Hanging Out at The Bus Stop

How does a city of a million people even operate when the public transport system good-as collapses? Badly. Very badly.

Photo: Gobernación del estado Bolívar

It’s 6:40 a.m. and I’m waiting at the TransBolívar stop. This is the official Ciudad Guayana public transport system, and when I get to the stop 15 people wait leaning on railings, greeted by Chavez’ signature when the bus arrives, ten merciful minutes later. A huge Chinese accordion with AC, the bus is cramped but passable. These are the best you can find (and the cheapest) but sometimes demand so outstrips supply, you have to wait for hours to ride one.

I was supposed to go to my college and get some documents, but I’m getting a detour through San Félix, the other half of the city. Years ago, this trip took one bus ride, I’d travel hanging by the open door with one foot hanging outside, but it was a single ride. Now it’s two. Drivers can’t charge too much, so they divided the routes to maximize their income, making everyone’s lives (even) more miserable.

Celys is a girl I’ve known for about a year but we didn’t really hang out that much until a month ago. After our friend in common left the country, we kind of became our two-person support group for those left behind. She takes a lot of buses daily so, compared to me, she’s an expert. She asked me to come with her to get a cast off her wrist removed and since I didn’t want to go to my college alone, we made a deal: I’ll go with you to the hospital if you come with me to school. The plan didn’t aim at efficiency, those errands could be done faster in single-player; public transport and the fact that it sucks was a fine excuse to hang out. We’re crazy like that.

Anyway, after the 10-minute ride, I arrive at the other bus stop. An old van arrives almost immediately, charging 5 times higher than the Chinese bus, but so far, so good.

Celys appears in San Félix, with an orange sweater that can be seen from miles away and the cast in her left arm. She says that, if we’re lucky, we’ll find a ride to El Roble, that will leave us right in front of Hospital Manuel Piar. While we wait, a 350, the kind of trucks you’d normally see carrying plantains, goes by, full of passengers standing up at the back.


It’s 8:20 and we are still waiting, so we take one of the perreras that I’ll leave us half-way. At the hospital, they see patients in order of arrival.

The perreras are pickup trucks that consist of cabin and seats at the back. Most of the time, they’re so cramped that it’s common for people to travel standing at the back bumper. These things are extremely dangerous and they seem to get no maintenance. Back in 2009, one fell off a bridge to the Caroní River, 15 people were killed. The government promised to replace them then, but we’re still waiting.

We get off the perrera at Pica Pica, when I notice that the tires are completely worn out. There are vegetable vendors at both sides of the street, and the dense crowds make it difficult to see who’s waiting for a bus, and who isn’t. There are perreras, buses and dump trucks carrying people from different spots, so Celys, today’s compass, leads the way.

This place gets so crowded, she says, that citizens block the streets out of desperation. Soldiers even show up to mediate and drive everyone they can in their military vehicles for free.

We reach the hospital at 9:00 a.m. We are way past small talk at this point, but the intense chat we get into about future plans is sort of unexpected. The question isn’t about whether to leave the country or not, it’s about the when and where. You have conversations like this one with everyone all the time now. One hour and a half passes in a blink and she finally goes into the doctor’s office.

This place gets so crowded, she says, that citizens block the streets out of desperation. Soldiers even show up to mediate and drive everyone they can in their military vehicles for free.

Celys, cast-free, takes full five minutes to figure out the best route to college (all I know is that this is Cerro el Gallo, where Maduro got yelled “maldito”  by angry mobs). We are extremely lucky, scoring a pistero, one of the private buses that charge 5 times more than the official rate. This one was starting the route and had seats available.

We arrive at school at 12:20 p.m., lunch break. I’ve taken 6 buses so far, but I bury the fact in the back of my head and have some barbecue, (I can’t even tell if the prices are high or what). At 1:30 p.m. we’re done. We could have called it a day, we finished our errands and we had time to spare, but we still needed to go back to our respective homes. We just sat on a bench instead, saying nothing to each other for a few minutes. Our victory lap.

Before the trip, we do one more line, 40 minutes at the ATM. Celys could only get a single bill (Bs. 10,000, not enough to pay for a cab). Public transport can only be paid with cash, so you must suffer at ATMs from time to time if you don’t want to be stranded at the other half of town when the night begins.

At 3:30 p.m., there’s a line at the sidewalk with no less than 70 people. A bus comes, takes some passengers and the line moves a little. Then, another unit arrives, and parks at the middle of the line, not at the top, and the predictable anarchy blows up. Some of us just watched, and some even laughed.  

A small car stopped and the driver offered a ride to Alta Vista for 2,500 bolos. People fought each other to get in as quickly as they could. We just wasted 40 minutes of our lives at the ATM for Bs. 10,000 and this guy, who probably was already going to Alta Vista, got the same amount in 5 minutes, while helping folks to their homes. Smart fuckers, man.

We finally reach the first spot on the line, and before I have time to say goodbye to Celys, I’m hanging at the door of a bus. That’s the last time I see her today; she has to take two buses too, so she better start standing in her lines.

Public transport can only be paid with cash, so you must suffer at ATMs from time to time if you don’t want to be stranded at the other half of town when the night begins.

I wait until fucking forever at the next stop for my next ride, in a line more miserable than what you’d expect outside purgatory. We’re under the sun, not a single bus arrives for an hour and I need to pee. See, these Chinese trolleys have 3 entrances; when they stop, it’s supposed to open just the front door (so fellas pay as they enter). I stand right at the front of the gates in the middle, and when the bus stops, all three doors open at once. The door opens in front of me, hitting me with cold air from the inside, like a drink of cool water in a choking humid jungle.

And it gets worse than a Black Flag concert, people push to get in and everyone, men, women, children, fend for themselves; I do too.

“This is what we must do” says the guy I’m touching butts with. It’s the voice of he who feels guilty and needs to justify himself. I know it very well.

The bus stops several times again, and the savage desperation only increases. I can’t breathe and I can already see myself dead and peed all over. People who skip line and survived the moshing pit to get in, are grinning. It reminds me of videos of people looting.

5:10 p.m., 8 buses later and I’m home. I left at 6:30 a.m. and I just want to take a bath, but there’s no running water.

At the other side of town, Celys got home at 6:30 p.m. She didn’t sound as shocked as me, it’s another Monday of public transport in Ciudad Guayana. Two days after our adventure, there was an accident on the route I took. One of the dump trucks turned over and four people died, while other 10 were wounded.

I felt like somebody walked over my grave when I read it thinking of the past.

Carlos Hernández

Ciudad Guayana economist moonlighting as the keyboardist of a progressive power metal band. Carlos knows how to play Truco. 4 8 15 16 23 42