Sardines on a bus: The bus to Vilcabamba

Nov 3, 2022 | 17 comments

Last week I boarded the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba during peak afternoon hours. It was crowded with weary commuters and students munching chatara. The aisle was free but the seats were jammed. I had a fifty minute ride ahead of me and was nursing a knee injury. I’ve never chosen to play the tercera edad (elderly) card and displace someone younger for their seat. As I made my way to the back I noticed students busying themselves to avoid eye contact with me. Clever, just like me at 14!

The young bus attendant was clearing a seat at the very rear and had motioned me to approach. He had told the oldest girl of a family of five traveling together to make room for me. She had squeezed some of her torso in behind her rather large mother, leaving me about half a seat. The initial expression on their faces was of confused accommodation, they seldom — question authority.

They were all staring at me with that endearing Ecuadorian look of bemused curiosity, which suggests for me, a Buddhist rather than a Catholic world view. Acceptance and letting go, never confrontational.

I timidly sat and took note of the situation: two of the girls were scrunched into the corner seat being pressed together by the inclined backrest of the seat in front of them. The mother, who took up a bit more than one seat, was trying to keep her son from sliding off her lap, while leaning forward to accommodate the oldest girl squeezing in behind her. I smiled. The older girl turned to her mother for an emotional cue: old gringo, what to do?

My initial reaction was: clowns in a circus car, Kafka …. no, sardines!

Then I stood up, relinquished my seat back to the girl, and broke into spontaneous song befitting the situation. While waving my hands I sang the first thing that came into my head:

“Estamos a solo sardinas en la de atrás del autobús.” (We are only sardines in the back of the bus).

I continue while squeezing my arms together and rocking side to side with the motion of the bus.

“Somos simplemente un montón de peces fuera del agua.” (We are just a bunch of fish out of water).

Giggles from the girls

I closed with:

“Y la vida es buena porque estamos compartiendo las locuras juntos.” (And life is good because we are sharing the follies together).

Smiles and open faces, chuckles from nearby seats, a few polite hand claps. At that instant I snapped a picture.

For the moment I had become Ecuadorian, I was of their family … people who can accept discomfort, turn inconvenience into play and connect with a silly old gringo without unfounded fears or prejudice.

I gently asked the man in front if he could raise his seat back a bit, he did so graciously. The girls sighed relief and stretched.

I paid their fare to Malacatos ($2.20, as I recall), just because we have to do that sometimes. We exchanged emails so I could send them the picture.

When they disembarked at their stop they all crowded around their mother who was looking at my details written on a small piece of note paper.  Standing on tiptoes, they wanted see what the wacky gringo had written. It was part of the adventure. These everyday simple adventures: into a new place, not only of geography, but of spirit.

At the sound of my bus pulling out, for the last leg to Vilcabamba, two of the girls turned, smiled and waved goodbye.

American-born photographer Thomas Ives has worked for international news and feature magazines for over 38 years. His photo essays and images have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Geo, Stern, Newsweek, Life, Smithsonian, and many others publications. He lives in Vilcabamba with his Ecuadorian partner. For more about Thomas, click here.

Thomas Ives may be contacted at and more of his work may be seen on his Instagram account: thomas_h_ives 


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