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Moldova: 15 Cents for the Bus Ride of My Life

Moldovan mass transit no place for claustrophobics

The Arizona Republic – May 11, 2006

CHISINAU, Moldova – I had just delivered a guest lecture at a university located on the outskirts of Chisinau and needed to get back to the city center where I live.

My faculty host pointed me in the direction of a large white mini-van pulling up at the curb with a No. 127 placard in the windshield.

A Moldovan maxi-taxi, also called a “marshrutka.”

It was time to take my first solo trip on Moldovan mass transit. As I was about to find out, it wasn’t exactly going to be a joyride. Known as maxi-taxis, or marshrutkas in Russian, these 12-15 seat mini-vans, along with larger trolley buses, are the most common way Moldovans get around. With an average monthly salary of less than $100, few people can afford their own car.

Taxis, while cheap by American standards, are also too pricey for many Moldovans.

Maxi-taxis, also known as “marshrutkas,” drive along designated routes throughout the city. They’ll stop anywhere along the route to pick passengers up and drop them off. You signal for one just like you’d hail a taxi.

Downtown Chisinau’s main thoroughfare, Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, has little auto traffic.  

The trip started out pleasantly enough. As I climbed aboard, I handed the driver the fare of two Moldovan lei – a whopping 15 cents. There were only a handful of other passengers and I claimed a seat toward the front.

Some sort of Russian disco music was blaring from the radio and every time the van hit one of the many potholes on the road, it felt like the tires would fall off.

A few blocks later a woman standing on the side of the road raised her hand and the driver screeched the van to a halt. She opened the door and jumped in.

A minute later several more people got in, including an elderly woman. Feeling chivalrous, I relinquished my seat.

I was now standing in the aisle, holding onto a handrail above. The van stopped again. This time, five more people got in. The driver said something in Romanian, which I couldn’t understand, but judging from the actions of the other passengers, he must have instructed us to squeeze toward the back.

It was suddenly getting very crowded. At least, I thought, we’d start making better time, as there was no way the driver would be stopping to pick up any more passengers.

I thought wrong. There were more stops and more passengers. My personal space was no longer mine and I felt like I could barely breathe.

Mass transit in Moldova is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.

Moldovans squeeze into a trolley bus in downtown Chisinau.  

Each time the driver would slam on the brakes, our small sea of humanity would move forward in unison and then back again. I was getting seasick.

I hadn’t had so much physical contact with so many strangers since I played eighth-grade football. It reminded me why I decided not to go out for ninth-grade football.

I looked around. None of the other passengers seemed to share my sense of discomfort. Some even talked nonchalantly on their cell phones. This is how Moldovans get to work or school every day and they’re used to it.

I started to panic. There were so many people, I couldn’t see out the window. Had we passed the place where I needed to get off? Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably more like 15 minutes, I heard someone say opriti (stop), and the driver braked. A few people exited and I was able to get my bearings.

We weren’t far from home. A block later, another passenger shouted opriti and I followed him out the door. The driver hit the gas pedal even before I closed the door.

I had survived my first maxi-taxi ride. In the process, I had gained a heightened respect for Moldovans. They are a hard-working people who go about their daily lives – sometimes in rather unpleasant conditions – with good humor and without complaining.

As for me, the next time I need a ride, I think I’ll call a cab.

© 2008 Dan Fellner


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