On Wednesday May 1st I had my first league game with my soccer team. However, celebrating the win was cut short as the next day, May 2nd, my family left for Buenos Aires in Argentina where I would be taking four AP exams. We flew across the continent from the Pacific coast of Chile to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, landing in an enormous Buenos Aires city (population nearly 3 million). From there we ventured out into the sprawling suburb surrounding the city known as the Buenos Aires Province which boasts nearly 16.5 million people.
We checked in to the school in Buenos Aires where I was taking the AP tests to sort out some paperwork. On Friday afternoon we left for Iguazú falls on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
We arrived in the mid-morning to a warm humid climate. We were bombarded by the typical swarm of taxis waiting outside the airport. We met a driver who agreed to be our chauffeur for the rest of the trip whenever we wanted to get somewhere. We were dropped off at our house a little ways out of the touristy main town of Iguazú falls. We made plans to enter the park and see the waterfall early the next day.
We were picked up pretty early and driven into the park. In order to get to the main attraction Garganta del Diablo or Devils Throat, we had to take a train ride to the top of the falls and walk along boardwalks over top of the river.
The Devil’s Throat is a U shaped waterfall with water flowing in on 3 sides and down nearly 80 meters to the bottom. An incredible example of the power of nature, the view is enough to take your breath away.
After seeing the falls from above on the boardwalks we were excited to walk along the lower boardwalks that gave us incredible views and an appreciation for the scale of the falls.
As we walked along the walkways through the jungle, we saw several ant species, butterflies, fish and coati.
Coati are strange looking rodents with a long snout like an anteater and the body of a raccoon. They swarmed around the several restaurants in the park harassing visitors and fighting for scraps of food.
Once we ate and walked around the several loops below the falls my family made plans to take a boat ride to the bottom of the falls the following day. Unfortunately I was preparing for my upcoming AP Tests and so I decided to stay home and study.
When we returned to Buenos Aires I took my chemistry and U.S. history AP tests on Thursday and Friday. Then over the weekend we went into the center of the city to a neighborhood called Palermo. This older section of town had a strong European influence in its wide boulevards lined by trees and the architecture of the buildings.
On Monday and Tuesday I finished the AP tests with the Biology exam followed by the AP Calculus AB exam. It feels good to have the tests over, but now I have to wait for the scores to be released in July. – Everett
Recently my family flew south of Valparaíso to visit the picturesque landscapes of Chiloé and the Lakes District of Chile. We flew in to Puerto Montt on a Monday to a crisp temperature but a clear sky. As we landed we got an amazing view of the clear blue lakes and snow covered volcanoes that dot the landscape.
This region is notorious for being cold and rainy, but our first few days were incredibly clear. As we drove in to Puerto Varas we were able to see the volcanoes from the ground. It was fall in the Southern Hemisphere and all the leaves changing colors reminded me of fall in New England.
We arrived in Puerto Varas, a small town at the edge of Lake Llanquihue and directly across from Volcán Osorno. We met some one of my parents’ friends from college who also happened to have two kids and who had been living in Puerto Varas for the year. That evening we got a stunning view of the volcanoes at sunset.
The next day we woke up as early as we could and scampered into the car out of the cold morning air for a four-hour car ride to some natural hot springs called Termas Geométricas. Another clear day provided us with more breathtaking views of the volcanic peaks poking up between the lakes.
Pictures don’t do justice to the view. Finally by early afternoon we arrived to Termas Geométricas. At under 60 degrees outside, it was a shock to my system when I stepped out of the warm car and into the brisk fall air. As we checked in and received keys to our lockers we were given our first view of the springs.
Red wooden walkways connect together almost 20 pools of varying temperatures from icy cold to 45 degrees celsius. The pools were located within a canyon carved out by a cold water stream flowing through the middle. This freezing water was mixed with the scalding water from the springs to vary the temperature of each pool. It reminded me of Japanese Ofuros.
The walk between each pool felt three times the length as the cold air shocked our system each time we switched between the steaming pools. After the freezing experience of drying off with a wet towel in the outside changing rooms, we were ready to hop into a warm car for the long car trip back towards the Island of Chiloé.
Before the island though we spent one last day exploring the natural beauties of the lakes district. We hiked to a waterfall in the morning.
After that we drove up above the clouds and tree line to a ski resort on the side of one of the volcanoes. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite ski season but we were able to slide around on some icy snow and admire the view of the clouds carpeting the valley below.
The last days of our trip would be spent on the Island of Chiloé, famous for being Spain’s last holdout before Chile gained its independence. The architecture of Chiloé is special for being different than most other places in Chile with stilt houses and wooden churches.
We actually stayed in one of those stilt houses for the night in Castro, Chiloé’s biggest city. However, once we got on to the island we realized how lucky we had been with the clear weather earlier in our trip. Apart from a few times that the clouds parted making rainbows, the entire time we were on Chiloé Island was grey cold and rainy.
We retraced a path that Darwin had taken when he visited South America and was developing his ideas about evolution. The weather even behaved as halfway through our hike the rain stopped and the sun came out to make a rainbow.
Before we left the Island we made one more stop. Early in the morning on our last day we stopped by a beach known for its flocks of flamingos.
Iguazú Falls was officially our best outing so far. The only other possible contender was the Perú trip. Despite what an entire two weeks there had to offer—holding the world’s most painful insect and finding my new favorite food (Lomo saltado)—Iquazú Falls still comes out on top.
Let me explain why. First, Iguazú Falls is twice Niagra, but in the middle of the freakin’ Amazon (technically incorrect, but who cares). When I say twice Niagra, I mean twice Niagra. At 82 meters high, and over 2,700 meters wide, Iguazú Falls is certainly beautiful.
The falls are something indescribable. Anyone who has seen them can understand this. There is just nothing close to it. And standing watching water pour over a sheer cliff and disappear was mesmerizing, frightening and humbling. (You can’t see the bottom as vapor created by the falls shoots up and obscures everything) And this spans over a mile. A mile of falls.
The Falls caught my attention, the jungle kept it.
The Amazon rainforest is a hugely diverse forest; in fact, only about 1% of Argentina is covered by jungle, and yet 50% of all Argentinian organisms are found there. I got to see it all.
Ants are a passion of mine that I’ve been interested in for years. A dream of mine was to meet a Bullet Ant (cross that off the list), and once that was done, I moved on to other ants, including but not limited to:
Leafcutter ants (Acromyrmex and Atta)
Trap Jaw ants (Odontomachus)
Fire ants (Solenopsis)
… and much more.
I got to see them all and more.
The leafcutter ants were limited to the Acromyrmex species, apparently Atta isn’t found that deep in the jungle. Acromyrmex ants are mostly scavengers that carry of dead leaves into the nest to feed their nutritious fungus. Atta ants are more industrial, and their colonies can be huge, with millions of ants in them. Do not mess with leafcutter ants. Some of them can bite through skin. Truly, a death by a thousand cuts.
TrapJaws, I only saw one specimen, which was spotted by my dad. These ants have jaws that can open 180º, and slam shut at over 100 mph. Odontomachus aim these jaws at the ground to launch them away from danger. Equipped with a painful sting, these ants are truly incredible. (Thanks dad!)
Fire ants are perhaps the most infamous ants in the world. Solenopsis ants are extremely aggressive when it comes to defending their nest, and they can put allergic people into shock. I stayed away from these ants, and so should you.
One other ant that I saw was the biggest ant I’ve ever seen, at an inch and half, the Dinoponera australis is massive. These ants don’t have queens; instead, the workers fight amongst themselves until a dominant ant emerges victorious. This ant is called a gamergate and has to fight each new ant to maintain control of the colony.
That was only the ants that I saw, don’t get me started on the butterflies, spiders, and other stuff, that all deserves its own blog, as well as the falls themselves.
[Editorial note: Here’s a post based on hand-written notes that Everett took more than a month ago during our trip to Peru. These are just now getting onto our blog due to a delay in the editorial process. (His parents agreed to type them into the computer for him.) For the record, for the past month Everett has been holed up in our apartment in Valparaiso living the life of a secluded scholar as he prepares for his upcoming AP Exams in Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, and US History — and keeps up on his reading list for English. -Fred]
March 11, 2019, Urubamba, Peru
We were told a bus would pick us up from Urubamba at 9 am. We would drop off our big bags at a hotel in the next town (Ollantaytambo) and continue on to Aguas Calientes, the base of Machu Picchu. We were picked up by a van already full of folks; there were 3 other couples, though none spoke English as their first language. I sat at the very back row of the van between my mom and a lady who, I think, spoke German. We talked to our driver and told him the address in Ollantaytambo where we had a hotel for after the Machu Picchu trip. He agreed and we handed over our payment, with the hope that it would get us to and from M.P.
We got back in the bus and drove on through the beautiful mountains. We reached a cobbled street and soon found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam in Ollantaytambo. Our agency called the driver and said that we couldn’t drop our bags there because of the traffic, instead our bags would be kept in Hydro Electrica while we visited M.P. We weren’t sure what this meant exactly, but we didn’t have much choice.
After that, we started to drive on switchbacks with blind corners. Our driver insisted on taking these turns as fast as possible! We passed a few ruins and several small villages. We climbed so high that it got noticeably cooler, then it started to rain. At the top, we were in a cloud that was so foggy we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us. Finally, we crested the summit and we began going down, taking sharp turns very quickly on the edge of a mountain without rails or a fence. The road grew worse and worse, and rock slides often blocked half the road.
Instead of bridges, the water was allowed to flow over the road so the van splashed through it. Both Ian and I weren’t feeling great. We stopped for a snack, and I ate chocolate cookies, which may have been a bad idea. After 10 minutes, we got back in the van and descended down the bumpy road into the valley. The lower we got the bumpier it became and we passed through several towns with speed bumps.
The weather also started to heat up and the sun baked the van. The driver had his window open but the air wasn’t reaching the back. My mom and I were boiling alive along with the German couple. By the time we got to a small town, my stomach began to hurt. We turned off the main road and I was glad because I thought we were going to stop. We had talked to our driver at the rest stop and he has said that it was only two more hours. He also said he has been driving back and forth on this route (Cusco to Hydro Electrica; 7 hours one way) nearly every day for 6 years (and he was 25 years old!!).
To my dismay, our turn off the main road quickly led into a dirt road even bumpier than before, which took us back up into the mountains. We were on very sketchy roads, up high, cut into the side of the mountains, and I was extremely hot and my stomach hurt, making me quite uncomfortable. We went on and passed a huge town were children were walking to school and people were selling fruit in the streets. It was full of those 3 wheeled moto-taxis.
We continued on, but I began to feel worse and worse. I couldn’t tell if I was hungry, I had to go to the bathroom, or just tired of the heat and bumpy ride. [Ed note: the inability to tell the difference between nausea and hunger is not new for Ev!] By the time I thought I was going to burst, we saw an electric dam and I thought that this HAD to be the place.
I was wrong.
We turned away from the dam and I lost hope. I wasn’t sure if I was going to throw up or what, but I did NOT feel good. We finally made it to Hydro Electrica and a man came over and started to explain what would happen next. I didn’t have time to listen. I hopped out of the van and ran over to the bathroom. However, it cost 1 sol (about 35 cents).
I ran back and got the money but by the time I returned there was a line. I waited anxiously, feeling awful. After the bathroom, I decided I was hungry; but after a few bites, I rushed back to the bathroom. All told, it took 3 trips to the bathroom and me swallowing a pill to start to feel better. [Ed note: first pill ever successfully swallowed. Immodium, just so you get the full picture.]
We had received coupons for the buffet for lunch and I was able to eat most of my food and drink some water. We were told that to leave our bags there, we needed to pay 10 soles. We did, but they didn’t seem to move them out of the restaurant area. Before we had time to see what happened to them, the next phase began: a 12 km walk to Aguas Calientes. So, we left our bags, crossed our fingers and began the long walk.
We walked almost entirely on and next to the train tracks, making sure to get out of the way when the train came. There were beautiful mountains to see but otherwise it was an uneventful, flat hike. We left around 3:30 and by 5:30, we arrived at the base of M.P.
Our guide directed us 2 km down the road to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu’s “Pueblo.” It was a busy town with lots of tourist shops and restaurants and hotels with neon signs. We made it to the central plaza where guides were wandering around yelling names off of a list. We heard ours called and joined a group of four. After a 10 minutes wait, he turned us over to another man who led us to our hotel. He told us to meet him back in the main square at 8 pm to have dinner and learn about what would happen tomorrow.
We got to the hotel at 6. I took a nice shower, my second that day!! My stomach felt much better, but I was a little nervous to go out again. It turned out that food and my stomach was the least of our problems—we next encountered a serious issue: Alex.
8pm: meeting the dreaded “Alex”
We met our Machu Picchu guide, who said his name was Alex [Ed. note: The next day I noticed that many tour guides had Alex name tags on, so I’m guessing Alex isn’t his real name.], in the main square at 8:07. He was late. He then explained that we would be going either by bus or by foot up to M.P. by 6:30 am in the morning. There, we would meet at the black flag and Alex would be our guide. Next, he showed us to our restaurant where we would eat and get our tickets. However, when someone came out to give us our tickets, only dad got a ticket while Mom, Ian, and I did not.
We told them we had paid for tickets for everyone. Next, Alex came out and explained how we would have to get up at 5 am and meet someone in our hotel lobby who would give us our tickets, though it wasn’t clear how or why this would happen. We were understandably upset as we had planned to see the sunrise over M.P. [Ed. note: To see the sunrise you need to leave town around 4:30 am and hike up. The buses don’t arrive at the top until after sunrise. We had heard that it is an unforgettable experience to see sunrise at the top of Machu Picchu before the tourist hordes arrive by bus. Alas, we may never know.]
My dad tried to get Alex to explain what had happened and find out what we could do to fix this, but instead of apologizing, Alex began to raise his voice and yell the same thing about 5 am. His breath smelled of alcohol and he grew angry, saying “you clearly don’t understand anything.” We left the restaurant to check if we could buy entrance tickets on our own. Unfortunately, the office to buy entrance tickets had closed just 20 minutes before (at 8 pm) and wouldn’t open again until 5:30 am, so it made sense that there was a problem with our tickets that they couldn’t fix until 5 am the next morning
We tried to talk to another guide who had brought us dad’s ticket to see if there was anything else we could do, but he just called Alex over and the same scenario played out except now Alex was angrier! The problem with Alex was clear; he didn’t own up to a mistake or apologize that they had messed up our tickets. Instead, he grew hostile.
I give a lot of credit to my dad for keeping his cool. Responding to Alex with more anger solves nothing, even though it felt like what I wanted to do, and probably my dad too. This has taught me about being the bigger man, because there will be more Alex-like people out there and it is best to keep calm. Also, it has taught me — don’t be like Alex! Own up to mistakes and give an honest apology when it is owed. It will be a whole lot better than becoming aggressive.
As for what to do next, we bought tickets for the bus up to MP in the morning, but we still needed our entrance tickets. I was nervous because Alex was going to be our guide in MP, and I was still pretty angry at him, and clearly, he was annoyed with us too.
March 12, 2019, Machu Picchu at last!
My brother woke me up at 4:30 am with an alarm. We got dressed and packed up all of our things quickly. It had rained hard all night and was still drizzling. We had to buy ponchos to keep our bags dry, even though we had rain pants and jackets. We went to the lobby at 4:50 and we got a bagged breakfast. It consisted of a banana, peach juice, and a dry cheese sandwich.
A little after 5, a man showed up and took us to the ticket office that opened at 5:30. While waiting there, we met a young Japanese man who also had a problem with his ticket. He was traveling alone because his friend had suffered from altitude sickness in Cusco and had decided to go home to Japan!
They finally opened the doors around 5:30 and it turned out that our guy did have money and we successfully got our entrance tickets. We headed to the bus and stood in the line which stretched across the whole town, luckily, we got in line in time to get an early bus. We boarded at 5:50 while the rain was still drizzling. After half an hour of switchbacks, we arrived at the top, which was full of people anxiously waiting around the entrance in groups. [Ed note: The early morning weather was overcast and raining, so we would not have been able to see the sunrise anyway.]
We spotted Alex with his black flag waiting for his group. As we walked up the steps toward him, a man called to us asking if we needed a guide. He spoke English well and seemed nice. He said he would charge us $15 US per person and that he had been a guide in the area of 32 years. We decided to do it.
My dad told Alex that we would be going with the other guide. He said “it will cost money but do whatever you want.” We went back and our guide told us to go through the front gate while he tried to round up a few more people for our group. In the meantime, it turns out Alex was also an a$$hole during the day. Instead of asking or talking to us, he shoved a camera in our face and said that we had chosen to leave his group, probably to let his company know. Just talking or asking permission would have been perfectly OK, causing no problem, but that is just not who he is. Also, he was leading his tour in Spanish, so our English guide was worth the money!
After a brief while talking with our other group member, Mr. Gohn, a 64-year-old Chinese man, Felix (our new and improved tour guide) decided to start the tour with just us 5 people. He was knowledgeable and had been on all the treks in the area “hundreds of times.” The rain had stopped, but the clouds still covered MP. And we saw only glimpses from up above. Felix promised that because it had been a rainy night the fog would clear and it would be a beautiful day.
Felix led us up the mountain to the Inca Gate. On the way, he explained that he knew a lot about the biology of the area and he pointed out birds and insects. Ian asked about bullet ants and Felix promised that he would find one, and would even pick it up and let it crawl on Ian. As we walked along a rock path overlooking mountain ranges on the edge of a sheer cliff without rails, the altitude, view, and height combined to make anyone short of breath.
We walked until we saw a bridge constructed into the side of a cliff. Our guide said this was “not so easy to make” (which seemed like an understatement, especially without any equipment but llama-hair ropes). As we returned to the main MP site, the view of the whole city was clear and the sun was shining as Felix promised!
Felix explained how the city took 700 years to build, starting in 700 A.D. [Ed. note: Felix might be an unreliable narrator. Best to check other sources if you are interested in the fascinating history of Machu Picchu.] They laid boulders, rocks, sand and dirt to provide drainage and to earthquake-proof the city. Also, he pointed out how nothing was built along one central line. This was in fact, a major fault line, and the Incas knew enough to not build any structures on it. It also divided the farming and urban areas. The upper portion of the town was for important people only and there was also a temple to the sun God.
We passed Alex and his group a couple of times with no problems.
We saw the sun dial where the sun hits when it shines through the sun gate. We saw rollers for the stones, stones that were half way cut, and beautiful views of the mountains all around. Incredible to think about how much planning the Incas did and how they were able to do it. We saw the lower part of the town, built for workers and we walked on the terraces the Incas used for farming. Towards the end of the tour, Felix found a bullet ant. He picked it up and let Ian hold it too—pretty dangerous!
When it was time to pay Felix, we didn’t have quite enough money. We paid half at the top and agreed to pay the other half around 1 pm at the Aguas Calientes train station. We decided to walk down, because we had only bought one way bus tickets. Pretty long walk down and back to town!
We were tired and none of us wanted to go all the way to Hydro Electrica to take the crazy bus back to Ollantaytambo. Dad volunteered! He bought a train ticket from Aguas Caliente to Hydro Electrica so he could get our bags, and then he would take the 5-hour bumpy bus ride to Ollantaytambo. Meanwhile, Mom, Ian, and I would take a different train in the other direction, straight from Aguas Caliente to Ollantaytambo.
We had lunch in town, paid Felix, and got on our various trains. Our train was super nice. Most of the people were old—much older than the folks on the bus had been. The train had windows even overhead and they served tea and a brownie with golden berries. We followed the river through the valley. We got back at 3:45 and walked to our hotel at Apu Lodge. Nice place—we could see ruins right out the window!
After a few hours of rest, we went down to the main square to get dinner around 7 pm and wait for dad. We had a decent meal and around 7:30 our crazy driver from the day before who had gone so fast came barreling through town.
Dad wasn’t on the van.
We were starting to worry, but dad finally showed up around 8pm in a different van and… he had both bags!! What a relief.
We all went back to the hotel to check all of us in. We made some plans for the next two days, but we were very tired, so we went to sleep.
It turns out, that being nice to your customers actually encourages them to spend more time and money in your store, a novel concept, I know. But how much of a difference does this make? And how friendly do you need to be, can you be TOO nice? Who knows, I certainly don’t.
So, a long time ago, in a country far far away, I used to go to a local card shop, which is run by a really nice man, and not-so really nice woman, she wasn’t outright MEAN, per se, but she wasn’t exactly… nice. Basically, she was rather intense and a very no-nonsense person, and was swift when telling people not to do things. (Granted, she was dealing with a bunch of teenage boys, so I don’t blame her)
How does this compare to Victor and MJ who are the owners of Moss Eisley? Well, for one I can not tell you how nice it is to meet someone else who plays MTG AND speaks English. I was terrified of entering the store because I didn’t have the right cards, didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know anyone there, and if it was anything like J&R cards, I probably would not have returned. (J&R cards is not a bad store, but if I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know what people were saying, I would have probably gone to other stores in Viña.) But instead of what I expected, I was met by a man who spoke English, and actually lent us, teenage kids, rather expensive decks, where we could compete, and yes even win tournaments.
Once I experienced this, I definitely wanted to come back. Victor and everyone else there has been so nice, and I think genuinely enjoys working there and playing magic with their friends. Victor is nice enough to try to find cards for a deck that I wanted to make and put them all together. For free. On top of that, he also helps me improve my skills, as Victor was once a professional Magic player.
So if YOU want to run a shop, try not to scare people away, it’s bad for business. Be welcoming and kind, answer questions, stuff like that. Pretty simple really, only be rude to people if you don’t want them to spend time (and money!) in your store.
All in all, the difference that being nice to your customers, in my opinion, makes a huge difference! From only going someplace because it’s the ONLY place to go, to going someplace because you enjoy the atmosphere that has been cultivated. My experience here in Chile so far has been this: The people: so nice. The food, not so much.
To me, the highlight of Perú wasn’t kayaking at lake Titi Kaka, or visiting ancient Inca ruins, or staying with ‘traditional’ Inca families, to me, the highlight of Perú, was the insects. From holding ants to looking at bizarre centipedes, the natural life is stunning. It is not often you get to hold the world’s most painful stinging insect, on the site of an ancient ruin.
Enter, the bullet ant. Paraponera clavata is the world’s most painful insect, someone who is unfortunate enough to get stung by this insect will feel as if they have been SHOT BY A GUN. The pain lasts for twenty four hours. I HELD THAT IN MY HANDS!
First, some backstory. We flew in a plane to Lima, then Cusco, at approximately 11,000 feet up. Our bodies were not prepared. After fleeing down to Urubamba, we stayed there in preparation for the big trip, Machu Picchu. One horrifying bus ride later, and we all felt like puking our guts out, we walked for two hours to the Disneyland-esque town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu, it is where EVERYONE meets. After a tense dinner conversation, more like a confrontation with our tour guide about the lack of tickets, we had to get up at FIVE IN THE MORNING! To get tickets.
We did not and do not like our guide Alex. Alex, you suck.
After a bus ride up, finding a new guide, a much, much better one mind you, we enter the lost city of the Inca’s and it’s off to the races, not actually because they do not like you doing ANYTHING to the rocks and will throw you out (Physically off the cliffs). Hiking through the ruins I do everything in my power to strike up a conversation about ants, which goes surprisingly well! Our guide apparently has picked up and held Bullet Ants and knows first hand the pain that they can cause. We continue the tour, pick up a few more people whose guides abandoned them. He began poking around the ground by a rock in the middle of this city. it’s an ant! He picks it up and puts it on my arm. The rather large frightening ant is crawling all over my arm. I have never respected an animal as much as that one. It could cause me imaginable pain if it felt threatened. I could crush it, but not after it basically shoots me with a non-lethal gun. After a while, he flicked it off, and we parted ways and continued. That was the third one I saw today, I may have even seen a queen.
The hike down was downright painful, but the upside is that I saw my first official leafcutters, not of the Atta genus, but leafcutter’s nonetheless.
In conclusion, the jungle is a frankly amazing place, and I feel so lucky for holding a creature that’s more terrifying than a jaguar. I do hope that I will get to go to Costa Rica someday to hopefully see more ants and more amazing creatures.
Most weekdays, I take a small “micro” bus to the University. This system of small buses, while very convenient, is deeply, deeply confusing! There are at least 40 different bus lines (for a city that you can walk end to end in about 45 minutes!), and many buses with different numbers drive roughly the same route through the main city, but with important differences at one end or the other (for example, I can take the 501, the 503, the 505, the 506, the 508, or the 510 but NOT the 509). Bus numbers and details of the routes are noted on cards in the front windows, but these can be very difficult to read as these micros drive very, very fast through the crowded streets of Valparaiso. (For example, here is my favorite bus, the 505, stopped on the street in December because student protesters had braved tear gas to pile desks and chairs in the middle of the street to support the striking port workers!)
Normally, the drivers are paid per passenger, so they race from one stop to the next, attempting to pick up as many passengers as possible. (I pay the equivalent of 70 cents to ride a bus about 3 miles to the University. I think it takes about 10-15 minutes). Sometimes, the buses literally seem to be racing each other in order to get to stops first and pick up more people. To add to the confusion, people basically get on or off just about anywhere they want. You can wave down a micro as you walk along any street, and they will typically stop for you, even if it isn’t an official bus stop. Similarly, if you are on the bus and decide you want to stop anywhere along the route, you can ring the bell or just tell the driver and they will probably attempt to pull over and stop, or at least slow down. They open the doors well before they come to a stop, and many people hop right on and off buses while they are still moving. Then again, sometimes the drivers don’t want to stop, and you will drive way past your actual stop before convincing the driver to slow down.
To add to the fun, people hawking a variety of things will temporarily step onto buses to sell their ice cream, candy bars, selfie sticks, or USB drives. They usually stick around for a few minutes and then ask the driver to pull over so they can hop off again. Sometimes, there are musicians busking ON the buses! They wander up and down the aisles playing guitars and asking for money. Given the lurching, bone-rattling zooming and bucking that is happening, this is an impressive feat. When there are no buskers on the bus, bus drivers will often play music of their choice over speakers, which creates a pretty festive feeling on the bus. Combine this with the “mudflap” girl decals they often paste above their windows, and it can feel like a crazy party scene on the bus!
Despite all the wackiness, you typically only need to wait a few minutes for a bus, since they come pretty regularly. And the reason they come regularly brings me to “el sapo.” Translated as The Toad (or Frog), it refers to “one who is always watching.” These men essentially volunteer to stand at a spot along the route and keep track of when buses from various routes have last gone by. They carry notepads or clipboard and appear to have developed a fairly complicated system for keeping track of the last time they saw, for example, a 510 bus go by. The bus drivers stop to consult with el sapo to understand whether they should slow down or speed up. Because the drivers are paid per customer, it is in their best interest to not follow another bus too closely, but instead be as evenly distributed as possible. The drivers will typically pass along a small tip to el sapo for the information. My understanding is that this is entirely unofficial–these men have just stepped into this role. They aren’t paid by the bus company or the government and they don’t have a salary; they survive on the tips they are given by the drivers. I’m guessing they make several thousand pesos per day (perhaps $10 or a bit more?) It seems like an incredibly dangerous job–they jump in and out of traffic, often standing in the middle of two lanes of rushing buses and cars.
This blog won’t let me post videos, but you can see a couple of videos I’ve taken of these guys at work here: