A Gringa’s Survival Guide to Public Transportation

A mini-bus known as a "combi" drives down one of the main streets of Tacna, with the famous arch in the background.

Everyone in Tacna uses the bus from powerful businessmen, to frail abuelitas, to awkward teenagers. You pack all passengers in as tightly as possible, sardines in a can, and inexplicably, in spite of so many bodies, the bus ride can often becomes a game of Graveyard, everyone staying as quiet as they can. Of course there’s always the rogue passenger who decides it’s their turn to blast their Youtube video from their phone at full volume, but for the most part, buses are a moment in which we stop talking for a little while, and just sit. This human silence may seem especially jarring in a city where there is always noise, when there is always an old vehicle rumbling by or a child crying. But the act of sitting together opens the door for something new, something intimate that we have little access to in the busy-ness of the city.

In these moments of quiet, I take a moment to look around at the people around me. It’s a wonderful opportunity to unashamedly people-watch; a strange mix of personal, intimate moments with complete strangers. Something stirs in my heart when I see a mother who has been working since 4 a.m. with her son in her lap, falling asleep as the bus jolts along; when I meet the eyes of a small toddler who’s never seen a foreign face quite like mine; or watch two high school students in the back of the bus attempting a subtle romance and failing to do so (more likely they simply don’t care). I get to see life in Tacna as it is, in its purest form.

I understand when my time as a volunteer ends I may feel the pull to return to having my own personal vehicle. I may rationalize and make excuses about efficiency or independence. However, I hope and pray that I never forget the peace in my soul as I watch the afternoon sun clear the dust away, towering mountains and sand dunes revealing themselves in the distance. I want to recall these early evenings when the setting sun illuminates the street markets as the vendors hawk the last of their produce for the day. I want to remember rose-gold light transforming dirt roads into breathtaking, wide-open expanses. These moments only ever experienced from the windows of Tacna buses. There really is no better way to know a city.

The following is this gringa’s Survival Guide to Public Transportation in Tacna.

An empty stretch of road next to Habitat, which is actually the Pan-American highway. A faint impression of dunes can be seen in the distance.
My usual side-of-the-road bus stop.

Bus stops: We may have paraderos here but the only way to actually stop a bus is to stick out your arm lazily and, as my housemates say, “flop your hand like a fish”. There is a delicate balance between an apparent lack of interest expressed by the arm, and the need to get on the bus signaled by the worried look in your eyes. Too lazy of an arm and not enough urgency in the eyes and the bus might go roaring past you, too much eagerness shown by your face and every single taxi in front of the bus will slow down and offer a ride.

Prices: Prices for the buses are never actually what is stated on the signs. When I arrived all signs said 80 cents (about 25 cents of a dollar) but buses only charged 70. After the bus strikes a few months ago, the signs went up to 1 sol but bus drivers only charge 80 cents now. And that’s only in Tacna. If I hop over to Arequipa or make my way to Lima, the prices for different bus lines are always a surprise. Sometimes I’ll be charged the price of a college student. Sometimes, the price of a foreigner (which is not a legitimate price, cobradores just try and get a few more cents out of you).

Schedule: There is no actual schedule but usually a bus will pass by every fifteen minutes.

Except for Sundays. If you live in Habitat or somewhere else further outside the city, expect to wait on that street corner in the hot sun for a while longer because most drivers take their buses to the beach where they can get more customers on the weekend.

Passengers stand outside of a bus, staring at its blown wheel.
Observing the culprit.

Unexpected Stops: Sometimes buses just break down leaving you with two options: a) flag down every available vehicle that goes rushing by or b) wait for the next bus and see how well the human Tetris game works for you.

A photo of the offending bus wheel, which burst not long before the photo was taken.

The most common reason for being late to work is “the bus just never showed up”— which may or may not be true but is considered a perfectly legitimate excuse. I have to confess that I have used this technique more than once.

Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com

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