By Nat Krieger
“Etla Crucero, Etla Crucero!” From the organized chaos of Oaxaca’s El Central transportation hub men and boys shout out the various destinations of collective taxis and city buses. They always sound so persuasive that the traveler has to fight back the urge to blurt, “You know what? The heck with that doctor’s appointment, I’m going to Etla!”
El Central is just one node in a hybrid web of long distance and city buses, collective taxis, and mototaxis–enclosed motor scooters with space for two or three in back–that connects the towns and cities of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca with an efficiency, frequency, and economy that leaves states like California in the dust.
The star of Oaxaca transport is the Mexican made Nissan Tsuru, the study little sedan that nearly every taxi driver negotiates over, around, and through heavy traffic, torn up streets, and fearsome topes: speed bumps that resemble the base of an undersized Zapotec temple, middle of the road architecture that can tear the bottom out of a tank.
Because gas is expensive and fares are low, most taxis in Oaxaca are collectivos, meaning they follow set routes and won’t move until the driver has at least three or four passengers. If there’s still room once the taxi gets rolling the driver will stop for additional riders, or slow down by bus stops, gas stations, and roadside fruit stands, holding out his fingers to show how many spaces are available within while answering questions regarding his route and destination. The foreign rider learns early on that definitions of available space are far from universal.
Since the Tsuru bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1992 Sentra, a newly arrived North American may even question his vision, wondering how two passengers can fit in the front seat with at least three in the back, increasing to four or five if there’s a parent with a couple of young kids.
It helps that no one uses seat belts and that most folks in southern Mexico are smaller and less spacious than your average U.S. adult. Definitions of personal space may also be different. Although riders do their best not to step on each other, side to side contact is unavoidable, especially on Oaxaca’s winding mountain roads, and no one seems put out by it. The Tsuru is a manual shift and middle front seat riders have developed or maybe inherited a Yogic ability to effortlessly execute the seated bridge pose whenever the driver needs to shift.
But most important of all is the regular and ritualized use of social lubricant. If it’s before noon every single passenger who gets into the cab will greet the other passengers with a “Buenos Dias”. If it’s after noon the greeting will change to “Buenos Tardes”. Everyone will utter these greetings, from the tattooed student to the house painter, from a businesswoman with her smartphone to an indigenous farmer for whom Spanish is a second language; and 80% of the time everyone in the taxi will return the salutation in kind.
Nor are these exchanges dragged out of people through gritted teeth or rolling eyes. They are made simply. Graciously? That may be too strong a word; a foreigner gets the feeling that the greeting is simply what adult human beings, actually anyone old enough to ride without their mom or dad, do. And everyone does. Strange, how this brief, formalized two-word exchange establishes everyone’s shared humanity.
This does not mean that the ritual greeting serves as an icebreaker that leads to taxis humming with conversation as strangers become fast friends. Once the greeting is said and returned Mexican riders are quiet and, say compared to Italians, stoic when it comes to traffic snarls, unexpected road closures, and stops for gas. And though most passengers have cell phones it seems to be an unwritten rule that you can text but not speak on them in a collectivo. The one exception this rider witnessed was an older woman who called home repeatedly to report on her ongoing delay owing to the road being blocked by striking government health care workers who hadn’t been paid for months. Both the circumstances and the lady’s age may have been why the driver let it go—respect for seniors is also an ingrained national virtue. In another collectivo that originated in a mountain village, the driver quietly reminded a high school student not to make calls in the cab.
Each form of transport in Oaxaca have precise, jealously guarded roles. The collectivos follow defined routes whose endpoint is usually posted on the lower or upper windshield. In general, they operate between towns within the state, and inside of the major cities. And the cost? From the mountain town of Tlahuitoltepec, the unofficial capital of the Mixe people, to Oaxaca City, a distance of 75 miles the fare is 90 pesos per person, about $4.75. The 12-mile ride from Oaxaca City’s El Central to Villa de Etla (‘Etla Crucero!’) a 9,000 person town famed for its Wednesday market, will set you back 15 pesos, about 80 cents. A variety of different colors and door stripes stand for different routes and cities but the cars sporting them are nearly always Tsurus.
Mototaxis operate inside of the smaller towns and villages and even more than the collectivos these enclosed motor scooters are monuments to Oaxacan ingenuity. The material of the enclosure ranges from metal to cloth and the side door can be wood, plastic or cardboard. In Villa de Etla a mototaxi is the way to go if you’ve just exited the municipal market loaded down with tlayudas (the huge, crispy Oaxacan tortilla), quesillo (the famous local stringy cheese), coffee, fruit, and maybe a couple of liters of drinking water. Mototaxis usually have a flat fee. In Villa de Etla the fare is 7 pesos per person (about 37 cents).
Both first and second class bus companies cover travel outside the state of Oaxaca as well as servicing a few long-distance routes within the state. ADO, Oaxaca’s leading first-class bus line, offers a rider experience light years ahead of Greyhound. It begins with the ADO bus terminal in Oaxaca City, just across from the ivy-covered walls of the Oaxaca Guerreros baseball park. Clean and bright, with modern architecture resembling a new airport ADO’s home makes the outdoor tent that passes for the San Diego Greyhound station even more shameful. Winter nights in Oaxaca and San Diego can drop down into the 40s. San Diego bus passengers sit outside and shiver. Travelers leaving Oaxaca City are inside with a coffee bar, restaurants, and clean bathrooms. There’s even a place to leave your luggage open 24 hours, another convenience that disappeared long ago north of the border. The ADO buses themselves are comfortable with in trip movies and very affordable.
Generalizations like ‘first world’, ‘advanced’, ‘developing nation’, ‘backwards’ are easy to throw around. Reality is usually a lot more complicated. So if the visionaries at SANDAG are done lying to us maybe they can visit Oaxaca and check out a low tech transportation system that serves a high percentage of the region’s residents with routes that actually go where people need to go.
And with all the Yoga studios in San Diego, we’ll be able to master the seated bridge pose in no time.
Read more about Nat Krieger’s travels in Mexico: