One of my favorite parts of Buenos Aires is its buses, known here as colectivos. They are a microcosm of this chaotic, yet fun city. There are so many things inherently deficient with the way the system functions, yet at the end it accomplishes its job of getting people from A to B.
I’ve gotten used to the way things roll around here, but I can still remember when I was a wide-eyed newcomer enduring trial and error to figure out how to get around. The first morning I was here I had to attend an introductory COPA meeting. My host mother had suggested which colectivos I can take, but when I got to the bus stop, I spoke to a nearby police officer that told me I needed monedas (coins) to take it. I had none, so I went around to the surrounding stores to see if someone would break on of my bills. I was surprised after a couple of cashiers denied me. I went to the bank across the street, and after standing in line for several minutes, a banker shouted out that there isn’t any monedas for anyone, so don’t ask. It sent a chunk of people there to frustratingly scatter out.
I was running so late that I decided that walking might get me there faster. After walking over 30 blocks, I made it to the meeting in time to see all the attendees leaving it. Talking to my host mother that afternoon, I learned that monedas in Argentina are in such high demand and low supply, that there are almost impossible to get without purchasing something. People here have to hustle to maintain enough spare change to make regular commutes.
After my host mother, who luckily works at a bank, hooked me up with enough monedas to last me weeks, I was ready to give the colectivos another go. As I waited on the bus stop, the person in front of the line signaled for an oncoming loud mechanical beast to pull up in front of us. As it arrived with a tail of black smog, everyone rushed to get in. With an unexpected jerk, the colectivo pulled back on to the road as the last boarding passenger was still lifting his last foot off the sidewalk.
I paid the fare and got my first sight of what would regularly prove to be a topsy-turvy system. In the upcoming week, the hard knocks trained me into a competent rider. Twice in a row, as I patiently waited for those in front of me to get comfortably inside, the colectivo pulled away while I was still standing on the sidewalk, causing me to chase it, grab onto the side handle bar, and dive in through the closing doors, Tom Cruz style. The bus driver didn’t even so much as flinch at that. Trying to read the street signs as they whiz by, some would be missing, causing me to lose my sense of direction and completely miss my stop. I now use a combination of street signs, address numbers, my Guia T (a local transit guide) and the memorization of surrounding streets to know when to stop. As I was obliviously holding on to a handrail once, someone stealthily opened my backpack. Luckily nothing was stolen (all I had in there were my COPA student manuals; seems nobody wanted those). I now always carry my backpack in front of me.
Whenever you see me take the colectivo now, you’d see I act more like a typical porteño. I start stepping into the collectivo, even if the person in front of me isn’t all the way in yet. I shove if it’s crowded. Whenever a packed colectivo skips my stop but gets caught at the red light, I bang on the entrance door in protest, usually convincing the driver to open it. When a nearby stop is coming, the back doors open, even if the colectivo is still going full speed. I time it perfectly to hop off at the exact time the collectivo haults (I’ve seen an impatient guy jump of while the collectivo was still at full speed; I’m not ready for that yet though). I guess this is one way I’m becoming more porteño!