Basically, a combi, also called a micro, is a vehicle that ranges in size between an old Volkswagen van and a regular sized bus, with everything in between. The reason for the variety is that combis are not very well regulated: they started as informal businesses to combat the lack of public transportation systems outside of the city center. These endearing buses take a boring commute and turn it into a daily dose of adventure.
Here’s what to expect on your average commute to school:
You leave your house at least an hour before your first class. You will probably still be late, but the professor won’t be there yet anyway, so it doesn’t matter. You squint to see the street names painted on the sides of the combis before they drive past you, because the route numbers on the front don’t mean anything. Huzzah! You have found one that looks promising. You flag it down.
The cobrador quickly opens the van door and yells “SUBE SUBE SUBE”, so you run to catch it. Chances are, it’s still moving when you get a foot in the door, and it doesn’t wait for your other foot before taking off again. It’s rush hour, so everyone is packed in like sardines. The cobrador yells “AVANCE AVANCE AVANCE” and everyone squishes in a bit tighter to make room for you.
You settle in and rummage around for change. The combis don’t have a fixed rate, but instead charge by distance. The university is three districts away, so the cobrador charges you 2 soles, or about 60 cents. You get a small colorful ticket in return.
Hark! A seat opens up! You slide in and position yourself so that sharp piece of metal doesn’t poke you in the back. Your legs touch the backrest of the seat in front of you, and you pity everyone taller than you.
The best part of the combi ride is the people watching. There are people in nice suits with briefcases, old people who can barely walk, and students scrambling to finish their readings before class. Some talented women can put on a full face of makeup, including curling their eyelashes. The truly gifted are able to sleep. Periodically, a street vendor will board the combi, selling Sublime candy bars, 2 for 1 sol. You’re not in the mood for chocolate this morning, so they hop off at the next stop.
Sometimes, the combi breaks down on the way to the university. The irony is not lost on you that the word “van” in Spanish means “they go”. These vans are mostly held together with rust and a prayer.
Finally, you hear the cobrador shout “PARADERO UNIVERSITARIA”, which is the name of your stop. You stand up, yell “BAJA”, and elbow your way to the front. The cobrador responds “BAJA BAJA BAJA”, and you slide out of the van as it pulls away. Congratulations, you made it!
To me, combis epitomize the Lima experience. I definitely took a while to get used to the public transportation system in Lima. It’s very different from paying a single fare to get on a clean, spacious, air-conditioned subway car, which will take you anywhere you want, along well-publicized routes. But I really respect the ingenuity and grit of Limeños. They created a system that actually works pretty well, despite its dysfunction. There was a need, and they filled it in a creative and entrepreneurial way. In a weird way, I will miss the combis and their ability to turn an everyday occurrence into an adventure.