School buses in the U.S. are yellow. Why so? To be seen and to stand out, like fire trucks. They carry our precious children to school – to educate them and to give them a leg up in life. We know that when you have a decent education, doors are open to you. You can become President. You can discover cures for deadly diseases. You can win a Nobel Prize for developing sound and innovative economic theories. But without an education, you can’t get far in this world. And, if you’re not preparing to go far – that is, if you’re not going to school – you hardly need a yellow bus.
I say this because in Nicaragua, there are plenty of American-style school buses. But, they’re not all yellow. They’re blue, red, and sometimes green. Aside from color, they feel the same as those school buses we rode when we were 11 years old. They have the narrow, green plastic-covered seats with cushions that hardly feel padded. The seats are so close together that your legs bump up against the dull metal backing of the seat in front of you. And, shock absorbers are few and far between, so when there’s a bump in the road, whatever was tossed onto the open shelf above your seat is likely to slip through the metal bars and conk you on the head.
What’s different is that in Nicaragua, those non-yellow buses don’t take you to school. At least the majority of them don’t. They’re public buses, transporting people to work, to the market, and to visit relatives in towns across the country. In fact, not as many children in Nicaragua even go to school as compared to the U.S. It’s not that they don’t need or want to. It’s just that they have other important things to do – like working in the fields, picking coffee beans, and shelling peas to feed their families. But, like anywhere, people need to get around. And, cheap second-hand – or maybe fourth-hand – American school buses do the job.
Another difference is that the majority of Nicaraguans don’t look at their major mode of transport and declare it uncomfortable, overcrowded or even bordering on the inhumane (crammed with sweaty bodies being jostled around on bumpy roads), even if it is by our standards. They don’t put value judgments on those buses because they can’t afford to. Rather, they focus on more immediate needs such as feeding their families, sweeping their houses, working in the fields or factories, and dealing with government bureaucracy. In comparison to ours, their lives are relatively prescribed and simple – simple, in terms of the decisions to be made, options to choose from, and possibilities available to them. Simple, however, does not mean easy.
When rural Nicaraguans and I are together in one of those buses, our two worlds touch, and sometimes collide. They look at me and wonder. And ask. They want to know what I’m doing here, where I’m from, what my life is like, and whether I can even speak their language. They realize that this intersection, this chance meeting, may be one of the few times they will ever have to get a sense of what the U.S. is really like, as opposed to the crime-ridden, romance-driven, business-oriented life they see in American movies. It’s their chance – if communication allows – to have a dialogue, an even exchange with an every day American (albeit one who has the resources to travel as far as Nicaragua) and to just get a sense of what makes us tick.
I, on the other hand, find that these conversations with fellow bus-riders are superficial. They’re more about family constellations, geography and food or weather than about values, beliefs, ways of viewing humanity and the world. I realize that education, or lack thereof, has a lot to do with this, so I observe how Nicaraguans interact, enjoying the small pleasures of greeting friends and family, or helping strangers with their market baskets. Or, I notice how people dress to impress, in clothing from a world apart. Teenage girls flaunt brightly sequined blouses while young men wear denim jackets covered with English phrases (produced in Colombia, perhaps) that make no sense.
I admire my bus-mates for their fortitude to deal with whatever life has in store for them, and for how they treat others – stranger and friend alike – as persons worthy of interest and respect. And, I admire them for accepting the discomfort of school buses, for accepting a life where the benefits of education are not everything, and for their aspirations. Aspirations that are not so different from ours: a life in which you’ve loved and been loved, raised a family, fed them well, and perpetuated your spirit and your people.
Who cares if your mode of transport is an age-old cast-off from a country that thinks it’s the most important and powerful in the world? There’s pride in not getting caught up in such concerns. And, maybe a sense of freedom and independence…