Among the many new aspects of life I’m experiencing in Uruguay, I’ve gotten to enjoy one in particular: travelling on buses. Montevideo doesn’t have an underground metro and is otherwise a very car-centered town, but it is well served by a multitude of bus lines crisscrossing the city, many of which intriguingly don’t proceed along an obvious line linking Point A to Point B but detours and meanders along rich and poor neighborhoods alike.
I ride buses out of necessity (I can’t drive), but also out of choice. Taxis here are small and cramped, and the reckless driving can give you headaches on bumpy concrete roads. After observing a number of collisions, I came to the conclusion that travelling in a bigger vehicle would not only be more pleasant, but would probably keep me alive longer. Sure, bus drivers have their distractions too; they take money, issue tickets and change, drive, talk and sing along to the radio (often all at the same time), but all in all I trust them more than those crazy cab drivers.
Riding buses is a civilized and very social business here. Men routinely step aside for women, especially those accompanied by children. Should you stand, soon there is a tap on your shoulder informing that there’s a vacant seat. And then there are the live performances. I wonder if I should say bus musician instead of street musician, but anyway there’s almost always some performer (or the occasional pedlar) hopping on the bus for a couple of stops. So far I’ve been entertained by Spanish rap, ballads, witty monologues, and, on one memorable occasion, a soulful male duet accompanied by guitar and trombone(!). (Incidentally, there is a notice on the back exit exhorting riders to refrain from making use of “sonorous instruments”. They do it anyway.) Not everyone on the bus gives money, but they all applaud at the end of the performance. Sometimes I will be standing at a bus stop with the afternoon sun in my eyes, and a bus will trundle by, polite clapping spilling out of the open windows. It is a strange but wonderful sight.
There is one more thing about buses that I haven’t been able to figure out yet: the advertisements. As I mentioned in my last post, stationery ads are surprisingly common here, many of them plastered to the sides of buses (where you would more commonly expect, in Korea at least, ads for more lucrative businesses such as clinics and cram schools). Are spots cheap? Do they ever recoup the cost? And what is the point of advertising products that are not at all new, and often the only kind offered at most stores (like Papiros student notebooks), or the cheapest available that people will buy anyway (like BIC Crystal ballpoint pens)?
But maybe all this is normal – it is, after all, an industry like any other. It’s just that it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen such public ads for stationery. We might ask ourselves why we don’t do it back home more often.