By Jackie Leavitt
The woman’s thigh cushions me as I rock slightly from side to side in the guagua bus, holding me in place like a reassuring hug. In the U.S., it would be a stranger’s slight invasion of personal space, but here, it’s comforting. It’s the type of pressure that says, “Hey, we are in this together.”
I’m on my way to Damajagua, where I’ll climb, slide and jump through 27 waterfalls cascading down the mountains on the northern side of the Dominican Republic. The 20-seat guagua careens down the two-lane roads, packed to the brim with men and women on their way from Puerto Plata to various destinations south to Santiago. Merengue and bachata music blasts from the speakers, and the warm air rushes through the front and side windows, offering a welcome relief from the hotter, sitting-heat that envelops the passengers when the bus stops.
With a guagua, there are no static stations — you flag the van down anywhere along its route with a wave and then squeeze into one of the tight-packed seats after telling the fee collector where you are going. The driver simultaneously keeps his eyes on the side of the road for passengers while weaving past motorcyclists, cars and oncoming traffic, beeping cheerfully in greeting and warning at everyone and everything. Here, street lanes are more like casual suggestions, rather than rules to be followed.
The fee collector hangs out the side sliding door, signaling to the driver when they reached a passenger’s destination with a pat-pat on the bus’ roof or side. He waves at people standing along the road, as if encouraging everyone to join this moving, swaying party hurtling through the city and outside hills. And who wouldn’t want to? Here, in my seat, I’m not a tourist or Americana or rubia, and it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak Spanish very well. I’m accepted. It’s ok to just be. I’m part of the guagua community.