Tag Archives: public transportation

Bye-Bye Blackberry (Ode to the Santiago Metro)

It was bound to happen sooner or later. In my case it was later. After 18 years of life in Santiago, someone finally managed to pick my pocket and make off with something valuable.

The crazy thing is that I was in a hurry and was going to take a taxi… but I was coming from an all-day seminar on Sustainability and was jazzed about being more environmentally responsible. I had made little mental post-it notes to contact the mayor to find out where all the recycling centers are in my neighborhood and insist they add more. I vowed to walk more and print less. I was psyched and cooking up strategies to leave this world a better place for my children’s children’s children; I was flying high on how to do my part for the environment… so of course I couldn’t stoop to a taxi after all that! No… the Metro it would be…

Let me just say that I am, by nature, careful about my things. All zippers zipped, snaps snapped, and straps strapped. In all these years no one has ever gotten anything out of my purse without my express will and knowledge.
Wait. I lie. I DID catch a guy with his hand in my bag a few years ago, but the joke was on him because I had a bad cold and all he got–you guessed it–was a handful of used tissues. I put the bad cold curse on him. The icky kleenex hex. Served him right, and I hope he snuffled for a month.

The thing is that at one point I DID feel something odd, but felt around and reassured myself that the zipper was secure and didn’t give it a thought until I got home and looked for my keys and,  hmm, that’s weird, why is this open? But even then it didn’t register that the Blackberry–did I mention it was new? was gone… yeah, the one that contains ALL my contacts… The one I just bought for work… (it’s not a toy— no, it’s NOT!)

It wasn’t until a couple hours later that I realized I did not have it. I hunted, I scrambled, I literally dumped EVERYTHING out of the bag and yelled choice words, hoping they would conjure up a phone while inventing much nastier curses that were exceedingly more creative than the former simple soggy tissue type. I believe a pox was involved. Perhaps leprosy too. No rotting in hell for this guy–let him suffer in the here and now. Acne, flatulence, and erectile dysfunction in a Viagra-less world. May his son don a tutu and his daughter grow a beard. May his wife run off with another woman, and his mother–well,  she’s probably suffered enough with this jerk already. I suddenly liked the chopping off of thieving hands, along with an eye for an eye and not one, but a whole mouthful of rotting teeth, for a Blackberry. Maggots and molten lava…you get the idea.

I had to cancel the cell service, but since I no longer had the phone, I had to google the company for a land line number and dial, while repeatedly choosing incorrectly from infuriating numeric options (click-dial-repeat-click-dial-repeat) while yelling at the recording to GIVE ME A REAL PERSON! Turns out that that works! Gotta say, though, that the real person who finally picked up managed to calm me down and get coherent responses out of me so that she could block the line and assure me that no, I would not have to pay for any calls to Mars made in the last 2 hours.

So there it is. The price for social responsibility. So my question is: can you measure the carbon footprint of a stolen Blackberry? And am I correct in believing that I have just earned enough carbon credits to offset future taxi service?

Update: Imagine how thrilled I was to discover, when I got my monthly bill, that the ·$%&·%$ thief had manage to run up $150,000 pesos (roughly 300 bucks) in long distance phone calls to Perú, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba during the 2 hours that I was unaware that the phone had gone missing. I didn’t even know I HAD long distance service! It turns out the company turns it on automatically and you have to specifically request they turn it off if you don’t want it… so, that said, remember that forewarned is forearmed!


For more on the Santiago Metro, see: “Santiago  Metro: the Daily  Crush


Santiago Cabbie Stories 1

I talk to taxi cab drivers (cabbies). I know there are other foreigners who dislike being singled out, who hate that “where are you from?” question that we always—always—get. But I really don’t mind. If I’m not in the mood to talk, I just say “Estados Unidos” and go back to whatever zoned out, tuned out pre-question place I was in … but usually I go for it… it’s an opportunity to get a tiny bit of insight into the life of someone I am not likely to cross paths with ever again. We’re a mutually captive audience for 10 or 15 minutes and I really like to hear their stories… and sometimes they want to hear mine.

Today my driver was a  nice grandfatherly type gent who proudly announced that he’d been working for 60 years. “Yep,” he said, in what I’m sure is a story he’s told a thousand times, “I started working when I was 10. I’m 70 now, and still going strong.” I urged him on as we zipped along through the public transportation fast lane in full-on rush hour. “I’ve been married for 44 years, and never an argument.”

“Aw, c’mon!” I tell him, “Everybody argues once in a while!” “Not once,” he insisted. “We didn’t own a thing when we got married, not even a plate, just the bed I slept on. She was 6 months pregnant, and we pulled together and did alright. Raised 4 kids and 12 grand children,” (while I’m thinking that this gentleman’s gentle wife probably would not be at all happy about him telling every gringa that comes along that she “had to get married” all those years ago…)

“I was a carabinero for 34 years,” he announced as we whizzed past the presidential palace. “I was right there inside La Moneda on September 11. It was really something.”

“I bet!” And I dared ask the question that we all learn quickly not to ask. “Were you an Allende supporter?” “Me? No, we were neutral!” Hmmm; a guarded answer if ever I heard one. I baited: “A friend of mine said that if it hadn’t been for the golpe, Allende would have simply been remembered as the worst President in Chilean history…”

I was fully aware that “golpe” is a very loaded word, and you can often spot a Pinochet supporter by their reaction. They call it the “pronunciamiento militar.” I wanted to see where he would go. He chuckled. “Yeah, he’s got a statue and everything.”

“A statue?” I’m really wondering where this is going…

“Here in Chile, everyone who screws up gets a statue!” Ah! Here we go! True colors! Not in any defensive or offensive kind of way. Just expressing his honest opinion to someone who genuinely wanted to know it.

“Do you know about President Balmaceda and the Revolution of 1891? 11,000 men died—11,000! And then he committed suicide—so what happens? He gets a statue… right there next to the obelisk in Plaza Italia (a key spot in the city).

He was just getting warmed up, and just as he gets to the part where he says, “yes indeed, it was once de septiembre that turned this country around, alright,” we came to my stop. Even so, I couldn’t help but notice that he was careful not to say it was Pinochet, but rather the events of the golpe that were responsible for the change.

Hmmm… whether or not he was truly “neutral” this particular carabinero was at least pretty diplomatic!

Santiago Metro: the daily crush

I was one of the 2, 204,462 passengersnearly 37% of the city’s entire populationwho used the Santiago Metro (subway) system on Monday,
April 20, 2009. And although the Metro’s official figures say that spatial density is 5.67 people per square meter, I, for one, can tell you with all the confidence in the world, that in the Escuela Militar Station at 7:30 pm, that was definitely NOT the case. It felt like all 2 million plus were right there, right then.

Santiago Metro at rush hour, Escuela Militar Station, April 2009

Santiago Metro at rush hour, Escuela Militar Station, April 2009

In fact, I generally try very hard not to take public transportation at rush hour. I even changed my office hours to avoid peak travel times and, whenever possible, I prefer to work at home.


I want my “metro cuadrado”
In Chile, when people speak of a need for personal space, they refer to their metro cuadrado (square meter), but the simple fact is, that in Santiago, there seems to be a lot of spatial exaggeration going on… WHO, in reality, has a square meter all to themselves? Not many.

Santiago Metro- Manuel Montt Station-suck it in

Santiago Metro Suck it in!! (Manuel Montt Station)

According to the official Metro Santiago web site,  Line 1, which runs through the center of town and most of the length of Alameda (including all of its corresponding name changes) has a daily density of 5.67 people per square meter. Think about it as a space that’s 1 meter by 1 meter, or just about 10 feet square (3.3′ x 3.3′). I’m no math whiz, but while that seems a bit close, it still means that each person (please correct meanyone!) has a circle of about 1¾ feet in diameter around them… but that daily density must take in the average of all-day-everyday-including-Sundays-at-7 am when there’s only 1 person per car, cuz take a look at the freakin’ picture and tell me how many people are in any of THOSE square meters!

One of my favorite courses in grad school was on the anthropology of space, taught by a wonderful professor (Dr. Deborah Pellow) who had been a student of Edward T. Hall (the Hidden Dimension, the Dance of Time). At the time I enrolled, I thought it would be an interesting elective course, how little did I know how much it would come to shape my way of thinking.

Let’s face it. We (humans, that is) are territorial beings. Some more space than others, of course, but we all have a certain amount of distancethat free-space barrier that we need between us and the people around usin order to feel comfortable and safe. Cultural differences in the amount of space needed vary tremendously, as just about any westerner has noticed upon coming to Latin America.

Edward T. Hall on Proxemics

In a nutshell, Hall talked about proxemics as a way of defining our perceptions and sense of “ownership” of the space around us… who can do what and under what circumstances and within what distance.

Hall defines 4 spatial spheres and the amount of space that most North Americans need. (I would love to see the same study adapted to Latin America, specifically Chile, where those distances would certainly be smaller…Anyone have those figures?)

Edward T. Hall's Personal reaction bubbles(from Wikipedia)

Edward T. Hall's Personal reaction bubbles(from Wikipedia)

  • Intimate space-refers to our personal “bubble” of space, the space that we consider our own personal private space into which we only allow those closest to us to enter. For most people from the US and Europe, we’re happy with about an 1820″ (4650 cm) circle of “My Space” into which only those nearest and dearest to our hearts (and health, as in doctors) are allowed.
  • Personal Distance: This is the spaceabout ½4 ft (.51.2 m)that we allow our friends, co-workers, classmates, and general acquaintances to share. The usual US-style handshake (without the typical Chilean male back thumping and accompanying bear hug) takes place at about 24 feet (.61.2) of distance… so maybe we have longer arms than Chileans, but the idea is to keep the other at bay.
  • Social spaces: refers to the amount of space we consider normal and comfortable for more formal social and business interactions. This may be about 412 feet (1.23.7m).
  • Public space: the space over which we feel we have no claim. This refers to spaces that belong to no one in particular or everyone in general. We (being gringos) feel best with about 12 feet (3.7 m) between us and the next guy.

These are some important concepts for cultural understandingon or off the subwayand I’m sure I’ll come back to them time and again.

For anyone who’s interested, check out the topic of “proxemics” in general and the work of Edward T. Hall in particular, especially The Hidden Dimension. It very much brought home certain cultural differences with regard to the amount of personal space one needs to feel comfortable. And I, as a gringa born and raised in the country, need a heck of a lot more space than most Santiaguinos at rush hour.



Metro Update:

October 15, 2009: See also “Bye Bye Blackberry (Ode to the Santiago Metro)”


Los cantantes chilenos de la micro

Aunque el progreso y el ya famoso Trans Santiago se ha arrasado con una amplia cultura comercial arriba los buses urbanos, los cantantes de “la micro” siguen entreteniendo a los pasajeros.

For English use the translator tool or see the summary below.

En Santiago hubo una modernización del transporte urbano que arrasó con muchas costumbres capitalinas relacionadas con la venta y comercialización de productos “arriba de la micro”, en el autobús. Se vendían desde diarios a herramientas de jardinería, borradores mágicos de tinta, calculadoras, bebidas y helados en verano, chocolates y dulces en invierno, parche-curitas (bandas adhesivas con esponjita para proteger las heridas), calcetines, llaveros, linternas, paraguas, quitasoles, pilas, relojes, sombreros plegables, chalas… Todo se acabó. Prohibido. Pero pese a ese cambio en el transporte urbano hay un gremio que era tan típico y autóctono que permaneció: los cantantes de micro. Esos maravillosos “cantores”, que le diría un amigo argentino, que piden permiso al chofer para subirse al bus y entonar una canción (guitarras, charangos, tambores, panderetas en unos casos y en otros, los raperos, generando los sonidos con la boca, por parejas o tríos).

Si ves subirse a uno, préstale atención, seguro tiene mucho que decir, son gente de oficio, son cantores de micro, no son cantores de escenario o de plaza o de fiesta, son otro tipo de cantores, tienen su particular público que se sube y se baja y te golpea para pasar, tienen otras habilidades. Y casi todos son muy buenos.

¿Te has topado con algún cantor de micro en Santiago? ¿Qué música cantaba? ¡Cuéntanos!

A continuación puedes ver el video de un cantor ciego en una micro por Av. Vespucio, de noche:



The recent modernization of Santiago’s public transportation system did away with an entire way of doing business on the bus. Vendors would board the bus to sell everything from gardening tools, magic marker erasers, calculators, cold drinks and ice cream in the summer, chocolate and other candy in the winter, bandaids, socks, key chains, flashlights, umbrellas, batteries, watches, fold up hats, sandals… you name it, but that’s all gone now. Kaput. It’s a shame, but the one hold-over from the old homegrown transportation system are the wonderful busline singers. They ask the driver for permission, and then start to sing and play their guitars, charangos, drums, and/or tamborines in some cases, and in others, perform their raps in pairs or trios using the human voice to provide rhythm and backbeat. It’s quite an experience–and most are quite good! Watch the video above for an example.

Do you have a story about singers on the buses? Let us know!