Transportation in other countries is always an interesting topic of conversation because it varies greatly from location to location. Having traveled to many countries and used many types of transportation, not a whole lot surprises me any more. It does however amaze me that there are not more deaths by ‘fender’ in these countries.
My first day of school also became my first experience with the public cars (el carro publico), which are kind of a cross between buses and taxis here. Right now I am living in the Zona Colonial which is about 15 minutes by carro pulico to my school. I walked with my house – sisters about 5 or 6 blocks from our home to a street where there are various beat up old cars with their roofs painted either green or yellow. That is how you know they are an official carro publico.
Let me just say this … No one, I mean really, NO ONE in Canada drives a car as dented, rickety, mismatched and questionable as about 60% of the cars here. An additional 25% are about the same as what we consider old beaters at home and then the remaining 5% are new (made within the past five years) vehicles. In fact, I walked passed the KIA dealership here today!
Here in Santo Domingo, you can take three modes of local transportation:
1. Guaguas, which are city buses. I haven’t been on one in the city yet, but they work similar to other cities, where they have set routes and there are marked stops on the side of the roads where you can get on or off.
2. Taxis are the cars you call (or stop on the street) when you want to go somewhere without anyone else in the vehicle, when you need to get somewhere specific as quickly as possible or when all else fails!
3. Carros Publicos are cars, but they carry multiple people, cost a set rate per usage and operate only on a specific route. You can ask them to drop you off at any point on the street close to your destination, and if they have room, they will stop anywhere on their route to pick you up, you just have to wait for them.
Carros Publico work like this:
You find out which streets have the main routes for carros publicos. For us, we get a car about six blocks from our house, very close to Parque Indepencia. As you walk up the street there is a line up of the green or yellow topped cars parked along the side of the street. Really, you are taking your chances in any of them, but you look for the one that looks to be in the best condition, with a friendly looking driver and cram yourself in. The carros publico do not move until they are full. This means that you squeeze four adult bodies in the back seat of a small car and the driver plus two more adults in the front seat. Luckily there are three of us always traveling together, so we are mainly squished against each other, but if you are traveling alone, you get up close and personal with the other people in the car. Often this means nearly sitting on someone’s lap, putting your arm around someone, all while holding on for dear life!
To further help you get the feel for the entire experience, picture cramming yourself in a box with only a couple of cut outs for windows, heated to 40 degrees and then invite four strangers to join you. Then, wait three to five more excruciatingly hot minutes for one more person to squeeze themselves in. By the time you start moving in the little hot box of a car, you are dripping with sweat and sharing that sweat with those around you. There is no way not to sweat on each other in a carro publico and there is no room for personal space!
It takes us about 15 minutes in the car to make our way to the school. The traffic is congested, often three cars wide with only two lanes. No one uses signal lights (I doubt they even work in the cars) and everyone uses their horns! Although, they actually use their horns much less here than I remember in Quito, Ecuador where it was a symphony of horns constantly! Occasionally drivers obey stop lights, but they very rarely stop for pedestrians or even bother to slow down to avoid them.
A few short little details about things I’ve found interesting or funny about carros publico.
1. Because four people are crammed in the back seat, it almost always takes the fourth person two or three tries to get the car door closed.
2. Similarly, when someone needs to get out of the back seat the pressure is released and it is like the gates of a dam opening. You have to catch yourself from being swept away in the rushing waters of bodies falling out of the crammed car! It is kind of funny when you open the door and feel your balance shifting to the outside of the car. You really have to catch yourself to not completely fall out.
3. Having said that, sometimes the car doors do not shut so well. So, it is possible to be driving down the road and the car door that has jammed you into the car might just give way and open up. Mine did this the other day, but thankfully there were only three of us in the back seat at the time, so I did not fall out. I think we hit a bump and the door jiggled open. I quickly gave it a tug and then made sure the handle was secured back in place to hold the door shut.
4. The interior of the car is never clean. These cars see a hundred different people a day, hot and sweaty, sometimes people dirty from having worked outside all day. One day in particular, the group of us got in a car that had no fabric lining on the inside of the car doors. I noticed after I pulled on the metal of the door to shut it that my hands were immediately filthy. It is near impossible to stay clean here. I haven’t bothered to even wear my white shorts here yet!
Overall, the carros publicos are quite efficient. They get us to where we want to go for just 25 Pesos (approximately $.60cents). Yes, that’s right, a 15 minute cab ride (albeit very crowded and hot), for less than $1. It is definitely cheap here! Once you know where to get the car that goes on the route you want, they are easy to find, easy to use and well, pretty much as safe as it gets here.