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Tuesday, May 01, 2007 

Combis

I've waited too long to introduce you to the world of Combis.

Combi - From the German "Kombi," is the Mexican name for a Volkswagen bus. Here in Mexico, Combi is also synonymous with a form of public transportation made up of VW buses. Most towns have some form of Combi-based public transportation. Morelia is no exception.

Combis and Me
Riding in a Combi is a hot, sweaty, cramped, neon lit, bad music filled, yet extremely friendly experience. I have developed a love/hate relationship withCombis more complicated and nuanced than any relationship with a fleet of buses should ever be. For most people, the Combi isn't something you contemplate. It is just one of those constants without which life wouldn't quite be the same. Morelia has hundreds of Combis driving dozens of routes that will take you almost anywhere for 5 pesos ($0.50).

Equipment
Most Combis are still VW buses although new, more comfortable, yet totally vapid Nissan vans claim an increasingly large presence in the fleet. All Combis have a U-shaped bench lining the walls of the passenger area thus leaving the middle open for the unfortunate standers. 99.9% of Combis pack a super fancy, color changing, huge display having, mp3 playing, satellite ready CD player hooked up to between 1 and 4 speakers that appear to be 40-100 years old. A classic generational mismatch that results in a unique aural experience. 50% are equipped with neon or black lights and customized interior trim packages. 2% have TV screens and about half of those are functional.

Getting On Board

Actually getting on board a Combi can be challenging. There are many reasons why a Combi will simply pass you by including overcrowded combi, distracted driver, or super-sonic ground speed, although the most likely reason is that you are standing in the wrong place. There is no map nor any marked stops. There are, however, strictly defined routes and official places where theCombi will stop if there is someone standing there. Like lots of things here, you just have to ask someone who already knows.

Pleasantries
It is customary, upon boarding a Combi, to say the appropriate pleasantry. Most of the time this is "good afternoon" or "buenas tardes" to which everyone in the Combi replies "buenas tardes." No on likes a passenger who forgets the pleasantries, they bring everyone down a little. It is also common to offer to hold the bag of anyone not lucky enough to have a seat. An amazing display of courtesy I doubt you will ever find in any US or European city of 1 million people.

Drivers
There are only two types of Combi drivers: fast and slow. Most drivers are in their thirties and although some are very young, none are old. This is a young man's game. The best drivers race around the city in a boredom induced, dream state, pretending they are racing at Daytona. These drivers typically have a broken, over-sized racing tachometer bolted to their dashboards and modified, extra loud exhaust. Despite the risk of personal harm, these drivers are still preferable to their turtle-powered cousins. As their hazard lights blink away, these drivers drift from stop to stop, seemingly propelled by nothing more than the sighs of their desperate passengers. You can easily loose your mind at the hands of these dawdling devils as the entire Combi fleet passes you by, the other drivers slowing down just long enough to ensure you have time to take in their scorn. Yelling at the man behind the wheel for more speed is not advised.

The Come From Behind Victory
The worst part about riding the Combi is standing.
The best part about riding the Combi is also standing. But this time, three stops into your misery, you hear the sweetest sound in the Combi riding world, the click of the front door. The dramatic change of fortune is heady. To good to be true. The best seat in the house, up with the driver, is being vacated and being the last one on board, you are the lucky soul who gets the free upgrade. It's the come from behind victory that's guaranteed to make your day.

Combis in Real Life

The Classic VW Combi

A new style, Nissan Combi


A rare, inside view during non-crowded conditions

A Combi driving down the main street
in town with the cathedral in the distance

While living in MX I had my own car, so I never experienced the Combi ride from inside the van. I did however have fun dodging them on the road. They helped develop my defensive driving skills. Thanks for uncovering the Combi mystery, I will take a ride in the future. Cool blog, Morelia is beautiful!

i loved the combis. they should do something about the pollution they create.

anyway, i am reminded, seeing these photos, how beautiful MX is.

Thanks for the pictures, they bring back memories of my beloved Morelia. Maybe your next post could be about los camiones.....yeah, how about some interesting pictures of buses so packed up with people that they are literally bursting out of every window and door....ahhh, memories. Thanks again for sharing.

Australians drive Combis, but not as mass transit -- just because they all dig 'em.

Nate...you couldnt describe it better!!! im having a melancolic moment looking at some of them and little parts of morelia!!! I havent been there in two years... I miss my morelia!!

Took 2 trips to Morelia to get my wife to try riding the Combis. Finally figured out the route system & color/number scheme after seeing a lot of unplanned scenery. Your blog is evocative of this vibrant and beautiful city. Haven't boarded a combi yet where nearly everyone didn't give you a friendly nod.

I live in Morelia, and as a Moreliano, I really liked how you described the Combi. I used to live in San Francisco CA my self, and definitely it is a whole different experience. One of the things I miss from San Francisco is its efficient transportation, it is not such a good luck situation, I mean you actually now when your transportation is arriving, haha. Other than that what I enjoy from my Combi experience is when the driver has music from the 80s, which is not that common. Hope your blog attracts people from other countries, Morelia aside from its bad quality transportation, but serves well the transportation needs of the city, is a very nice colonial city.

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About me

  • I'm Nate
  • From Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico
  • I used to live in California. Then I met the girl you see here in this photo. The next thing I knew I was in Mexico swinging a frying pan at a scorpion and chasing after phantom trucks. You will find pictures and stories about my life in the pages that follow.
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