Diablo Rojo, Red Devil, diablos rojos, red devils, Panama, buses, bluebird bus, school bus, humid, hot, tropical, sweaty, stinky, old leather, noisy, traffic jam, perspiration, glow, pick pocket, short stories, short story, fiction

Diablo Rojo – “Red Devil”

She could feel the sweat welling up behind her knees, forming a drop and dripping down her calf, into her shoes.

Ugh! “Why did I think this was a good idea? What am I doing on a diablo rojo in the late afternoon when humidity is at its height?”

Instead of hiring a car at the airport, she’d opted to catch a taxi to her friend’s house. That part of arriving had been fine – coordinating the taxi through the tourism desk at the airport.

Nonetheless, as she had exited the automatic doors of the airport, the hot, humid air had hit her full on! She had long forgotten how sultry the air was, even long after night fall! And yet, she was happy with the decision to get a taxi to her friend’s house, rather than trying to navigate the traffic from Tocumen to her friend’s house in Brisas.

She’d noted, as she travelled in the back of the cab, more overpasses than she remembered. The landscape was now unfamiliar. And now there was the metro line running above the dual carriageway. Admittedly, there were less cars and traffic than she remembered, but perhaps that was a side-effect of the new public transport system.

This morning, she’d gotten up to the fresh smell of coffee – the aroma filling the whole house. Lovely! The strong black, overly sugared coffee had been accompanied by fried bollo.

Definitely not a healthy breakfast choice.

But the homemade new corn bollo was too good to resist. These were the tastes of home that she savored.

So many things about Panama that she had loved and missed living overseas.

Her friend had headed off to work and suggested that she could catch the bus or new metro to her work, then they would head off to the beach straight from there.

She should have taken the new metro train and organised for her friend to pick her up at the metro station in 24 de diciembre.

“No good deed ever goes unpunished”, she thought to herself as she felt the sweat trickle down her spine. So far, she’d put up with the leering looks of the pavo, when she hopped on the bus and handed the driver her $0.25 fare. She’d noticed the look that passed between the pavo and the driver, and the ogling smirk that followed. Thankfully, that had been all.

Her personal space had been invaded horridly when she sat on the old, cracked leather seats of the Bluebird school bus, long unfit for service in the US and so sold to Panamanians for public transport here. She’d been squashed between an old lady holding her groceries on her lap and a young construction worker that had clearly just spent the day out working in the hot, humid sun. Just thinking about the smell made her want to gag, even though he’d hopped off at the last stop.

So, here she was, now probably sweating as profusely as he had been. She’d been so mistaken, thinking she wanted to experience the diablo rojo one more time before all was lost of this historic form of transport, that was now illegal. Some have even referred to the diablo rojos as “scrap metal” driven by demons, and presented as “public transport”. The black diesel fumes had poured out of the double exhaust pipes the driver had installed on the bus, although thankfully there had been no loud music playing on this bus. Those days, thankfully, were gone.

But passenger safety was still optional on the Diablo Rojo, as the drivers continued to race each other to the next stop, to see who would pick up the passengers.

She could, of course, have waited for a normal Metro Bus, with air-conditioning, company owned, regulated by GPS supervision. The new buses had almost individualised seating and more standing room than offered by these old death traps.

She might, even, have ventured to try the new Metro rail. But no, she had allowed nostalgia to dictate her choice, and here she was remembering the good, bad and ugly of the red devil buses.

This was definitely not how she had remembered these buses during her childhood. Her mind had romantized the memories, clearly obviating the heat and humidity, the closeness of human contact. Even the comfort of the seats.

Just one more kilometer (if Waze was to be trusted) and she would be at the bus stop where she could hastily exit this danger zone, where she’s taken her life into her hands. Oh, how she wished she’d chosen to rent a car at the airport and told her friend she’d meet her at the beach!

To her horror, she watched Waze update again and saw the dreaded words “recalculating”, adding another five minutes as traffic conditions got worse.

“Oh… this is unbelieveable”, she winced. She was on the slow train to hell.

Diablo Rojo, Red Devil, diablos rojos, red devils, Panama, buses, bluebird bus, school bus, humid, hot, tropical, sweaty, stinky, old leather, noisy, traffic jam, perspiration, glow, pick pocket, short stories, short story, fiction

More about these Diablo Rojos:

The buseswere modified by their owners, who paid welders to add more rows of seats andmusical horns, and by artisans who added colored electrical tape wound aroundthe exposed railings and attached polyvinyl chloride pipes to the ceiling for thestanding passengers to hold. Respected bus artists were commissioned to paintand decorate the entire bus exterior and parts of the interior. Stuffed animals, blinking lights, velvety fabrics, elaborate handmade stickers (calcomania), andlove letters were attached to the area around the driver and entrance door. Buswindows were decorated with the names of women important to the driver; some family members and others mistresses, depending on how boastful anddaring (atrevido) the driver was. 



Tears in my Soup

Another tear rolled down her face, gently dropping off her perfectly groomed cheek. Plop! Straight into the bowl of soup.  The waiter noticed that her makeup remained impeccably set, as if nothing had happened – no running mascara or watercolor mess. It was as if it had never happened.

With her perfectly manicured french nails, she pushed her bowl away, across the rough surface of the wooden table, and broke off another chunk of bread from the fresh baked bread that was already cool on the plate beside her.  Lathering it in creamy butter, she stopped the train of thoughts rushing through her mind… carrying her back to  a time and place not visited in a long time.

Somehow, this simple soup in a small roadside cafe, with its rustic tables & chairs, warm fireplace and occasional traveller, had transported her from the cold wintery weather back to the tropics.

She struggled to get ahold of herself – this was no place to cry!

“That’s not who I am!  Big girls don’t cry!”

Pulling herself back together, and wiping away the tears, she asked for the check.  The waiter pretended not to have noticed the breakdown, and in a simple black server book handed her the bill.  She paid hastily, leaving much too large a tip, but in a hurry to get out of there.

She’d wanted a coffee, but she would find somewhere else for that.  Perhaps, instead of travelling down country roads, she would find her way back to the motorway and pull over into a Services. There was always Starbucks, Greggs or something equally familiar.

As her boots tapped along the cobblestones, she put her gloves back on, thankful for the fur lining on her wool coat.  Even after so many years, she still felt the cold acutely.  It was hard to adjust, after the tropics.  She touched the button on the remote and the door opened, and she gingerly sat down at the wheel.

As she looked at the three-pointed star of her steering wheel, the tears started to fall freely.  She gripped the wheel, even though she hadn’t even started the car and certainly was in no state to do so now.


That’s all it took to bring back the memories.


Everything she had worked so hard to forget and leave behind her, and a simple bowl of homemade soup had brought it all bubbling back to the surface.  The years faded away and she was transported back to another time and place.

The floor beneath her feet was harden dirt, the walls a mix of straw and dirt that had been roughly patched and painted in places.  It was dark, but cool inside, as she sat at the wooden table, that wobbled on the uneven floor. A single window, with a wooden frame with gaps all around it as it was rudely stuffed into the hole. The door frame was just as rustically made –  no masterpiece of woodwork, crookedly hanging on its hinges, and had to be lifted to actually shut in place.

Over to her right, the wall had a hole broken through the dirt & clay, to let the water out when it rained too hard and the roof started to leak.  Luckily, the house wasn’t perfectly flat and all the water run into that corner.  So, the hole had been made to let the water out, and then a rudimentary screen covered it, to keep the rats and rodents out.

In front of her, a bowl of soup that her mother had made and beside her a slice of bread for dipping in the soup.

In the dark corner, over to her left, she knew there was hanging a smoked pork loin, which was rationed out each day.  It hung inside a woven basket and was covered in a cloth to keep the flies off it! Just one small piece…

Yesterday she and her brother Ramón had eaten the last of the pork rind crackling while their parents were out.  Her back still hurt from the beating her father had given them both when he discovered what they had done.  Was it really so bad to be hungry and have eaten the crackling?

Mother lay on the bed they all slept in, recovering from the beating Father had given her when she had stepped in to defend them both.

That was the day she had decided she would not grow up to be poor.  That she would eat whatever she wanted when she was hungry. She would never depend upon a man to say what she could or could not eat.

Angry tears now started to flow as she remembered.

And finally, she gave in to the tears… Mother was dead and she had been unable to convince her to move with her. She had left it all behind to build a new life and never looked back.

Mother was dead, and he had finally killed her.