Tag: transportation

The more I take combis (Peruvian public transportation) in Huancayo, the more I envision the combi as a microcosm of Peruvian life.


Today I rode a combi that had a little speaker hanging dangerously over the heads of some passengers. It was tied onto an inner metal support bar and wired to the front of the van somehow so that people in the back could enjoy the same Peruvian cumbia music as the driver. It wasn’t even working, but it’s the thought that counts.

Last week, when I hopped onto a combi to escape the pouring rain, there was a leak near the window and rain was dripping onto one of the seats. They stuffed a cloth into the crack to stop the leak. It would be temporary. The combi worked fine when it wasn’t raining. They were never going to fix that window.

To me, these are examples of resourcefulness and of taking advantage of what’s available. They’re examples of being okay with imperfection. The lesson is to care less about the little details and more about making something functional. It’s about using something for its full worth and then finding ways to extract even more out of it, instead of continually buying the latest gear or replacing the whole package because of a tiny tear.


I have been on various interrupted combi rides. Sometimes the combis take a different route because there’s a parade or party going on downtown. Sometimes they take shortcuts without warning their passengers or explaining why. Sometimes the police will stop the combi for going too fast or taking passengers in undesignated areas, and everyone on the combi has to wait.

It’s impossible to know what to expect and things aren’t always fair, but they happen so you live with them. People learn to let things go. Maybe sometimes toleration is expressed as repression or resignation, but what’s important is knowing when to choose their fights. Toleration can also be seen as a type of acceptance. In the grand scheme of things, life isn’t ever fair and this realization melts indignation and demands respect.


At any given time, you may ride a combi in the company of dogs, chickens, piglets, or even sheep. The owners often hop on with large mantas (a large cloth ladies use to carry load on their back), filled with what they’ve bought at the market as if their mantas were large purses and shopping bags combined into one.

There are unspoken rules to help each other out. The cobrador (money collector) always helps the ladies with their things, especially if they have extra boxes. The passengers get up to give the ladies their seats. Not only do these ladies get priority seating, but I’ve also seen people get up for seniors and pregnant women just like in Canada.

Sometimes, a child or recovering drug addict gets on the combi to sing or tell their life story, and then ask for our “collaboration” with whatever we can spare. You see the nod of the cobrador: “Come on in. I know what it’s like to live a hard life too.” And after the presentation, the passengers on the combi share — at least half of them.

There’s poverty here, but it hasn’t become cut-throat, at least not in the Andes. There’s still a sense of community. It’s near impossible to live an isolated lifestyle. Huancainos know that no man is an island and being packed into a combi together is only a physical affirmation of the links between you and your neighbours.

Scary Men

In Lima, there’s a bus terminal in a shady part of the city called Yerbateros. It houses all of the buses that go to the province of Junín; the majority of them go to Huancayo. This is where you go to pay $3 for a bus ride to Huancayo, 8 hours away.

Whenever we arrive at the Yerbateros terminal, we’re always bombarded by a group of men the second we get out of the taxi. “Huancayo? You’re going to Huancayo?” all of them say at once. “I’ll take you there for 50 soles.” (This is around $17). They’re “taxi” drivers, they say, but about half of them just have their own personal cars and want to make some extra cash during their ride home.

I have always been afraid of these men. I’m especially afraid when I have luggage with me. I ignore them. I always take the bus anyway, they’re cheaper and they seem safer because you share your fate with 50 people instead of 5.

So, I wasn’t feeling the most secure when we arrived at the Yerbateros terminal this past Wednesday and got out of the taxi only to be faced with a double threat. The taxi driver who drove us over from the airport wanted to harshly overcharge us for the trip while we were being besieged by the intimidating crowd of “taxi” drivers at the terminal.

It was a mess. The airport taxi driver had initially told us that he was charging us “20,” but only later revealed that he meant “$20” and not “20 soles” and would also be adding $15 dollars to that price because of the extra traffic that he hadn’t expected. We knew we were being cheated because we’ve taken the trip between the airport and Yerbateros many times. We can often get there by paying only 30 soles and this guy was charging us 100 soles!

“They’re having an argument! Let them talk!” one man from the crowd says to another who was in our faces, trying to find out if we were going to Huancayo.

“How much is he charging you?” another man asks us. When the crowd hears the amount of money the airport taxi driver is trying to steal from us, everyone is outraged.

“How can he charge you 100 soles for driving an hour and a half from the airport if we only charge 50 soles for a 5-hour drive to Huancayo?”

“That’s abusive. Don’t pay him!”

“I’ve driven here from the airport so many times. I take route X because it’s faster and I only charge 40 soles maximum. He must have taken you through a longer route on purpose.”

“I have the special license to enter the airport grounds and only black taxi cabs are allowed in. This car is a white car. It must be his own personal car, just painted.”

“Robber! He’s charging you way too much.”

“Call the police!”

And one of the men actually did go call a police officer who was nearby. The crowd shouted out their grievances on our behalf. The police officer took a walk around the car. Soon after, we see the airport taxi driver taking off his tie and removing the taxi’s front tire. We hadn’t even noticed when it had deflated. The police officer would be taking him to the local jail to do a background check and to call his so-called company. If his taxi company even existed, he may have been overcharging passengers and pocketing the money for himself. We later remembered that the business card he showed us at the airport to prove his credibility said “Forza Tours,” but the official receipt he gave us cited a completely different company name.

I felt really thankful that we had all of those men on our side. They were even less insistent after: “You’re taking the bus? Yeah, it’s cheaper anyway.” I started seeing them as other Huancainos, neighbors that I may see on the streets of Huancayo. I wondered if I had seen them before at Yerbateros and I wonder if I’ll see them again some day.

What has renewed your faith in humanity recently?

Ah, oui?

I took rideshare through the company Allo Stop to travel between Montreal and Quebec.

On the way to Quebec, my driver was an eccentric older man and we were riding in his boxy black minivan decorated with purple decals on the sides. I shook his hand and said my name. That was easy. Then he said something to me in French – I shook my head embarrassedly and smiled nervously – “I’m sorry. I don’t speak French.”

“Your bag?” he says.

Oh! I should have known. I thought he might have said “bagages” (bug-AWJ). He asked to take my bag and stuffed it in the trunk.

I introduced myself to the other guy standing around. He was Asian but seemed to only speak French. They continued to chat with each other. Another guy arrived – same deal.

I try to break a quick silence – “So, you speak a bit of English?” I say to the driver. He says he speaks a little. He asks if the others speak English and it seems like they mumble and shake their heads, but later the Asian guy asks where I’m from. It turns out he speaks English really well. He’s from Madagascar and is studying law at Laval – he also speaks Cantonese!

Nevertheless, they preferred to speak French so I spent the 2-hour trip to Quebec falling in and out of sleep in the back seat, noticing at times that someone would turn around to see if my eyes were still closed and I’d overhear a comment about “dormir.”

They were nice enough. I made sure to wave and smile after I was dropped off and they all waved back.

On the way back to Montreal, I had a different experience. This time I was in a luxury SUV with a large, muscular African Canadian man as the driver. I noticed that he didn’t seem very chatty – the girl who sat in the front with him was trying to chat him up for the first 20 minutes but realized that he was only giving one word answers so the rest of the trip was mostly in silence. She was a backpacker through and through with her hair up in an elaborate bandana, handmade bracelets, odds and ends hanging from her backpack, smoking weed at the rest stop. She would turn around randomly during the trip and give me a goofy smile. (I think it was more because I was sitting in the middle in her line of vision and also because I was the only one that smiled back).

I didn’t feel so bad this time because it wasn’t so much like everyone was talking in French and I couldn’t understand; it was more like no one was talking to each other.

At this point, I was proud of what little French words I had picked up and also of my resourcefulness. I had overhead the guy beside me ask the girl behind if the window was alright open as it was (I understood this mostly from his gestures). The girl responded with “c’est bon”. Later, when the driver turned around and said something to me, I was able to pick up the word “bagages” (which I took to refer to the backpack I had in my lap) so I responded with “c’est bon” strategically when a truck was passing by so that my non-French accent would be muffled by the noise. Pat on the back, me!

There was another moment, after the rest stop, that he turned around and asked something similar, this time pointing to the hand rest in between himself and the girl. I assumed he meant that I could put my backpack there if I wanted to. “Ah way?” I say. I had noticed that a lot of people here pronounce “Oui” (French for “Yes”) as “Way” instead of “Wee.”

“Merci!” I say and put my bag up on the handrest so that I have more space.

Aren’t I just so fake Quebecois?

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