transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
In the forty days I spent in Panama, I rode a total of sixty different vehicles. Forty-three of these vehicles were diablos rojos (former school buses). I spent almost 24 hours on diablos rojos, riding a total of 411 miles in Panama. The average length of trip I took on these buses was 32 minutes (quite short, given that the average one-way commute time for residents of Panama City is about 70 minutes). In terms of bus bodies, almost all were conventional-style buses, and about half of them were Thomas Built Buses, half were Blue Bird, and one was a Ward Volunteer. Most of the buses had manual transmissions (even the ones that were originally manufactured with automatics). One of the buses I rode down the Transistmica had a female driver, a first for my trip.
(English Translation Below)
Cuando yo caminaba por Panamá Viejo, yo ví un hombre lavando su bus. Decidí a saludarle y decirle lo de mi proyecto. Luís era muy amable, dandome mucha información sobre el 1987 Blue Bird/International antiguo bus escolar de su padre, y me invitó a acompañarle y el chofer del bus, Edwin, el día sigiuente.
El día sigiuente, me reuní con ellos en frente de los barberías de la Plaza 5 de Mayo a las 8:00. Eso fue la segunda vez que habían pasado la parada, despues de empezar sus vueltas de Panamá Viejo a las 5:40. Yo abordé a y disfruté el día andando por Avenida Balboa en su ruta para Panamá Viejo (mira la linea roja en el mapa que yo hice).
8:05 – Luís and Edwin les digan a los pasajeros quienes quieren viajar a La Terminal de Albrook que desembarquen y cambien buses. Aunque buses de Panamá Viejo usualmente van para la Terminal, entonces se vuelvan y regresan por El Chorrillo, Edwin a menudo no va a la Terminal en las mañanas porque no hay bastante pasajeros allá.
8:10 – Edwin para el bus en el lado de la puente de Avenida 3 de Noviembre a Avenida de los Mártires. El orina en la llanta y un hombre con muletas aborda. Él llama pasajeros al bus en las paradas de Ancón, y Luís le da unos cuartos por la ayuda.
8:25 – Estamos esperando mas pasajeros en El Chorrillo. Álguien pregunta “¿Esperan cuanto para salir de aquí?” Edwin le contesta que vamos a salir cuando un otro bus viene. El otro ya viene, y salimos por las calles angostas para Calle 12.
8:35 – Estamos en Avenida Balboa/La Cinta Costera otra vez. Todos los asientos están occupados, y ocho personas estan parados.
8:45 – Luís pregunta, “¿Nádie para abajo del puente?” Nádie contesta, y por eso, evitamos el tranque caminando por el Puente Via Israel.
8:55 – Entramos el barrio Panamá Viejo, pasando por una area residencial por primera vez.
9:20 – Todos los pasajeros desembarcan en la ultima parada en Vía España. Edwin sale del bus para comprar sus boletos to rotulo. Mientras Edwin está comprando sus boletos, Luís y yo hablamos sobre la transformación de los buses viejos. Me dice que muchos turistas quien abordan su bus no saben que estuvo un bus escolar en EEUU. Edwin regresa, molestado porque no tenían El Chance.
9:30 – Luís les dice “No voy” a los que quieren abordar. Continuamos conversando sobre el reusar de los buses cuando manejamos para Panamá Viejo. Comprando en la subasta, los dueños panameños puenden comprar un bus usado por $4,000. Ellos cambian los cambios de automáticos para palancas, los que piensan son mas durables. Luís y Edwin felicitan la durabilidad de los diablos rojos y critican los buses con aire acondicionado, como los nuevos de Hyundai y Daewoo. Prefieren chassis de International para las máquinas, y para los buses, a Luís le gusta los de Thomas (mas de Blue Bird), porque son mejor para modificar con pintura.
9:40 – Pasamos otro bus de Ruta 1 (Panamá Viejo por Avenida Balboa), y Edwin me dice que el chofer, quien es el dueño también, lo ha conducido en ésta ruta por dieciseis años. Entonces me cuenta sobre lo del dinero. Cada día, hacen seis vueltas, 2.5 horas por cada una. En cada media vuelta, setenta pasajeros abordan, cada uno pagando $0.25. Entonces ingresos son $210. Combustible cuesta $13 cada vuelta. El resto dividen ellos con el dueño (aproximadamente $70), el chofer ($40), y el pavo ($20).
9:55 – Vamos a la casa de la sobrina de Edwin, quien tiene dos años, y vamos con ella para desayunar en la Parrillada Mario. Estacionado en la Avenida Cincuentenario, Luís y Edwin comen arroz con pollo, y yo como un bagel comprado el día anterior del New York Bagel Café, en El Cangrejo.
10:45 – Edwin me pregunta si he manejado un bus, y le contesto que no. Él señala que manejar un diablo rojo sería una parte importante de mi proyecto, y, de repente, estoy en el asiento del chofer. Yo practico con la palanco un rato, y eventualmente conduzco el bus en la calle. Mira el video aquí.
11:30 – Estacionado seguramente en la estación de Esso, ubicado cerca de la piquera de Panamá Viejo, pagamos con cuartos y reímos mirando el video. Yo quiero estar el pavo y llamar pasajeros en la vuelta proxima. Luís dice no, porque los pavos tienen que saber las ubicaciónes de los guárdias y cerrar la puertas. Si no, los guárdias cobraría una multa.
12:00 – Compramos aceite de dirección y lo agregamos a la máquina.
12:40 – Dejamos Briana y llevamos pasajeros de Panamá Viejo a la piquera en Vía España. Al mediodía, hay seis buses esperando hasta los despachadores dicen que puedan salir. Edwin duerme mientras esperamos.
1:40 – Estamos el primer bus en la fila, y pasajeros empiezan a abordar. Despúes de 10 minutos, salimos, empezando la tercer vuelta del día para Luís y Edwin.
2:20 – Pasamos Multiplaza y Multicentro, andando por un tranque hacia la Avenida Balboa/La Cinta Costera.
2:45 – Llegamos en la Terminal de Albrook. Como en la piquera de Panamá Viejo, unos buses ya estan esperando. Vamos a ir directo a Panamá Viejo (no por Calle 12/El Chorrillo o Plaza 5 de Mayo). Luís está de pie al lado del bus, clamando con el despachador “Panamá Viejo, Cinta Costera Directo, Multicentro, Multiplaza, Paitilla, Panamá Viejo!” Les aclara a unas personas que “Cinta Costera Directo” signifca que no va a ir por Calle 12. Luís me dice que pasajeros como éstas personas le frustran porque no escuchan. Algunas veces, cuando un panameño le pregunta a Luís si él va a Albrook inmediatamente despúes él ha decido “Terminal,” le responde al pasajero “no” como una broma. Pero dice que él mismo está mas agradable con turistas y les da la información correcta, a menos que sean gringas guapas. Si gringas guapas abordan el bus, les dice que su ruta va por toda la ciudad y los sitios turisticos. Cuando pasan por las ruinas de Panamá Viejo la tercer vez, las muchachas realizan que ha estado bromeando, pero Luís ya ha mostrado sus amigas nuevas a las otras choferes y pavos.
3:15 – El bus llenado, salimos de la terminal. Cinco minutos despúes, estamos en la puente de Avenida 3 de Noviembre. Dos pasajeros se ponen en pie, caminan a la puerta del bus, y dicen que tienen que salir Plaza 5 de Mayo. Paramos en la entrada de la Cinta Costera para que ellos pueden caminar atras a la Plaza.
4:15 – El tranque esta creciendo, y viajamos lentamente a la piquera, donde Edwin y Luís empiezan su cuarta vuelta del día.
4:40 – Yo salgo del bus en la Avenida Balboa, anteds de la Calle Uruguay, agradeciendoles para su ayuda.
Éste día andando en (y, por cinco minutos, manejando) el bus Pinky y El Cerebro era uno de los mejores de mí año. Estaba agradecido por los puntos de vista útiles y la amistad genuina que Edwin y Luís compartían conmigo. En las semanas siguientes, yo les acompañé en viajes distintas: hacia Tocúmen para comprar luces nuevos con que decoramos el bus, a Los Pueblos para comprar seguros, y arriba del Canal de Panamá a Arraiján para reparar el cambio (¡Ojalá que eso no fuera relacionado a mis problemas con el clutch!).
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When I was walking through Panamá Viejo, I saw a guy washing his bus. I decided to approach him and tell him about my project. Luís was very friendly, giving me lots of information about his father’s 1987 Blue Bird/International former school bus, and he invited me to accompany him and the bus’s driver, Edwin, on their runs the following day.
The next day, I met them in front of Plaza Cinco de Mayo’s barber stalls at 8:00 AM. This was the second time they had passed the stop, having started their runs from Panamá Viejo at 5:40 AM. I hopped aboard and enjoyed the rest of the day riding up and down Avenida Balboa on their route to Panamá Viejo (see the red route on the map I made).
8:05 – Luís and Edwin tell all of the passengers who want to go to the Albrook Terminal that they will need to alight and transfer. While Panamá Viejo buses usually go to the Terminal, then turn around and return via El Chorrillo, Edwin usually skips the Terminal in the mornings because there aren’t enough passengers there.
8:10 – Edwin pulls over on the side of the transition ramp from Avenida 3 de Noviembre to Avenida de los Mártires. While he relieves himself on the back tire, a man using crutches hops aboard. The acquaintance calls passengers to the bus at the stops along the base of Cerro Ancón, and Luís gives him a couple of quarters for the help. Panama’s currency, the balboa, is equivalent to the US dollar, so bills and coins from the US are in wide circulation in Panama; coins are the same size as their North American counterparts, though the ones minted in Panama have Balboa’s head instead of Washington’s.
8:25 – We’re stopped waiting for more passengers in El Chorrillo. Someone who has been sitting on the bus for a while impatiently asks “How long are you going to wait to leave here?” Edwin responds that we will leave when another bus comes up behind us. One finally does, and we head out on the Peninsula, winding through the narrow streets towards Calle 12.
8:35 – We’re back on Avenida Balboa/La Cinta Costera. The bus’s seats are full, and about eight people are standing in the aisle.
8:45 – Luís shouts out, “Nadie para abajo del puente?” asking if anyone needs to get off under the Corredor Sur overpass. Nobody does, so we avoid the traffic jam there by heading over the Via Israel overpass.
8:55 – We enter the Panamá Viejo neighborhood, passing through a low density residential neighborhood for the first time.
9:20 – All of the passengers alight at the last stop on Vía España. Edwin hops off to buy his daily lottery tickets. The lottery is a big deal in Panama. In front of hundreds of stores across Panama City, people sit behind tables holding rows of tickets for sale. The daily drawings are almost ritualistic; prominent public figures consider it an honor to attend one. While Edwin is browsing the tickets, Luís and I talk about how the old buses are transformed in Panama. He tells me that many of the tourists who board his bus have no idea it used to be a school bus in the United States. Edwin returns, annoyed that the don’t have his preferred type of lottery ticket (“It’s 9:30, how is there no Chance?!?”).
9:30 – Luís gives a wag of the finger and a “No voy” to people who try to flag the bus down, telling them we’re not making a run back to the Terminal. We keep discussing the reuse of buses as we drive back towards Panamá Viejo. Buying in bulk, Panamaina bus owners can often get a used school bus for as little as $4,000. They change the transmissions from the original automatic ones to manual ones, which they see as more reliable. Luís and Edwin praise the reliability and durability of school buses from the United States and make disparaging remarks about the “air conditioned buses that don’t last,” such as the newer Hyundai and Daewoo models that have been increasingly used on Panama City’s streets. They prefer International chassis, and among body manufacturers, Luís expresses a preference for the way painting and modifications look on Thomas buses (over “Blue Beard”).
9:40 – We pass another Route 1 (Panamá Viejo por Avenida Balboa) bus, and Edwin tells me that the driver, who also owns the bus, has been driving it along this route for sixteen years. He then starts giving me a rough idea of financial matters. On a typical day, they will make 6 round trip runs, each taking an average of 2.5 hours. On average, on each one-way leg, 70 passengers will board, each paying a fare of $0.25. Average daily gross income is then 6 x 2 x 70 x 0.25 = $210. Diesel fuel, which is barely subsidized for bus operators, costs about $13 per run. The remaining $130 is split among the owner (who usually takes about $70), driver ($40), and conductor ($20).
9:55 – We pick up Edwin’s two-year-old niece, Briana, in Panamá Viejo to take her down the road to breakfast down the road at Parrillada Mario. Parked on the side of Avenida Cincuentenario, Luís and Edwin eat fried rice and chicken, and I breakfast on the blueberry bagel I had bought the previous day (from New York Bagel Café, which I preferred to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street from where I was living in El Cangrejo).
10:45 – Edwin asks me if I’ve ever driven a bus, to which I answer no. He replies that driving a bus should be an important part of my research experience, and before I know it, I’m in the drivers seat getting a lesson. I practice with the clutch for a while, and eventually get to drive for a bit in traffic. See a video here.
11:30 – Safely parked at the Esso gas station near the Panamá Viejo piquera (bus yard/terminal area), we hand over a stack of quarters to the station cashier and laugh as we rewatch the video of my driving experience. I say that since I’ve gotten the experience driving, I should try being the conductor and calling passengers on the next run. Luís says this isn’t a good idea because of the traffic police; the conductor has to know where the traffic police tend to hide so that he can close the front door to avoid being fined. I laugh to myself at the irony of his reservation after I had just finished driving the bus.
12:00 – We buy some power steering fluid and top up.
12:40 – We drop off Briana and take some passengers back from Panamá Viejo to the piquera on Vía España. At midday, there are about six buses ahead of us waiting for departure clearance from the informal dispatchers (two twenty-something twin guys). Edwin takes a nap while we wait.
1:40 – We’re at the front of the queue and passengers start to board our bus. Ten minutes later, we’re almost full and we depart, beginning Luís and Edwin’s third run of the day.
2:20 – We pass Multiplaza and Multicentro on our way through traffic all the way to Avenida Balboa/La Cinta Costera.
2:45 – We pull into the local bus platform of the Albrook Terminal. Similar to at the Panamá Viejo piquera, there are a few buses waiting ahead of us. We will be running direct to Panamá Viejo (instead of via Calle 12/El Chorrillo or Plaza 5 de Mayo), so we get to jump a few spots in the queue. Luís stands outside the bus, taking turns with the dispatcher yelling “Panamá Viejo, Cinta Costera Directo, Multicentro, Multiplaza, Paitilla, Panamá Viejo!” He has to clarify for a couple of would-be passengers that Cinta Costera Directo means he won’t be going to Calle 12. Luís tells me that he gets annoyed with these Panamanians who don’t listen to him the first time. Sometimes when Panamanians ask him if he’s going to Albrook right after he says Terminal, he tells them no out of spite. He says he’s much more patient with tourists and always give them accurate information. Except, of course, when especially cute gringa tourists board his bus; when this happens, he tells them that his route runs in a big circle around the city to all of the best tourist spots. By the third time they pass the ruins of Panamá Viejo, the tourist girls realize he is joking and get off the bus, but by then Luís has already showed off his new friends to the other drivers and conductors on the route.
3:15 – Fully loaded, we pull out of the Terminal and wind around the large circular interchange at the exit. A couple minutes later, we are on the Avenida 3 de Noviembre overpass over Plaza 5 de Mayo. A couple of passengers stand up, make their way to the front of the bus, and say they needed to get off at Plaza 5 de Mayo. Luís gives me an exasperated look, and we stop at the entrance of La Cinta Costera so they can walk back to their desired stop.
4:15 – Traffic is getting heavier, and we make our way through it back to the piquera for Edwin and Luís to start their fourth run of the day.
4:40 – I hop off the bus on Avenida Balboa just before Calle Uruguay, thanking them for the great day.
My day riding (and, for five minutes, driving) the Pinky and the Brain bus was one of the best of my year. I was grateful for the useful insights and genuine friendship Edwin and Luís shared with me. In the following weeks, I had the pleasure of accompanying them on various bus-related trips: out towards Tocúmen to buy a new set of LED lights to adorn the front of the bus, to Los Pueblos to renew the bus’s insurance, and over the Panama Canal to Arraiján for a transmission repair (hopefully unrelated to my travails with the clutch).
Racing each other to pick up more passengers, the old school buses in Panama City collide with alarming frequency. One particularly horrific crash, which injured nearly three dozen people, occurred on the Cinta Costera in January, 2010. Here is a translation of excerpts of an article about the event:
Transit: Race Leaves More than Thirty Injured
Panic on the Coastal Beltway
Oh my God! The shout was followed with alarmed screams of the more than sixty passengers aboard a Panama Viejo bus, which rolled over several times as crushed sheet metal crunched over the hard pavement. Out of the completely overturned vehicle climbed men, women, and children, some bleeding, others in pain, and the rest in hysterics. Thirty-five injured was the final count, among them ten seriously injured and two infants.
It was about 10:40 AM yesterday, Sunday, when the vehicular tragedy occurred. The Panama Viejo bus, license plate B-3388, expired since 2003, was racing with another Panama Viejo bus, which fled the scene. During the race the young driver lost control and ended up crashing into a lamp pole. The bus destroyed the signs, literally flew and spun in the air, fell 20 meters away from the impact, and ended up facing in the opposite direction. People escaped from the emergency door and the front on their own, but several passengers were trapped inside the vehicle. A young man’s right arm was trapped between the pavement and the heavy bus; more than fifteen soldiers were able to move the diablo rojo to free him.
Tears, pain and blood – the scene was sad. The injured, trembling in panic, sat among the steps that are used daily by dozens of children for fun, waiting this time for the help of paramedics. Most victims were women.
The driver of the vehicle, Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh, 20, was unhurt in the accident. He is not licensed to drive public transport, only private cars. In addition, his age is not adequate to drive that kind of public transport.
The second bus involved was located hidden in Panama Viejo, where it was impounded.
With such graphic and sensational media reports about diablo rojo crashes, it’s no wonder the government is making the implementation of Metrobus such a priority. At a November event with the first of the newly delivered buses, the Presidential Minister made the ambitious claim that there would be zero diablos rojos in the city by August, 2011. When questioned about the seating capacity of the new Volvo buses, he replied “The important thing is not to go seated, the problem is to go safely, in a comfortable and trustworthy manner.” Crashes like the ones above only heighten the government’s ability to replace the existing system and eliminate the existing drivers. Metrobus drivers will not be competing for fares, so there should be little incentive for them to drive at such high speeds.
Maybe Panama City’s congestion is another cause of speeding; perhaps drivers release their road rage, pent up from hours of sitting in traffic jams, by driving at excessive speeds if any space opens up. If the traffic is so bad that no space for a cathartic momentum binge opens up, then defeated bus drivers sometimes give up, tell everyone to get off, turn around, and go home (as my bus driver did one night when I was coming back from Santa Librada).
Luckily, my experiences riding (and driving) Panama Viejo buses were much safer. Luís, a friend who works as a conductor on a Panama Viejo bus, knew Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh (along with many of the other Panama Viejo drivers) and even showed me some cell-phone pictures of his bus before the crash.
I was, however, involved in one minor collision. One afternoon, riding a Vía España bus from Via Veneto to Plaza Cinco de Mayo, we were caught behind another bus that was loading. After some ineffectual honking, our frustrated driver finally pulled out into the other lane and started to speed down the street. The bus that had been loading, not wanting to fall behind and lose out on passengers further down the street, lurched off and the race (regata in Spanish) was on. As the drivers raced, someone on our bus yelled “parada (stop),” and our driver had to pull over to let her off. He misjudged the speed of the bus to his right, cut it off, and, with a loud bang, clipped its front bumper with his rear one. It was clear that settling the incident would take a while, so we all filed off the bus, not paying any fare to the sheepish driver and heading up the street to find another bus.
Unlike in Nicaragua, the majority of the intercity buses I saw in my week in Costa Rica were coach buses (mainly Marcopolo bodies manufactured in Brazil). There were, however, plenty of old school buses being reused as transport for agricultural workers and students. The ones still being used as school buses were well marked with stop signs, etc.
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In comparison to the one I made for Belize, the transit diagram I made for Nicaragua is not based as heavily on the iconic London Underground diagram. I am being more careful about using the word diagram instead of map, since in these images I aimed for representational clarity rather than geographical accuracy. I have been working on this diagram over the course of two months; a number of features made it more of a challenge to create than my first. Including both English and Spanish introduced both translation and layout concerns. I tried to make the diagram colorblind accessible by coding routes with two-letter service designations. This coding scheme served additionally to indicate that certain cities were the final stop for at least some of the buses running along a given route. I also included an inset to show local bus routes connecting Managua’s main terminals.
Download a high quality PDF here.
The image below shows the routes I traveled during my time in Nicaragua.
The former school buses on Ometepe were quite durable. I talked with one of the island’s first bus owners, and she told me about how, despite the island’s rough roads and lack of any garages (meaning the buses have to take the ferry to the departmental seat of Rivas for maintenance), the buses hold up pretty well. After completing a paving project between the port towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia, the government is now slowly proceeding to pave the road out to the town where I stayed, Mérida. I unexpectedly got the chance to help out with this construction work.
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Managua is a relatively low-density, sprawling city. After the 1972 earthquake heavily damaged the historical center, rebuilding radiated outwards, with a great deal of construction taking place in outlying lots owned by the Somoza regime. The first old school buses from the US came in the mid-1970s as a response to the earthquake, and their history in Managua is intertwined with the city’s sprawl. On an average day, about 800 local buses are on the road in Managua, transporting 855,000 passengers on 34 numbered routes. While many of these buses are conventional and transit-style former school buses (with back doors added), some are transit buses manufactured by Dyna (in Mexico) or Kavz (in Russia).
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I have now been published in one of the school bus industry’s leading trade publications. Read my article, Buses around Belize, in the November edition of School Transportation News here.