Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus

Time marches on, and we have less than 13 months to go in our service here in Dangriga, Belize. The group that arrived a year before we did has now completed its service and most have left. In an effort to get matters "cleaned up" here in PC Belize, there will not be a new group brought in for 2012. Management will decide what will be done with the Peace Corps mission for this country. TOTAL SPECULATION - I think we will be the last group here for a long time. I will be happy to be proved wrong.

In the meantime, we celebrate Peace Corps 50 years in this country. Last year was the 50th anniversary for the Peace Corps organization world-wide. When PC started here it was British Honduras!

It's been awhile since we wrote about anything other than our day-to-day work. Maybe a little write-up on how Belizeans get around would be interesting. There are three main highways in the country. The first is the Western Highway which goes from Belize City to Belmopan City to San Ignatio Town (and a little bit beyond to Benque Village).The Northern Highway goes from Belize City to Orange Walk Town and on to Corozal Town. The third highway is a combination. Hummingbird Highway goes from Belmopan City south toward Dangriga, then branches off to go further south and is called the Southern Highway. It goes all the way to Punta Gorda Town.

Ignore that "Coastal Road" you see in this picture.
It's a death trap. NOBODY drives it except the
bad guys from Belize City trying to escape the police.

The primary form of transportation for Belizeans is the bus. The largest companies make the long runs, along the large highways, and are subsidized by the government. Those companies and how they win the right to make those big runs is highly politicized (surprise!). Last year, one of the companies that had been making the runs up north lost to another company. But the government gave the first company a concession - they could make a few runs west. Problem is, all the bus drivers lived up north, so they would have to travel a hundred miles at 2 in the morning to get to the starting point for the 4 o'clock run.

There are also a LOT of entrepreneurs who run buses in smaller geographic areas. These guys have a nice little niche business going, and a very loyal (well, captive) clientèle. They ALL work very well together. Let's say someone lives in Hopkins Village. The bus there goes to Dangriga twice a day and returns twice a day. If someone wants to go to Belmopan, they have to take the Hopkins bus to Dangriga, and then get on the James bus to Belmopan. Most of the time, as the Hopkins bus is headed into Dangriga, the James bus is leaving, usually two or three miles out of Dangriga when they pass. The James bus stops (pulls over to the LEFT shoulder) nose to nose with the Hopkins bus, and lets all the northern-bound passengers from the Hopkins bus get on. If they didn't do that, the Hopkins people would have to wait an hour at the Dangriga bus station for the next James bus. This easy exchange of passengers happens all over Belize.

We use the James Bus most of the time

There are rules about how many people may ride on a bus, that is, there must be a seat for every passenger. That rule is followed for as long as the bus is in the confines of a bus station with Department of Transportation employees. Here's how it works. The conductor "kinda" counts as people get on, and if there are too many, he tells everybody to squinge up and make room so all can sit. They drive out of the station. As soon as they are out, the extras stand up and hang on. Not only that, the savvy people who could tell that they wouldn't get a seat AT the station go wait at the next corner and get on there. And so forth. Because most of the buses are local, people are constantly getting on and off. I've been on 84-person buses that easily had 150 people on them.

There are other rules. A kid doesn't count as a person for a seat as long as the mom can hold the kid on her lap. I've seen mothers with 4 kids pay one fare. Makes it really tight for the person sharing that seat. Not too many stand up to give their seat to a "lady" or elderly person. Sometimes a pregnant woman will pique someone's pity.

The Belmopan Bus Station

The conductors work hard! Those guys help with bags, babies and kids, and serve as a bouncer on rare occasions. They also collect all the money and hand out receipts. How they keep in their heads who's who is beyond me. They let everybody get on in a town or village, and then head down the aisle to collect - a different amount for everybody, different destinations. They are so helpful to anybody with questions, too.

Last thing I'll say about the buses and the people who drive them, is that they have a great relationship with vendors and individuals, and they do a LOT of favors for people. They'll pick up a bag or box from somebody standing next to the road, maybe in a little village. Then somewhere down the road, who knows how many miles, there will be somebody else standing by the road or waiting nearby. The driver knows where to stop, and somebody comes running out to pick up the package. There's a lady who bakes delicious breads who lives along the Hummingbird Highway. She or one of her kids gets on the bus going south every afternoon carrying a large tupperware container of bread. We always buy at least two loaves. She sells the bread to those on the bus for about 10 or 12 miles, then gets off. Catches the next bus north and sells bread till she gets back to her house. I think she makes at least a couple runs each day. She's putting her kids through school that way. She's the one I know the most about, but I'm pretty sure that other people take advantage of the retail opportunities on other buses.

Things I don't like too much:

  • Very few of the buses have air conditioning (only the express buses - no locals). It's AWFUL to be on a bus when it's raining. They close all windows, and it becomes a steam bath. Arghhh.
  • Getting on the bus at a station is pandemonium. Everybody shoves and stomps their way forward like they never learned about standing in a line and being polite and civilized about taking turns. I'd much rather go out to the corner to catch the bus.
OK, like most of the time when I get on these long drawn-out descriptions, I fear I've included TOO many details. How can I possibly tell you all the cool stuff? Sorry if you're snoozin'.

Next time we'll have pictures and stories of our vacation with my dad and stepmother. They are here to visit for a week, and we are doing the easy life thing.


GtB said...

Steve and Cathy Burnham remove the hotlink to our picture asap, if you really live in Belize like you pretend, you should be able to create pictures by your self.

Just stealing pictures from other websites is a crime and we will protect the copyright on our pictures.

Steve and Cathy Burnham said...

Hello, Guide to Belize. Sorry about that. I have removed your map and posted one that grants permission for use from WikiTravel. Guess I have a little more to learn about creating things on the internet. Of course, we didn't use your picture for profit, so there was never any intention to maliciously steal your work.

And, yes, we do love Belize!