Everyday Transportation 101: Guaguas

Somehow this story slipped through my last blog post, so I get the pleasure of sharing it with you now. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 13, 10 am

Four of us were heading downtown to the “zona colonial” (colonial zone) to catch a historical tour starting at 2:30 am. We wanted to get there early to walk through town and enjoy some calm tourist activities before the tour began, so we left around 10 am for downtown via public transportation.

–As an aside, public transportation here in Santo Domingo is about what you would expect out of a developing nation, or possibly a little worse. Laws are only marginally obeyed for the sake of protecting your beautiful 1992 Honda Civic from crossing the precipice from ‘totaled but drivable’ to ‘totaled and in the junkyard’. You drive your car, motoconcho (motorcycle) or bus wherever there is space and walk in the same manner, regardless of the lights and pedestrian signals. Let’s just say crossing the street on foot is always an adventure, since the aforementioned rule applies and cars do not yield to people. The local busses around our neighborhoods and downtown are called Guaguas. They work on random time schedules but have set routes which are posted in the windows. Where these routes go exactly is discovered by experience or word of mouth. A guagua is just like any normal bus except that they fit two times more people than you would think possible if there are people who are willing to pay and come aboard. There is always a bus driver and another employee called the “cobrador”. I am fairly sure these fellows are chosen based on their voice endurance. And their ability to persuade/coax innocent bystanders onto their bus (we’ll get back to this point later).

So we boarded a guagua going downtown and all was well. Sit, wait for our stop, take two more forms of public transport, and BAM: downtown. Easy. If it were so easy though, this story would not be worth telling. About three corners from our stop the cobrador told us to get off the bus and onto another one. The bus had pretty much cleared out, so I guess this meant it was time to get off. We had no clue what was going on so we obliged. Once seated, someone got onto our new bus and started arguing with the driver demanding 100 pesos ($2.70). The driver was having none of it so the guy decided he could cut his losses by stealing the stereo speakers. After failing to do this the mystery man grabbed for the stereo and ripped it out of the dash, which for some reason made the driver and cobrador even angrier. They started punching and shoving the guy out of the bus, so he peaced out, but not before he made an amazing grasp for the stereo cover. The bus driver and cobrador responded by immediately abandoning our newly acquired guagua and chasing after the guy. Let me now note that this entire encounter has been happening in the middle of a three lane highway, with traffic horns blasting behind us. Back to the story… we didn’t see exactly what happened after our bus driver left to run after the stereo-cover thief, but they weren’t gone long. Both the driver and cobrador returned with the fear of God in their eyes, which upon examination was accredited to the stereo-thief standing in the middle of the road with a 4 foot hefty-looking metal pipe in his hand. He meant business. Apparently this meant we could no longer ride in this new guagua, so we got off and boarded our original guagua again. We sat down, relieved that we did not die in the midst of this confrontation, to find that our driver was none other than Mr. Stereo-cover-thief-scary-crazy-pipe-wielding-man himself. Perfect.

So we stuck it out and he let us off the bus 5 minutes down the road. We ate pizza and ice cream and walked down the boardwalk feeling quite like tourists, which was actually semi-refreshing. The tour was very interesting but not enough to describe any more than the following details: Christopher Columbus, slaves, Haitians, freedom, Spanish, USA, freedom again. Something like that… there you go.

Time to go home. And so continues our story… we thought there might be some way to get home from the zona colonial without taking three forms of transportation, so we went to the road and started asking guaguas if they went to our neighborhood. After asking a few we found one that said they could take us where we wanted. Perfect! 30 pesos all the way home (~ $1). Of course, about 15-20 blocks later, the cobrador ordered us off the bus. We obliged, again, and started heading for another guagua which he had pointed out to us. Of course, it was not this easy. We had to pay, he said. The writing was on the wall of course… cobrador tells dumb gringos that he can take them where they want to go, takes them as far as he can, then makes them pay for his service even though they are nowhere close to home. Classic. Probably has happened a million times… but not to THIS gringo, I was thinking. This gringo doesn’t take crap and this gringo fights the man. I was about to take a stand, not just for my $1 he was trying to cheat out of me, but for all of the gringos that have been taken advantage of because they don’t really know what is going on. Yeah. So that is what I did. I said I wasn’t going to pay and told him I would have paid if he hadn’t lied to me. Seemed fair to me. He was unrelenting, however, and would not give up so easy. After seeing the anger in his eyes, and realizing myself how little I wanted to get into a real fight, I made a compromise. We would pay a portion of what he wanted. Almost half, in fact. He took the money, counted it, and then put it back in my hand. “I want 150 pesos, I will accept nothing less.” So the argument ensued, with Rudie helping a bit. Apparently the yelling finally caught the attention of the local authorities who began walking over to us. I was relieved, since they had guns and generally tend to side with dumb tourists. Phew. After the cobrador explained his side of the story the police asked for ours, which we tried to give over the guffaws of the cobrador. He wouldn’t let us continue and kept interrupting, calling us liars. After the 4th interruption, the authorities decided that they had had enough of this guy and whipped out their guns, telling us to get on our new guagua without paying and telling him to leave. It was awesome.

Just another peaceful day on public transportation here in the Dominican Republic. Lesson learned: guns make for a good source of persuasion. And I am a bad “Peace” Corps Volunteer. Shhhh, don’t let them know…

*Oh and I promise I am not normally an angry person. He was just really getting on my nerves.

Love you all!! (:

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