Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!! Busses and Vans

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!!
Buses and Vans
20 People on the Van

Time for the daily adventure – catching the bus or Van.  Let’s start by talking about the buses here in Plovdiv.  As I said earlier, there are five different companies.  Some of the companies have been purchasing new buses.  But most of them are still using very old vehicles.  Many of the buses I ride on should have been scrapped years ago.  Often their transmission systems are broken, and they cannot get out of second gear.  Or they have lost so much of their transmission torque; they do not have the power to go over the train track bridge (the only hill – if it can be called that – on the route).   The other day, I got on the buss, and was confused by the sounds it was making.  It sounded just like an old steam locomotive.  As it chugged along, there would be a loud pressure escaping sound every couple of seconds.  I was sure this bus was not going to make it over the train bridge, but it did.  Because I am on the bus for a long time, I often try to sit in the back row.  The problem with doing this is that the seats in the back can be broken or missing backs.  The busses are also used to transport the high school kids in the city.  So… when the schools are starting, or switching sessions, there will be hundreds of young riders scrambling on and off the buses.  The kids (and pensioners) do not pay the conductor.  They all have plastic passes with their pictures, and they just flash them to the conductor. 

The real joy of riding a bus is a summer time trip.  None of these old buses have air conditioning.  In fact, if you sit in the back, you will be on top of the engine, and that heat will rise into the bus.  The other thing about summer riding is that there are really no windows to open up.  And …even if there are windows to open, Bulgarian have a very strong superstition about drafts, and they will NOT open them.  We have friends and colleagues who will catch a cold, or have sore muscles, and they will claim it happened to them because they were sitting in a draft – two weeks ago!!  So…. Everyone will sit very quietly in the stifling bus – that has now turned into a natural sun-oven with temperatures climbing toward 100+ on very hot days. Also, everyone knows which side the sun shines into the bus, and everyone will try to sit on the other side.  (If the busses were boats, we would all capsize!)   The only good thing about hot summer days is that I can walk home – and not have to suffer another trip in the “oven on wheels”. 

But the real adventure of the Plovdiv transit system is the VAN.   All the vans are white, slightly bigger than a Dodge caravan, and have windows all around.  Inside, they all look the same.  There is a bench seat in the front where the driver, and two passengers can sit.  There is large sliding door on the right side where passengers get in and out.  There is a small seat which can fit two thin people behind the driver.  Then there is a space to stand, and then two short bench seats facing each other (with no room for your legs and feet on the floor between them), and then another short bench seat, and then the final row in the back.  On the same side as the door, there may be two very small seats facing forward.  Between the single seats and the small bench seats there is a very small “alleyway” to walk to the seats.  In total there are a possible 15 seats – if everyone was very small.  But realistically, there are only seats for about 12 people.  A van ride gets real interesting if you have 20 people in it (like I did this morning). 
Ok – now that you have picture of the van, let me explain how it works.  A van is part bus, and part taxi.  They all have numbers just like the bus, and specific routes to drive.  However, you can flag down a van anywhere along the route.  You do NOT have to get to a bus stop to get them to pick you up.  You can also get let off anywhere along their route.  Another important thing to remember about vans is that they ONLY take cash!  They do not allow students and pensioners who have those plastic pass cards.  This can be good during the school year when the kids have mobbed the regular buses.  It is also good because most of the old people could never get on and off the van - - but I am getting ahead of myself. 

There is one more important thing to know about the van.  There is NO conductor taking money on a van like there is on a bus or tram!  That means you have to pay the driver.  It also means he has to give you change - - and then he also has to give you that little lottery–like bus ticket!  The most important part of all this is that he does all this while driving.  This is a “jump on, and jump off” process. Vans are always in a hurry! You get on, slam that big door shut (these doors do not close at the “touch of a button”), give the driver his fare, and try to get to seat before he has shifted into third gear.  Yes – these vans are manual transmission.

Now – in case you are confused about the driver activity, let me try to clarify it.  The drivers see you flagging him down.   He puts his blinker on, and pulls to the side of the one lane street.  As you slam the door shut, he is checking the traffic, and shifting into first gear.  Between shifting, he will put his hand up, and you put the money in his hand.  Most often, he has the ticket already in the same hand you are putting the money, and you grab the ticket.  He will then slam into second gear, and you generally have to grab something to keep from being thrown toward the back of the van.  I always have exact change for Vans because I am trying to avoid injury, and get to a seat.  However some folks give them a 2Lv bill, and have to wait till the next gear shift when he has a few seconds to grab change from the dash board, and give it to you.  So… he drives, shifts, steers, takes fares, and gives tickets - - all at the same time.  I really get worried when they are talking on their cell phone, and smoking while doing all those other things.  And… I have seen them doing ALL of these things at once!  

Another interesting thing about the vans are those sliding doors to get in and out of the van.  They really are an oxymoron.  They almost never slide!  It is generally easier to get in, than to get out.  You have to realize these doors are opened and closed about 40-50 times each run.  There is a real art to getting out of van.  Each door has a handle with a button on the top.  You push down on the button to release the door latch and push back.  But often the latch will stick, or the door will have been slammed shut so that it cannot be moved back.  To open the door, you have to get yourself in a slightly crouched position.  It is best to use both hands.  With one hand push down hard on the button. Then with the other hand pull back hard on the handle. And-  (this is where the real trick is) - at the same time you begin to pull back on the handle, you slam your shoulder (like you were a football lineman) into the side of the door.  This will generally push the door out slightly, and allow it to actually move backward.  And always remember that speed is important – jump on and jump off !   
She Needed Help to get out!!!
The door is where much of the drama on a van happens.  If you were living in Bulgaria you would know about the fashion-culture and way women dress.  They always wear stiletto shoes, short skirts, (or tight pants), have enormous handbags slung off their shoulder, and are often carrying another large plastic bag.  In addition to all this, they are generally small and very thin, and can sometimes be talking on their cell phones. OK – now think about the process to get the door open on a van, and try to picture how someone with two bags, stiletto shoes, and talking on a cell phone can open the door.  They CAN’T! But it is amusing to watch them try.  Eventually, someone standing near the door will move to help them, and they bounce out, and go on their merry way.    

The other thing about Vans is that they are the fastest transport vehicles in the system.  I’m convinced all of the drivers have previous experience as race car drivers some place in Europe.  Many of the seats have been pulled up from their anchor bolts because riders have grabbed a seat handle during a lurch forward, or screeching stop, and pull the seats up from the floor.  Most often there is one floor to ceiling pole near the back of the sliding door for the people standing to grab hold of.  However, I have noticed that some vans are missing this pole, and only have the post holder showing where it once was.  It is amazing to watch these vans weave in and out of the other bus and car traffic.  But if you want to get some place quickly using public transport, this is the way to go. 

So.. that is a small part of our life here in Bulgaria.  Like most other things, we really don’t think about it much.  It is just part of the daily pattern.   But the next time, you pull your car with the heated seat, out of the heated garage that is less than 50 feet from your kitchen table where you have breakfast and coffee, please remember how very lucky you are to live in America, and have what you have – even if you don’t realize it!     
Thanks for reading

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