One of the most interesting things to me about my study abroad experience in Valpo/Viña is the bus system here. The ‘micros,’ as they are called, are your best friend and worst enemy in the world of transportation. They are everywhere, they go everywhere, and everyone uses them, but determining which ones go where is a feat that no one seems to have mastered. There is apparently no large map that has all of the routes, and all the routes are operated by different companies. The fares are different, and most of the tickets and signage are wrong, so when you get on a bus that says it is 400 pesos in between Viña and Valpo, it might actually be 410, and then the driver may give you a ticket that says 360.
One of the most annoying things was having to wait for our student passes at the beginning of the semester. While we waited for them to come from some office in Santiago, we got these pieces of paper that were proof we attended the university and could use the student rate of 130 pesos no matter where we were going. Unfortunately, many bus drivers refused to accept the paper because they lose out on money when students pay the lower rate. So then every time I used the micro it was like a battle – I show the paper, the driver says its not valid, or sometimes just stares blankly at me, or sometimes doesn’t even look at me, I say it works, he shakes his head or may still refuse to show any response whatsoever, and I get off the bus and look for another one that will accept me. The ones that do accept the paper sometimes refuse to give change, as if they can only accept the reduced fare with a perk of 70 pesos going directly to their pocket. Or they just point to the back of the bus and refuse to give a ticket, which is kind of dangerous because when they get in a huge accident and you have a spinal injury from a bus that flipped over and caused a 30 car pile-up, you won’t have proof that you were on the bus and won’t receive a single cent for your exorbitant hospital fees.
Finally we received a “pase escolar,” the real-live student ID that let us pay a reduced fare. But even this is more complicated than it looks. Some student IDs are for private schools and they pay 150 pesos so if you pay 150 the driver wont immediately give you change unless you stick out your hand or grunt or roll your eyes or make nasty comments or something. And 130 is not the price for every trip, as I discovered when I tried to take a bus from my house to the mall, where all the buses that come from that direction charge 140 for students. The student fare cannot be used on Sundays and only for limited hours on Saturday, and it says that you pay the local fare on holidays but I have seen students use it for the student fare on these days as well.
What about the culture of the micros? Most micros have anywhere from 20-30 seats, but this is by no means the limit of the people that can be on a micro at any given time. At peak times (especially evening rush hour, I have noticed) the bus can double in capacity because everyone stands in the aisle. Even when people are getting squished by the door, falling out at every stop and no one can really move, the driver continues stopping to let new people on and simply screams “move to the back!” as if the back didn’t already have 15 people in the aisle. When I am sitting down and these kind of conditions exist on a micro, I have to start the getting off process much earlier than normal, and sometimes I barely touch the ground as I make my way to the door; I simply swing from the overhead bars like a monkey, wading my way through the crowd until I can get to the door. These conditions are also unpleasant when you are sitting in an aisle seat and there is a giant ass in your face, or worse, some guy’s frontside keeps touching you as the micro turns a corner.
The speeds of the micros are highly variable. Some micros wait for 5 minutes at every stop, in order to get all the passengers possible, and then they drive at like 10km per hour, as if they are purposely making you late for class. Then other ones drive like crazy, swerving around traffic, sometimes not even stopping at certain stops, and when you try to get off, they just kind of slow down to a trot and never really stop, so you kind of have to jump. I have felt like Indiana Jones several times outside my house, flinging myself from a micro that refuses to stop, and doing a little run on the ground before I can really stop moving. My favorite fast buses are the ones I like to call the “speed of light” micros, where, on Avenida España, in the no-man’s land between Viña and Valpo, they continue accelerating because there aren’t many stops. It is a rather curvy road, and if you are standing, it is almost impossible to maintain balance.
What is amazing is that not everyone on the micros is a strapping young lad like me. I have seen old, like I mean ANCIENT women get on the micros and they hold on just like anyone else. Sometimes it is just too much for them and I have seen quite a few people actually almost topple over because of the reckless driving of the choferes. But even in these cases, other passengers will help the less fortunate; one time a woman would have cracked her head open on the floor if it weren’t for two other people grabbing her by the shirt sleeves and propping her back up again. And normally, younger passengers will cede their seats to the elderly and handicapped, which is nice.
The micros can also be used as little rumbling marketplaces. At certain stops, men with candy and other cool stuff will get on and try to sell it to you. Some will go to every passenger and place a chocolate bar on your knee, then go back to the front about how its healthy chocolate and has the flavor of almonds and stuff, and then go back and recollect all of the chocolate (or money if you want to pay for it). Some will ask for donations for charities or just for themselves. And people coming on the bus to sell isn’t the only exchange that happens on the micro. One time my driver pulled over and shouted to a store owner that he needed cigarettes. The store owner brought them on the bus and the driver paid him and off we went.
What about the crazy bus rides after you have been out dancing and you come home at like 4 am? Everyone on the bus is young and drunk, and people are still drinking out of boxes and bottles and cups while on the bus, and people are smoking all over the place, and sometimes random songs break out, and you just have to sit there and hope you don’t die. Or like the time when Tanya and I tried to get on this bus and this drunk guy was shouting something about his money, and he tried to fight the driver, and then the driver’s friend whipped out a nightstick and beat the drunk guy to a pulp and then shoved him off the bus as we all drove away.
The nightstick man is just one example of the support system that the drivers employ in their quest to get the maximum money possible. At certain places (the main plaza in Viña, for example) a bunch of guys will heckle you as you come out of a restaurant or store, trying to get you on their micro. These promoters are friends of the drivers and the more people they get on their micro, the more money they receive. Also, sometimes you will get on, and instead of giving your money to the driver, you hand it to some kid in the front seat who counts your change and gives you your ticket. Friends, family, anyone and everyone appears to be able to help out the driver.
The quest for more passengers and money can be quite dangerous, however. One time I was on a rather aggressive micro, and we cut in front of this other micro to get a stash of passengers. The other driver got mad and tried to escape to the next stop, but my driver wouldn’t let him out, and kept getting closer and closer. I made eye contact with several of the passengers in the other bus, just centimeters away from where I was sitting, and they looked scared too. Finally, my bus driver rammed the other bus and broke his side-view mirror and then drove away in search of more passengers.
The quality of the micros varies to a great degree as well. Some have missing seats, some seem like they wont be able to climb the hill, and ALL are stickshift, naturally. Some drivers have like pimped their ride or something, with blacklights and gory pictures of dying jesus alongside the tazmanian devil and stuff, other ones only play jazz or judy garland, but most like to blast reggeaton from huge speakers. The method to open the door is different on the micros too. Most have a little button by both doors that lets the driver know you want to get off. Some micros instead have a little string hooked to the ceiling that you have to pull. Some have nothing at all, so if you are at the back of a crowded micro and want to get off, you have to scream “LA PUERTA!” over all the screaming babies and pounding bass.