Tag Archives: transporte

Valparaíso by Trolley

What’s summer without a bit of travel, exploration, fun, and tourism? “Valparaíso en un Trolley” dishes out a bit of all that and more. Theater troupe Teatro de la Historia fills the seats of a 1950s-era green and yellow “trolebus” and rolls out on a tour that takes delightful jabs at the city’s characters while simultaneously conveying pride in this one-of-a-kind city.

Trolebuses de Chile in Valparaíso date to 1952 Continue reading


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)”


Llegó Marzo (March is upon us)

Llegó Marzo, literally, March has arrived… or rather, it is upon us.
Llegó Marzo. Two little words imbued with so much cultural significance.

It’s March. And in Chile, March is a rough month. Here in the southern hemisphere it means that summer is over and it’s time to get back to a real world that’s been waiting with a vengeance. Playtime’s over and we must buckle down, tote that barge and lift that bale once again.

Most real work seems to get done in the winter months, between April and August. Things start winding down in September with the arrival of spring and the extended Independence Day holidays. October starts the slippery slide toward the summer homestretch. November: school is wrapping up and the wedding season is on. December means graduations, shopping, holiday parties, and Christmas. January kicks off literally with a bang (fireworks), and let the summer begin. Vacations. Beach time. Travel time. Can’t get much done at work because people are already on mental vacation. February: the world comes to a screeching halt as the city bails and takes its urban hustle-bustle on the road. Mostly to the beach.

And then comes March. Reality kicks in… hard… Back to work, back to school, back to routine. Back to traffic jams, crowded subways and buses and long lines for colectivos.

And back to the bills-in-waiting after months of celebrations. Back to the bank for a loan. The ghost of Christmas (and summer) past stands shoulder to shoulder with the specter of costs to come. And as if back to school expenses weren’t brutal enough (registration, tuition, uniforms, books, schools supplies, etc.), someone got the bright idea that every car registration in the country must be renewed–you guessed it–in March (more lines, more bills). And taxes aren’t far behind.

March. It’s a government plot, I tell ya…
Hear that whip cracking? My theory is that it’s the government’s way of forcing us all back to work after such a long hiatus… Making sure that everyone is up to their necks in debt from the get-go to ensure another year of production!

Greetings from Chile!

So you’re driving along the winding roads of Chile’s Coastal Mountains near Lago Rapel and come upon this scene… What goes through your mind… Safety issues? Joy ride? Dumb move? Having fun? It’s all relative… culturally relative, that is.

Matt Wilson: On the Road

Greetings from Chile! Photo by Matt Wilson

My friend, photographer Matt Wilson, sent this picture around this morning, calling it “Only in Chile.”  It’s not, of course. I’m sure scenes like this can be found in many places around the world, but it made me stop and wonder… These guys are clearly having a great time, and I have to admit, riding around backwards in a car jacked up on the back of a flatbed truck does seem like a fun and larky,  once-in-a-lifetime-thing-to-remember kind of thing to do… but then I get this “oh my god you can’t be serious” voice in my head shouting “Danger Will Robinson!”  (True, I don’t always listen to this voice, but it’s there).

And that controlling little voice has been nagging at me all day. I’ve been thinking about this picture and asking myself,  “What is it about this scene?” “What do these guys think about what they’re doing?”  “What do the other drivers on the road think about what they’re doing?” Clearly they’re having a great time, so why do I get this weird feeling about it?

It’s very much a cultural thing, and it’s all tied up with conceptions of “common sense,” of right and wrong, and just plain dumb. Somehow we “know” what we can-can’t, should-shouldn’t, could-couldn’t, must-mustn’t, ought or ought not to do in any given circumstance. We’ve been taught directly and indirectly throughout the course of an entire lifetime to think that something is or is not a good idea. And then there are the things where the jury is still out. And in Chile, the jury seems to be out quite a bit.

Responsibility is an issue that keeps coming to mind. The truck is winding its way through the sinuous roads of central Chile’s Coastal Mountains (near Lago Rapel), where  the hills are steep and visibility is limited. If there were an accident and these guys got hurt, who would be to blame? Who would take responsibility? Or to state it bluntly (and gringoesquely), who could they sue? The answer is probably no one.  They take responsibility for themselves. They’ve chosen to trust the driver and put their faith in the straps that fasten the car to the truck and ride who knows how many miles through the hills. They know what can happen, but they’ve tossed their proverbial caution to the wind. They’re just along for the ride.

The truth is, I’m not even sure there are laws against this kind of thing in Chile. And if there are, who knows if they would ever be enforced. It’s very common to see people of all ages riding in the back of trucks and vans–often with no doors or gates to protect them from sliding off or out, and until fairly recently, it was common to see people hanging off the sides of overstuffed city buses during rush hour.  Beats walking, I suppose.

Of course the news is full of tragedies, and everyone clucks their tongues and recites “what a shame,” until the next time around. But in the end, people, adult people, make their decisions and abide by their consequences. No one has forced them into that car, and if they get hurt as a result, who is to blame but themselves? (Of course it’s an altogether different story when bad decisions affect third-party innocents, but then that’s an entierly different post).

So where am I going with this? Once again the concept of cultural relativity comes up. (OK- yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, I AM an anthropologist). The culture we grow up in frames our ways of thinking for our entire lifetime. It instills that controlling voice in our heads that guides us through our lives and even tells us what to think about what other people are doing.

My little voice looks at these guys and tells me “don’t do that”… but then there’s that other voice (probably the one that convinced me to move to Chile in the first place), that says, what the hell, go for it! Have fun!  Enjoy life! We all have to go sometime, so why not enjoy the ride in the meantime?

Why not indeed.

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!