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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Saying goodbye to my friends, the Diablo Rojos

There seem to be mixed emotions over whether or not it's a good idea to banish the cultural mascots of Panama, the Diablo Rojo buses. When I say cultural mascots, that's exactly what they are. These old school buses that have been transformed into speedster taxis, are a standout symbol for Panama. Almost every tourist snaps pictures of these loud and flamboyant vehicles, often painted with Conan-style dungeon and dragon like scenery with half-naked ladies trying to slay flying fire breathers, while just over the Xena chick's shoulder is Winnie the Pooh or Tom and Jerry.

With fronts that look a lot like something out of Mad Max, where oftentimes the driver can only see out of a slit in the windshield that's surrounded by a red feather boa, and the destination painted up top rather than on a digital screen like their more modern brothers, these buses have a special place in my heart. When I first moved here, or I should say when I first began to work here (almost a year after moving here), I'd hop on one of these buses at 6:00 a.m. and head straight to work, packed in with all the other commuters like a tin of sardines. 

I'd garnish the strangest looks from the other passengers, like, "What is this gringo doing here? Shouldn't he have a car?" And I was never comfortable with shouting, "Parada!" like you're supposed to to announce your desire to exit the bus. Instead, I'd always fight my way to the front, and stand at the top step, facing the door. The driver always seemed to get the hint and stop at the next stop for me. My favorite part of my morning (and evening) commute? Hopping off at a slow jog as the driver never brought the bus to a complete stop. If you didn't keep pace, you'd likely fall on your face. I once heard an older passenger scream at the driver in Spanish, "Are you trying to kill me? Stop the bus completely!"

Me at the back of a Diablo Rojo

Yes, I happen to appreciate these old buses, but why? Let me explain. I've lived in many of the U.S.'s major cities, where bus transportation costs a pretty penny and most of the time the buses run late, leaving you desperate and stressing out as you try to get to work on time. I paid about $80 per month for a monthly bus pass in Chicago. Some mornings I had to wait at least twenty minutes for a bus to arrive, and then, if it wasn't time for the next route to start, I'd have to either stand out in the cold, or if the driver was nice enough to let me in early, I'd have to sit and wait another ten minutes or so before he'd start driving. 

It's not like that with the Diablo Rojos. These buses are privately owned buses and keep no schedule. However, on every route, there are so many of them operating that you know one will be swinging around the corner in five minutes or less. There's no racing out of your house half dressed because you can't afford to miss the 6:30 a.m. bus. There's no need to worry about it because if you miss the 6:30 a.m. bus, you'll be sure to find a 6:33 bus on its way. And there's no waiting for the bus to start its route. They just keep circling the city, nonstop. 

Out with the old, in with the new

What does it cost to ride a Diablo Rojo? Putting up with the blasting reggaeton music, ignoring the old wino who got there earlier than you and is sitting two seats back burping Ron Abuelo burps and belting out his favorite Ismael Rivera tune, and being squished in besides other sweaty commuters, is a small price to pay when you consider the cost of a one-way trip is only 25 cents. That's it. One quarter will take you where you want to go. And fast (when there's no traffic) as the drivers could rival Dale Earnheardt. They swear they're on a Nascar track, weaving in and out, dodging traffic. 

Sadly, the reign of the Diablo Rojo is coming to an end. I say "is coming to" because they were supposed to be off the road by March 15th. I've seen a few of them still on the road, but it's nothing like before. I've heard there are still a couple of routes where the old buses are allowed to keep going for the time being. 

The government of Panama, in its effort to modernize Panama, has paid $20,000 to the owners of these buses to get them off the road. Apparently, there has been a minor setback, as many of the owners don't have the proper paperwork to operate the bus in the first place. That's still being worked out. 

A Diablo Rojo with not so much pizazz

One major concern right now, is the lack of new, modern, air-conditioned buses that are out on the routes. Even with the Diablo Rojos operating side-by-side with the new buses, most buses were jam packed with commuters. Two weeks ago you'd see the Metro buses (the modern ones) so full that riders were sitting down, standing up, and squeezed in uncomfortably. Right behind the new bus you'd see an older one, also filled to the brim.  So, when the old buses were taken off the street on the 15th, what do you think happened? 

With only one option left, and not enough of those buses on the road, people are now fighting over the buses. Literally. The traffic authorities have tried to establish single-file lines to help usher people onto the buses at some of the larger pick-up points, but keeping the peace all over the city is not an easy thing to do, not when people have been waiting several hours to get on a bus. And not when they're in jeopardy of losing their jobs for arriving to work late. 

Our nanny showed up several hours late last week and told us that she'd waited over two hours to get on a bus. People were pushing and shoving her as she finally boarded. So, now the government is trying to solve the commuter problem. I'm not sure, at this point, what they plan to do, but just saying that they're working on a solution isn't going to be good enough.

The new subway/el-train system being put up all over the city is sure to provide some relief, but that's not scheduled to be completed until 2014. Maybe they should have waited until then to take the Diablo Rojos off the road.

Metro buses lined up on both sides and the train tracks being built above

My concern is that the cost of providing these newer air-conditioned buses is going to be a hefty one and I can't imagine the price to board will stay at 25 cents. No way. Maybe for a little while to ease people's minds, but at some point, the cost will rise to 35 cents then to 50 cents then eventually reach a dollar. Just like the corridor. To go from one end of the Corridor Norte to the other costs almost $4. So what's to stop the government from raising the cost of the bus up to a dollar or more? With no more Diablo Rojos to provide competition, the Metro buses will have the monopoly. I hope I'm wrong, because the average Panamanian worker won't want to (or be able to) pay more than 25 cents each way. 

I know many people won't agree with me on this, but I'm a fan of the red devil buses and I'm sad to see them go. My wife, who just peeked over my shoulder and saw what I was writing, doesn't agree with me. She feels that the Diablo Rojos have been responsible for too many deaths and accidents, and that the drivers have never taken responsibility the way they should. So, I suppose there are good reasons for taking them off the street. Too bad the government couldn't find a happy medium and paint the new buses with Looney Tunes characters or something like that. 

The new Metro bus

Or, how about the old buses stay on their routes, and the cops or whoever is in charge of keeping the streets safe, simply enforce the laws and fine the buses that are caught running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, and participating in any other illegal or dangerous acts? I mean, think about it, if your kid is being bullied in school by a kid with blonde hair, you don't deal with the situation by taking all of the blond haired kids out of the school. 

However, as much as I miss some modern amenities from back home, seeing how rapidly Panama City is advancing makes me worry that soon this will be just another Miami. And I kinda like it the way it was when I got here.  :(

Thanks for reading,