When I moved to Mexico I arrived by air, so for the first while, I relied upon Puerto Vallarta buses, taxis and my feet to get around. Riding public transit can be a drag, hence the reason that so many young people yearn to have their own vehicle. There is a freedom to driving that simply doesn’t happen when riding a bus or train. If you look carefully, however, riding a common everyday city bus can be magical.
I’m cheap. (At least, that is what my son has told me time and time again.) So, although Vallartense taxis are inexpensive compared to their Canadian counterparts, they are more expensive than the bus and I wasn’t about to waste money. Luckily, our new apartment, located on Guatemala Street, was well serviced by buses. My son and I could catch a bus one block from our apartment and 25 minutes later arrive on the corner behind our school.
Being rushed out the door, so that we wouldn’t miss our bus and be late was a new experience for my son. In previous years, we could still be rushing out the door, but we were almost always the masters of our own schedule because we regularly drove him to school. He could have cared less if we missed the bus and were late. Why couldn’t he watch one more episode of Kick Buttowski? (It is a hilarious cartoon. Check it out. You won’t be sorry.) It was only school after all!
It is probably pretty obvious that buses in Mexico are not the same as buses in Canada. In Canada, buses are generally speaking better maintained and more modern than their Mexican equivalents, however, they lack panache. They are quietly growling modern machines that are all cut from the same cookie cutter. About the only things that Canadian and Mexican buses have in common are the size and smell. Yep, both are large vehicles that can belch out stinky blue smoke, but after that not much else is the same.
Mexican city buses all have their own unique flair. I am still not certain if they are owned by the drivers or if a group of buses are the property of a more moneyed owner, but there certainly is more personalized style permitted than in Canada. On a Mexican bus you can read a prayer to Jesus or Mary, see four different coloured rosaries hanging from the rear view mirror, and have the windshield framed in bright green pom-pom fringe. I’ve also seen pictures of cartoon characters, motivational quotes, and advertisements. Often, many drivers also blast their favourite tunes from unseen speakers. Usually this involves what we in our family lovingly call Mexican oompapa music, the more tuba the better!
Since each bus is unique, my son soon found his favourite. It was a treat to ride it, because it didn’t come on our route very often. It featured blue neon lights inside the passenger cabin and also on the undercarriage, so it appeared to glide on a plane of blue light. I can tell you from personal experience, that it is rather surreal to stumble, bleary eyed, out of your apartment building in the dark, with only one cup of coffee in you, and then see a large, blue, glowing road barge, apparently fueled by throbbing Mexican music, weaving its way through narrow cobblestone streets. I promise you that there was nothing but sugar in my coffee!
Many tourists take the Puerto Vallarta buses, because it is a convenient and affordable way to travel on Francisco Medina Ascencio Boulevard also known as the main hotel strip. Without a doubt, riding the bus on hotel row is an interesting cultural experience, but it doesn’t allow tourists to appreciate the skills of Puerto Vallarta’s professional bus drivers, other than their ability to speed that is! Francisco Medina Ascencio is a well maintained, relatively straight, huge multilane road, featuring 8 lanes of traffic that parallels the coast line. In reality it is the antithesis to most roads in Puerto Vallarta, which are at best narrow uneven, poorly maintained cobblestone streets. At their worst, Vallartense streets are potholed, rocky, dirt roads that many 4 wheel drive enthusiasts in Canada would love to negotiate as their weekend entertainment. Often, these narrow roads are also parked up with vehicles on one or both sides leaving a sliver of space in between. For many of Puerto Vallarta’s bus drivers, driving in these conditions is business as usual.
In my daily commute, I was amazed time and time again at the skill required to maneuver a full sized city bus through the labyrinth of Puerto Vallarta’s neighbourhoods. Witnessing them navigate their way was like watching a vehicular ballet. Sometimes the bus pulled over to let an oncoming car through a narrow bottleneck; sometimes the car gave way to the bus. I was consistently awed by the driving prowess and coolness that the drivers exhibited behind the wheel. I can only recall one bus driver who one day seemed to give into road rage barrelling southbound towards the tunnel cutting off another bus driver. So much for professional courtesy!
My main route to the school where I work took me through neighbourhoods far removed from the perfectly groomed lawns of the hotel strip. Puerto Vallarta has very little uniformity in the buildings, sidewalks and streets. It’s a giant patchwork quilt made of cement, steel, stonework, garbage, brightly coloured paint, and vegetation. The lack of uniformity is stark. A well maintained clean home can be two houses away from a crumbling building surrounded by garbage. Beauty and deterioration live side by side. It’s almost like the city is mirroring the cycles of growth and decay of the jungles that surround it.
One of my favourite streets along the route is called Playa Grande. At least I think it is called Playa Grande. Sometimes street names can be a bit elusive around here. At first blush it is not a particularly pretty street. It is in a modest neighbourhood that features a broken down bus that has been on wooden blocks since I moved to Mexico and what appears to be a plastic recycling company. There are literally mountains of various plastic items piled high in a large yard. There are also a couple of significant potholes in the road that I am certain are responsible for me losing almost a half an inch in height. In contrast to much of Puerto Vallarta, there is also quite a bit of open land along the road. I am not certain why, but there are a few acres that have not been developed and the vegetation is dense.
As I mentioned in my last column, I would often work six days a week. For most people, dragging your sorry butt into work on your day off sucks, and I am not the exception. I was not very sweet tempered most Saturday mornings. On one such Saturday, as the bus banged along Playa Grande I was in a I-hate-my-job-why-do-I-have-to-work-on-Saturday-morning-where’s-my-second-cup-of-coffee, snit. In short, I was feeling sorry for myself.
And then I looked out the window of the bus. I stopped bitching. The equivalent of two whole city blocks was completely covered in five centimetre wide, periwinkle, trumpet shaped flowers that contrasted with their wide deep green leaves. I inhaled sharply as my eyes hungrily digested the sudden splendour they had discovered. And then the bus hit one of those notorious potholes, bringing me back to reality. For a few moments though, I felt as though I were a fairy flitting over a field of light purple flowers. It was magical. (Again, I promise you I only add sugar to my coffee.) I am not a floral expert, but I believe that the flowers were morning glories. They grow wild around Vallarta.
All kidding aside, that experience made those Saturday mornings more bearable. It was like the flowers were bolstering me with their beauty to get me through those long work weeks. After that morning, I would eagerly look for them winking at me through the bus windows. I was quite sad when they went out of season and I was not able to see them for a few months. It was like a group of friends came for an extended visit and then had to leave. I missed their happy charm.
If you had told me that commuting daily on a Mexican bus would teach me some profound life lessons, I think I would have smiled condescendingly and checked to see if you had something extra in your coffee! Interestingly enough, flowers and bus drivers turned out to be wonderful teachers. From flowers I learned to recognize and appreciate the happiness that exists even in the most stressful times in life. Seeing them on my way to work was truly rejuvenating for me even though it only lasted a few moments. From the bus drivers I learned balance and patience. The conditions of their work environment necessitate what I call the yin and yang of driving. Sometimes they need to be aggressive, while in other instances a more passive driving style avoids traffic jams and gets them to their destination. For me, the expression of these two extremes is a perfect metaphor for life. Learning when to allow something or someone to pass us by and when to confront a difficult situation or person is a vital life skill. In addition, I got to watch people living and working in the present moment instead of regretting the past or worrying about the future. All the super smart life gurus out there say that is the key to living a balanced, centred existence. Let me tell you, Vallartense bus drivers have this down pat. I never knew that commuting by Puerto Vallarta buses would remind me about such basic profound truths, but it did. Make no mistake; it is a bone rattling ride over the cobbles and rocky dirt roads. Nevertheless, I learned some amazing lessons while my insides were being turned into a milkshake!
Here is a link to an extended Kick Buttowski clip. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvXK_aPS1eM
Photo under Creative Commons: antefixus U.E.