It´s Rush Hour & I´m On The Metro

It’s 7pm and the platform is packed. People are waiting anxiously, inching forward alarmingly close to the edge with eyes peeled to the left. The train sounds in the near distance and they ready themselves at the same time as the metro guards spread their arms and shout to stay back. There is only one word to describe what comes next: battle.  The doors open and there is a swarm of commuters descending from the carriage … while fighting the ferocious onslaught of those trying to get on. There’s pushing and shoving, people shouting “weon” and once inside (if you make it that is) there is no room to even lift a finger and all manner of things pressed into your bottom.

The metro has a bad reputation amongst locals and foreigners here but it’s fair to say that in (most) countries travel during rush hour is a hectic and trying time. It’s true that the above picture is commonplace and it’s also true that it’s near impossible to find a space if you are disabled, with children or with a pushchair. People are already stressed by the time they arrive on the platform thanks to Santiago’s long working day, and just waiting to use your ticket/Bip card can take half an hour in some stations (looking at you Tobalaba!).

Last night we had to use the metro at exactly that time –  and with Emilio. Sometimes there is just no other option. The yellow line was extraordinarily busy. No-one offered us a seat, which is rare because someone usually does.  In their defense they probably couldn’t see us over the sea of bobbing heads … and also because they were all taken by middle aged ladies (the WORST culprits for doing the usual eye-avoiding/I’m asleep/I-can-see-you-but-don’t-care-trick). Some people motioned for us to sit down when one of the not-that-old ladies vacated but by then we were getting off at the next stop. At Santa Ana the swarm pushed into Emilio so much that he got very scared but the people around us pushed back to move everyone away from us. When we arrived at Los Heroes it would have been impossible for us to disembark if it hadn’t been for all the people who helped part a path for us and shouted to be careful of the guagua. On the platform it was madness but everyone that saw us gave us a wide berth.

This is something that I think often goes overlooked. For every person pushing, there are five more who will try and help and this goes for the buses and taxis too!. I have found the men to be more helpful than the women (generally), that people nearly always give me a seat without prompting outside of the rush hour, and that often the most helpful people to Luis or myself are the most unsavoury looking men. I also have to point out there has been immense improvement since I was here in 2012. During rush hour there are trains every minute, there are lots of people working to help you, and the Ruta Verde/Roja help make the trip a lot faster. It’s also worth pointing out that in a country where (most) things are privatized, the metro line is state-run – I’m sure TranSantiago would love to have a piece of that pie too because it must be a goldmine of income! The lines are constantly being repaired, lifts are being put in, carriages have been designated as preferential, and drivers are well-trained (its no easy feat to get the job either). A week or so ago, I lost my balance on the metro (darn dizziness!) and then had a full-blown panic attack.  I cannot speak highly enough of the young guard  who calmed me down, offered to call me an ambulance and then walked me across the station to wait for Luis to rescue me – and he spoke English! I dread to think how much worse it would have been if he wasn’t there, or not as easy to find.

The pressure on the metro during rush hour is intense and I really hope that that improves with all the new lines being put in. Do you know what I wish you could get here? Those badges that show if you need a seat or extra help – there are alot of disabilities that make no outward change to your appearance. For me, it’s very difficult for me to stand on something that is moving or even using stairs – made doubly worse if I’m holding Emilio! It really makes me feel for those amongst us who really need assistence. I don’t think Santiago provides well for the disabled (or am I wrong) and the ultimate day would be when they set aside a whole carriage for those of us with pushchairs or wheelchairs. Sure would help me avoid dirty looks when I have to use the lift!

What It´s Like Driving A Santiago Bus

Be honest: have you ever taken a bus and had the subconscious thought that the driver was  not very intelligent? I have.

It pains to me say that, but yes, I have to admit that deep down I was a bit of a bus snob. When i was growing up, we had a lot of nutty school bus drivers, and when I lived in Auckland I seemed to always encounter someone unsavoury on the bus ride to uni (how else to put that?!).

I now realise how wrong I was.

If you have been reading my other blog posts, you may remember that Luis is now working for Santiago’s bus company, TranSantiago. It is made up of lots of local companies, and Luis works for one based in Huechuraba called Al Sacia. It’s not the best – he usually works a lot of hours without a break (even to pee!) – and it took about four months in total for him to secure the job, after months of training and running around. When I say training I mean it – Luis had to intensely learn about his rights, passenger’s rights and how to react to any kind of situation, as well as mechanics.  He tells me:

“What people don’t realise is that the big buses – the micro oruga (caterpillar bus) – are incredibly difficult to drive and the driver can not see anything behind them. There is no visibility so that’s why accidents happen alot. All the buses are state-of-the-art machines – using the top mechanics in the world –  but they are still not as safe as travelling on the metro. It’s incredibly stressful driving the bus without even taking into account the passengers!”

Perhaps this accounts for why today the driver had no idea we were waiting with the pushchair and didn’t open the middle door until we asked. And then maybe why when he trapped a woman’s hand in the door and kept on driving he had no idea. We were up front near the driver and had no clue either until someone walked up and started shouting at the driver. We literally could hear nothing from the back. The woman was actually very hurt and the driver rerouted to the hospital. Luis intervened and explained that the lady should pass on her details and begin the process to get Al Sacia to pay, because very few people are aware that that kind of thing is within their rights.

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I’m afraid I have no idea what happened next because we got off and walked home. On the way I quizzed Luis for some tips. Here they are:

How To Keep Safe on the Bus

  1. It’s very easy to take a bus without paying, especially when payment is only (sometimes) enforced during rushhour. For that reason the bus attracts all kinds of characters that you will not find on the metro (because they would have to pay). Like the metro it gets very crowded but people can make a quick getaway so crime is more likely.
  2. Don’t use your phone! Even though all around you people may be using theirs, phones are one of the easiest and most common items to steal (in the taxi too so lock your doors!).  Most vulnerable position? The elevated seats by the window: when the bus stops, people use the tyres to jump up and grab the phone through the window (and this I witnessed last week).
  3. Getting on and off the bus is usually a busy time and often a prime moment for someone to rob you.
  4. Always take care of your belongings and keep them close to you.
  5. Don’t speak English really loudly!!

I’ve learnt lots of other interesting things since Luis began working for TranSantiago. Like the bus driver should never fight with someone outside the bus – if he does it can’t be classed as self-defense. And that there isn’t a brake like on a car, there’s actually a series of breaks that the driver decides to use depending upon how fast he needs to stop. There are also a number of drivers who insist that it is illegal to open the middle door for disabled passengers or for pushchairs – this law has now been changed and you are perfectly within your rights to enter by this door if you meet those requirements. I’ve also learnt that TranSantiago is a private company that the State pays, and they do so thinking that there are buses passing every ten minutes (are there really??). It’s made up of lots of local companies each one without different regulations and perks like breaks.

I actually love taking the bus – its my favorite method of travel here. While I appreciate the fastness of the metro, I find it often very uncomfortable and a nightmare during rush hour (though I will say the service has improved dramatically since 2012). It can be all too easy to blame the driver when something happens for we all love to play the blame game, but its important to remember that the simple truth is that the job is not easy.

“It’s actually really, really difficult – much harder than anything I have done before,” Luis tells me, “bus drivers are incredibly stressed out just driving that f**** machine – you have no idea how hard it is to drive until its you behind the wheel.”

There are plenty of drivers out there who can share their stories of being attacked by bored and irate passengers and in fact the internet is full of them.  There are also many bus drivers who are cantankerous, old men on a power high. But the fact is that none of them are stupid and it was wrong of me in the past to hold such opinions, even if they were deep, deep down inside. You never know – the next time you take a bus you may have Luis transporting you and he has a degree and speaks fluent English!!

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Taxista in Santiago

I knew my life would change with a child, but I didn’t expect it to become so much, well, bigger! It feels as though all my time is taken up with purpose and LIVING that it had been kind of devoid of before. Now, everything I do is for that happy little sausage that I am blessed to called my son.

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So it is July. Next month is my 28th birthday – eek! Ten years ago I was living in England with my grandparent, after failing to save for a high school exchange to Chile. Now look at me – I’ve lived in Chile for more than two years now, I can talk in Spanish (with plenty of mistakes but), I have a Chilean Mr, a half-Chilean toddler and the world is looking more and more like the oyster I always knew it was (it had just been a bit sandy before I think!). I am lucky indeed.

So where am I going with this “oh Helen your life is so fantastic” spiel? To two places: the first is to wax lyrical about my senor and the other is to talk about my new volunteering project coming up, to give back to the place that has accepted and provided for me so nicely.

Obviously I will start with Luis. For the last six years or so, Luis has been working nights in the taxi taking passengers from Santiago’s streets. I love Santiago’s taxis. They get a bad rap for being dodgy, and a few do have some tricks. Think switching notes and saying “oh you’ve only given me a 1000 pesos” instead of bigger, or taking longer routes, or sometimes running a meter that goes up thanks to a little button by the driver. But in my experience (and I have ALOT) taxistas here are courteous, curious, and beyond helpful. I’ve had so many free rides (from Los Dominicos to El Salto was one), heard so many interesting stories, been offered jobs/advice and just met lovely people, mostly. The other day, I took one that was completely covered in tiger print inside. Like, everywhere. I thought it was a joke (and I thought I was going blind too) but the guy was genuine, he just really loved tigers! We had a great convo about our favourite animals. I’m sure, though, that dodgy things happen in that car.

A google search tells me that there are some 30,000 black and yellow taxis in the day here, and this job pays so-so and is a bit cumbersome because of all the tacos.  This number drops by half in the night, because the risk factor increases substantially. Most family men call it quits around 9pm and the majority women drivers (they DO exist!) prefer to work the day shifts. But the night is where the money is at! You can make excellent plata because the traffic has all gone and, especially on a Thursday/Friday/Saturday, there are lots of drunk people to take home. One of the best perks is … strip clubs. You knew that was coming, right? Don’t be shocked – strip clubs are a reality of every city now and Santiago is no different. The top-tier ones pay commission to any taxista that brings passengers (if they go in and claim it). For Latin American tourists there’s a certain price, for other non-Chileans another, but  for ‘gringos’ from countries like New Zealand and United States the commission can be a good 10,000 per head for Luis (which is soooo much money!) There’s no selling involved on Luis’ part, he just claims his dues for taking a passenger already heading that way.

Some of my favourite stories have been Luis’ taxi stories. Before Emilio, I used to wake up when he’d come in to hear what exciting adventures he’d had that day: famous people, foreign people (who are always amazed at Luis’ English), drunk people, people doing cocaine in the backseat, people hooking up, people with prostitutes, the list can go on. One time, Luis took a worker from a Cafe con Piernas and a regular client, that she had been soliciting on the side (note: this is not a requirement of the job). In fact, she was married and her husband was waiting at home for her, with no idea in the world that she was with this guy! She’d been seeing him for a bit and he’d fallen helplessly in love with her. After they’d got out, the guy left a bunch of poems and songs he’d written for her on the back seat (or did she forget them?!) We read them the next day. They weren’t bad. And yes, he had it baaaaad for her!

But, with the good and the interesting, there is also the bad. I remember being pregnant and being so scared that something would happen to Luis before we had a chance to reunite as a new family. One time, he told me that he’d been threatened at gun point. Another time, he’d had his phone and money nicked by two guys with knives. In hindsight, these last were nice thieves because they let him keep his sim card with all his photos and contacts on!

Luis is now changing jobs to work for TranSantiago, as a public bus driver. Jesus H Christ, what a kerfuffle this is turning out to be! So far, he’s had three months of daily training in Maipu, Providencia, Pudahuel and then tests in Lampa. Sometimes he has to go all the way (in rush hour) to Maipu just for an hour. Sometimes he has gone to Pudahuel just to sign a form. These are all places that are ridiculously far away, like a good hour and a half but sometimes even more! Emilio has had to accompany him on a few trips when I’ve been working. He’s also had to go here, there and everywhere signing stuff, buying stuff, swapping stuff etc. That’s where he is right now in fact – its our first free day together in an age and he’s off downtown taking back a jacket with the wrong logo on it (when they KNEW it was a mistake when they gave it to him!)

He’s having to learn mechanics as well as in-depth knowledge of the roadcode and laws, amongst other things, and to be honest I had no idea all this went into driving a bus! I don’t know how I feel about it all. Luis has a degree, he’s travelled, lived overseas, got plenty of business experience and he speaks two languages fluently, and here he is driving a bus! If it were up to me he’d have his own country to run! Since it’s not, I have to be happy with what makes him happy, and when he says he’d rather drive a bus then ok! And its true – he gets life and health insurance for him and Emilio, he gets paid holidays and discounts at places, and he gets to finish work by four every day. In an office job, he’d have to work ridiculous hours and get stressed, and I’d much rather have Luis around then have all the money in the world

Luis is still going to work in the taxi (would you pass up Friday and Saturday strip club visits? For the money haha). It’s going to be lovely having him sleep normal times and having someone to keep the bed warm. And think of all the ACTIVITIES we can do with all this extra time awake (Step Brothers reference – if you haven’t seen it, watch it – now!)

I did say that I would introduce you to my new volunteering project, however I think now I shall save that for the next blog post. Keep you all waiting and all that. To be clear, when I say “you all” I do know its just Mum reading this blog! I will say, though, that there are exciting times for Recoleta and I ahead 🙂

Here are some pics of Emilio in the taxi – he is car OBSESSED!

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