No, I’m not talking about cabs that carry one or two passengers. I’m talking about those commuter omnibuses (‘kombis’) that carry 15 people. The ones that move thousands of people everyday to and from the city center. When you have so many people stuck together for 10 to 20 minutes in a vehicle, interesting things happen. Here are some of the things to love about this whole experience.
1. 15 Passengers Only
Hahaha! Most of these kombis have a sticker that says that, but that is not the case (scroll to the bottom and see). Those kombis carry up to 20 passengers, and sometimes they may spend 10 minutes looking for commuters just to increase the number of passengers from 15 to 18.
2. Conductor (‘windi’)
This guy (or girl sometimes) is the main actor. He is the one who looks for commuters while the vehicle is moving, half his body dangling outside. He uses a distinctive voice to get the attention of people even a 100 meters away. His most important task is to collect the fares from the passengers, who usually need change – something which has become incredibly difficult with the introduction of the American dollar and the shortage of American coins in the country. These guys are pretty smart. How could you remember how much you owe each of 15 people that you just met?
Usually, it’s great to get started with some music on your commute. But in a kombi, you don’t choose what music to listen to. Half the time, the driver will get it right and play popular songs. But sometimes, you may be listening to one of the most boring songs by some obscure artist from the remotest part of the world. On repeat. At a high volume. With bad speakers. You will curse yourself once you finally disembark and find yourself singing along: “o que é essa canção que eu estou cantando!”
4. Big Momma
People sit in rows of four in kombis. For average-size people, it’s still pretty crowded. Now, if big momma (or big daddy) sits in your row, it will get so tight that you will be a statue for the duration of your commute. Good luck trying to retrieve your fare from your pocket, and goodness let it not be in your pants’ pocket! It’s funny because sometimes it’s a game of chess: when you board the kombi, be sure not to sit in a row with a big person. And if you do, pick the most comfortable posture for your body, because that’s how it will be positioned for the next 15 minutes. (This is not a jibe at big women. These kombis are just two small for four-person rows. I hear in South Africa people sit in threes, which makes more sense).
That’s shorthand for velekhaya (referring to someone who comes from the rural areas). These guys love to bring undesirable passengers: not-so-fresh vegetables, live chickens and sometimes goats. Imagine commuting on a hot day, with the smell of veggies that have been out for hours and the clucking of hens to complete the experience? And do pray that the chicken holds it in for the whole commute.
May the fart, and the stuffy 6 year old shoe, not be with you. And goodness not a baby’s number 2. Nobody can really complain when something begins to smell, but it’s a great mental exercise to try to find the source of the stench. No, it can’t be that quiet granny. Is it that smoker’s mouth? It must be that baby! Maybe the windi’s armpit? Or, did I just pass gas in this crowded kombi?
7. The wise guy
Sometimes, you may just find a quiet taxi. Everyone has had a full day, or everyone is unhappy to be out this early on a Monday morning. So nobody really talks. Until the wise guy starts talking to the person next to him. But the whole kombi can hear because of his booming voice. He will cover all topics: inflation, history, politics, the local soccer team, how to grow onions and his uncle’s friend’s daughter’s boyfriend. And you will listen. You can’t shut out his loud voice, and you have nothing else to do anyway.
Ok that’s it. Let me know if you have had interesting experiences commuting, especially over much longer distances. Oh, one more thing: