My School Bus Sedan

24 Jan

I’d be destined for jail if the supposedly existing seatbelt law were anything more than some distant formality that only exists on paper somewhere. In the states I’d have all kinds of extra charges, I’m sure, of reckless endangerment and who knows what kinds of other great stuff they could drum up. For now, though, I live in small town Southern Mexico, and I drive a 4-door school bus at liberty.*

I drive half of my kids’ kindergarten home in a four-door Nissan Sentra. There are only fifteen kids at this fabulous school, so the six- and sometimes seven- that I chauffeur around town is only minimally outrageous. It’s perfectly in keeping with that aspect of Mexican spirit that I so appreciate- making happen whatever needs to happen, despite the obstacles. It’s that spirit that causes folks to ride a motorcycle with a full-sized ladder, for example, or to tie a refrigerator on top of a taxi. It’s that spirit that made my mother-in-law encourage Conan to “just do some kind of home remedy” to fix the brakes on a borrowed car once: Extreme Driving, A Year- Round Oaxacan Sport. It’s why my weights for exercise are different sized plastic bottles filled with sand or concrete. Folks here tend to be much more creative in finding solutions when they don’t have the ideal resources or circumstances, and I love that about Mexico.


just waiting for the kids to get out of school

School buses don’t exist here, and vans use up too much gasoline. All four of us families in the carpool have small cars, so at least I don’t feel like we’re the only ones schlepping the kids around like sardines. I’m still so thrilled that we have any working car at all, I do a happy rain-dance sort of prayer/celebration every day I go outside and the car starts up.

It almost didn’t start on my second day of carpool, and my heart essentially stopped for several beats.“This cannot be happening already! We can’t be flaking out on the second day of carpool! This car cannot be as bad as the other one!” I might or might not have screamed at the trees and stray dogs. But then it did start and life continued to be well. Well, there’s a trick to it, and I think I’ve got it figured out. Good enough. 

I do a lot of screaming in the car, but not like you imagine with me as the bus driver. (I haven’t even cursed yet!) All of my screaming happens before the kids get in the car, when I’m screaming (aka singing) along with my music because (GASP) there’s a working CD player in the car! So I get 25 minutes of alone time with my jams before the seven little savages hop in the car. It’s really a brilliant set-up.

It takes me ten minutes to get out the door with all of them. The teachers help me get their shoes on, and even my almost-two-year-old (the 2nd youngest in the posse) can carry out his own lunch box. Despite that help, and despite telling myself that I’ll get faster at it with practice, somehow corralling them all is more time-consuming than I psyche myself up for it to be. Two weeks in, I’ve only gotten about one minute faster, and my measly minute is totally negated when one or more of the older kids are sleeping.

They hold hands in pairs to go out the door and get into the car. The baby of the crew (one year old) goes in the car seat in the back. Khalil and one other kid get strapped into the front seat (with the lap part of the seat belt). Then in the other two seats in back we squeeze in another 3 and sometimes 4 kids, obviously not with a seat belt because it just won’t go over all of them.

They are some very well-behaved savages, except for my two savages, of course, who feel more at liberty to throw tantrums because I’m the Mommy. So of course it’s always Lucia who’s screaming about something if there’s screaming happening. Sigh. It’s pretty easy to distract and entertain them all with fun games like, “Who’s not here? Raise your hand if you’re not here!” And we pretend that none of them are there. I love this age group (one to four). Mostly they entertain themselves, and if I really need to distract them, all I have to do is encourage them to talk about bodily functions and fluids. Poop is their number one idea of fun discourse these days.

The kids sometimes enjoy my music-fest as well. Lucia is currently obsessed with a Sleater-Kinney song. When I play it she and Khalil tap their fingers and wave their arms in time to the music. (I can’t imagine where they learned to dance in the car. Ahem.) A couple of the other kids mentioned that they liked one of the songs I was listening to, too. They will surely be finger-dancing with us eventually.

Lucia’s current favorite jam

Really, carpool with the kids is kind of a blast.

Thanks to the universe and Conan’s savvy in car shopping, we found an automatic car in the right price range- which is not the easiest task around here. The original plan was for us to get a standard, and I was going to learn how to drive a stick. I already had a teacher lined up. Being the brilliant procrastinator that I am, however, I didn’t get lessons before buying a car. So by the time we were buying the car I would’ve had about 2 days to learn how to drive it before rolling across town, navigating the countless speed bumps, the holes in the road, the motorcycles swerving around cars unexpectedly, with a carload of small children loaded in.  “And on top of that you want to be learning something new?” Conan asked, shaking his head at my shrug and grin. (Perhaps I’ve adopted some of that “I’ll make it work anyway” attitude. Thank you, you wonderful Mexican folks, for teaching me this important life skill.)

Despite my nonchalance, I was a train wreck of nerves the first day I had to go get everyone. I had to call my mom to talk myself back into calm (okay, this might be a frequent occurrence). She reminded me that I do actually know how to drive, AND it’s far from being my first day driving in Puerto. And I’m certainly not worried about dealing with the seven small savages; two of them are mine, and the rest are sweet and lovely little savages, too. I got this.

So I didn’t panic that first day when there was some random rerouting lane-share happening for no apparent reason. The traffic cop didn’t even look twice at me when I passed again with a boatload of children. Totally rocked it. All was fine.

I sweated a bit that first Friday, though, when I thought I picked up a kid by mistake. There’s one little boy who goes to his dad’s house some days and his mom’s house other days. When he goes to his dad’s, he’s part of our carpool, but not when he goes to his mom’s. Well, another parent asked me to pick him up one day, and I thought that maybe his dad hadn’t been able to get ahold of me or something. I stopped at the usual spot but no one was there. I called his dad and he assured me that no, it was not his day. I pictured the little boy’s mom going to pick him up, frustrated that I’d taken him by accident and possibly questioning my faculties. The parent who had called me about him didn’t answer the phone. I wiped the sweat from my brow and drove on to the next drop-off spot, where, luckily, the boy was, indeed, supposed to be going, to go play with another girl in the carpool.

It’s true that driving here is not at all like driving in the US, but it’s not as tricky or scary as Conan might make it sound. Nobody can drive all that fast, thanks to all the speed bumps, pedestrians in the street, animals, bicycle carts, and other random road blocks. One day last week half of the highway-two lanes, for about a block’s stretch- was closed off for what appeared to be some kind of festival they were having in the middle of the road. (Highway is a loose term, I guess. There are two lanes going one direction and two going the other direction.) It’s never a dull moment on the road but it’s not rocket science to navigate, either. Many folks around here do it without ever having lessons even.

Of course, there are other things to navigate additionally, like the situation with the folks on the side of the road/in the middle of the road. Sometimes there are street performers who are juggling or spinning fire or hula hooping or something. Those are the traveling kids, I presume. There’s been a family selling some kind of blow-up toys at one big intersection. There’s another guy on crutches with only one complete leg who is often at one intersection asking for money. There’s another kid (adolescent, I suspect, although he could be in his twenties) who often asks for money at an intersection, who calls me “madre” and blesses me, even the days I haven’t had any change to give.

Then there are several different guys who seem to take turns at a couple different intersections, cleaning windshields for change. Now, this is a great service in our dusty, sandy town, as pretty much everyone’s windows need cleaning every single day to be in optimal condition. Furthermore, they are working, providing a service, and not just asking for money, and I get that for many people that encourages them to give. (Not that I have drama with people asking for money because they have no other options. I think that’s a hard and nasty job in its way, and I am not judging them, especially when I don’t have a clue what circumstances have forced them into that position.) But apparently I have a sign on my head that says, “Please wash my car, no matter what I say,” because almost all of these guys are aggressively insistent with me. Is it because I’m a woman? Because I’m light-skinned? Because I look foreign? Some of it is just them, perhaps, because it does happen to Conan some, too. I’ve learned to have a few coins ready every day, like a “highway” toll I pay to someone or the other every day. I feel pretty lucky that I can spare a few pesos every day now.

In general, I’m thrilled about so many aspects of my mini school bus drive. I’m pleased to be one of the school bus drivers for our kids and their friends. I’m so pleased that Conan and I are now able to share the burden of labor and gas money. I’m so happy that my kids are stoked to see me, and that now Lucia isn’t the only ones whose parents never go to school to get her.

I miss my daily walks and bus rides with Khalil, in which we grunt and scream at the sight of every dump truck, bus, and other large vehicles/heavy machinery. My body doesn’t much appreciate driving in place of walking, but it’s still a totally worthwhile tradeoff, for my kids to go to a school we all feel good about. I’m ecstatic for Khalil to be in “school” with his big sister, instead of at home destroying my house out of boredom.

All in all, getting this carpool thing down is another daily adventure. Similar to riding my bike to and from work- navigating through the sand and around the rocks and without splashing mud on my clothes and carrying rocks to scare off the mean dogs- driving the carpool is another daily task that makes me feel like I’m living a video game.  I can only hope that your daily commute is half as interesting and fun as mine. And if not, I humbly suggest that you change it up, and at the very least, add some finger-dancing to the mix.



*Don’t get me wrong: I am a seatbelt fanatic under other circumstances. My dad, a photographer for the police department, used to bring home pictures of accidents to teach us about the importance of seat belts if we were in rebellion over it. My parents wouldn’t start the car if we didn’t have seat belts on.  And it makes good sense; it’s an easy, simple, free thing to do that is likely to save your life. And yet that is not the reality that we live in; it’s just not always possible, as I’ve written about before.


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