of this), that take turns quickly causing people to fall sideways, and that stop abruptly causing those standing to stumble.  However, everyone else seems a bit more used to this behavior (having experienced it for longer) than Andrew and I are.  The most dangerous thing for me is that people exit and enter the bus while it is still moving.  The driver will start moving before everyone is on the bus and through the turnstile.  Some people (usually young men) are quite adept at it.  I am not capable of this.  Usually the bus driver notices that we’re white and I think waits longer than he would normally.  But sometimes, the bus is so crowded, he can’t see who is exiting or when and has started moving while we’re still getting off.  A couple of days ago, I almost fell backwards out of the bus because the driver started moving before I entered the turnstile and it was rainy so the floor was wet.  So, basically, if I get hurt or die in El Salvador, it will probably be on a bus (I mean, I did survive the fireballs thrown at us during a festival, but we’ll tell you about that in another post).

Additionally, many of the buses have decorations on them which are Christian-themed.  Sometimes they have a name written across the front of the bus which includes God or Jesus (usually in Spanish).  Other times they have pictures on them.  We have met people here who are not Christian or Catholic who experience the pervasive presence of a particular kind of religiosity as detrimental.  It is similar, I think, to the Christian hegemony that exists in the US, except that in El Salvador there is no official separation between church and state.

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Jesus is also wondering why he is on the side of a bus.

And finally, back to the sort-of environmentally friendly part.  The buses release soooo much dirty, polluting smoke.  El Salvador apparently doesn’t have strict (or any) regulations about emissions from vehicles, so the cars are pretty terrible in this regard too.  It’s uncomfortable for my lungs when I am walking on the sidewalk when a bus passes, or on a bus behind other buses in traffic.

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This photo is not actually hazy. That’s the exhaust coming from the bus.

I would love to do more exploring of this city, but the bus situation presents a big barrier.  The person we live with owns a car, so she either walks or uses her car.  Many people don’t know about the buses that they haven’t taken (which is mostly the ones around their house).  If you add the uncertainty about bus routes with our less than fluent Spanish, it is difficult to figure out how to get to new places.  I’d love to visit more museums or do various types of exploring, but I’m a little concerned about getting stranded in an unfamiliar place.  I’m writing this post in part for anyone else looking for information about the buses here.  Maybe google will lead them this way and they will not feel so alone and confused.

So what unusual public transportation stories do you have?  Feel free to share them in the comments!


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Learning Spanish

Spanish is hard to learn.  Really. Harder to learn than it seems when it first seems hard to learn.  A complete language has a whole lot of words, different grammar rules, and different colloquialisms.  In Spanish class in the United States it seemed pretty simple.  It was a relatively easy class, where you just came in and talked to your classmates.  There was nothing really riding on the experience. There was no one there to stare at you in bewilderment as you attempted coherence, because everyone was struggling just the same.  But the classroom of life is much different.  It made us realize viscerally that we were actually infants in this language, and the prospect of becoming semi-fluent seemed unimaginable.  Yet, at the same time, this awareness of our limitations also came with the awareness of how much quicker we were learning in El Salvador than we did in our courses in the United States.

After our week in El Rodeo (see these three posts) we knew we had to learn more Spanish in order to make the most out of our time here.  Helpfully, two members of our delegation from the Washington Ethical Society recommended a language school in El Salvador, CIS, which stands for Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for Exchange and Solidarity).  It was in San Salvador.  They did intensive classes with 5 people or fewer at a time, based in the popular education model. They had a program to connect us with a host family and a place to stay.  And we heard they were really nice people.  We were sold!

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Iglesia El Rosario, a very modern looking church with rainbow stained glass. We visited during one of the afternoons with the CIS political-cultural program.

CIS has an interesting, at times fun and at times heartbreaking program; designed by leftists in a country that recently experienced a neo-colonial civil war.  In classes we spoke about parts of the body, occupations, what we did yesterday, things we would like to do in the future, as well as the murder of Trayvon Martin, genocide against the Indigenous people of El Salvador, and assassinated martyrs who worked for the people.  CIS also has a political and cultural program which took students to various locations in and around San Salvador, including the nearby volcano, archeological site, museums, NGOs, as well as the locations of massacres and assassinations.

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This is a piece of art in the chapel on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). It was painted by Fernando Llort, who is perhaps the most famous painter from El Salvador.

In terms of our host family and living situation, that was a bit of kismet.  CIS connected us with Melba Jimenez, a mother of three grown kids with a nice home near the National University.  She worked as a nurse during the war and now gives workshops on Nonviolent Communication and Focusing to help people mentally heal from the present and past violence in El Salvador.  This was a good match, what with our interests in social justice and conflict transformation, and our experience with nonviolent communication.

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Danna, Andrew, and Melba in San Fernando, Chalatenango

One of the first things Melba said to us, while we were meeting in the entryway at CIS, was how for a long time, she didn’t want to learn English because people in the United States were sending money and weapons to kill the Salvadoran people.  This delighted us immediately, although there was no easy way for us to communicate this to her with our yet to be expanded Spanish.  It was like a quick code to reveal that we came from similar values.  The sentence was honest, assertive, revelatory of critical thinking, and oriented towards ethical views.  We knew we had found a good match.

So we settled in with Melba and eventually got to meet all of her kids, Susana, Yara, and Nicolas.  Another person from the US, Rachel, was also staying with Melba while she volunteered with CIS over the summer.  We’ve had a lot of good conversations with people in this house. Bit by bit our fluency grows.  The rapid speech becomes more comprehensible and at times actually seems to slow (at least to Andrew).  Yet the destination we wanted… simply to reliably be able to speak clearly and to understand the speech of people we would come in contact with… this still seems very far to reach. We’ll talk more about our various activities in the next post.

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These are some CIS volunteers during our visit to a small farm. Rachel is the one partially hidden by the cloth.