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July 14, 2011 15:36:10 | in art, culture, lifestyle

Translating Peru: Habla, vas? A Glimpse at Lima Transport

Translating Peru
Photo: Francisco Centurión

By Kelly Phenicie

With over eight million inhabitants and no subway system, Lima transit has become an unequivocal symbol of the city’s organized chaos.  The jarring medley of horns and police whistles, topped with incessant weaving and nail-biting close calls, sometimes makes city streets feel a little like a taped off construction area where any wrong move could spell serious danger.  As the capital develops, this roadway mayhem is perhaps most visible sign of Peru’s inner conflict between deep-rooted informality and newfound economic success.

If you’re brave enough to man a car, this is probably the ideal balance of comfort and price for getting around.  But the faint of heart (and slow to react) must resort to other alternatives, many of which “work” though not without costing you some level of personal safety, sanity or savings.

Collective commuting

Though this past year has brought two more modern forms of public transit to the table, their piecemeal implementation has been painfully slow and limited in reach.  The Metropolitano – a clean, orderly bus with its own private track – and the newly announced Tren Eléctrico (Electric Train) are both much-needed contributions to the traffic dilemma.  However, both run in parallel vertical lines across the city, leaving them a far cry from interconnecting Lima’s 1,000 square miles.

Available in small, medium and large, buses are by far the city’s mobilization champions.  The biggest, referred to as micros, are relatively efficient apart from the deafening rumble of their muffler-less motors and screeching brakes.  With limited routes, micros are overrun by their smaller counterparts – 16-seater vans and Toyota Coasters, known as “combis” – that pervade the city like ants.
Translating Peru: Fitting in as an "extranjero"
Crazy Combi is an internet game and facebook app based on “crazy” Lima combis.


Famous for bellowing salsa or reggaeton, the dusty and dilapidated combis employ driving tactics that resemble a game of real life Mario Kart.  As one of the city’s most distinctive foibles, they possess that unexpected duality of inducing both blind rage and sentimental chuckles.

Each combi comes equipped with a “cobrador” – the person responsible for collecting bus fare and recruiting passengers.  He (or occasionally she) makes a compelling sales pitch, rattling off all of the avenidas and barrios they stop through, advertising any available seats and eagerly coaxing you to hop on.  If you look dubious, you’ll be met with a terse but effective question: “habla, vas?” (“speak up, are you coming?”).  In recent years this has grown even more lax, sometimes being reduced to a simple “ladra” – literally, “bark.”

Advocated during the 1990s by President Fujimori as a way to create jobs and alleviate the city’s rising demand for mass transit, the combi system now serves as a poster child for how not to approach the question of public transportation.  Since each individual combi is its own company, they are in constant competition to win the greatest number of passengers.  During rush hour, this often leads to reckless races and packing people like livestock in flagrant disregard to any notion of bus capacity.

This coarse attitudinal edge is so notorious and complex that it’s earned its place in societal lingo and academic analysis as “combi culture.”  Though the system is unsettling at first, you learn how to hold your own.  Needless to say, the combis require a spirit of adventure and pueblo.

Taxis galore

Like mass transit, the realm of private transportation has no lack of character. In the city’s outer areas, mototaxis commonly scoot by.  Used for smaller distances, these three-wheeled motorcycles have a tent-like covering and seat two passengers.  On the fun side, many flaunt a spirited, eye-catching outer decor like a Peruvian twist on Pimp My Ride.

Scaling up is the Daewoo Tico.  Small, boxy and little sturdier than a tuna can, these low-lying cars usually make the rounds as miniature yellow cabs.  Even minor collisions can leave this small fry crumpled like an accordion.  Though a government initiative has managed to reduce its population, they’re far from endangered.

The most numerous taxi group is the informal, normal-sized cabs hailed direct from the street, which come in all colors and conditions. Whether they’re little more than dusty remnants of what was once a car or a brand new fully loaded Korean Kia, the ride generally costs the same.  With no meters, you negotiate price based on your destination before even getting in.  This brief exchange also gives you time to size-up your driver – also imperative before getting in.  Since informal taxis do not guarantee safety, you have to first scan the driver’s face and do a mental background check.  Does he look trustworthy?  Is there a mean glint in his eye?  It’s actually easier than it sounds.  You get into the swing of it.

Translating Peru: Fitting in as an "extranjero"
The Daewoo Tico is described by Phenicie as a "small, boxy and little sturdier than a tuna can (...) a low-lying car that usually makes the rounds as a miniature yellow cab."

Apart from the above-mentioned options, Lima also has many well-respected taxi companies that you hail via phone.  Though extremely safe, they’ll burn a hole in your pocket, especially if used on a regular basis.

There’s a number of other methods of transport that exist in Peru, especially outside of the capital.  While this unruly mishmash of road transit is overwhelming and sometimes downright obnoxious, it’s ultimately part of what makes Peru Peru.  If you have the resolve to listen closely, the country’s transit has meaningful stories to tell about its past and present.

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7 Comments

# Peru-N-English Blog says :
14 July, 2011 [ 06:55 ]
The transportation system quickly loses any “that’s what makes Peru Peru” charm the first time you see a person run over by a reckless out of control bus trying to make one more sol. It angers me to see the frequent cattle chute treatment of those that are elderly or physically impaired. I watched, helplessly too far away, as one elderly woman fell in the center isle and struck her head on a seat back. Why? Because the driver, with a mini-altar of Jesus on the dashboard, didn’t want to wait for her to be seated before slamming the throttle to the floor. When I approached the driver about what he had done, I became the focus of anger from the driver, cobrador and the passengers. I have watched, more than once, as people in wheelchairs are pushed to the side by people trying to get the last spot on the bus. And if you attempt to help they will angrily try to push you to the side too. Before Peruvians complain about bad treatment by civilized outside companies, maybe they should take an inward societal look for the true source of their feelings of contempt and being disrespected.

It’s not about laws, it’s about individuals with civilized attitudes and compassionate consideration for their fellowman. When it is accepted social behavior to treat people appallingly you have to then expect the same treatment of your own loved ones. So do they actually care about anyone? I must be lacking the resolve to listen closely to the meaningful stories that Perú’s transit system has to tell. I think I’m too stuck in reality.
# me so gringo says :
15 July, 2011 [ 11:52 ]
Kudos to Kelly for a well written and lucid article.

In a twisted way, the taxi and combi system is actually quite efficient. It is also the only comprehensive public transportation in Lima and, due to unbridled competition, is quite affordable.

The lack of regulation and enforcement is the root cause for all the chaos, danger, and pollution. A better regulated (and enforced) combi/taxi system would vastly improve public safety and reduce polltion - but consumers will have to pay higher fares.
# habla_familia says :
15 July, 2011 [ 01:51 ]
Great Article. I've been living in Arequipa since last September and the absolute mind-jarring chaos that is publc transport is still something I struggle with at times. I'm originally from Atlanta, which is definitely a traffic nightmare on a daily basis, but it's nothing like here. Arequipeños, ironically, frown when you ask them about Lima, citing among its many problems, the horrid traffic and driving. I've been to Lima a few times, and the traffic there just appears to be AQP on a large scale. Thankfully, I am able to walk to most places I need to go. I do take a combi once a week to a city 30min outside of town. Though I like seeing the city through a moving window, it's not pleasant having your face stuffed up into someone's armpit (or other bodily crevice). Often, passengers as well as the cobrador are left hanging out the bus while it flies down the street. I've only seen a few traffic accidents here, usually involving taxis and passenger cars. Every once in a while, I'll see a wreck involving a combis or micro. As crazy as it is, I think there's somehow order in such chaos.
# Jaime E Rivera says :
15 July, 2011 [ 03:56 ]
Ladra!!! I didn't know that one. Public transportation in Peru is unique and definitely chaotic. We are all to blame for that: authorities, people, and last, but not least, the drivers. If we begin now, say at home or in school, to teach our children the meaning of respect, order, courtesy, and safety maybe we will have a better transportation system in 20 years. Seriously, we ned to change this culture of mass transportation now.  We've seen enough already, we need role models here to help change this puzzle once and for all !!!  To all, please, drive safely.
                                
# Jake says :
15 July, 2011 [ 04:21 ]
Did someone actually say the transportation system is "efficient?  That's one of the funniest things I've ever read!

I owned a car for a few years in Lima.  Driving there is easy...keep your middle finger handy, keep one hand on the horn, and discard any defensive or safe driving habits ever learned.  Oh yeah, and keep the a/c on and the windows rolled up - protects your lungs, ears, and the random "charming" taxi or combi driver that might try to spit in the window...real classy folks.

Jake
# Sancho says :
17 July, 2011 [ 02:39 ]
A little disappointed that you didn't stress the vocabulary part of the bus system a little more, for visitors and neo-limeños: "pasaje", "cobrate", "paradero baja"...
Nice article altogether though and thanks for the Crazy combi link!

# Kelly says :
18 July, 2011 [ 01:01 ]
Sancho, you're right. A lot was left out, including the whole "déjame a media cuadra en la casa roja" system of getting off right on your doorstep.  Ultimately the issue of combis and Lima transportation deserves something more like a chapter in a book....maybe further down the road I can address some of the things that have been left out. Thanks for the suggestion!

- Kelly

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