Monday, February 05, 2007

Day 146: Benjamin’s Short, Comic Essay on Peruvian Public Transportation

Peruvian car rides provide unexpected amusement. Our way from Mancos to Yungay, in what is normally a ten minute colectivo (a four-door, most often Toyota, form of public transport) ride, was feeling brief and uneventful. We passed Campo Santo, a site to reflect on grief and mass devastation following the 1970 landslide, when the car suddenly stopped. Our driver yelled out the window to a fellow colectivo chofer traveling in the opposite direction, who was also slowing to a halt. “Tu carro [your car],” he shouted and proceeded to leave the vehicle and his five passengers, squished and silent in anticipation (read more on the ‘squished’ part later). The two drivers scooted across the highway at the same moment and the men changed vehicles. We continued on and the two men at my side continued their conversation as if to forget about the bizarre scenario. Perhaps the ‘Chinese Firedrill’ has been locally adapted by Peruvian colectivo drivers who developed the game as a sort of reprieve from the monotonous inter-city route. They have one-upped their Asian counterparts, I thought, for these guys not only get out and run around their own vehicles in the middle of the highway, but they switch cars, too. I thought this event would fulfill the daily quota of curious deeds (it usually averages one per day), until the saturating experience of our journey from Caraz to Yungay in a combi (a small VW bus used for stuffing and shipping the public from one location to the next).

Through the open window on the driver’s side, a Carnaval (month of February celebration of unknown origin) enthusiast equipped with an entire bucket of water managed to wet the faces of most passengers (and driver) on board. Somehow traveling in the opposite direction at 55mph down the highway our assailant, with undoubtedly well-rehearsed skill, nailed a dozen people. Indeed, from a young age here in Peru citizens learn the craft of chucking water, be it via balloons from a balcony or buckets from a combi. Before today I thought my male gender and lack of blond hair would protect me from a sopping month of February. In Ecuador during Carnaval, I recall the young women in tight jeans and white tee-shirts receiving the brunt of the spray. Now I’m left to ponder Carnaval’s apparent indiscrimination, an equal soaking for all, and the benefits of rolling up the window while cruising down the highway.

The idiosyncrasies of Peruvian transportation could be expounded for hours. My personal favorite is the half-an-hour colectivo ride from Mancos to Musho on a bumpy dirt road. Of course, one could opt to pay more and take a taxi (your private colectivo) up the hill, but then you miss out on the following predictable schedule of events. I arrive at the paradero, shush the offers for taxis to Musho, and approach the first colectivo in a long line of cars and drivers. If it is unclear which car this may be, the eager drivers will be sure to usher me in their direction.

Next comes the now-famous period of awaiting more passengers. Depending on the time of day, this could be a ten minute delay to what can feel like an hour or two. First the back seat fills up: one, two…then three. Great, we will be on our way shortly, I think. Another person comes and occupies the front seat. Super, the car’s seatbelts have been claimed; it is time to roll! But the driver is still standing outside the vehicle looking lazily towards the mammoth mountains in the distance. Is he possibly waiting for more passengers? “Gas is expensive, you know,” he may say. “No alcanza con menos pasajeros,” he may claim. So we sit for a long while, breathing the same, stale, full-car air. I recall suddenly that seatbelts can not be the determining factor in the maximum number of passengers, for no one actually uses them. Once, while traveling in the front seat of a combi, I remember the chubby driver asking me to lay my seatbelt across my lap (“no need to actually plug it in,” he chortled) as we passed a police checkpoint. I continue to wonder how a national law could share such an indifferent national consciousness. A fourth finally squeezes into the back seat and our departure seems imminent. But, there is a little butt room atop the parking break, behind the stick shift and between the friendly driver and fellow front seat passenger. To protect against the parking break and unbuckled seatbelt clasp, the driver will hopefully have provided a cushy piece of cloth, for some reason often leopard print. I have the enormous privilege of entering Peace Corps married and, thus, traveling with a companion. We often claim the front seat of an empty car, knowing the painful consequences of our backseat companions’ portly dimensions. Perhaps most amusing, however, is the denial of passengers upon seeing a mostly full car. Sometimes a pair arrives, and they both quizzically gaze at the front seat as if wondering how long it will be until another car will be along to take them up the hill. These people seem incapable of understanding that a car will only leave with a minimum six passengers. Oh yes, there can be more.

It costs fifty cents less if you are willing to climb into the trunk. Children are prime for the maletero; they can increase the passenger load almost twofold. I frequently chose to pop open the trunk rather than waiting for another ride. As a North American new to Musho, I have been mostly oblivious to the implicit social status of different locations in the colectivo. Cars are fairly novel to many campesinos and the road from Mancos to Musho has been accessible to small cars for only about five years. Unfortunately, the oldest community members – who often don’t speak Spanish – are made, like children, to ride in the trunk. I combat this ageist-indio discrimination by taking my place with the bags of vegetables in back. One nice aspect of being foreign is the head shake. Nationals perform a particular back and forth wobbling of the head, perhaps in confusion or dismay, when we foreigners do something uncharacteristic. I sort of pride myself in eliciting the head shake because it means I’m breaking barriers, and in the case of the maletero, maybe even helping to change social norms. So I gladly take my turn in the trunk.

So now we are ten including the driver. Please, roll up the windows and let’s cruise! And we do. The ride becomes a social gathering of sorts. I recognize faces, despite barely being able to turn my head in the claustrophobic vehicle, and we talk. I explain what Peace Corps is all about and they teach me a bit of Quechua. Big bumps occasionally jar the ribs and maintaining circulation in the posterior limbs is nearly impossible. My first trip up the hill was the first time in my life my groin fell asleep. It hasn’t happened since, so maybe this whole thing is something to which one can adapt. Soon, I arrive at my door, flushed, sore of neck and spine if I rode in the trunk and almost always with a plastered ribcage. Hopefully, I made the trip from Mancos in half an hour, and for only one sol and fifty cents!

The irony of this story is that I recently discovered the hike off the mountain takes about the same amount of time. What I suffer in waiting, I suppose I save in sweat. And, I must admit, the whole Peruvian colectivo experience is pretty amusing and oddly worthwhile.