September 3, 2014
When I first found out I’d be living in a community 5 hours from Santo Domingo, I assumed I wouldn’t make it into the city very often. What I didn’t account for was the necessity of traveling to the capital not just for fun, but also for work—workshops, meetings, doctor’s appointments, etc.—and the necessity of passing through the capital to get basically anywhere else in the country. Needless to say I’ve spent days, and possibly even weeks, of my life this last year on the guagua.
It’s hard to fully describe the guagua to someone who’s never been on one before, but here’s my best shot:
On good days, the trip between my site and Santo Domingo is long and uncomfortable. On bad ones, it can feel like an eternity, and be nearly unbearable.
The trip covers a distance of just 120 miles, but is regularly 5 hours long due to poor roads, and because the bus constantly stops to pick up passengers waving it down from the side of the road or drop people off. There is one official rest stop en route, where passengers have the opportunity to use the bathroom, buy snacks, and stretch their legs, but the bus will also stop if a passenger has to use the bathroom somewhere else, if someone needs to run into a pharmacy, or if someone forgot that they needed to buy rotisserie chickens (so can we please back up 100 yards to the restaurant and all wait while they finish preparing the food?), etc.
Passengers spend these 5 hours crammed into seats that would comfortably hold 1.5 people with normal BMIs, but which hold at minimum 2 people who are frequently overweight. Parents often don’t buy seats for their children (seats are around $300 pesos, or around USD $8, depending on how far you’re going), and thus cushion space is sometimes shared among 3 or more people. During peak travel times, like Semana Santa, bus drivers accommodate more passengers by placing cushions across the narrow aisles to cram in 5 people across the width of the bus.
Besides just squeezing in people, the guagua also transports everyone’s bultos, or luggage. In addition to clothing and personal items, people regularly travel to the capital with large sacks of green bananas or plantains to bring to their relatives who live there. I’ve also been on busses with giant ornamental vases, bicycles, large televisions, motorcycles, a cat, and (live) chickens.
Even early in the morning or late at night the atmosphere on the guagua is a festive one. Dominicans are a social bunch, and don’t miss an opportunity to make new friends, gossip about mutual acquaintances, opine on current events, or tell jokes. This plus the constant bachata/merengue/dembo/salsa music, which can range in volume from pleasant to mind numbing, makes for a party!
This description, though, doesn’t come close to touching all that is the guagua.
It would be an exaggeration to say that I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity on the guagua. But on the spectrum of awesome and awful things that people do, I’ve seen it all. And I would say that what I love and dislike most about Dominican culture are on full display on this 5-hour bus ride.
As far as awful goes, I frequently witness people committing minor offenses like singing loudly and poorly out loud to the music they’re listening to on their headphones, throwing their garbage out the window, or feeding chips and soda to little babies. But on a more serious note, I’ve also seen passengers bully and trick Haitian men into getting off the guagua before their final destination, and witnessed a Haitian-looking woman be kicked off the bus by Dominican police officers for failing to present a cedula, or national identity card (more on Haitian-Dominican relations in a future post). My host sister recently saw a little girl die in her grandmother’s arms en route to a hospital in the capital.
Luckily there’s a sunnier side to the guagua. Tough/cool looking men often help frazzled looking moms entertain their children, bouncing babies and making silly faces. Everyone shares their snacks with little kids, and with their seatmates. I’ve seen many friendships form, or be rekindled, particularly when people realize they have a friend/relative in common with someone seated near them, which happens surprisingly often. I’ve also seen romances blossom—or at least phone numbers exchanged. A fellow PCV even witnessed new life begin, when a woman in labor delivered her baby on the bus.
The circle of life, right on the guagua!
Future visitors, you’re in for quite a ride!
The guagua, parked at the rest stop.