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Written by Cuenca, Ecuador Gap Volunteer Luke P.

Public transportation was something very new to me when I arrived in Cuenca. Spending the majority of my childhood in a small town in western Massachusetts, I was not often faced with the challenge of navigating the tricky systems of public transportation.

My first few days living with my host family were filled with my seemingly incessant mapping of routes (“Line #5 and get off at Diario El Tiempo!”). Standing at bus stops, I marveled when the bus I needed actually showed up and then marveled once more when it traveled to the stop that I needed to get off at. The intricate system amazed me. During this time period, everything was new and exciting. On the bus, I would look out the window, staring out at the city streets. Or, just as interesting, I would observe the people on the bus, overcome with the thought that every single person has their own story, is actively crafting their own narrative.

As time has progressed (3 months now!) I have become more comfortable with the bus system. I no longer feel the gripping fear that I will wind up in a completely foreign part of Cuenca. I now embrace the adrenaline that comes with the bus beginning to move as one of my feet is still out the door. I have improved upon my stance while standing up, adopting a posture with a wide base so as to not fall over at every turn. But with this new comfort came a cost. I no longer notice myself eagerly staring out the window at passing scenes or enthralled by the intricate system of public transportation.

In order to combat this change and preserve my feelings of wonder, I have begun conversing with strangers on the buses and at the bus stops. Sometimes I am the one to initiate a conversation or, other times, it is those around me. Hearing the unique perspective of a human being, learning about their lives is truly extraordinary. The beauty found in these spontaneous moments of conversation does not fade like the beauty of exploring a new space.

Yes, sometimes these interactions are wholly uncomfortable. I remember remarking to one woman, “Su bebé es hermoso,” and the look of reluctant appreciation (or was it worry?) that she gave me. That was the end of the conversation. But other times are truly magical. One interaction began while waiting for the bus. I recognized the man standing next to me. It turns out that the was a vendor of chocolate bars on the buses. We began to talk, him sharing stories of his profession and me listening with awe as he described his long work hours. Curiously I asked how many bars of chocolate he sells per day, and he shared that he can sell up to 200. When my bus arrived a few minutes later, I was dismayed to see the sign that read “No vendedores” prominently displayed in the window. He gave me a goodbye high-five-fist-bump, and that was the end.

Another time, this young boy was sitting on his knees in the seat in front of me on the bus, facing my direction. He excitedly inquired where I lived and asked if I had visited a specific park that was near his school. He introduced me to his sister and mom and continued to talk energetically until we reached my bus stop. A few days later, I saw him again on the bus. This time, our exchange was brief, but he still radiated the same energy and life.

These interactions always leave me marveling at the distinctive elements that create one’s life narrative. The trust that these strangers place in me by sharing their stories and listening to my own is incredible. The beauty of human connection baffles me.

The bus system has been an incredible resource for getting around Cuenca. But, for me, it has also morphed into something much greater than that: the aggregate of many narratives coming together in the present moment, the catalyst that inspires human connection.