03 August 2010

Point A to Point B

A small word about commuting:

Riding public transportation can be such a window into the culture of a city.
My experience in Paris commuting to class/ my internship was interesting to say the least. I never thought that a train could be more packed than the E train through midtown during rush hour, but the matchbox trains of the Paris metro beats the E any day (during rush hour at least). The French need for privacy and personal space gets completely thrown out the window.

However, during non-rush hour times a few rules about the Paris metro stick out:
1. Never, ever talk loudly- If talking, and even this is looked down upon, it should be quietly and to someone right next to you. Anyone talking on the metro is either a tourist or from another country/culture.
2. Do not make eye contact. The short film in "Paris, je t'aime" was not kidding. Making eye contact welcomes unwanted attention. All effort should be made to avoid locking eyes with another person. You quickly develop techniques such as reading a book, looking out the window (when really you're looking at people through the reflection), finding a nice spot on the floor to stare at...
3. Whatever you do, NEVER EVER fall asleep. I sadly made this mistake once after a long day at my internship. It ended with me running down a train platform to get away from a man that was chasing me asking for my phone number. Never fall asleep.

This is very reflective, I suppose, of my experience with French culture. The French value their privacy so highly that you must close every door when entering and exiting a room. No exceptions. Making eye contact with a guy at a bar is basically an open invitation for him to come over and hit on you. And well the falling asleep thing is just a safety issue that I failed to follow.

The one thing I will say that gives major points to my Parisian commute is that every morning, taking the RER C to my internship, through Neuilly, a rich suburb of Paris, was like having a living GQ catalog walking past you. Beautiful men in beautifully tailored suits everywhere. Le sigh.

Commuting to the Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú last year in Lima was drastically different. The morning of my first day of classes in Lima my host brother (cousin?) walked me and my roommate to the main boulevard. He told us we would take a Combi to school. Basically this was a 15 passenger van from the 1970s with words painted on the sides. Someone would hang out the side door and yell the name of the route it would take. In my case, it was the Universitaria. I paid about a Sol fifty and got to school twenty minutes later.

Unlike my Paris commute, the Combi only really had one rule. When the guy that yelled out the door came in and put his palm out you gave him the fare. That's it. Oh and don't get your shit stolen, but that's really a given. People stared, people even had physical contact (oh dear what would the French think). My favorite part though was the music. There was nothing better then making your commute to class while (internally) dancing to salsa, merengue, reggeaton etc.

While we were in Lima and Ayacucho the Peruvian government was trying to increase regulation on who can drive the buses and under what circumstances. This caused a bus strike. May of the drivers came from smaller villages outside of Lima and drove the ancient buses as a way to make a living in the city. This however caused many problems as some of the drivers were illiterate and many did not have adequate resources to safely drive the buses. The roads were often overcrowded with buses, a system that still remains largely unregulated. Yet, I never found my commute to be dangerous at any point.

Colombia is a bit more chill. The buses have routes and schedules. Some are large buses and some are tiny colectivos. You judge the route based on the huge shiny, colorful letters printed on the windshield. Although I would not recommend the buses to anyone that hasn't been here before. The bus only lists the major stops, and it never says where exactly it's going, you kind of just have to know.

A sign of the progress Medellin has made in the past decade or so can be seen in the Metro that was build recently. It goes from one side of the massive city to the other, and usually runs along the river. It's reflective of Colombian orderliness and cleanliness. Paisas (people from Antoquia the state Medellin is in) are very proud of their Metro and you won't see it dirty or being vandalized. The metro is connected with a system of cable cars that connect the metro in the center of the city to small and often poor barrios in the high mountains that surround the city. We took a ride just for fun last year. It's pretty awesome and you get an incredible view of the city. It also has allowed the poorer parts of the city greater, and quicker access to the center of the city. Although I do wonder how economically viable it is for the people that live there.

From what my roommate has told me my commute in Cuzco will be more, well pedestrian. My apartment (I have a place to live now!) is a 25ish minute walk from the office. The Parisian underground and the boulevards of Lima will be replaced with the narrow and ancient streets of Cuzco, with the Andes in the background for good measure. My general lack of athleticism and out of shape-ness might make the trip a bit longer, but hell who can complain with scenery like that?

Che: Oiga caballero y yo me pregunto cuál de estos muros es inca.
Niño: Este debe ser el muro inca (right) y aquél español (left), para nosotros a forma de burlar decimos “el muro de los incas y el muro de los incapaces”    
--El Diario de Motocicletas

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