Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

A common situation for many Peace Corps volunteers serving in countries around the world is learning to deal with the local transportation system. In part for our own safety (as well as to live a modest lifestyle), we are not allowed to drive cars (or ride motorcycles)--we must depend on the irregular local transportation system that most “host country nationals” use.

The roads here are not “engineered” like the ones in America—they are tight, twisty, and steep, with a deep cement ditch on the edges to channel off the periodic heavy rains. These deep ditches are easily wide enough to “swallow” a tire, so if anyone ventures off the edge of the road, heavy damages are incurred. You must be a careful driver here!

Notice how deep and wide the ditches are here.

To complicate things further for us, they also drive on the opposite side of the road from what we are accustomed to seeing. Plus, you never know when you might round a curve and discover a cow in the road (as happened to a bus I was riding on recently).

By the way, when I say bus, I don't mean the public transportation systems you may be familiar with in America. Down here, the bus system is simply driver-owned minivans that have been outfitted with several rows of tightly packed seats. These drivers must have a specific license plate (with an “M” on it) and follow a prescribed route. You wave to indicate you want picked up, and then open the sliding side door and carefully climb into a vacant seat.

A woman is boarding the bus--note the deep ditch, too.

If all the tightly-spaced bench seats are full, there is often a fold-up “jump seat” on the end of the benches that can be used (although it then blocks the small aisle-way to the back seats). If someone behind you wants out, then you must fold up the seat and get out of the van to allow them out, before climbing back in for the rest of your ride. Another option is to sit next to the driver in the front seat—two people can usually fit together up there and still allow the driver to shift the manual transmission.

I don't think I've never ridden on a new bus—they are usually beat up old vans in a variety of models and colors (although the Toyota Hiace seems to be a favorite). Every bus I have seen has been a cab-forward van design, with the front doors opening ahead of the front wheels, and the engine underneath the driver's row of seats. In addition to the “M” license plate, there is usually a yellow sign on the windshield that indicates the bus route (such as “1B Cast-Bneau” which indicates that it is Route 1B from Castries to Babonneau). Sometimes the drivers personalize their minibuses with an additional nickname sticker on the windshield.

There is a standard fare rate based on distances, and you pay the driver when you ask him to stop (by yelling “Stop please” or something to that effect). Sometimes, the buses are full and you just have to wait to get on until another one goes by on their irregular schedule. Dealing with the minibuses is just part of life in the Caribbean (and is a contributing factor to what some call “island time”--a lack of firm time commitments).

Notice the special green license plate that begins with "M" that is required for buses.

We've noticed that the buses are fewer and far between lately. It seems that the government subsidizes these independent drivers during the school year, but when school ends at the end of June, they cut back on the number of drivers they support (there is no “yellow school bus” transportation system for schools here—the students take the same minibuses that everyone else takes). As a result, the wait times for buses have increased, and when they finally show up, they sometimes drive right by us because they are already full. So you just wait for the next bus (or decide to walk all the way home up the mountain).

The government controls the price of gasoline, which currently is at $13.17 a gallon (one US dollar equals about 2.7 Eastern Caribbean dollars, so I think that converts to $4.87 per gallon). Because the government sets the gas price (and resets it periodically), there are no prices posted at any of the gas stations here—it is the same at all stations. Thus, there is no competition on price between the Rubis stations and the Sol stations, which are the two major brands on St. Lucia.

Buses have always been interesting to me, whether it was the yellow school buses I rode throughout my school days, or the Metrobuses I rode while working in Washington, DC, or even the Easy Rider bus system I often used in Parkersburg, WV. It is appropriate that I am once again riding on buses, because our reliance on the local bus system helps us to integrate into the local lifestyle. We are not rich tourists, but instead we are Peace Corps volunteers, living and working in local communities (away from the resorts) to help make lives better in some small way.

School girls under a palm tree flag down a bus to pick them up (note the cathedral in the background).

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