I’m not used to riding buses – not in El Salvador and not even here in the United States. I don’t understand anything about them – how to know where they’re going, how much to pay, how to get on and off, the proper etiquette when one’s body is pressed up against a stranger in quite intimate ways. Do you share a smile at the awkwardness or avoid eye contact? Do I simply pretend my ass isn’t up against some random guy’s crotch and my breasts aren’t in the face of a little old lady seated next to me?
One bus we rode in San Salvador at night felt more like a discoteca than public transportation. It was dark inside with neon purple running lights along the floor and ceiling. The driver blasted Pitbull’s version of Guantanamera and a cool breeze from open windows kissed the hair plastered to our foreheads with sweat. The bus careened down the street and around corners without slowing – forcing us to lean into strangers as if we were dance partners perfectly in sync.
And sometimes, the excitement of riding buses in El Salvador began before even getting on board. I once stepped onto the bus, grabbing hold of the turnstile to pull myself up the stairs that are always too tall for my short legs.
“¡No, mamá!” the bus driver said, startling me as he grabbed the turnstile in a firm grip. The other passengers, most of whom had been gazing out the windows with boredom, now turned to look at the obvious tourist – me.
The bus driver then explained that the turnstile went twice around and so he’s obliged to charge me double. I knew it wasn’t true. I had grabbed onto it but not pushed or pulled it. I started to argue, but Carlos shook his head and paid – a quarter for himself – but two quarters for me, so we could go sit down. People were staring after all.
Our friend boards the bus behind us with our 9 year old son. He lifts our son high into the air and into his arms. While our son is small for his age, he’s obviously not a toddler. His big untied sneakers dangle from his bony boy legs. Our friend goes through the turnstile with our son over his shoulder like a sack of beans and smiles at the driver as he does so. Two for the price of one. The driver narrows his eyes but says nothing. He accepts that he’s been outsmarted. The bus pulls away from the curb and we laugh as we hold on for dear life.