Riding through dark streets in a collectivo
When we lived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in the early 80s, we didn't have a car. We went everywhere in buses or taxis.
Santa Cruz had two types of buses -- micros and collectivos. Micros were small, fast buses, used by residents who could pay a premium fare.
Collectivos were old, slow, full-size buses that transported the masses. Their fares were cheap. Often, the passengers carried huge bundles of their belongings, garden produce, or even live animals.
One night, Dennis and I found ourselves out late and too far from home to walk. We waited at a bus stop, knowing that we needed to take any transportation that came along because the 1:00 A.M. curfew was getting close.
Eventually, a lumbering old collectivo appeared, and it was headed in the direction that we needed to go. We climbed on board and were surprised at the darkness inside. The only light came through the windows. The bus lurched away with a great roar, and we groped for a handhold as we staggered in the aisle.
Even at that late hour, every seat was taken and many passengers were standing. No one was talking. The only sounds were the grinding and groaning of the bus's worn-out gears and engine.
It was summer and the night was warm. Inside the bus, the air had a peculiar, dank odor of unwashed bodies and dirty bundles. It was the smell of hardscrabble third-world poverty, steamed for years.
The bus roared through the shadows of the old, narrow streets, and we struggled to hold our balance when it pitched around corners. As passengers moved to and from the doors, their bodies and burdens bumped against us.
I realized that I was, at that moment, in the most foreign place I had ever been. I was as close to an experience of the life of Bolivia's urban poor as I might ever be. The cloak of darkness over my anglo appearance had made me just another needy, late-night traveler.
"Señora?" A woman offered me a seat. She pulled her billowing skirts closer to make room for me beside her. I gratefully accepted her offer, but I kept my purse tight under my arm on the side away from her. I had been in Bolivia long enough to know how quietly a razor blade could slash into a bag in a moment of jostling.
Soon enough, we recognized landmarks of our neighborhood. We called to the driver and the bus stopped. We got off and became gringos again, scurrying home before curfew. Our fellow passengers rode on into the night.