In my last post, I alluded briefly to the joys of using public transportation in Santiago. I would now like to take the time to describe in greater detail what you might experience upon choosing to patronize Santiago’s Transantiago (bus system) or Metro (subway). First, you must understand that no two trips are the same, but each one almost always leaves you with a story, be it entertaining, heartwarming, or downright frightening.
For many lucky individuals, myself included, the daily commute includes utilizing both forms of transportation offered in the city: micros (buses) and metros. The network of micros is extensive and covers essentially every part of the city. Luckily, the closest bus stop to my house is right at the end of my street. The problem, however, is that it is on the other side of a four-lane avenida. In order to get to said bus stop, I could technically walk two blocks to the closest traffic light, cross the street safely, and then walk the two blocks back to the bus stop, but I like to walk on the wild side. Instead, I sit and wait, analyzing traffic patterns to determine the safest time to cross. One of the most frustrating parts of my morning commute is standing on the opposite side of the street and seeing my micro zoom past me. Oftentimes I’m tempted to just run across the street, hoping that the drivers of the cars whizzing by will see me and stop to let me cross, but that is comically unlikely. Instead I’m forced to stand there and watch my hopes of getting to class on time drive away.
“But wait, Loretta,” you might be thinking. “Why don’t you just check out the micro schedule and get to your bus stop on time?” This would be a lovely solution to my problem if it weren’t for the fact that the micros in Santiago don’t run on a set schedule. Honestly, it’s probably for the best. Judging by Chileans’ notion of time, the micros would always be late (or maybe Chileans are late because of the unreliable micro schedule? I think we’ve stumbled upon another version of the “chicken or the egg” conundrum). So the micros just run whenever they feel like it. This wouldn’t be so bad except that they don’t come at regular intervals. You can wait for 20 minutes or you can wait 20 seconds. Also, many times after you have waited for 20 minutes, the micro will finally come with two more directly behind it. Maybe they’re trying to make up for the fact that you had to wait for 20 minutes by now giving you your pick of chariots.
After waving down your micro (which hopefully caused it to stop…it doesn’t always. Sometimes you need to hurl yourself in front of it and hope it stops before running into you. It doesn’t always do that either.), it finally comes time to begin your voyage. Once aboard, you must swipe your Bip! card (pronounced “beep” for the sound the card makes when you swipe it) and take a seat. By “take a seat” I mean find a spot large enough to fit the entirety of your being and nothing more. The concept of personal space, already a little fuzzy in Chile, is completely nonexistent on micros and metros. Though I like to complain about public transportation, driving in Santiago would be even more irritating and many Santiagüinos feel similarly. Because of this, micros and metros are widely used which leads to painful overcrowding.
As if getting up close and personal to your neighbor wasn’t reason enough to love micros in Santiago, there is the added enjoyment of on-board entertainment. About half of my trips on the micro have included a musician, usually male and usually wielding a guitar, playing a few songs and asking for donations. Musicians range in talent from the surprisingly talented to the tone deaf with a broken guitar (true story). While guitar acts are common, some of my personal favorites have been the three-piece band that included a saxophonist who then sold the group’s CD after the performance and a duo that consisted of a guitar and an accordion. Among the worst were the unfortunate gentleman with the broken guitar and the pair that I was lucky enough to experience yesterday that consisted of two would-be rappers and a boom box. They were great. Really.
Mind you, all of this is happening on a moving bus and not all of these performers have the greatest balance. One morning I was nearly given a black eye by the guitar of a man who decided to stand right next to me as he began playing. The bus then hit a pothole.
However, musicians aren’t the only ones who take advantage of the confined space with a limited escape route to make a quick buck (or I guess a quick 500 pesos in this case). Salesmen also use the micros to sell their wares, ranging in everything from candy bars (always cheap, often delicious), CDs, DVDs, wallets, and even wrist and knee braces. Now, why a person decides that he needs to buy a knee brace from a limping man on a micro during rush hour is beyond me, but I’ve seen it happen.
Once the transactions have been completed and you have finally reached your stop, you push the stop button and descend from the micro. Make sure you make quick work of it, however, because those drivers don’t wait around and you could find your bag closed in the door as the micro begins to pull away.
The adventure doesn’t end upon arriving safely at the metro. Without going into too much detail, here is a brief list of things you might encounter on the metro:
– a woman wearing a facemask, afraid of the human flu, cautiously eyeing the young couple next to her making out against the window and considering whether or not to douse them with hand sanitizer
– two grown men in suits getting into a fist fight during rush hour because one cut the other off while boarding the car
– a woman transporting a desk lamp box with a hole cut in the top that you then come to realize is a makeshift cage for a cat
To be perfectly honest, however much I complain about the 40-60-minute commute that I take every day to class, it never fails to provide fodder for conversations at lunch. If anything it makes me feel thankful for my off-campus house next year because, though it might be a 15-minute walk to class, at least I won’t be attacked by a wandering minstrel.