Of men and machines

Jessica Piper
September 1, 2017
A bus in Quito.

In the opening scene of the movie "Real Steel," a robot designed by a character played by Hugh Jackman enters into a fight with a cow. I know this because the movie was showing in Spanish on a bus I took from the Ecuadorian city of Baños back to Quito last weekend. (I didn't pay attention to the remainder of the film, so no need to worry about spoilers).

Nonetheless, the movie got me thinking about mechanization—or sometimes the lack thereof. I have noticed during my first few weeks here that Ecuador uses people in a lot of places where the United States relies on machines.

For example, taking the bus in Ecuador requires a certain level of social interaction. Rather than inserting money into a machine, here the norm is to hand the money to the bus assistant. Usually you pay when you get off the bus, but sometimes they ask for your money when you get on or at any other point during the ride. It depends.

Back home, I am used to pulling a cord or pushing a button when it’s time for my stop. But in Ecuador, you have to ask the driver or the assistant if you want the bus to stop. Ecuadorians value politeness, so it's normal to request a stop by loudly stating "¡Gracias!”

Ecuadorian transport finds other ways to surprise me. For one thing, it's cheaper—a bus anywhere within Quito costs 25 cents and the four hour bus ride between Quito and Baños went for $4.50. When I bought the ticket from Quito to Baños, the salesman enthusiastically told me how it was a direct route—faster, with no stops. There were not any official stops, but we did pick up and drop off people at various locations along the route.

I suppose this flexibility is one of the benefits of a less automated system. After all, the bus had empty seats and people had places to go—why not give them a ride?

Of course, transportation in Ecuador isn't without controversy. Last weekend, Quito’s transportation workers went on a work stoppage after the local government refused to vote on a measure that would have raised city bus prices. The transit employees have argued that increasing the price of a bus ride—from 25 to 30 cents—would allow them to provide better service.

The customer service on Quito’s buses is admittedly subpar by American standards. When I’m waiting alone at the bus stop, I’ll sometimes watch a few buses go by because they’d rather make their route faster than pick up one more person. It’s common for the drivers to start moving as soon as you have a foot in the bus, and I’m prone to lose my balance as the buses lurch through traffic. And even though the buses come every few minutes (which means it’s not too big a deal when you miss one), they’re still packed wall-to-wall with passengers at peak hours.

Quito is also in the process of building a subway system, which is on schedule to open in July 2019. I’ll have to come back to learn how that works out—and see how the city continues to move men and machines.

Jessica Piper

<p>I grew up in Colorado, but moved across the country to attend college in Maine. I'm an economics and Hispanic Studies double major with a minor in math, but writing is my real passion. I work for my college newspaper and have done other work for several blogs, magazine, and websites.</p>

Home University:
Bowdoin College
Louisville, CO
Hispanic Studies
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