“Full” is a relative term

Here in Nicaragua, a “full bus” isn’t the same thing as a “full bus” in Seattle. Or probably anywhere in the States.

At 7:30 most weekday mornings, I stand alongside the fifty or sixty other people at the bus stop to wait for the popular route 117 to take me to my university. A bus pulls up, and from a distance we can already tell it’s packed. Four or five people are standing in between the door and the driver, and the windows that stretch the length of the bus are full of a sea of arms holding onto the ceiling handrails. But, if there is still room to open the door, the driver will usually do so and a crowd of people will immediately form in front of the door, everyone jostling to be one of the few to get on this bus. The 117 starts to pull away as the last lucky person pulls themselves up onto the steps, trying to squeeze far enough inside to allow the door to close behind them.

During the morning commute, the buses are usually quiet, but if you catch virtually any route in the city in the afternoon, the drivers are almost always blasting reguetton or salsa music on their impressive speaker systems mounted on the ceiling. The buses here are recycled from either the United States or Russia– most of the buses in Managua will look familiar to American visitors, as they are repainted versions of the classic yellow school buses that many of us took for years to get to elementary or high school. The bus system, as a result of Nicaragua’s past neoliberal government, is privatized, so each bus is the property of its driver, and each has its own personality. Most are painted bright colors, with some form of biblical or Christian reference inscribed on the front windows or the interior walls. Many rearview mirrors are equally decked out in stickers or tassels, and every bus has one or more different honking sounds it can make, which the drivers never hesitate to use, honking out little rhythms as they impatiently maneuver past slower cars in the road.

It costs 2 cordobas and 50 centavos to take the bus in Managua, which is about 11 cents. Drivers quickly make change for the passengers, one-handedly swapping coins between the four different dishes or boxes they have mounted in the front of the bus: a dish for 5-cordoba coins, 1-cordobas, 50- and 25-centavo pieces.

It’s always an adventure to take the Managua buses, whether you happen to misunderstand directions and get on the bus on the wrong side of the street, ending up on the opposite end of the city, or simply have a new experience, like the other day when I took the only available seat on the bus and realized I was across the aisle from the precariously large and unsecured spare tire. Managua buses are definitely different and a little grungy, but they work: what’s more, they have distinctive, lively character and I have really come to like them… when it’s not rush hour, at least.