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By Odon de Buen
Mexico City is a large city which requires transportation for work, school, and social life. What mode of transportation one chooses to use depends on many variables that can include income, availability of mode of transportation, time of day, time available, comfort standards, or just who you are with at the moment.
I personally prefer to walk, but walking is not always possible when time and having my wife and children with me are important constraints. I then have to make choices, which I may like or dislike. I tend to dislike having to drive the most and enjoy empty "peseros" in a clear afternoon the most (especially when the driver has some nice music on). Riding the Metro is not bad, but not at 6 in the afternoon (when all of those that are not driving gather in it). Sometimes, particularly when I am in a learning mood, hopping on a taxi and having a one-to-one conversation with the driver may be a pleasant and unique experience.
What follows are my notes about the different modes of transportation in Mexico City. My intention is not to give advise to those who come to visit the city, but just to reflect on the joy and pain of moving from place to place in this, many times, overwhelming city.
The Great Enemy: the Automobile
I would like to start with the automobile because it is the most obvious one: Mexico City's landscape is dressed with moving and parked cars and the automobile, like in many other places in the world, is an important social obsession and this is, basically, social commentary.
It is curious that one of the metaphors I started using about living in Mexico was precisely driving in Mexico City. The most obvious thing about this was that driving in Mexico City (as well as living in Mexico) is a process of constant negotiation: when driving (be it a 10 mph or at a 100 mph) one has to negotiate one's position, even the one that represents staying in the same line at the speed that is allowed.
When driving in Mexico City one has to negotiate (at the same time) with the drivers of the cars in front of you, with those on the sides, and with those behind you. You have to negotiate your need to change lane or your right to stay on your lane. Sometimes there is no negotiation and they just impose on you, which is very common. The imposition, however, may not be done on an individual but on the collectivity: a driver (generally a "pesero") will stop all of a sudden to pick up a passenger, which gives place to the driver behind it (and in front of you to the left) to change lanes all of a sudden too. To avoid crashing one slows down, which gives place to the driver behind you to either honk at you or start maneuvering to pass (which will result in a chain of stop-pass-honk events). This, of course, happens several times in a trip, which requires a thick shell of patience.
Another metaphor that has occurred to me while driving in Mexico City is that driving in the city is just like life, particularly when one chooses to attempt new (and sometimes unknown) ways to get to places: it can happen that one finds an easy way out and gets ahead of everybody. It may also happen that, trying to avoid a situation where motion is slow, one may end up stalled in the middle of a larger mess that doesn't even compare with the one one was avoiding (no intention to be metaphoric about my move to Mexico!!).
Always be ready for the unexpected when driving in the capital city of Mexico. By this I am mainly refering to the way the streets are marked. One of the most terrifying experiences that I have found is when two lanes turn into one without any previous notice: this generally happens in streets where cars move fast or in bridges that have turns. Another surprise comes when one finds that the obstacles that are set to control traffic during peak hours (when cars go slow and drivers identify them) are still there at night, when they are hard to see and one is driving fast. The problem is that these obstacles are generally just large pieces of metal (probably a leftover from a car crash) that don't have any kind of reflective paint.
The place I avoid the most when I'm driving is "El Periferico", which is the freeway that is supposed to go around Mexico City (I say supposed because it doesn't). The road, a three lane freeway with no place to park if you need to stop, is a shooting range where the bullets weigh at least a ton (and one is the sitting duck). This, of course, when it doesn't play its role of parking place for everybody.
The Periferico is also where the rich ride their cars. Through the years I have even developed the notion that, for those that have a big houses on the hills, that go to Colorado for the weekends, or send their kids to Stanford for undergraduate studies, the Periferico is the only place where they become one of a thousand, the only place where they have to share something with someone with incomes a thousand times less (like myself). The Periferico is one of the few places that the car of the poor (beaten-up, 1965 Renaults) share spaces with the brand new Mercedes-Benz that cost as much as what a hundred workers earn in a year. I don't get in the Periferico much, but I cannot deny the pleasure that I get when, by chance, one of those fancy cars get a flat tire and their owners have to stand there getting the "madre" reminders that are common when someone gets on people's way.
But moving is just one of the problems one faces going places in Mexico City: parking is just as complicated. In Mexico City (like, I suppose, many other cities in the developing world) there are streets where parking on the street is "assisted" by an army of individuals who liberally have made the area adjacent to the walkways their territory. In these cases, besides the service they provide by being a "third eye" while you maneuver to park, they provide a protection service which basically consists in keeping their friends away from your vehicle. There are places where these individuals have become so established that you give them the keys to your car, mainly because that is the only way room can be made available for the cars to park; this is a situation that is very common around government offices located in the downtown areas of the city (and, it must be said, its pretty safe).
But not everywhere "protection" is available, or it is not for 24 hours a day. That is where another business comes in: the one that sells and installs auto-protection devices and systems. These enterprises have filled Mexico City with the sounds associated with these systems, which vary from the short "beeps" of the alarm system being turned on or off in a parking lot to the loud honking at all hours of the day (which generally comes from the vehicles of people that forget to turn off the alarm system before opening the door).
Besides what one has to spend buying and financing the car, paying for the insurance, for the gasoline, for parking, and for security, there are other "charges" for driving around the city which I can call "social charges". By these social charges I mean the petty cash that one spreads out in intersections when one gets a stop light. Those pesos go to people that either entertain you while you are a prisoner of the car (there are many dressed like clowns nowadays), or clean you windshield while you wait, or sell you gum so you can freshen your breath (and spoil your teeth and your digestion too), that commit slow suicide by putting gasoline in their mouths and throwing fire from their mouths in front of you, or that just plainly ask you (with the deepest expression of poverty and sadness) for those few coins located where you are supposed to put the ashes of the cigarettes that you don't smoke.
In those intersections there is another phenomena: drive-through malls with personalized service. At some intersections the cars stop for ten to twenty minutes, which is enough time to get yourself Mennonite cheese (there are actual Mennonites, with their blond hair, overalls, and hats, walking by the cars); you can also buy lamps, imported toys, dark glasses, American chocolate, canned sodas, umbrellas, flowers, and even bookshelves. This, of course, may represent a problem when traffic is moving a little faster than usual, mainly because the transaction may get complicated by the very typical lack of change of the walking entrepreneurs, who then have to run through cars while their client has to stand in the middle of the street in front of a large crowd of honking cars.
There are, of course, charges that one has to pay to the bank, to the city, to the federal government, and/or to that person or company that sold you the car. I won't include those because they are typical, but I'll add those that one has to pay to avoid larger charges. By these I mean the charges one has to pay when commuting the error of breaking the law and being caught. I must admit that having options when having to pay for an error is an advantage, particularly when the option to "contribute" with a certain amount of money to a police officer is to pay twice or more to either/and/or the government and the officials you will have to face if you don't go for the first option. In this case, what happens is that when, let's say, your car ran over a small tree on the walkway (without damage to your car or anything else) and a police officer catches you at the spot? The police officer will, very politely, enumerate (with costs) what it means to commit the crime of "dan~o a la nacio'n" (damage to the nation), which is the category under which damaging a tree on a walkway falls: the fine runs around $US 300 (plus associated "transaction" costs"). You may yell, cry, and/or try to escape, but these options will only increase the damage (particularly the one that involves trying to run away). That is when, like with the other drivers around while you are moving, or with the individual that controls a certain street-parking area, or with the guy that wants to "clean" the windshield of your recently washed car, you will have to negotiate to get out of there with the least costly option, which will probably fall into the economic category of "income redistribution".
The Great Pest: Peseros
Even though they are one of the greatest pests in Mexico City (particularly for those who drive their cars on the same road as them), even though they are driven by non-unionized workers, and even though they may be very uncomfortable, the "peseros" (that comes from the fact that they appeared when price of the ride was one old peso) are one of the most reliable ways of transportation around Mexico City: they are frequent, they go everywhere, and they are not expensive.
The peseros that ride on Mexico City's streets today are far apart from those that were present when this type of service appeared about fifteen years ago. At that time the peseros were just large (mainly American) used cars being operated for collective rides; because of that they were also named "collective taxis". The difference between these taxis and the standard ones was that the collective ones would stop anywhere and load passengers in a permanent route. Later, once the market for this type of transportation was established, the old cars started to be replaced by new VW buses, which could take more passenger with less gasoline. This was (I imagine) a great source of happiness for the VW executives, whom found themselves with a sudden jump in sales of their vehicles. But those who, at the time, were buying VW buses for private uses were those who found out that not all of those VW-bus peseros were bought from the VW dealer: many of the VW-bus peseros were stolen vehicles.
Later on, around 1982, a new generation of peseros began to appear: the "mini-buses". First authorized to run for seated-only passengers, when the debt crisis hit Mexico and the government could (and would) not expand the public transportation fleet, the population of these vehicles (mostly GM and Ford) began to boom. Later on, with the appearance of the "day-without-a-car" program (to limit vehicle-emissions) the regulators allowed the operators of the mini-buses to have stand-up passengers. I guess that, to reflect the complications that that meant for those passengers-- like me, a little taller that the average Mexico City population- -it would be enough to say that those first mini-buses, being only authorized for seated-only passengers, had ceilings that were about 5.5 feet high. Just imagine riding on one these buses on one of those times when they are very crowded and you have to have your neck bent because there is no more room for your head, and its raining, and you are carrying three big bags, and you have your two young kids with you, and you have to get off, and its late...well, I guess that is enough to get the idea.
Another characteristic of the peseros is that many have music which, for a music lover like myself, it is an added attraction. Mostly popular music by contemporary Mexican singers, the music in the peseros creates a particular atmosphere. Sometimes, at night, when the pesero is not crowded and the lights are dim, and the vehicle carries two couples that are talking quietly to each other, and the cool wind blows through the cabin, and the music is a favorite romantic song, and the pesero just moves without the hurry of earlier hours, and outside people stand in corners eating tacos or tamales or tortas, and there is no particular hurry for anybody, well...the magic of a city like Mexico appears and one would like to ride there for hours but no, its time to get off and let that machine take its magic into the night.
As a final comment on the peseros I should add that, given the limited amount of people they carry, one of the feelings one gets riding them--as it relates to the human interaction--is a mixture of shared intimacy but with the possibility of anonymity. It can, however, happen that the ride becomes a social event in which one can get involved naturally: you can find yourself in the middle of a "happening". As an example, a week ago, when I was riding back from school with my daughter Rebeca, a group of about six quite pretty female teenagers decided to sing with the music coming from driver's radio. Loud but not rowdy, the group of middle class girls asked the driver to turn up the volume and started singing along music that is identified with working class citizens. The music was mostly a "cumbia" (a rhythm from Colombia) and, interestingly enough, most of the girls knew the words to the songs and sang with great emotion and intensity (I was going to sign too, but Rebeca wouldn't allow me!). The party lasted about eight minutes and ended because the girls left the "mini- bus".
El Metro: the great social equalizer
I like the Metro. I like it because it takes me on long rides for very little, because I like the music played in its stations, because I can read while I go places, because it is the live museum of anthropology, and because it is a place where social classes mix.
I'll start with the music. The music that is generally played at the Metro is old, mostly from the times when Mexico starts industrializing (the late forties, early fifties). This is the music of the boleros, of the Cuban rhythms before the Cuban Revolution. That music takes me back to my childhood, to the childhood when the city still had clear limits and clear sky, when my mother's neighborhood was surrounded by cornfields, when my parent's parties had that music, those songs. What I find revealing is that, even though the music relates to a time when things were different, not much has changed since in the way of social structure or the way people look: many things, places, and people look as if they had been kept in a time capsule: in Mexico City one can walk on the street and walk through time by finding environments that reflect different stages of the city's (and the country's) life in the past hundred years.
Well, I guess I got carried away about the city when I'm supposed to be talking about the Metro, the great social equalizer; I should get back to the Metro. And why the "social equalizer"? Well, because almost everybody in the city has, at some point, to ride it and people of all walks of life ride it everyday and they have to share the space and, sometimes, be face to face because there is no place to turn to. In some Metro lines, particularly those that connect with the poorest neighborhoods where the recent migrants from rural Mexico live, one can find families in which the females wear colorful clothes and they all speak in languages that I don't understand. Next to them you may see a very well dressed gentleman that may be some mid-level burocrat having to take the Metro because it is the day of the week when his car has to rest (under the "day-without-a-car" program).
I also like to ride the Metro because I can read while I go places. What I read, however, depends on the time of the day. If it is at rush hour I generally take a small book that I can hold in one hand while I use the other hand to hold on to something (the Metro has plenty of holders). If it is not rush hour I can read my favorite newspaper, which I do standing up and leaning on the holders by the doors with my body towards the back of the train (so it takes a very fast stop to get me off balance).
The metro cars sometimes turn into improvised stages where musicians, actors, stand-up comedians, and poets bring their act. Very common are the blind singers for whom I have had, as a music critic, mixed reviews: some of them just make me feel petty for them but many times they sing from the hart and the metro car gets filled with the intensity of a blind man (or woman) singing his pain with a guitar. I give them all small change. Not too long ago, riding in the morning towards downtown, an actor came in a, with a very dominating voice and attitude, did a solo act from a classical author that lasted for about four stops (eight minutes). A typical act consists of having two kids, both with their face painted as clowns, that walk into each end of the cars and exchange, generally very mechanically, messages that have double meaning and are supposed (sometimes they do) to make you laugh.
Taxis: a place for meaningful conversations about meaningless things.
For those that like to keep quiet the taxis are not the best place: having to ride with another person for a while and not talking may be too cold, too un-human. To me, being so communicative (they also call it gossip), I just can't avoid talking with the drivers.
My conversation invariably starts with the weather. "It's a pretty morning" or "it's nice it rained last night" usually starts a conversation that leads into the unknown. Sometimes, like a few days ago, I end up talking about global climate change and how the ozone layer is being depleted. But other times I end up listening to some amazing life stories. One time a driver told me of his life as a cross country truck driver; another time another told me of how people that had good jobs ended up losing them and having to drive a cab; another one told me the story of how a female doctor cheated him when she crashed his car and asked him to go to her house just to have her brothers around her and deny everything.
Riding taxis is a good way to get the opinion of the working class about the state of things. Sometimes critical of the government, sometimes supportive of some of the measures the government takes, taxi drivers are a good thermometer of how things look in Mexico from those that are near the bottom. One of the common themes is (of course) traffic in Mexico City and how it should be solved. One driver once blamed the problem on trucks which, he said, "take a lot of room"; another one told me, with very good common sense, that there shouldn't be promotions to sell cars in Mexico City because that just increases the amount of cars in circulation ("I bought two", he admitted).
What I don't like about riding in taxis in Mexico City is riding in the morning when traffic is not as intense: it seems that is the time when the have the greatest demand and they hurry from place to place. Unfortunately, and as a result of being without a car for three weeks, I had to take the kids to school early in the mornings and, to get to the school, we have to go on a street that doesn't have too much traffic at that hour. I just hate to be riding in the back of a VW, with my two kids, no seat belts, and a driver that just steps on the accelerator and passes cars as if at Daytona Beach. Fortunately we bought a second car and our first car came out of the shop.
A final comment.
One final comment about public transportation in Mexico City: public transportation seems to create a great romantic atmosphere. I say this because be it at the Metro, the peseros, the buses, the trolleys, and/or the taxis, one always finds a couple kissing, no matter how crowded, no matter how visible. The image that comes to mind is one that ocurred one early evening when we were driving to my mother's with the kids. The traffic was moving very slowly, there were cars all over and we were riding behind a pesero. In the back of that (very crowded) pesero, sitting on the seats on one of the corners and illuminated by the lights of the cars behind the pesero, there was this couple that, with obvious passion, just kept kissing. With their mouths as the center of gravity, they just moved their heads to one side, to the other side: in the five minutes that we rode behind that pesero, they took about three or four short breaths of air to immediately put their mouths back together into this long, wet, passionate kiss that, who knows, may still be going on.