Guatemalans Boarding Bus

Guatemalans Boarding Bus480
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2 Essays

  1. Haruna Miyagawa Fukui | 2008 First Prize Winner says:

    Bus terminal is always full of sociological insights. The terminal of mass transportations, whether it is of bus, airplane, or train, is the point of exchange. It is not only where different buses (or cargos) meet, but it is also the intersection of people and their values. In this photograph, a gentleman in the rear is trying to sell a golden vase and a lady in the foreground colorfully woven clothes. Where there is a line of passengers, there is a vender. Customers are always sought regardless of time and space, and a market opens where there is a crowd of people. The informal economy is so prevalent in the “Third World” societies that it has gained recognition by tourists as well as by locals, making it the norm of daily transaction in these societies.

    Some people dislike the hassle of the vendors, but others enjoy the human interactions and enchanting bargaining that are long gone in many of the industrialized societies which are increasingly dominated by chain stores and online shopping. Thus, the informal economy serves people in different ways. For locals, it provides necessities to sustain their everyday lives, and for the insecure crowd of tourists from the “developed” countries, it provides the comfort and the thrill of human interactions.

    Further, in the foreground of the photograph, we notice that there are smiling faces of the passengers waiting to board the bus. Their smiles infer a friendly conversation. They could be the regulars sharing stories of everyday lives as a mother and wife as well as a laborer. These casual conversations allow people to find the common ground and reassure their sense of belonging to the community.

    How about the mass transportation that is not in this photograph? In other words, what is the image associated with the mass transportation in the “developed” countries? In a car-oriented society such as Phoenix (and a number of cities in the United States), the image attached to bus is relatively negative. It is far from the lively and colorful image depicted in this photograph. Rather, the bus terminal is often located in the area which is considered as “not a ‘nice’ neighborhood” if it is a long distance bus. The commuting bus is often equivalent to “inconvenience”, and as such, it is a powerful depiction of class divide. Furthermore, the rich interactions that emerge at the terminals as well as on the buses are often simplified by those who care less to hop on the bus.

    In densely populated cities like Tokyo, bus is a crucial transportation which supplements the rail, and yet as infamous as the commuting trains are, the rush hour buses are preferred to be avoided whenever possible. Considering the heavy traffic, relatively punctual and frequent schedule promises passengers the convenience, but rarely do we encounter smiles or even a hint of conversation. Instead, the buses are often filled with dull and tired faces that are seemingly dreading to start yet another long day of work.

    Bus, as a result, is a culturally distinct vehicle. The meaning attached to the mass transportation varies by societies. Therefore, the atmosphere of the bus terminals is socially and culturally embedded. It is the point of intersection where different values meet as well as the point where culturally specific values are expressed and emphasized.

  2. Kristin Miller | 2014 First Prize Winner says:

    Rachel Tanur's photograph illustrates a social relationship that is very different from the deliberate distancing practiced by the young, male Silicon Valley workers I captured waiting for a Facebook bus. Absent are the hallmarks of mass transit in the U.S—reading material, sunglasses, or expensive data devices used to buffer the rider from others. In Tanur’s image, the people at the bus stop are engaged with their surroundings and their neighbors—there are conversations taking place, and snacks and goods for sale. The waiting passengers stand closely grouped, the colorful patterns of their clothes overlapping. The bus to Sololá behind them is equally bright—with red and yellow paint and a multicolored destination placard—and pops out against the bright blue of the food stand in the background.

    The accumulation of details in Tanur’s composition produces a significantly different effect from the setting of my photograph: regardless of whether these people are traveling to work, to see family, or to conduct business, their transit space seems lively and inclusive. The techies, waiting for a bus that will carry only those with the right employment credentials and social capital, are walled off from each other and utterly disengaged from their environments. In the view of Henri Lefebvre, spatial relations are produced by and reflective of social relations (1). This observation applies not only to cities or regions, but also to the systems and technologies that connect them, such as public transport. This dynamic is manifest in the very different experiences produced by the spaces of transit in the hyper wealthy SF Bay Area and impoverished rural Guatemala.

    It is a marked irony of the tension over the exclusive “Google Buses” that in most of the world, buses are a cheap, populist mode of transit. Even in the U.S., municipal buses are the most common form of state-supported transit due to their relative lack of costly infrastructure; increasing numbers of low-cost, private buses now travel the interstates as an alternative to expensive air travel, and the ailing Amtrak system. But, of course, the car is the preferred mode of transportation in the U.S., and is heavily linked with notions of citizenship (the driver’s license is the default form of ID), wealth and class status, and autonomy. For Americans, discomfort with public transit is due in part to the fact that few use it as their primary or only mode of transportation; in 2010 there were 797 vehicles per 1,000 U.S citizens. By contrast, in Guatemala, there are only 68 (2).

    Most of the 68 vehicles per 1,000 Guatemalans are buses. To cope with extreme poverty, income inequality, lack of social and geographic mobility, and widespread failure of public train and bus services, Guatemala has developed an expansive network of cheap, private buses that serve almost every community in the country. The majority of these are repurposed school buses from elsewhere in the Americas, repainted with eye-popping colors like those on the bus to Sololá, and with even more spectacular, mural-like decorations shown in other images from Tanur’s travels. The buses are crowded and not particularly comfortable, but they are democratic in this. The experience of travel by bus produces a communal space that begins in the social scenes of their many stopping locations, flows into the buses’ cramped confines, and then feeds back into the communities they connect. Given that others of Tanur’s photos were taken at Lake Atitlán, near Sololá, I imagine these images were taken while she herself was traveling the country by bus, making her images both an outside and an inside view of this important aspect of Guatemalan social life.

    1) Lefebvre, Henri, "State, Space," World, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 186.
    2) The World Bank, “Motor vehicles (per 1,000 people),” (accessed 17 Feb. 2014).