I hop on a bus in Miraflores one day on a way to my meeting in Lima. About two seconds after I pay the cobrador and sit down, our bus side swipes another bus, knocking off the side mirror. Peruis apparently not the sort of country where you then pull over and exchange insurance information. Our driver keeps going as if nothing happened. At the next stop the cobrador from the side swiped bus gets off his bus and onto ours and starts yelling.
Combis are not really public buses at all, they’re just a bunch of people who rent or own a van or bus, get together and drive a particular route. The driver and cobrador split whatever cash they make (less the bribes they pay to the cops and “Combi oversight board”) between themselves. So when accidents happen, the money comes directly out of the driver’s and cobrador’s respective wallets. So obviously when issues arise, chaos ensues.
I have the misfortune to be seated in the seat closest to the front, directly near the open door. The two cobradors are screaming at each other and are so close to me that I am actually sort of being spit on as they argue, but there is no where to go. The driver gets into it, and then, inevitably, so do both busloads of people, each routing for their own team, and blaming the driver of the other Combi for the issue. Peruvians are a lot like people from NJ in this way; they love to insert themselves into shit that has nothing to do with them. If two people on a Combi are in a fight, everyone on the Combi must pick a side, get involved, and shout their two cents at the other side. It feels like home. I can’t decide if Peruvians have a very strong sense of injustice, or if they just like to argue, but either way, it reminds me of home. How many incidents of a similar caliber can I remember taking part in, on say, the boardwalk? I can’t even count. If you’re from Jersey, you’ve done it too. You saw something happening that had nothing to do with you, and you walked over and got involved. I have so much in common with these people.
Anyway, round two in any bout between two cobradors, is that our driver begins driving maniacally enough so as to attempt to throw the other team’s cobrador out the open door and into the street. He swerves left. The cobrador hangs on. He swerves right. The cobrador hangs on. The thing is that I’m barely in a seat and if anyone is going to fall out of the Combi, it’s probably me. I wrap myself around the closest pole and hang on tight. The old man in the seat next to me offers to hold my coffee so I can cling to safety with both hands.
The other team’s cobrador eventually gets off the bus, but that is by no means the end of it. Round three in any fight between Combis is that the victimized Combi will now block the path of the victimizer Combi so as to keep him from moving forward/making any more money. So the other team’s Combi does just that. Our Combi starts to move and they swerve in front of us. We swerve left, they go left. Our driver floors it, their driver floors it, at one point placing the bus almost horizontally across the lane. So now we’re totally blocked. The other team’s cobrador gets back on our bus and the screaming and swerving continues. This has gone on for about 20 minutes and I’m going to be late to my meeting. Not to mention I may fall out of this thing. So in a rage I stand up and push both Cobradors out of the way. “F*cking BAJA!” I scream at them. The bus doesn’t stop. I look at the driver with my wildest, crazy person eyes. BAJA! BAJA NOW! So he stops and let’s me off and I’m so mad that I’m just screaming at no one in English as I cross the street. “Everyone in this country is NUTS!” All the Peruvians walking around stop and stare at me, and I just continue my rant in English “What?! Is it me? Oh yeah, I’m the crazy one. I’m the crazy one!”
Although, now it does sort of seem like I am the crazy one.
Bah! I’m going to be late to this meeting. I walk up to the next bus stop which is about ten minutes away and hope there will be another Combi I can hop on. As it happens the next Combi that appears is the one I just got off of, they appear to have shaken the other bus. The Cobrador gets off and speaks to me like I’m a small petulant child: “Are you ready to get back on now?” Everyone on the bus is smirking at me. Silly American girl. I get back on, and don’t look at anyone.
Five year old girl on the Combi with me and a few other voluntarios. She pops her head up over the seat and turns around to look at us with a big adorable smile. Then without warning or introduction:
“My dad drinks!” she tells us enthusiastically. I can’t help but laugh, and get scolded by another voluntario who tells me not to encourage her. Well geez, I didn’t mean to encourage her, I wasn’t expecting that. She caught me off guard. Okay I try to change the subject
– Um, okay. Um, where are you going now? Into town?
– Yes. We have to leave because my dad drinks and he’s a drunk and he fights with my mom.
– I see okay well, did you go to school today?
– No. I’m too young for school!
Too young for school, but not too young to know her dad’s a drunk that fights with her mom. So sad.
I get onto the Combi with two other volunteers. It’s a particularly packed day and we squeeze past a lady with a bag full of live chickens desperately trying to escape. I suddenly feel something wet and gross dripping down my leg onto my flip flop….
– Oh my god, I think a chicken just peed on me!
– Chickens don’t pee – a volunteer who lives on a farm offers helpfully.
– Oh well that’s very comforting. Whatever it is that they do, it just did it on my leg!
I miss the worst part of my commute being that the beautiful, clean, safe, German train is two minutes late. I will never complain about my job again. I will never complain about my job again.
Had my first experience getting gas on the Combi the other day. Do they shut the enginge off while they’re filling up, you ask? No. Don’t be silly. They do not. And waste all that money? Better to risk life and limb filling up while the enginge is running, than lose out on the 30 cents it might cost to start the car again. I’m literally going to die in a Combi here. It’s not enough that I’m in danger the whole time it’s moving, but now even when we’re stopped, there’s still a good chance I’m going to blow up.
As told to me by my boss:
My strangest Combi experience was during my first month here. I was coming down from Zone S and there was a teeny, tiny, Quechua woman sitting next to me. She must have been in her late hundreds. Old, shriveled, no teeth, traditional clothing, the whole bit. After a few minutes of staring at me and another volunteer, she turns to us, and I watch her big toothless face say to me, in English, “Cash! Money! Caaash! Moooneeey!” We nearly peed ourselves. To this day we shout it at each other whenever we’re on the bus.