Yup, another entry, only a few days after the last one. Clearly, it must be exam time for IFSA-Butler study abroad Peru students. The good news is I sort of studied for tomorrow´s exam and made one pretty nice slide for tomorrow´s presentation before I gave up and decided to spend my time describing combis instead of working.
Combis are one of the most distinctive aspects of life in Lima, and I’ve put off writing about them because I wasn´t sure how to explain them. I think the closest analogy I can come up with is they are like a very small subway car that barrels along on a winding track. The feeling of being thrown against a window or a fellow rider is best conveyed by that…but it still doesn´t capture the combi experience. First of all, a combi is above ground, running on regular city streets among cars, bikes, pedestrians, and other forms of public transportation. That means two things: 1. You can see exactly how close you come to hitting people, curbs, and various giant trucks, and 2. the swerving is not guided by a track; instead it is dictated by all the other traffic and by people standing out on the side of the road waving their arms to get a combi to pick them up.
A combi looks like a small van, but one that´s been painted outside with stripes, street names, and occasionally religious slogans, and decorated inside with stickers, ornaments, and occasionally lights. It´s sometimes sort of rounded on the sides, so the tall rider sitting near a window has to tilt her neck away from the wall to avoid hitting it at every small bump. It generally looks like it originally could fit twelve or so people, but has been modified to fit about 20 by adding extra seats, and even a bench behind the driver where people sit/balance facing backward. There are also coasters, which are bigger than combis, and then there are micros, which are the size of school buses and have different rules about paying and stopping. I usually take combis because they´re convenient for getting to the university, and generally wherever I want to go.
When you want to take a combi somewhere you just go stand by the side of the road. If you see one you want passing by, you stick out your arm and it slams on the breaks so you can get on, and then jumps forward the second you´re mostly off the sidewalk. Apparently the police are cracking down on the combi drivers for stopping to pick up and drop off people at random places, so sometimes if you´re not at a designated stop the combis will just speed on by until you get the idea and move to a stop.
After you´ve gotten on the combi, at some point the cobrador will shake some coins at you and ask you to pay. He (or she) is the person on the combi who opens and closes the door, tells the driver when people want to get off, yells out the window where the combi is going, and is in charge of collecting money. I generally overhear, per combi-ride, 1-2 arguments with the cobrador about fares or routes, occasionally pretty intense ones. I´ve only argued twice, and was super-proud to win one of them! (I saved a whole 30 soles–about 10 cents. But it was the principle of the thing!)
When you want to get off of the combi you tell the cobrador, (¡baja!) he relays the info to the driver, and when the combi swerves toward the curb (or just stops in the middle of the road) you squeeze your way over knees and under elbows and half-jump half-fall down to the street.
It´s actually pretty fun. I still get a little bit happy every time a combi ride is successful, especially if I´ve paid what I think I should, gotten a decent seat, and gotten off without hitting my head or falling to the ground. Combis are amazing places to people-watch: I´ve seen a lot of funny things this semester, including a woman doing a perfect job lining her eyes while we flew down La Marina, a man wake up from a nap with a shock when a baby crawled into his lap, and a woman lose her balance and fall down squarely in my lap.
Overall it´s a pretty rough-and-tumble experience, but there are also moments of courtesy, like when people get up to give their seats to older people, or when cobradors pick up little kids to get them onto the combi. I´ve had a couple interesting conversations with seat-mates, including one yesterday with a man who told me that he´s a neurologist and a professional soccer player.
You really never know what´s going to happen when you take a combi, and a lot of the best stories I´ve heard from the other Americans here start with “So, yesterday I was on the combi…” It´s certainly a lot more exciting than driving or taking the T, and is definitely an intense cultural experience. I´ve heard that everyone who comes to study spanish in Lima leaves either loving or hating it; and I think that after about 4 months of ambivalence I´ve finally come to love the combi experience, in all its insanity.