After arriving in Asuncion and seeing the buses, I vowed never to step onto a crowded one. I was pretty sure I could manage to ride a bus with a few people on it, maybe even standing with space between me and the other passengers. But when I saw buses racing down the streets, packed with passengers and with more hanging out both doors, I was sure I would never let myself get into that situation. As someone who had only once taken public transportation before, I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be more uncomfortable. I made a plan that if a bus looked crammed, I would just wait for the next one.
I made that decision before really getting to know the buses in Asuncion. At first I didn’t need to take buses much, so it took a while to get to know the system. A friend helped me by pointing out that the buses in Asuncion are all different colors, shapes, sizes, and styles. After taking more buses, I began to notice that some of them are obviously very old (maybe 70’s or 80’s). The companies just keep using these antiques until they break down. A few bus lines have brand new buses, some even with wheelchair lifts. Lots of the buses are bought second-hand from Brazil, and I have a hunch that many must be from Argentina, too. Some are wide, some are narrow, some have wooden floors and broken interiors, some have seats barely wide enough to squeeze your butt into, and each bus is decorated with stickers, stuffed animals, and upholstery by its driver. After all, this is his office.
There is a kind of beauty in seeing such a mix of buses on the road. Many buses actually are buses from a neighboring town or city; they have the name of the place where their terminal is at the top, and that is where their route begins and ends. For a foreigner like me, it was a little bit intimidating to go out and get on a bus, possibly ending up somewhere I hadn’t planned to go and had no idea how to get out of. And the thought of ending up in a different city or a sketchy neighborhood made me more cautious, especially in the evenings.
After making the choice to go on adventures more often, I soon realized that there isn’t much choice when it comes to transportation. Buses come relatively frequently, get places in an okay amount of time, and are cheap. I realized I could go to Aregua and back for the equivalent of about $1. And that is how I experienced my first overcrowded bus: the one I had vowed never to take.
Some friends and I decided to go to a strawberry festival that is held in Aregua in August and September. Someone told us to take the bus marked “Ypacarai,” and that is exactly what we did. However, this is also one of the few buses that leaves Asuncion and goes to Ypacarai, and because of this, it is almost always packed. Going was okay. We got seats and it was fun to be going on this adventure with a group. The way back was something else, though. We were firmly packed into the middle of the bus, with Paraguayans pushing us from all sides and competing for foot space, while some hung out the doors. And that is how I found out that the bumping around while standing for two hours between baskets of strawberries and Paraguayans wasn’t really the main thing that made me uncomfortable. Foot space was what mattered most, because without it, I couldn’t keep my balance.
I have grown a lot since my first days in Asuncion. No, being on a cramped bus isn’t my idea of fun. Ever. But it is something that practically all Paraguayans do at one time or another. It’s about experiencing the culture and getting comfortable living in a way that is different from what I was brought up in. It’s about learning to escape the restrictions and boundaries that come with traveling by car or taxi, and getting used to a new way of life. Being crammed on a bus isn’t much different than an extended cheek-kiss from someone random of the opposite gender. Awkward and uncomfortable, but necessary if you are to immerse yourself in the culture.