Saturday, March 5, 2011
Planes Trains and Automobiles
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m forbidden to drive cars or motorcycles. For good reason - I wouldn’t survive 10 minutes behind the wheel in Lima or Ica without having a wreck. They drive by a whole different set of rules down here. And by rules I mean there aren’t any - well, there are but I don’t know what they are and when I think I’ve got it figured out, it turns out that I don’t. So how do I get around without driving? Well, I walk a lot and take a whole array of public transport (I say public but it’s nearly all privately owned) which include taxis, collectivos (shared taxis), mototaxis, combis/micros (mini-busses), busses, etc.
According to Hernando Soto in El Otro Sendero (The Other Path), his book discussing Peruvian informal economies, nearly all of the means of transportation started out extra-legally. In other words, they didn’t register their businesses, pay taxes, get licenses to operate, etc. They simply identified a need, staked out routes, payed off cops, and began running their routes all outside of the formal economic system. Soto’s book was written during the 1980’s and things appear to be more formal in the economic sense - vehicles have their insurance stickers, fares and routes are posted, etc. But you get out on the open road… Look Out! It’s every man for himself.
The object seems to go fast, pass the car in front of you, and go even faster. When you’re at a red light, get right up on the bumper of the car in front of you so some jagbag doesn’t cut in front of you but then of course you’re stuck there when the car in front of you breaks down or doesn’t go when the light turns green. Another rule of the road – honk the living sh*t out of your horn even though you’re stuck in traffic and not going anywhere soon. The noise in busy streets in larger cities is maddening. Quick aside – when I arrived in Miami a few weeks ago I had a couple of hours to kill until my flight to Dallas so I went outside to sit in the warm sun for a while. When I got outside there were a ton of cars and busses dropping off, picking up. No noise whatsoever. No horns. No high pitched scream of mototaxis. Just silence. I felt like something was seriously wrong and felt disoriented, like something wasn’t right with the universe.
The age, comfort of the vehicles range from something built in the 70’s that’s being held together with Bondo, firing on two of its eight cylinders, and billowing blue exhaust out the tail pipe to vehicles that are brand new, very clean, and comfortable.
If you’re a pedestrian, you have to walk con ojos en el trasero (eyes out your rear end). You basically have no rights. You’d better look left, right, left, right, and left again before crossing the street because drivers don’t give a F*****CK about you and won’t slow down to let you cross unless they’re about to hit you in which case it’s probably too late. It’s even worse than St. Louis.
As crazy and arbitrary as the public transportation system seems as soon as you first get here, once you figure it out it does make sense and you can get around pretty efficiently and economically. The next couple of posts, I’ll describe the various forms of transportation I use to get from Point A to Point B while hopefully not ending up at Point C which is not somewhere you want to be day or night.