Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Passing Empty Busses

I should not have waited so long. I had just gotten done visiting a friend who lived in one of the wealthier parts of Santiago and so there I was, parked on a lonely street corner, waiting, hoping really, for any bus that would get me within some proximity of my house.
At last at 1:45 AM, after an hour and a half of stupidly but hopelessly waiting, I let reality sink in. I hailed a cab, fearful of what the final cost would be but aware I had run out of options. After getting in I gave the instructions to get to my house and then sat content, amused to play the game I have become rather accustomed to down here in South America. I speak, the driver looks me up and down in the mirror a few times, and then finally the question comes out. “Where you from?” he asks. “The United States” went the rehearsed reply. Part one out of the way, and now on to part two.
The driver glances down at his watch, his eyes get large with curiosity, and again, a bit of hesitation until question two comes out. “Why are you going to Peñalolén (the neighborhood I live in), especially at this hour?” “I live there” came the reply. More silence. A nervous chuckle. Glances again. “You do not understand” he tells me and then repeats the question, this time very slowly and pronouncing every syllable. I smile, and repeat my answer, “because I live there.” “no, no, no” he says, even slower this time. “You live in this neighborhood, Vetacuña.” At this point I just smiled and laughed, “so I am told my friend” I say, and this time it is my turn to chuckle. “But I do live in Peñalolén. Let me explain.” It took a few minutes to assure him I did indeed live where I said I live, but at last he seemed content to believe it, and in true Chilean fashion, we spent the majority of the ride thereafter with him bragging about his country, and me listening attentively, interjecting with a word or two here and there.
But something happened that night I was not prepared for. As we drove through the streets we passed a number of busses running empty. Being the underpaid volunteer I am, I was not above studying each bus, hoping that maybe I would see a line that passes my house and we would get far enough ahead where I could order the taxi to the corner, pay, hop out, and catch a bus and save large amounts of money. But that is not the way this story ends.
At some point I became intrigued enough to question the taxi driver about the whole mess. I asked what time the busses ran till and he smiled his signature smile and gave me the first dose of reality, “until whenever each bus driver wants” he said. “Funny” I said more to myself than to him, “I have not seen any that pass anywhere near my house.” And for the third time I got that glance in the mirror but for the first time I felt it deserved, as though there was truly something I was missing. He went on to explain that correct or not, bus conductors won’t pass through my neighborhood late. If I wanted to take a bus home, it was best I find myself on one before 10 PM, or I might as well get used to taxi service.
I made it home safe and sound that night but not without passing bus after empty aimlessly navigating, empty, through wealthy streets. To this day, the shortcomings of public transportation to serve those in the greater public who truly need it, baffles me. My imagination can’t let go of the painful irony of those empty busses passing through wealthy neighborhoods while the people most in need of those busses after a long night of work are left with little if any affordable options. Another not so subtle reminder of how the poor of Santiago are kept hidden in the shadows of the cities increasing wealth and for me personally, a good reminder, via the power of the purse, to get my butt on a bus early if I have any hope of surviving on my stipend!

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