Jesus es mi co-piloto

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Jesus es mi co-piloto
November 8, 1996

The bus system in Latin
America is a miracle of modern transportation
I remember some years back the discovery of a solution to Fermat's theorem. The solution to this difficult problem had eluded mathematicians for decades and the discovery of the proof was met with unparalleled joy.

I mention this because the excitement these mathematics gurus must have felt can only pale beside the joy Nancy and I shared in deciphering the inscrutable laws of Quito's bus system.

It is said that every other vehicle in Quito is a cab and the rest are buses. As every traveler to Latin America knows, the bus system is a miracle of modern transportation. Anywhere there is a road, there will be a bus; moreover, there is probably one leaving in 15 minutes. What's more, bus travel being the mode of transportation for all but a small percentage of the populace, it is embarrassingly cheap.

In Quito, a love of complexities has produced not one but several classes of bus travel, all winding the same desultory paths through the city. First we have the transport popular, usually a dilapidated school bus. These cost 250 sucres (7 cents) and will fit as many people as the groaning engine can haul. Next in rank is servicio selecto. The cost is double that of the popular, but riders are supposedly guaranteed a seat, though in practice this is seldom the case. The Rolls-Royce of the fleet is the servicio ejectivo, boasting air-conditioning, TV, and other luxury amenities. In truth, these are always missing, with a blaring Latin radio station taking their place. At least for the 1,000 sucres you always have a seat.

To make matters worse, buses seldom stop to pick up passengers. Instead, would-be riders rely on a complex system of eye contact, foot speed, and hand-eye coordination to grab the rail of the cruising bus and enter amid a stream of other passengers piling out. People seem to enjoy this potentially life-threatening activity and everyone — would-be passenger included — gets a great thrill out of near-fatal misboarding.

Considering all this, it's no small wonder that yesterday's achievement of catching the correct bus to the supermarket across town and back — and paying with exact change — is viewed as one of the great triumphs of our trip thus far.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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