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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bus Party

Road Map
            Getting from place to place in Paraguay is never easy. Given that Paraguay only has an estimated 15.2% of all its roads paved, according to The World Bank, it is no wonder that getting around can be difficult. The vast majority of paved roads are concentrated in the major cities, and important highways connecting said cities. It is therefore not surprising that buses are the most common form of long distance transportation for most people. Many of roads in most places are either cobbled or dirt. Even in some of the larger towns that have highways running through them it will likely that they will only sport one or two paved roads.  It isn't very common at all to have the whole city paved. In O'Leary, there are only 2 paved roads, aside from the highway that runs through the center of town, that extend no more than 100 meters each. Despite the lack of paced roads I consider myself to be one of the luckier volunteers because I live within 2 KM of that major highway that allows me to avoid long distances on bumpy dirt roads. The difficulties, however, stem more from Peace Corps rule that none of the volunteers are allowed to ride motorcycles. That means that we are forced to ride our bikes, if they have not been destroyed on a recent ride on the aforementioned roads, or on foot. Within the last decade the amount of motorcycle usage has grown exponentially giving families better access to the limited paved roadways. This has slowly eliminated the infrequent buses that were once the only method of transportation outside of beasts of burden. As a result motor vehicle accidents, mostly motorcycles, are the number one cause of death amongst young Paraguayans at a rate that is growing about 100% annually.
            As for me, my lack of affluence and my strict moral code against breaking the rules has allowed me to experience cover extreme distances on a wide variety of buses, as well as develop close relationships with a number of ticket vendors, and bus operators. The following is my assessment of each company and my experiences on them. The focus will be on those companies and people that drive on a daily bases through O'Leary and the surrounding area. First, however, it’s important to understand the general classifications of buses and bus operators in the area.
            Given O'Leary proximity to Cuidad del Este (Paraguay's second largest city) along the major highway that connects it to Asuncion (Paraguay's Capital and largest city) we see several types of bus companies:

1. International Buses: These are usually double decker luxury buses that are headed towards Brazil or Argentina.

2. Long distance domestic: Buses that range from double decker to wooden box on wheels held together using cheap metal wire.

3. Local/Regional: Small buses that look like an airport shuttle, but usually less nice.

            For each company there is a story behind my perceptions of their business practices. For each company I will discuss my biased view of the buses, the guys selling the tickets, and anecdotes that I have from these experiences. First, However, I would like to illustrate a few commonalities that most of the companies share:

1. All the ticket vendors in O'Leary are men who absolutely love asking me about my multiple girlfriends.

This is a very common thing for men to do in any culture and circumstances around other men, but for reasons unknown by yours truly the banter is taken to new heights with the men the volunteers in O'Leary refer to as the Bus Stop Hustlers. Without skipping a beat I always asked upon meandering up to the bus stop, in Guarani, "Where are you going?" followed by my destination. I am then asked, after it is assumed that wherever I am going the only reason I am heading there is to visit a woman, prompting them to ask, "What are the women saying?" to which I reply, "Lots of stuff." Lastly, I am questioned about specific details,  "How many girlfriends you have now?" to which I reply "too many to count", which leaves them roaring in laughter. These interactions likely come off as strange, but that the way it is. None of it is true, but being a friend who banters back and forth with the hustlers, who makes meager commissions selling tickets, is probably better for my wallet.

2. Nobody really knows when the bus is going to arrive, but it will always be "in a second."

3. If someone guarantees you a seat it decreases your odds of getting one.

4. If you ever buy a ticket before a bus arrives you can bet that another bus headed to the same place will come before it.

5. Sacrificing quality of a bus for price will make your trip last at least an hour longer.

6. If it is raining, all bets are off.

7. Every driver goes way over the speed limits and swerves through traffic like he is in the middle of a stock car race, but instead of a racetrack it is a 2-lane highway.

8. The only reason a bus doesn't go way too fast is because its engine cannot handle the marc 5 speeds nor insane maneuvering.

9. There is always a chance that your bus will break down.

10. Some terribly dubbed over bootleg action movie, or polka music will be playing but is almost always impossible to hear over the sounds of the bus constantly accelerating and breaking.

11. All buses have one guy driving, and one guy who collects the tickets/money and off loads baggage.

12. All bus drivers are fat

13 Tereré or maté is always consumed while driving even though that is illegal to do in Paraguay.

I'll now describe the companies that I most often see or patron:

NSA: The abbreviation is for "Nuestra Señora de Asunción." Translated it means Our Lady of Ascension. It is most definitely one of, it not the, nicest bus companies in the country. Their routes go all over Paraguay and into Argentina, and are always double decker buses with air-conditioning. The problem with NSA is that because of its status as one of the nicest bus companies it is not uncommon for them to overcharge to 50,000 Gs. ($12.50) ticket to Asunción, but that isn't the most annoying part by far. If you want to ride an NSA you have to find a ticket vendor that will sell you passage before getting on. Why this is annoying is because if you are not in big city or town you cannot hop on their bus if it is going past. On numerous occasions I have been waiting for a long time, notice a bus a distance, flag it down, only for it to stop and deny me entrance because I didn't have a pre-paid ticket.
            These interactions always leave me furious especially because many of the places where I am catching a bus don't have a vendors who won't rip you off by overcharging or have a vendor at all. To date, I have yet to ride an NSA because of my resentment towards their policy of not me picking me up if I don't have a ticket. I'll concede that in most situations I could get a ticket that would not only guarantee me a seat, but also speedy transport, but a man has to have a code and that policy has left me high dry on one too many occasions. Their only saving grace is that the guy who does sell their tickets in O'Leary is one of my favorite bus stop hustlers who is always joking around with me, and lives in my neighborhood.

NASA: To be honest, I have only ridden an NASA twice and the only thing that you could think to relate it to the NASA we are all familiar with is the engine sounds like a space shuttle taking off when it accelerates past 20 kmph. The logo of NASA is remarkably similar to NSA. I suspect because they are secretly the same company, but it could be a straight up copy to save time thinking up different lettering for the logo. The first time I rode one of their buses it was so decrepit that I felt as though I needed a tetanus booster upon entering. The driver dodged traffic less recklessly, but still more dangerously than I was used to on the nicer bus lines. That class of NASA I like to refer to as the 1960s express because that is probably when they were being used in Brazil, and only recently came to Paraguay. Recently NASA has stepped its game up with very nice buses that rival some of the nicer companies, but there is absolutely no middle ground with the quality of the bus. Your choices are either going to be a luxury penthouse version, or a cardboard box on wheels.

Crucero del Este: Is easily my favorite company. Aside from the few times they have ripped me off they have been consistently fair with their prices, and are typically the friendliest. My only personal beef with Crucero is the hustler that sells the tickets at the bus stop in O'Leary is easily the creepiest gut out of the bunch. He is about 25, unmarried, and a hound. On several occasions I have seen him on a motorcycle sloshed off of caña (the cane alcohol sold everywhere). He always asks me about my "girlfriends, and then proceeds to mention the inappropriate ages of the ones he is currently seeing. At times I think he is joking, but at times I don't. He also barely speaks Spanish, so it is always an adventure dealing with him.

Expresso Guarani: Was my favorite company for the longest time. They never stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up random passengers every 20 feet, rip you off, and they are often the nicest looking buses. That being said not too long ago, I was on one of these buses headed back home after a long weekend in Asunción.
Waiting for repairs for the second time
            There were four of us traveling together, so figured we might as well take the nice bus to avoid a prolonged trip. That is precisely when things started to go wrong. For starters, we were lied to about the time of departure, it was scorching hot outside and the bus's air-conditioning wasn't working. The whole point of riding these buses is for the air conditioning especially because the windows don't open. After 4 hours of travel the cabin began to smell like gasoline. That prompted the first attempt to fix the bus, which I am sure was shoddily done, because it broke again 20-minutes later on the other side of the town we were passing through. As we were waiting for it to be fixed again a noticeable storm was brewing and I still had to walk 2 KM back to my house. Robert, the volunteer who lives in the center of O'Leary, and I paid more money to catch the next bus that came by barely making it home before the storm. I have not ridden n Expresso Guarani since.

What you hope you'll get
San Luis: Bar none the most unpleasant bus company of the bunch. Not only are they pathological liars with regards to everything from price, time of arrival, and seat availability, but also express the most indifference in terms customer satisfaction. It is almost like they go out of their way to make you uncomfortable. What I mean by that is they will do anything to make a sale, and once they do that’s it. There is no concern for safety, nor is there so much as a thank you for riding with us. The buses themselves have broadest range of models of any company ranging from spaceship to the iron oxide express.

What you end up getting more often
            The only real guarantee is that you no idea what kind of bus you are going to get when one pulls up to the bus stop, but more likely than not your trip will be a disappointing one. I will admit that I hear the reason for their unpleasantness has to do with a company policy that requires them to do their runs in a certain amount of time. If you don't meet quotas and arrival time then you get docked pay or fired. That mentality trickles down to the guys selling the tickets who will say anything to get on board. I often times lie about where I am going or wait off a distance so I can see the bus coming down the road before I commit to a company. I do this because I know the two guys selling San Luis tickets will be on me immediately the second I make eye contact. The funniest part about the San Luis vendors is that one of them is a 15-year-old kid with blonde hair. The story goes he used to hang around the bus stop for years growing up learning the art of the hustle. When he was 13 he got a job, and has been doing it ever since. I heard that he goes to school at night, but I haven't heard of a middle school that has night classes in the area. Given the moral proclivity of the rest hustlers I get the impression that this kid might be getting the wrong kind of education. To get better idea of the risk you take when riding on a San Luis, check out this recent article from a local newspaper:

Mainumby: Is the opposite of San Luis in almost every single way, and is the only bus company that is more likely to undercharge than over charge. The Mainumby, hummingbird in Guarani, is a local company that runs the last 87 KM heading towards Cuidad del Este. There is only 1 bus in the fleet that is nice looking on the outside. The rest are mini-school buses tastefully painted in earth-toned colors in abstract formations on the outside. The inside is always a party with tons of stuffed animals, religious relics, hand-woven lace decorations of all colors. The real reason I call it a party is because often times they sport a karaoke screen blasting 1980s pop music or polka. The By, pronounced boo in English, is the most commonly used bus for people transporting goods to Cuidad del Este, so in addition to being friendly it is not uncommon to find an onion or an orange underneath the seats. They stop with a higher degree of frequency, but the time differences in arrival are negligible. The guy who collects the money always allows you get settled in before he comes pestering you for your money. Really the only downsides are there might be a bit of animal blood or parts on the floor and the seats are so close together that only a 5'5 person or under can comfortably sit, but who cares the personality of the bus itself makes it worth it.

Guareña: Is based in the city of Villarrica about 3 hours from O'Leary. I really don't have much to say with regards to the service or their buses in particular. As far as I'm concerned they are your average company with some nice buses, but mostly of the not nice variety. My disdain for them stems from a phenomenon that has nothing to do with bus company management. That phenomenon is known as the crowded bus paradox. Everyone knows that certain times of year and certain days are not conducive to traveling. That is not what I am talking about. The amount of random holidays or patron saint days in Paraguay seem to exceed days that aren't holidays. What I mean by this is that I could be leaving O'Leary on some random day of the week, but that day happens to be the patron saint of the town of Villarrica, or a particular national holiday that is celebrated more intensely there than elsewhere. 
       O'Leary for example has a special parade on June 12th to commemorate the Chaco War Armistice, but doesn't do anything for independence day even though both are national holidays. You add certain patron saint days to the mix and what you got is a whole series of days that might lead to you standing on a bus for the entirety of your trip. If you thought I was building to something you were right. On June 17, 2012 I was on a Guareña headed to Villarrica on a bus that was so crowded I could barely fit in the drivers cabin. It wasn't until we were 5-minutes away from our destination that we found a seat. The explanation for the bus being crowded? I still don't know to this day.

O’Leary: Is the San Luis of local buses. What makes me dislike the O'Leary buses more than anything is that they leave from where I live, meaning they know whom I am and that I live where they are going. Despite that they almost always without fail try to rip me off. They also will stop at nothing to make as much money as possible, and are apathetic to arriving someplace on time. The most pertinent example in my experience is when I took bus for a distance of 12 KM, which should cost 2,000 Gs. ($0.50). As soon as we got on the crowded bus they said 10,000 Gs. ($2.50), and wouldn't back down.
            Trips that should take a half an hour more often take 45-minutes to an hour because they stop to ask any bystander where they are going. They also take frequent breaks at any cross section where someone might get on for times that triple any other company. The amount of times I saw an O'Leary bus passing by without stopping for me is more common than one actually stopping for me so I can give them my business. As far I'm concerned in spite of the quality of the buses, which are pretty nice for smaller local buses, they are one of the worst.

Pycasu: Would be the mean of all the buses. They are not nice, but not bad, cheap, but slow, pleasant drivers, but not anything to write home about.

RYSA: In addition to being a long distance bus it is also a transportation company. What that means is you pay less, but take way more time because they have often drop off and pick up packages along the way. To mitigate this they offer smaller buses that go "direct" between Asunción and Cuidad del Este. It was that "direct" bus that ruined my opinion of them. One day when I was traveling 10 KM back between O'Leary and the site of another volunteer West of me. I flagged down a RYSA the bus stopped, let me get on, started driving, took my money, then gave it back and threw me off while in motion because it wasn't worth their time even though they were going to stop at the bus stop I was
going to. I kicked a tree so hard while yelling from anger after this interaction that I drew a number of awkward stares from people close by including another guy waiting for a bus who slowly proceeded to back away from me. That is all it took for me to never want to ride them again, and I bet you probably picking up on a trend here.

Palma Loma: If I wanted to have a bus trip where I knew we would break down I would get on a Palma Loma. Now the buses are not horrific, but they are certainly not good. Imagine riding a 1987 Chevy Celebrity in 2005. The car still works, but its probably going break down if you take it on the highway. The interior of the Palma Loma is retina-searing red with orange and green overtones. The nice part though is that the driver and the ticket vendors are maybe some of the nicest. I have had free rides accidently and am never over charged. An added bonus is when it breaks down, and trust me it will for no reason at all, you got some nice guys to hang out with.

Cardozo Hermanos: The Cardozo brothers are based out of a town called La Colmena, which is a full 3.5 hours at least from O'Leary, but I have found myself taking them on a number of occasions. Jovial would be the words I would use to describe them mostly because the employees are all super friendly as well as dramatically overweight. Like many companies, there is only one bus that you could consider calling nice, so you can always know when you are going to have a good day if you manage to hop aboard that one nice one.

Carapegueña: Some would call this the crappiest bus line in Paraguay, but not because of the service. The colors are a pallet of brown that looks like...well you can figure out the rest. The Carapagueña is a particularly important bus for many people in Eastern Paraguay because a lot of people are from there. During the early years of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay, the majority of the population was concentrated in Asuncion and the surrounding areas. In an attempt to open up the East, Stroessner gave families very cheap rates to buy land parcels with many of them coming from Carapegua, which is about an 2 hours South of Asuncion. Carapegua being an old city means that it is an older bus company, and I get the impression that in a flash of brilliance the owners of the buses had them painted brown colors to mask the dirt that accumulates over long distances on muddy roads. In some ways the buses are sort of an automotive chameleon, but that doesn't stop them from not being nice looking or comfortable.
Piribebuy: In my year and a half in Peace Corps there is only one bus that I wouldn't take unless it was my only option. That bus is the Piribebuy, but our destinies would soon be linked. After reading an Economist article about Paraguay and the legacy of the Triple Alliance War ( I learned that there was a small museum in the town of Piribebuy that had artifacts from the war and the massacre that took place there. Luckily I had a buddy who lived close by who also wanted to go to the museum. Piribebuy is not a town right off a major highway. While it is a paved road to get there, the buses look like a group of people went in with 9-irons and baseball bats through a swamp while stealing the bus from Brazil (because all the interior the signs are all in Portuguese). I knew I was getting into a mess when I got on board, but through the first 80% of the voyage, all seemed well. We were very close to making the turn to head to Piribebuy when I hear a giant popping noise and the bus started fish tailing ever so slightly. Had I not lived here for a while, I probably would have been freaked out a bit, but instead I looked up at the ceiling and sighed deeply at my 2-2 week on buses breaking down.
       Before I knew what was happening everyone was off loading his or her stuff, and the driver with the ticket collector started lifting up the panels where the overhead luggage is put grabbing 5 kilo bags of Brazilian sugar from underneath. Not only was I not getting to where I wanted to go, but also I was potentially implicated in a smuggling operation. After waiting for well over an hour a replacement bus of equal quality rolled up, spent 10-minuts reloading everything, and an additional 2-hours finally getting to Piribebuy; we were originally only a half an hour away.
            These are my experiences on the buses that past through O'Leary. The learning curve for the various companies and their tendencies is something that takes time, and even the most reliable companies can be disappointing from on occasion. There are countless other stories that I have decided not to jot down for the sake of time. Bus travel can be enjoyable if the stars line up on a particular day, and I have obviously not shared the times when nothing happened on my travels. It'll be interesting to see what happens to these companies as time goes on and Paraguay continues to develop, but for now I am content with what’s available even if that is a wooden box on wheels.

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