Al Fondo Hay Sitio!: Riding Combis in Peru is a Feat for the Brave

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In the late nineties, public transportation in Peru was nerve-racking. News covering the latest Combi accident was routine. The papers had the usual reports: three or four passengers dead. And then, without further thought, most Peruvians rode a Combi to go to work.

Any American would have been astounded. But facing dangers was a God given right after being born in Peru. Although many regarded Combis as a real issue, I embraced them as a gift. Riding a vehicle in which anything could happen (even death), made me stronger. Even when I was little.

My First Bus Ride

Bus rides in PeruImage Source: El Comercio

How was your first bus ride? Being an adult, everything seems simple. Jump to the rear door and make your way in. End of business. But for a child, this was a disheartening experience. Reaching a handle was a matter of life or death. Especially when the bus raced from what it felt like 0 to 100 Km/hr in a few seconds. You clenched to the nearest object to the risk of falling. In order to gain a space, one had to disturb some passengers.

In sum, boarding a vehicle resembled venturing to an inhospitable land. A no man’s land where the strongest ruled.

I took my first bus ride on Panamericana Norte Road. I was only five, and mother took me to Jiron de La Union. Waiting at the bus stop, two facts caught my attention. First. The buses were full but, somehow, new passengers still hopped on them. Passengers were even hanging from the doors. They didn’t fear to fall on the road at full speed.

Our bus had a 35B sign on the window. Due to my reluctance, mother held my hand and pulled me inside the bus. I was literally crushed by the crowd. Second fact: mother, as most Peruvians, was an expert riding buses. She wrangled to gain a scarce room for both. In each stop, the bus picked more passengers. I just couldn’t breathe. I was pushed and stepped on, surrounded by people unwilling to give an inch. Then I threw a fit.

My mother yelled: This is how it is here! You are pushed, stepped on, but you must stand firmly! Be a man and fight for your space!

That’s one of the first lessons I learned. Inside a bus. Every Peruvian had the same experience. Boarding a vehicle was like embarking on life. Life was a struggle. Anything could happen at any moment. And you had to be strong to ensure a safe ride.

‘The Peruvian Hour’ and ‘The Deadly Combi’

Combi rideImage Source: La Republica

As if buses weren’t spacious enough, the great Combis appeared. Except, Combis were not bigger but smaller. Divide the size of a bus into five. Such one of a fifth is how small Combis are. Same as riding a crowded train, everyone admired the facial features of each passenger. Very closely.

Call it magic but a Combi could fit almost half of a bus’ capacity. How? Well, simple Peruvian perspicacity. The fare collector convinced everyone to get on by yelling: Sube, al fondo hay sitio! (Get on, there is room in the back!) Most of the time, this was a lie. But even today, fare collectors repeat the same lie. And Peruvians still believe them. Especially during rush hour.

A salient feature of Combis is their drivers. They step on the accelerator with a passion bordering insanity, like maniacs chased by the police. Sometimes Combi drivers race one another. But this isn’t an answer for the question: Why do Combi drivers race?

Why Do the Peruvian Combis Race?

combi-1Image Source: Iwana

A stereotype tells that Peruvians are always late. Such natural tardiness is embodied by the sarcastic phrase: The Peruvian hour (Hora Peruana). As linguist Martha Hildebrandt pointed, we say Hora Peruana to remind others to ‘not get there too early’, emphasizing our usual ‘impunctuality.’ To remedy such a problem, Combis literally fell from heaven. Anytime someone was running late, the rest always suggested:

                                                               Chapa una combi!

After boarding a Combi, you likely arrived at your appointment on time. Of course, the number of accidents rose dramatically. So much that the press labeled them as ‘The Deadly Combis’. But even if deaths were massive, Peruvians boarded a Combi without much contemplation.

Combi’s rides are as thrilling as those of a Rollercoaster. Living in Peru, I had a rollercoaster experience every day. This is why moving to the United States was a catastrophic cultural shock. Riding the slow, empty and silent American trains was extremely boring. I missed hearing the noise, the crowd and the: Sube, Sube no mas, al fondo hay sitio! I missed the satisfaction of stepping off a combi without any injury.

Overall, I missed the rush of adrenaline one felt inside a Combi. The same adrenaline most athletes feel with extreme sports such as skydiving or mountain climbing.

Yes, it’s dangerous and deadly, but it is far more exciting, vital and dynamic.

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