Aisle Be There For You
By Tom Nussbaum
If you think Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock had an adventure riding a bus in Speed, you haven’t experienced a local Lakeside bus ride. Every trip is an adventure. Maybe not as fast or dangerous as in the action film, but an adventure nonetheless.
Most émigrés or expats in or around Ajijic, however, haven’t allowed themselves this travel treat. They have cars or use taxis and Uber. I, on the other hand, ride the bus frequently, and as a result have become quite the expert regarding local public transportation. It is only fair, no pun intended, then, for me to share my wealth of knowledge. And, as is my style, every word I say is absolutely true and without exaggeration.
Let’s start with the system’s alleged bus stops. Oh, some are obvious, visible, and identifiable; those few consist of a bench under a wrought-iron-roofed frame. But most are unmarked; no signs, no curb markings. Therefore, the novice bus-rider may pass several stops searching for one. But they are in plain sight, on those corners where clusters of people appear to be loitering. These people are not prostitutes or hustlers working “their” corner. They are waiting for a bus.
Riding buses here is inexpensive. From Ajijic to San Antonio, perhaps a mile and a half to the east, one pays seven pesos, or about thirty-five cents. If one is going on to Chapala, it costs nine pesos. But if one is heading to Jocotepec, at the west end of Mexico’s largest lake, it involves some major financial planning because we are now talking two-digit fares. To finance a visit to Jocotepec, it is necessary for me, for example, to seek out lonely widows or widowers who will pay for my charming company and—absolutely true and without exaggeration—conversation. Does that make me a hustler, a gigolo? No. It makes me an entrepreneur.
Buses run on a reliable, tight schedule. They come every whenever. But that is frequent. I have never had to wait for a bus longer than three Trump tweets.
Once on the bus, do not expect payment systems like those found in metropolitan areas north of the border. There are no coin-slotted fare-boxes for your pesos. There are no machines to scan your prepaid card that deduct the fare. Instead, the passenger tells the driver his destination, hands him the change, and the driver will drop it into an open wooden box teeming with a variety of coins. If change is required, it will come from said box. In the event one’s journey is complex, transfers are not issued. Paying for each leg of the trip is normal. Besides, if transfers were issued, judging from other Mexican paper products like napkins, tissues, and toilet paper, the transfer would disintegrate before a seat is found.
Piped-in music fills many of the buses. Some play traditional Mexican music. Others offer Mexi-pop. But a surprising number play classic rock and pop hits from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. I have yet to hear, however, country, rap, classical, or John Philip Sousa marches on a Lakeside bus.
When searching for a seat, one will note locals tend to sit on the aisle, leaving the window seat empty. This tradition, I believe, runs counter to gringo norms; we slide to the window, allowing the next passenger easier access to a seat. Natives here apparently don’t mind struggling to get past the aisle-sitter. Nor does the sitter appear inconvenienced. It is a cultural phenomenon; personal space is not sanctified here as it is in the US. So, passengers squeeze by, and squeeze is the appropriate word, because the space between the rows of seats is the width of an anorexic Q-Tip.
It is possible that, as a passenger turns to slide past an aisle-sitter, he may discover three hidden toddlers. Or the window seat may host several shopping bags, suitcases, a backpack, or a partridge in a pear tree. Said passenger will continue his search for a seat, hoping he won’t have to stand in the aisle.
Guitar-playing singers busk in the aisles. They range in skill from moderately talented to heartburn-inducing. The latter always stand next to me when I am aisle-exiled.
Drab curtains cover bus windows here, protecting passengers from the hot, bright sun. Most of the curtains, however, have not been washed since Benito Juarez was president. But neither have I, so I shouldn’t complain.
Buses seem to be Mexico’s answer to preschools. There always are numerous toddlers and babes-in-arms on a bus. One trip contained 3,762. They may be adorable, but smiling at them, making faces at them, waving, or sharing pictures of your recently remodeled Racquet Club home (as if a Racquet Club resident would ride the bus) will not elicit a smile, or any reaction for that matter. That precious tot will stare at playful passengers with eyes that scream, “Mama, that geezer gringo is bothering the bejeezus out of me.” Mama, or whoever is holding that child, will gaze straight ahead, ignoring the offending passenger, as if he were a perv or something. Which I am not! Rejected, I usually switch my attention to a nearby teenager.
When one nears his destination, the passenger likely will search along the window for a cord to pull as is common north of Mexico. But, alas, there is none. Instead, he has to make his way to the rear door where he presses a red button to alert the driver of his approaching stop. When the aisle is crowded, however, reaching the back door before the bus pulls away from the stop can be challenging. So can finding a red button that actually works. When it does not, passengers repeatedly yell “¡BAJAN!” like an angry person with Tourette’s Syndrome. “Bajan” roughly translates to “Getting off, you impatient, incompetent poor-excuse-for-a-bus-driver!” But it is meant in a nice way.
Aisles of local buses not only serve as a stage for busking musicians, but they can be testing grounds for clown-car cramming. It has been documented that the goal of local bus drivers is to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the Number of Passengers Stuffed into a Bus Aisle Narrower Than a Guitar String Wearing a Corset.
These packed conditions occur because drivers rarely refuse to pick up passengers, regardless of how crowded the bus may be. Again, this could be based on cultural personal-space standards. I have been jammed in bus aisles with more people than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, active members and alumni combined. I have been trapped at the bottom of the front door stairwell, facing the rear of the bus, and balancing on one stiletto-heeled foot. (Don’t ask!) I have stood in the aisle pressed back-to-back with a person larger than Jalisco. I have had such intimate relations with overstuffed backpacks, Michael Kors handbags, and the necks of guitars that visiting an STD clinic was necessary. And, while sitting in an aisle seat with my forearm on the armrest, I have had a teenage boy, pressed from the back, rest his crotch on my forearm. This was uncomfortable and embarrassing because my forearm sprung an erection.
On my most recent bus ride, passengers were so jammed in the aisle that, as we held on to the overhead rail, my neighbor’s forearm pushed against mine. At first, I was annoyed, but then I realized it was a well-formed, muscular arm with a sexy amount of hair. Fuzzy, yet manly. I thought, I could be interested in that. I nudged back, but the woman did not respond.
It is not uncommon for younger passengers to offer older ones a seat on crowded buses. Even healthy, stronger older riders will relinquish a seat for a more feeble peer. On one occasion—I swear this is absolutely true and without exaggeration—I witnessed the bus driver offer his seat to a hobbling octogenarian. We ended up in Fargo.
Needless to say, riding the bus here is not for everyone. Adjustments and concessions have to be made. Gringo personal-space norms are violated. But, even though I, with my honest and unembellished style, may have painted the experience as an irritating ordeal, I enjoy riding the bus or I wouldn’t continue doing it. After all, every ride is an adventure.
Tom Nussbaum has lived in Ajijic since 2015. He is from Seattle where he worked as a high school special education instructor. He has never been to Fargo.