Ratero: When Public Transportation Gets (even more) Exciting

Here's the 140-character summary of this post, right after it happened:

A few of you saw my tweet yesterday, posted shortly after I had chased down the would-be thief of my iPhone. My adrenaline has since decreased to normal levels, though the memory of the event is still vivid.

Katie and I were riding the combi back from language school at about 2:00 p.m., a little later than is our custom. The combi that runs toward the Smiths’ is one of the roomier minibuses (think two seats on one side, one on the other, divided by a walkable aisle). It seats about 25, with standing room for another 40. Having just missed the lunch-rush, we were actually able to find a seat.

Now, to be a viable, public transportation option, combis are operated by two people: a fearless driver and a “cobrador(a).” The cobrador works the door, opening and closing it (mostly just when driving by the police, otherwise, the door stays open), and handles the exchange of money. He (or she) works fast, and takes on the persona of an auctioneer as the combi approaches a stop, proclaiming the combis arrival and enticing would-be passengers to board this combi. While there are official, marked “paraderos,” any street corner or traffic light is fair game for a stop. The exchange of passengers and coin happens fast.

Yesterday, our combi took a slightly different route, so I pulled out my phone to consult (a surprisingly reliable) Google Maps.


That was a mistake.

I was sitting in an aisle seat, near the front of the combi, looking at my phone. The combi gets ready to take off again, and at the last second, two guys get on. The second one to get on acts as if there’s a third person running to catch the combi, giving the first passenger enough time to scout out a good target.

Right when the cobrador makes the call to take off (Lleva!), one of the guys grabs my phone and they both bolt out the door.

Instinctively, I take off after them.

I jump out the door, and chase the one with my phone down the road about 50 yards. I watch him make a quick turn into the road between two other big combis, bending over to take off his outer shirt. I kick it into high gear and stop right next to him as he straightens up in his white undershirt. I look him straight in the eyes, hold out my hand, and say:  

Mi celular, porfavor.

Whether it was my inappropriate politeness or the crazy look in my eyes, I’m not sure; he reaches into his pocket and places my phone in my open palm.

I give him a curt nod, turn around, and run back to the combi. Katie and I get back on (she had gotten off to watch the festivities), ride a few more blocks before getting off at our stop.

The other passengers criticized the cobrador for allowing this to happen. I was mostly just mad at myself (while thrilled that I didn’t have to deal with a stolen phone for more than about 60 seconds).

I learned a few things:

  • Leave your phone in your pocket on a public bus
  • If you have to use your phone, hold onto it tight
  • Be especially attentive of any sort of commotion when the bus is taking off
  • Always be polite