Our principal means of moving around Santiago has been public transportation, supplemented by taxis, Uber and rides from friends. As in most major cities, abundant private vehicles in circulation create traffic jams at peak hours (“tacos” by the local parlance), and smog. Santiaguinos’ heavy reliance on their clean and efficient metro system was illustrated on June 9 when a broken water main closed a section of the central line. Carol and I were en route to a friend’s book presentation and joined thousands who avoided or exited gridlocked buses, walking through the downtown area, the locals facing the disruption in their usual tolerant and unflustered manner.
My commute from our apartment to the Universidad de los Andes combines a mile of
walking with a 15-minute bus ride–uphill in the morning and down in the evening. The bus has shown me a broader cross-section of Santiago than I typically encounter in our upper-middle-class neighborhood or the small, private university. In January and February, during Chile’s summer break, my fellow riders on route 421 were almost exclusively domestic, service and manual laborers who work at the hospitals, businesses and homes in the largely residential area surrounding the university. Many of the workers appear to be immigrants, mostly from Peru, others from Haiti and elsewhere. Chile’s economic stability has produced a dynamic that is familiar to the U.S.: immigrants earning steady wages to support their families in both host and home countries. Since the beginning of the school year in March, university and high school students have created a larger, more diverse group of riders.
Even with this mix I’ve been the poster-boy of diversity on the 421, so far as I can tell. I am one of few riders who board the bus in the affluent neighborhoods located beyond the terminus of the metro line, and I look and dress more like the folks whizzing past in their cars, than those on the bus appreciating a few more moments of free time—off their feet if they were fortunate enough to score a seat—before arriving to their workplace. (As another reminder of differences with the folks driving their cars, some of the women bring along suitcases because they spend midweek nights in the maids’ quarters of homes where they work.) On the rare occasions when I’ve spoken with fellow passengers—in respect for their “down time,” not for lack of interest—any possibility of my being local shatters. The not-infrequent look from fellow passengers, especially women, which seems to ask “what the heck are you doing here?” has become familiar during my three full years of working and living in Latin America over the past three decades. I still haven’t mastered a look that replies, “I love this place.”
A foothill to the impressive cordillera defines my commute. The 421 drones steadily up, at times never shifting out of its lowest gear. Some drivers take full advantage of gravity on the way back down (I’d like to see the bus system’s budget for brake maintenance and parts). Because I usually stand once the seats fill, in respect for others’ more-tired feet, I’ve surfed the 421 on its downhill run. The fast turns and hard braking emulate a surfboard in rough conditions, requiring a broad stance, bent knees and active front to back as well as left to right adjustments to maintain equilibrium, and to avoid flattening a fellow passenger in a wipeout that would certainly elicit more than a quizzical facial expression….
In truth, such a fall would be impossible during the peak of evening rush hour (~5:30-6:30) as riders pack the 421 on their way toward other metropolitan areas via the metro and/or connecting bus routes. The cheek and jowl riders—or more commonly midriff and jowl in my case—exhibit an admirable flexibility and patience that I hope to acquire some day; I become impatient after waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus. As I’m usually among the first to exit (on larger buses signaled by pressing a button rather than shouting “¡Bajan!” to the driver) I try to position myself near a rear door on particularly crowded rides. More often than not a group that’s been waiting to board eagerly rushes the door, increasing the kinetic energy from packed bodies. The big American gets launched out at the last moment with the sensation, but none of the grace, of a human cannonball at the circus, as others scramble to squeeze inside the closing doors.