Micro Cosmos

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Micros, the minivans and short buses that ferry Nicaraguans from town to town, are everywhere. You can get on them at terminals in Managua and the larger pueblos, find them haunting the roads near the plazas, or catch them at any point along the way. You don’t need to raise your hand or call out or do anything to hail the mícro: The driver’s priority is to gorge it with as many passengers as are willing to get on. No matter if it’s so full that passengers’ faces are smashed against the glass; a helper leans out the side of the bus and hails anything resembling a human being.

Many times, riding a mícro, I watched the helper lean out and raise his arm with fingers spread, in the gesture that in Nicaragua means “well?”. The person standing at the roadside would shake her head no, but apparently betray a subtle lack of conviction, as the helper would hop out and try to convince her to change her mind. I could only imagine how such a conversation might go. “Come on, Managua’s a great city. You know you want to go there!” “No, actually, I don’t.” At some point during this exchange, perhaps a minute, the driver cuts losses and begins to pull away, the helper running after the vehicle, seizing the railing, and swinging himself back inside.

A packed mícro in 100-degree heat is highly uncomfortable, but it is also an ideal place to witness the communal ethos of life in Nicaragua, and an opportunity to reflect on how comparatively uneasy we tend to be among one another in this country. On a bus in the U.S., if two people are sitting next to each other and their bodies touch, even faintly, they will generally try and find space to scooch away. On a mícro, a passenger will jam himself between two others and there is no recoil. I once saw a woman get on and pass her baby into another passenger’s helpfully outstretched arms to hold while she stood, with no indication that they knew each other.

Whereas in the U.S. it is nearly ritualistic for a younger person to give up a seat to an elderly person if it is standing-room only, it is not so in Nicaragua. I’ve seen a woman who looked to have been born just as the 19th century turned plant herself and touch the ceiling for balance and none of the younger people sitting blink an eye at her, nor she at them, nor they at one another. I would be inclined to attribute this to a conception of the elderly as capable of doing what they set out to do, given the overall cultural reverence for those advanced in years.

While the vehicles differ from one another; the drivers do not wear uniforms; and there is no corporate oversight or training, emulated behaviors still manifest a fascinating degree of homogeneity. Every driver has a helper, whose job it is to corral passengers by shouting out the destination, first walking around at the terminal and then hanging out the door as they pass through populated areas. They all call out the same thing – “Managua Managua Managua!” for example (always three times). “La Uca, Oriental!” And then “Suave, suave,” (as a person is coming to get on) and with nearly identical modulations of voice, as if they’ve spent hours studying recordings of past helpers. The helper also is tasked with collecting fares, and he always does it with a tap on the shoulder, administered with the same degree of gently insistent pressure from helper to helper. They all hold the bills they collect in a fold, between the same two fingers.

The mícrobus system plays the role of a metropolitan transit system in the United States, in terms of the degree to which the population depends on it, but it is more like New York’s network of independent livery in organization. The drivers are hired by the vehicles’ owners, who form a cooperative. The cooperative lobbies for concessions for discounted fuel and vehicle repairs. A percentage of their profits is pooled to maintain the bus terminals. The hunt for profits at the driver level determines the system’s logic.

Bus drivers in U.S. cities leave the terminal according to a schedule that the customer base takes as gospel. They aim to hit their marks along the route to the minute. In Nicaragua, there is no schedule to consult. Transit officials stationed along the roads do sometimes stop the mícros and jot down notes in a log, reportedly in an attempt to space the fleet out and choreograph it into a semblance of predictability.

As someone who used them nearly daily for two months, and sat stewing in the heat many times as the helper tried to hustle more and more people on board before leaving, I would say the results are questionable. This is accepted by riders; never once did I hear a complaint. And here in the U.S., I don’t hear grousing about the fact that buses do not make unscheduled stops. Order and disorder each come with their own inconveniences that are assimilated by people over time. Disorder just tends to be more lively.

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