The Heart of the City

Dan Diamond
June 27, 2010

As many of you know I have been studying in a different part of the city for the last couple of weeks and it takes a long time to get there by bus. We have always been intrigued with the buses here (FYI they are all run by private companies), I even wrote a blog about it some time ago. Since then I have been riding more, and for longer trips, and I have realized something…the buses are the heart of this city.

I looked on YouTube to see if I could find anything that could show what it is like and I found the following display (Click here to watch the clip) of a typical stop and the person had a great quote to go along with it:

“Terrifyingly efficient anarchy public transport system from Lima Peru. The law is laxer, the competition is fiercer, than in my country. In Lima buses come every 10 seconds. Show’s what you can do with a bit of population and bit less regulation.”

Of course they are important for the pure and simple fact of what they are; transportation. But while on them I have come to see a world that is so much more than transportation. It is a place of commerce; at many stops vendors (many of which are children) get on and they could be selling anything including but not limited to: food, beverages, clothing, wallets, books, jewelry, etc. At first I ignored most of these vendors but sometimes I am hungry or thirsty so I buy something…it is cool. It is a place of entertainment; people get on and sing songs, play instruments, or do comedy skits, all in the hopes of receiving a small propina (tip). It is a place of evangalization; people get on a preach about the bible, whether they are Evangelicals, 7th day Adventists, Jehovah witnesses, or something I have never heard of. But all of these people will get on at one stop and normally get off within in a stop or two and the bus companies never charge them for the ride.

People sleep on the bus because they are tired from a long day and the noise doesn’t seem to bother them, not to mention they don’t seem to be worried about missing their stop. People catchup with friends on the bus and I often hear laughing and sometimes crying. There is almost always music playing and it is different depending on the driver, sometimes it is loud and sometimes it is not that loud.

But the last couple of Sundays as I left home to head to class the ride seemed surreal. It has been overcast a lot lately which sets the tone for an almost music video feel to the ride, maybe it could be set to a U2 song or something. As I ride l look at the people’s faces who get on and off, at the people on the streets, the buildings and the neighborhoods, I listen to the conversations in Spanish, and I think, “Wow I am not in St. Paul, MN any more”.

Some of the faces I have seen, especially of the vendors or performers who get on and off, have truly touched me. They are people who are really living on the edge of existence where the candies they sell for $.03 is their income. One kid today, he must have been 11 or 12, was selling popcorn, peanuts, and some other nuts, and I noticed he had a bruise on his cheek; I wondered where he got the bruise. I thought maybe he fell down and bumped his face, or got in a fight with another kid, or maybe one of his parents hit him. A child working on a Sunday (actually probably everyday) for probably 12 hours at a time to bring money home to the family…and then the bruise. I couldn’t help thinking and feeling for him and wondering what he will remember of his “childhood”. How blessed was I to be brought up in a loving home where when I was a kid I was a kid and all I worried about was when I was going to be able to play with my friends or my toys.

But this bus culture that I speak of is ingrained in any person from here. They don’t know any different and they couldn’t imagine not having it. As a matter of fact we were having lunch with our landlords yesterday, which was awesome, and the husband is a cop here in Lima. One of the benefits of being a cop is that you ride the buses for free. The wife asked me if our cops got the same privilege in the States and I told her in MN mostly everybody has their own private car therefore I didn’t even know if the cops rode the buses. If they did ride the bus I wasn’t sure whether or not they had that same benefit. She really couldn’t believe it…almost everyone has a car. What would that mean to their life if they had a car? What would happen to the bus culture?

Then I was talking to Meri tonight after she got home from a confirmation class and she told me the cutest little story. A little girl of about 3 or 4, who’s mother is a catechist, was at the meeting and she was playing while Meri and her mother were working with the teens who are getting ready for their confirmation. One of the games she was playing was to pretend like she was working on a bus. The bus always has two people working on it: 1.)the driver and 2.)the person who collects the money, yells out the widow announcing the stops, and rushes people on and off the bus. The little girl was pretending to be the second. Meri said she did an absolute perfect impersonation of the person. That is what she knows…it is how her family gets around…it is part of her.

There is so much more I want/could write about this but I am sure you get the point by now. What I want to end with is that if you come to Lima and really want to see “Lima” you have to ride the bus. Coming to Lima and not riding the bus, in my opinion, would be like coming here and not trying Ceviche (Click here for a definition of Ceviche) which is probably one of their most famous cuisines, or coming to Peru and not seeing Machu Pichu (OK maybe that one is a stretch but not much for me). All cultures are extensive and rich in many ways and it is so interesting the ways in which one’s culture is realized. Things that are so normal and mundane to you may not even seem like part of your culture but they really are part of what defines you.