The Dollar Bus System on St. Vincent

The Dollar Bus System is the peoples’ car for local transportation  –  genetically evolved to be perfectly suited to local social and environmental needs.  The system is a collection of mini-vans, perhaps 7/8s the size of the US full-size models. They are licensed by the SVG government to officially hold a maximum of 18 people, an outrageously high number, since 9 might be the maximum number for comfortable seating.  During the non-commute hours  between 10 and 3 pm you might be lucky enough to ride in one with only 15 other passengers.  But during the local rush hours all speed and capacity regulations disappear and the upper limit seems to be about 27 people on board.

Two people operate the bus.  One is the driver (the steering wheel is on the right and they drive on the left side of the road), who squeezes close to his door with his elbow out the window.  The second is the bus boy, who manages the seating arrangements for maximum efficiency, manually opens and closes the side doors, and collects the money as you depart.  The fare is one dollar EC, and you better have it in your hand as you depart, or endure the scornful look of operators and passengers alike.

The driver and the assistant operate with the efficiency of an Olympic team, synchronizing their tasks hundreds of time per day.  The bus boy, who hangs out the side window, looks ahead and spots a person waiting at the side of the road.  He signals the driver.  As the bus slows the assistant fully opens the side door, and as the van pulls to a stop he is out the door on the pavement gently helping the person to a seat.  As soon as the passenger is mostly in the vehicle (but not yet seated) the bus boy is back in the bus, and pulling the sliding door shut as the driver steps hard on the gas pedal and shifts up gears.  To accommodate a fully stuffed bus, the young contortionist fills the only remaining space in the vehicle by standing upright to the waist and unnaturally molding his body into a structural cross-member of the roof until the next stop.  Each stop occurs in one fluid motion and with the speed and timing of a NASCAR pit stop.

It’s the law?  Bear in mind that the main roads are twisty two lanes with nothing extra on the shoulders except drainage ditches.  I saw a speed limit on a sign, but only once.  SVG Speed Limit SignIt was so unusual that I photographed it.  Maybe it was nearby to the mayor’s house?  It would make sense to gut the buses of their speedometers to save weight and add to the uphill speed;  no one ever glances at them.  Most private cars keep their speed just under the level of squealing tires.  However the dollar bus drivers apparently aren’t driving fast enough unless they squeal their tires on turns.

The buses have a certain randomness – sometimes they come one behind the other and other times they don’t come for 20 minutes.  When one is trailing the other it presents a certain problem for the bus driver behind.  The next passenger pick-up and revenue is naturally going to go to the bus in the front.  This driver stops for the passenger, giving the opportunity for the bus that is behind to pass and gain the lead.  Thus two buses often leapfrog down the road picking up and disgorging passengers while exchanging first and second place.  But what happens if the second bus can’t pass because he is blocked by on-coming traffic.  No problem.  He just pulls out into the on-coming traffic and charges forward knowing that the on-coming car will slow (or even come to a stop) to let the second bus gain first place.  So there is a lot of passing where there isn’t proper room to pass, but no head-on collisions.

Now about the sounds.  Each bus has a CD system with a series of ear-splitting  speakers at head height strung from front to back blaring Caribbean music (often a version of rap music).  There could be several reasons for this.   Maybe it warns waiting passengers that a bus is coming.  Maybe it keeps the driver awake.  Maybe some passengers like the music.  But I have my own theory.  The music masks the sound of the frequent use of the horn and the squealing of the tires as we sway in unison side to side through the curves and lurch back and forth during a gear change.

Each bus has its own colorful personality.  I talked to a bus driver who paid 100 EC for the painting on the front of his van, and was pleased when I complemented it.  They are all individualized with their names, like Breezy” or “Front Row” or whimsical or commercial names, and almost all most show pride of ownership.  I figure if the driver has decorated it and is proud of it, then he will take care not to crash it (especially with me in it).
It cost one dollar EC to ride to town, and two EC if you go a long distance.  No one can specify a dividing line in mileage yet everyone seems to know it.  So it appears to me that the Rules of the Road tailored for dollar buses are:

the only speed limits are dictated by the laws of physics:
speed is limited by engine throttle at full-throttle up hill: the limits of brakes and rolling moments  down hill
all stops for passengers are executed with NASCAR pit stop efficiency, and you better be ready
any driver in the oncoming lane must yield so the bus can pass
pedestrians have no right of way
buses really run on reggae music, not gas.

So there you are  — riding in an overloaded van with 20 other sweaty  passengers squeezed together like  Oreo cookies, with speed only limited uphill by the power of the engine, and downhill  by the limits of physics. Your first trip is terrorizing, When you exit you want to kneel down and kiss the ground thankful for surviving a near-death experience.  NOW THAT”S WHAT I”M TALKING ABOUT

However it’s a testament to human adaptation just how quickly insanity becomes the new norm.  Now I’m loving this world-class efficiency in a third world country.
One EC dollar coin gets you across town and a more thrilling ride than any amusement park!



3 Responses to The Dollar Bus System on St. Vincent

  1. steve vannoy says:

    Howard, do you realize what a great mind you have and what a great writer you are? YOUR blogs are most entertaining! But most of all i’m celebrating the life your are living. Way to go buddy! steve v

  2. dujoh says:

    Did you live in SVG for some time? Because I am a local and your description was SPOT ON!

    • Thanks for your comment re “spot on”. If I was, it was probably due to the fact that it was my first and only visit and I saw things with “fresh eyes”. I was there for six weeks doing one week sailing charters and sailing instructionn for Barefoot Charters. If I had stayed two more weeks I would have stayed forever! Howard

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