Transport Me

Claire Wohlers - Ecuador


February 3, 2014

At home, I used to avoid the bus. I liked the people-watching, sure, but it was much more convenient driving or  being driven. It would allow me to avoid walking the hills and sitting next to the inevitable cup of unidentified goo on the seat next to me.

Here, I have uncovered a new love for the bus. I look forward to my bus rides and will opt. for a bus over a car ride any day. The bus has become my “me” time. On the beautiful 1 hour and 20 minute bus ride to Ibarra (where I have Spanish classes, go grocery shopping, and meet friends), I am allowed to look out the window, listen to music, and think. I process all that I am experiencing now and my future, which I have little time for at home in Zuleta. Buses here, unlike on San Francisco’s M.U.N.I., play music and are adorned with pictures of Jesus, rabbit feet, bobble-heads, and other decorations, giving them ample amounts of character, sometimes verging on creepy. Depending on the bus and time of day, usually they are very full but I often manage to snag a seat, getting on at one of the first stops.

Depending on the size of the destination, some of the buses are very nice. Buses from Ibarra to Quito and to Otavalo are among some of the nicest buses I have ever been on, equipped with trash bags, seats that recline, TVs, and occasionally bathrooms. Other, less trafficked destinations’ buses sometimes are dirty, smell, and are filled with flies.  My buses, “El Olmedo” and “La Esperanza” are in between the two extremes and serve their function perfectly, making for a not-uncomfortable long-ish bus ride.  When I get on the bus, I will always opt for a seat by the window (on the right side if I’m going to Ibarra and the left if I’m returning, that side has the view of the valley). Because Zuleta is high up in the mountains, with an  altitude even higher than Quito, on one side, there is a view of a beautiful, lush, green valley, and on the other, more mountains. Unfortunately, I’m always the last person to get sat next to, from which I’ve inferred that sitting next to a gringa is undesirable but, eventually and inevitably, a little old indigenous lady sits next to me (Because my buses are mainly used by people as means of going between Olmedo or La Esperanza and Ibarra, most of the people on my bus are indigenous.).  If I’m not entrenched in thought, I ask where they are from and if they were born there. Usually they are more than friendly towards me. Sometimes, it is even a student and their parent that sit next to me, which they are always excited about, getting to see a teacher outside of school (some things never change).

How you pay is different on every bus. On the bus to and from Zuleta, we pay getting off whereas the bus to Otavalo from Ibarra, someone comes around and collects your money after a couple of minutes. Depending on where you are coming from, the price changes. The bus attendant (there is always 2 employees on the bus, a driver, and a money-collector) always remembers where you got on which impresses me to no end. My over-an-hour bus ride costs 50 cents, although occasionally a crooked bus attendant will try to charge me more. In which case, I argue with them and tell them “I live here” and “I know this bus is only 50 cents” until they yield to my stubborn, gringa-self.

Other than providing me with “me” time, I love the feeling of liberty that the buses here provide to all.If I wanted to take a bus from San Francisco, CA to Nashville, TN, for example, it would not be easy or cheap. But taking a bus across the country here is a piece of cake. All you need is $20, knowledge of the bus schedule, snacks, and patience.  Earlier this month, my Imbabura cohort traveled 15+ hours to the beach via the bus. While we arrived with circles under our eyes and with stiff limbs, we arrived without any problems. It is liberating being in a bus station and knowing, on a whim, you could end up somewhere completely different.

This kind of bus system encourages travel for all socioeconomic classes, a kind of liberty that is not available in the United States and, I would argue, a unique cultural experience.

Claire Wohlers