Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Culture of the GuaGua's

My first real culture shock in the Dominican Republic came when I saw the young mother hand her baby to a perfect stranger. It was a "You're no longer in Kansas" moment.

Public transit in Santo Domingo is not for the faint of heart.

The lowest level of public transit is the "motocoach". It's simply a motorcycle, and people ride on the back. When I say people, I mean multiple people. It's not unusual to see three people riding a motorcycle at once, and four is not unheard of.

The second lowest level of public transit are the "carro publicos", what you might call Gypsy Cabs in New York City.
Imagine a mid-90s Honda Civic or Toyota Carrola. It's side mirrors are missing, probably from sideswiping other cars. The interior door handles are broken, so if you need to get out of the car you have to reach through the window and use the door handle on the outside.
The backseat can comfortably handle two people, three adults can be wedged in, but every single one of them will insist on jamming four adults in, plus two more adults in the front, passenger seat. Can't fit the fourth person in the back seat? Then you'll have to pay for two people.
Of course "paying for two" means it will cost you about $1.40 rather than the normal $0.70 for a 2 kilometer ride.

The next level up in the public transit hierarchy is the GuaGua.
These are usually converted tourist buses, although they can be as large as full buses, or as small as a minivan. Their routes, stops, and schedules can vary depending on conditions and the temperament of the driver. The names of the GuaGua's (for instance, the 10-B bus) have no logical order.
The most notable feature of the GuaGua is the comprador. He literally hangs out of an open side door and yells at people standing on the sidewalk that there is room available on the GuaGua. He slaps the cab with his hand to tell the driver to stop for a customer. Often he jumps off the GuaGua while still moving in heavy traffic to help a customer on. He's also the one who collects the money.
Like the carro publico, they can always squeeze in one more person. If there are a row of seats - two on one side and one on the other - they have installed a folding seat that drops into the walking corridor between the seats. Think that's enough? Of course not! The next person on will sit, half-on, half-off of the folding seat and one of the other seats.
Hope you don't mind being jammed against strangers.

Not only are there no seat belt laws, there's no seat belts. There also doesn't seem to be any concern to drinking alcohol while driving. I've seen liter bottles of beer being drank and passed between motorcycles driving on crowded streets.
If that sounds a little crazy, then you should see the sober ones drive. Mad Max has nothing on these people. There are no lanes on the highways and streets. The lines in the road are simply ignored. The most aggressive driver is rewarded by being first.

I couldn't help but laugh when I saw one driver of a carro publico I was in reach out the window to "shove" away another car that came too close.
Another time a blaring horn made me notice that a GuaGua was getting too close to the GuaGua I was in. Then I realized that a carro publico had managed to get between the two GuaGua's and was trying to pass them.

And speaking of blaring horns, the traffic can be deafening. It's not just the blaring horns. All the engines sound as if they are about to explode. If there are mufflers on the motorcycles then none of them work.
And don't get me started about the exhaust. Having the window open on public transit is bad for your health. My friend said it best when he told me, "When I get back to the United States, if I hear someone try to tell me about air quality I'm going to slap them."

And yet the most culturally significant event that happened to me had nothing to do with this craziness.
It was right around 5pm on a weekday. The GuaGua was packed to the gills, as usual. I was trapped far in the back. One young mother was waiting on a corner with her baby in her arms. The comprador slapped on the side of the bus to get it to stop and he jumped off while it was still slowing down.
I couldn't hear what was said, but it was obvious that she was tired from a long day. Her shoulders sagged when she looked at the GuaGua and saw that there were no seats. Then something that I didn't expect happened.
The comprador said something and she handed him her baby. He took the baby onto the GuaGua, as she followed. He then handed the baby to another woman who was already seated. The women obviously did not know each other. The young mother looked at the woman and simply said, "gracias". Nothing more.
She handed her precious baby to a stranger, who handed it to another stranger, and was never concerned with its safety its enough to even look at the baby again until a seat opened up.

No one was surprised except me. No one commented. This was simply part of what was expected in the culture.
There is a lesson about community to be learned here.

[note: These are all my opinions alone and do not in any way reflect on the Peace Corps.]


Ty said...

That was a blanco knuckle ride through the blog.
Might help to spell out the pronunciation phonetically ... goo-a goo-a? :o)
Thanks for the peer into DR culture

sue.ingle said...

Wow. Mr. Toad would be competing for this wild ride! It sounds like Garrett is out of Berkeley and making the best of his new digs. Go Garrett!!! Hang in there and keep us posted. You are an excellent writer and I enjoy the descriptions. I felt like I was there in person!!! Sue

midtowng said...

The phonetic pronunciation is "Gwa-Gwa".

barmit said...

Thanks Garrett. You really did a nice job of posting this. I now appreciate my transportation and air quality. Keep up the excellent naritive please.