transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
Living near the Carretera Ticuantepe (Ticuantepe Highway) for over a month, I had the opportunity to observe and ride quite a few microbuses – large vans (usually Toyota Hiaces, sometimes Nissan Urvans) with about sixteen seats. Ferrying commuters between Managua and the outlying towns of San Marcos, La Concepcion, and Jinotepe (see the map I made), in peak hours they would pass the driveway to my house as often as every two minutes. The national government subsidizes fuel for the microbuses in order to keep fares low; riding the ten miles from La Gloria in Ticuantepe to Metrocentro in Managua cost 10 Cordobas (about 50¢).
Their high frequency and low cost made these vehicles my first choice for travel into Managua. The artificially low fares, however, contributed to overcrowding. Weekday mornings, it was nearly impossible to get a seat when boarding at Ticuantepe, since they tended to be occupied by passengers who had boarded at earlier stops. So I would have to stand until enough passengers exited, which usually occurred at the KM 14 roundabout, the intersection with the Carretera Masaya where people transferred to Granada-bound buses. The standing was bearable in microbuses with raised tops, but on the many with normal, low roofs, my neck and back would feel pretty strained after thirty minutes of hunching over in Managua traffic.
The morning of my final exam at the Spanish school was particularly bad. As I waited on side of the Carretera, the microbuses I tried to wave down kept passing me by. For the driver or conductor to pass up an extra fare, these microbuses have to be incredibly full (as many as 26 people in a vehicle with 16 seats), so I knew it was a bad sign that multiple ones had passed me by. One finally stopped for me, and it was so full that I had to hang out the open door with a few other people as it sped off.
Rounding one of the bends in the highway, we came to a sudden stop. Traffic was at a dead standstill way before the KM 14 roundabout, and the driver could only assume that a crash was blocking traffic. Nicaraguan law prohibits moving vehicles involved in a crash until after the police have written a report, and they can often take hours to arrive, so the traffic jam was likely to last for quite some time. Consequently, our driver pulled a U-turn on the highway, heading back to one of the narrow, bumpy dirt driveways that we had passed, and that presumably offered some sort of access to the Carretera Masaya.
A number of other microbus, car, and bus drivers had the same idea. Trying to negotiate his way around a number of giant buses and potholes on the too-narrow road, the driver soon decided that this endeavor would take far too long. He decided another U-turn was in order, which prompted one or two annoyed passengers to mutter “¿Qué está haciendo?” The conductor hopped out to coordinate the seven point turn, constrained by a barbed wire fence, a cinder block wall, and a number of other impatient drivers. Our driver then headed back toward Ticuantepe and tried a different bumpy dirt road. This one was successful, and we eventually made it to the Carretera Masaya and into Managua. I arrived for my exam twenty minutes late. My professor, who relied on microbuses for her commute, also had to wait longer than usual to board a microbus (since so many were stuck in the jam or in hapless detour attempts) and to make it into town, so she was thirty minutes late.
The microbus conductors, called buseros, are responsible for collecting fares, coordinating stops with the driver, and convincing passengers to board their microbus. To do the latter, they ride with their head and one arm out the window of the sliding side door, shouting and pointing to indicate their destination:
Busero [Points to the right to indicate the microbus will turn at KM 14]: Jinotepe Ticuantepe La Concha San Marcos Jinotepe…! (try saying that three times fast)
People waiting at bus stop [Shake heads]
Busero [Singles out one potential passenger]: Jinotepe Jinotepe!
Person who has been singled out [Shakes head again]
Busero [Turns his palm up and shrugs the shoulder that is out the window]: A donde va? (Where are you going?)
Person who has been singled out: Masaya
Busero [Looks condescendingly at person who has been singled out, as if to ask “What reason could you have for going to Masaya instead of Jinotepe?” Instead says to driver]: Dale! (Hit it!)
Buseros see themselves as the link between the driver and the passengers:
Busero [to passengers]: Quien va al Ministerio? (Who’s going to the Ministry of Works?)
Passenger [to busero]: Ministerio!
Busero [to driver]: Ministerio!
[Driver stops in front of the Ministry of Works]
Busero [to driver]: Suave, suave. (Smooth, smooth)
[Driver begins to creep forward even though passengers are still alighting]
Busero [to driver]: Suave! Te voy a avisar! (Slow down! I’ll let you know when we can leave!)
[Passengers finish alighting, a couple more come on]
Busero [to driver]: Dale! (Hit it!)
Busero [to passengers]: Quien va a La Colonia? [after waiting a second, to driver]: Nadie para La Colonia. (Nobody for La Colonia)
One of the buseros I rode and talked with a couple of times was named Cristian, a 19 year old student who wants to study systems engineering. He usually worked in an internet cafe in Jinotepe and had just started working as a busero for a family friend. The friend owns five microbuses and is part of a collective with about thirty vehicles. Cristian told me that the collective owners want to buy more vehicles to take advantage of the high demand, but affording the new Toyota Hiaces is difficult. While owners of larger buses have an abundant supply of affordable used vehicles (i.e. old school buses from the United States), practically all of the minibuses in Nicaragua are bought new from Casa Pellas (the nation’s Toyota distributor and a member of the massive Grupo Pellas conglomerate).