Microbuses

Minibus outside of Ticuantepe

Microbus outside of Ticuantepe

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.

Microbuses at the UCA Terminal

Microbuses at the UCA Terminal

Los Buseros

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).

New Buses for Managua

I had the opportunity to view some of the bid documents and specifications for this bus acquisition in my meeting at IRTRAMMA. They were quite technical (e.g. finite element analysis of different bus components), and it seems like the government is satisfied that DINA, a Mexican manufacturer, will meet their requirements. Translated from “Buses nuevos vendrán en cinco meses,” published February 3rd on El 19 Digital, an online news source for President Ortega’s government:

By the middle of this year the first lot of buses coming from Mexico will enter the country, and by next October it is expected that all of the 350 units will be circulating in the capital to benefit some 350,000 Nicaraguans. The announcement was made by the director of Managua’s Municipal Transport Regulator (IRTRAMMA), comrade Francisco Alvarado, after signing the manufacturing contract with Mr. Martín Meléndez, representative of the Mexican company DINA Trucks Ltd.

These buses will have a capacity for 70 people (40 seated) and will be acquired by different urban transport cooperatives of the capital, whose representatives seemed satisfied with the entire bidding process, which concluded this Thursday with the signing of a contract equivalent to approximately $24 million, money financed by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) and managed by the government of President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

“For DINA Trucks and for Mexico as a whole it is a pride to participate in this purchase of buses for the people of Nicaragua,” said Meléndez, the representative of the Mexican company.

He said that these new buses will be fabricated with the climactic and topographic conditions of Nicaragua in mind and “that all the citizens of Managua and Nicaragua should have the confidence that they can count on buses of the first world, of extraordinary quality, and that they will benefit.” Ten percent of all of the buses will be manufactured with a system of special lifts for people who use wheelchairs.

“By the end of this year Managua will totally transform its fleet and with that its model of municipal transit,” assured Alvarado.

Luis Jiménez, a bus owner, said that improving and transforming the system of buses in Managua could only happen under the direction of a Sandinista Government.

“The strength which the revolutionary government has used in these negotiations is excellent. We have ordered a bus that will have excellent technical features and at the right price, and that will benefit the people foremost,” said Jiménez.

The political overtones of this article make more sense when one considers that Nicaragua’s next presidential elections are scheduled for November. With an election looming, I am confident that most or all of the buses will actually be operating by October. This means the demand for US school buses in Nicaragua will have declined significantly by then. It also means that IRTRAMMA should consider changing its logo, which currently features a yellow school bus complete with a stop sign:

IRTRAMMA logo

IRTRAMMA logo

Albanisa – The Blessing of an Octopus

After my excellent meeting with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency, he graciously arranged for me to visit the facilities of Alba Transport (shared with Alba Equipment), where the city’s old buses amarillos (yellow buses) were being decommissioned. Here’s what opposition newspaper El Nuevo Diario had to say about the Alba companies and a reporter’s attempt to investigate Alba Transport:

The private firm doing business as Alba of Nicaragua, Ltd., Albanisa, tied to the presidential family, constitutes only the name and face of an emporium of businesses that offer all type of services, making itself into a new economic power in the country…The mother company or head of the octopus was formed in 2007 with the oversight of President Daniel Ortega and his Venezuelan partner and provider, Hugo Chávez…But from it also extend Alba Caruna, Alba Equipment, Alba Security, Alba Generation, Alba Ports, Alba Deposits, Alba Wind Power, Alba Food, Alba Transport, Alba Tenosa, and “at least two more which are being formed,” indicated informants.

El Nuevo Diario arrived at the facilities of Alba Equipment…and as we approached, the guards of Alba Security came out to meet us, and after making phone calls and making us uncomfortable, indicated that we could not wander around the site. Right there, in the gates of the two “Little Albas [Transport and Equipment],” we asked if [Alba Transport’s Director Freddy] Acevedo could be found, but the guards, now warned by the gray-haired man, did not respond to more questions and asked us to leave “to avoid problems.”…To these facilities were brought the 130 buses donated by the Russian Federation to Alba-Caruna, to open the windows, put in radiators, and change the brake system, i.e. adjust them to the climate and needs of the country.

When I arrived at the front gate, I was also greeted with a bit of suspicion by the Alba Security guards. They took a bit to confirm my identity (a Japanese reporter writing for a US school bus magazine – I highlighted my Japanese heritage rather than my “Yankee imperialist” heritage for the Sandinistas) and that I had an appointment with Director Acevedo. In the meantime, I saw a couple of buses skidding around in the compound, presumably testing their newly acclimatized brakes.

Director Acevedo gave me a great tour of the Alba Transport facility. Sitting in a lot were 104 dilapidated former US school buses, between 20 and 30 years old, waiting to be disassembled. Oil and other contaminants were drained in a process authorized by the national environmental oversight agency, then the buses were scrapped. I saw a couple of 18-wheelers with FSLN (governing Sandinista party) flags on the dashboard hauling away the scrap metal during my visit. There were also a few buses painted bright pink, which Director Acevedo said were used for entertaining children.

I also enjoyed seeing the other side of the equation, brand new Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod buses that had just arrived from Russia. Alba Transport had handed the first batch of these buses over to operators but quickly realized that modifications were necessary:

The buses were delivered to seven of the thirty-six routes of urban collective transit, the majority of which are affiliated with the governing party, at a cost of $25,000 per bus. Transport sector sources affirmed that the cooperatives are unhappy with the buses, because each one needs to be held back a certain time for for problems related to acclimatization, “but the bill has to be paid on time.”

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After seeing some of the maintenance facilities for the new Kavz buses, Director Acevedo and I returned to his office. At his desk (complete with a small FSLN flag), we discussed the importation of used buses. School buses generally enter the country by boat through Puerto Corinto, but it is now illegal to import buses manufactured before 1996. The Director expressed his hope that within two years, all of the old school buses would be off of Managua’s streets.

Such an ambitious replacement plan could only happen with continued aid, like that which Venezuela gives to Nicaragua through Albanisa. While Albanisa is largely under the control of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, ALBA is a larger economic effort in Latin America to combat US-style neoliberal economic policies. Much of ALBA is driven by Venezuelan oil, as described in the same article from El Nuevo Diario:

Alba Caruna, which until a few years ago was a small credit cooperative, today is essentially the state bank and receives 25 of the 50% of the Alba Fund, which originates from the payment of the oil invoice that Nicaragua pays for the importation of Venezuelan crude.

Nicaragua imports Venezuelan petroleum through Petronic, which pays the the bill to the account of Albanisa, which, in its turn, pays 50% of the bill to the Venezuelan PDVSA. They transfer the other 50% to the Alba Fund (25% for social projects in all of the Alba countries) and the other 25% is transferred to Alba Caruna. During the past year, Venezuela’s help aid to Nicaragua reached $457 milion, according to source at the Central Bank of Nicaragua. Of this total, $146 million (30%) was for Alba Curuna.

This aid has benefited Sandinista farmers through rural agriculture products and city-dwellers through the new buses and fare subsidies. As the Sandinista Vision magazine describes,

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) has, for the last three years, been a blessing for Nicaragua to get out of the social, economic, and structural problems left by the neoliberals who governed the country for more than sixteen years, leaving a high percentage of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and misery, among so many other ills. In what conditions would we Nicaraguans be if the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity, headed by President Daniel Ortega, could not count on the resources to face the world economic crisis and the twelve-hour blackouts which we were suffering in the recent past?

An exceptional credit to Albanisa is that which is known as the Modernization of Collective Transport in Managua, which arose due to the strikes which occurred in May of 2008…A new contract signed with the Russian Federation will permit 225 more buses to enter the country, conditioned for the tropical climate and a little bigger, all with the end of modernizing the transport of the capital. The social fare project which Commander Ortega maintains to benefit more than 800,000 capital residents who utilize public buses, will continue to the end of this year. “Many citizens are now accustomed to paying 2.50 Cordobas for the fare which at best would cost 5.00 Cordobas if it were not subsidized,” said Jorge Martínez, President of Alba Caruna.

So my trip to visit a bunch of rusty old school buses from the United States ended up including brand new Russian buses bought with Venezuelan oil and a debate about whether this evolving economic arrangement was a blessing or an octopus.

Nicaragua Transit Diagram

Nicaragua Transit Diagram

Nicaragua Transit Diagram

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.

Nicaragua Transit Diagram with the routes I traveled shown as dashed lines

Nicaragua Transit Diagram with the routes I traveled shown as dashed lines

German Party Cube

I enjoyed the Taiwanese Embassy-sponsored jazz concert so much that I decided to attend another diplomatically arranged musical event. One Friday edition of La Prensa explained the background of the giant cube-like structure I had seen being constructed at the Santo Domingo Mall on my commute into Spanish classes. The German Embassy was sponsoring an Electronica Bonanza, “a new dimension of electronic concert in which the music and images envelop the sensory atmosphere.”

While the German DJs and various random images projected on the structure’s walls were enjoyable, I’m not sure they reached a new dimension. I enjoyed the Nicaraguan band Momotombo, complete with marimba, tuba, trombone, and guitars, the best. Pictures and video from the concert are here.

Statistics for Vehicles Ridden – Nicaragua

I rode just over one hundred different vehicles during my time in Nicaragua. I spent a total of 33 hours in 42 different former school buses, traveling 587 miles. I also rode 273 miles over 15 hours in 22 different microbuses. Compared to Belize, the average age of buses in Nicaragua was more difficult to determine, since fewer still had the manufacturer’s registration plate affixed to the headboard. The buses in Nicaragua, however, were much more diverse than the almost exclusively school bus based fleet in Belize. On the streets of Managua, I saw buses from the United States, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, and Japan.

The Río San Juan

The Río San Juan is one of Nicaragua’s national treasures. Running from the Lake of Nicaragua east to the Caribbean Sea, the river is home to abundant wildlife (including freshwater sharks) and relatively little development. Most Nicaraguans, however, appreciate it not for the natural habitat it provides, but for historical and political reasons.

The river, winding its way through the jungle, has long been a geopolitical hotspot. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pirates (including Henry Morgan) sailed up it to attack Spanish settlements along the Lake of Nicaragua, such as Granada. The Spanish responded by constructing a line of defenses, including El Castillo. In the 19th Century, many of the 49ers steamed up the river, journeyed overland thirty miles from the Lake of Nicaragua, then boarded a California-bound steamer at the Pacific coast. The United States government signed a number of treaties regarding an interoceanic canal that would use the Río San Juan: first, to build a canal, then, after completing the Panama Canal in 1914, to prevent other nations from building a competing one.

The Río San Juan also comprises a long section of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Unlike the vast majority of other riparian borders around the world, the border is not in the middle of the river, but on one bank. According to nineteenth century treaties, the entire Río San Juan is in Nicaraguan territory, but Costa Rica may use it to convey “objects” of trade. This uncommon border arrangement has led not only to a prevalence of Nicaraguan bumper stickers and t-shirts reading “The Río San Juan is 100% Nicaraguan,” but also to a long series of diplomatic spats (including one over whether tourists could be considered “objects” if they were not about to be sold as slaves).

I was aware of the touchy border situation when I visited San Carlos and took a ferry to El Castillo. I was a bit surprised by an immigration official’s stern warning that I should have my passport with me to take the ferry to the town of El Castillo. He must have known about the national government’s plans for that day. President Daniel Ortega, via satellite video link, ordered an official stationed on a barge in the river to start a controversial dredging operation. His rationale for the project is improving navigability the river for barge traffic; Costa Ricans think that the dredging’s actual goal is rerouting the river for a land grab. The dredging operation and an anti-drug trafficking operation quickly turned into an “invasion of Costa Rica.” The Nicaraguan commander reportedly blamed Google maps, which in turned blamed the US Department of State. Costa Rica cried foul, appealing for help from the Organization of American States. Nicaragua responded with this page and a booklet – The Truths Costa Rica Hides.

So, in short, if Costa Rica had an army, Google Maps would have started a war, and I would have been in the middle of it.

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