Barreling down Balboa Avenue, belching diesel fumes as they bully fancy European sports cars out of the way, the second-hand American school buses that pass for Panama City's public transportation system seem like dinosaurs that took a wrong exit off the time-space continuum.
Known as "red devils," these graffiti-covered relics offer one of the few relics of Panama City's origins. Now a glitzy swirl of modern high-rise apartments, shimmering financial towers, cocktail parties and plastic surgery, the city was once just another of the squat and unpretentious capitals that dot Central America almost all serviced by aging Bluebird buses, handed-down to the countries by U.S. school districts looking to dump their old fleets for newer models of transport. See pictures from Panama's historic 2006 vote on the canal.)
In most Latin American countries, the aging yellow buses that prowl the streets in search of fares still bear the original black lettering of previous ownership the Crookston Public Schools, or some other school district from another place and time. The recycled buses are usually given some sort of minimal window dressing, often in the form of windshield decals featuring Tweety Bird, Jesus, Real Madrid or all three the "Chicken Bus Trinity." But in Panama, these red devils nicknamed for their colorfulness and reckless abandon are given a complete and enthusiastic custom detailing makeover that makes MTV's Pimp My Ride look modest by comparison. (See the 50 Worst Cars of all Time.)
The buses are splashed with vivid colors mixed into a wild collage of seemingly unrelated landscapes, images and figures everything from Jiminy Cricket to Adolf Hitler. Many drivers also adorn their buses with artistic tributes to their girlfriends or wives, ranging from conservative head portraits to provocative bikini pinups. One driver adorned his bus with a woman dressed in loincloth slaying a grizzly bear with a knife, raising questions about his home life that no one dares ask (as if to make the point, a painted sign on the inside of the bus reminds passengers not to bother the bus driver).
Panamanian sociologist Raul Leis says the red devils represent "popular expression and color" of individual ownership in a privatized transportation system. However, he continues, with time the bus system has fallen into the "vice" of concentrated ownership and inefficient service. Today, Leis says, the red devils represent "a form of hell" that pose more of a hazard than public service to the 800,000 low-income Panamanians who depend on them every day for a ride to work or school.
Plus, these clunky reggaeton-rockin' menaces don't fit the sleek, cosmopolitan image of today's Panama City, which now has First World aspirations. After several years of unparalleled economic growth and construction, it wants a modern transportation system to fit its sophisticated and worldly ambitions. But getting rid of the second-hand busses has become one of the trickiest parts of Panama City's extreme makeover and now a central issue in the May 3 presidential elections. "All modern cities have a metro system," said presidential frontrunner Ricardo Martinelli, during a recent speech to the city's top business leaders. "This will be the flagship project of my government. It will make this a first world city."
But the red devils, despite their terrors, have sentimental value to the locals. "Look at the city, it looks like Miami," says bus user Agustin Romero, 26, as he leans against the window and points up at the shimmering glass towers of downtown Panama. "But you don't see these buses in Miami." And getting rid of the demon buses has become an infernal task for the government. The current administration's plan to indemnify bus owners $25,000 each to remove their buses from the road and replace them with modern new buses got tangled up in conflicts of interests that made it all the way to Panama's Supreme Court. So far, the government has only managed to remove 30 of the 800 red devils, which have yet to be replaced, putting an even greater strain on the beleaguered transportation system.
The government's perceived mismanagement of the situation has made it an even hot campaign issue down the home stretch. Presidential candidate Balbina Herrera, of the incumbent Democratic Revolutionary Party, promises her government would build an elevated monorail, which she says would be the most "aesthetic" and "least invasive" way to modernize the city's public transportation system. The opposition's Martinelli scoffs, "Monorails only work in Disney World," and insists the solution lies with a $700 million metro system.
And so, for now, the red devils continue to rumble down the streets of Panama, colorfully resisting the calls for modernization. Who knows? The way things are going in the rest of the "first world," it might not be too long before second-hand school buses start looking more like the future of modern transportation, rather than its past.