i live in a city of drivers. everyone i know spends time behind the wheel, the dashboard, or the seat in front of them. the subway's efficient and extensive, but definitely not designed for twenty million people spread out over 570 square miles of metropolitan area. it's a kingdom of axles and gasoline. it's the urban planner's challenge of the century.
it's also a fantastic place to learn to drive; mastering the techniques of moving through traffic can prepare a person for urban navigation the world over. granted, a graduate of mexico city's streets runs the risk of being overly aggressive, but that's easy to cure. it's the confidence that really counts.
given the sometimes anarchic nature of traffic circulation here, i'm often amazed at the comparatively low number of accidents that occur. nine times out of ten, it seems that construction is the cause of bumper to bumper turtle-paced traffic, rather than a car crash. most drivers seem reckless, and some really are, but those people at the helm are paying attention in way that lends a whole new nuance to the term "defensive driving." i'm still just an apprentice. patricio is a master. and so are those women who spoon-curl their eyelashes while passing microbuses en route to work.
a microbus is, simultaneously, one of the alternatives to driving oneself around in the daily chaos and one of the chaos's primary instigators. kind of like fruit flies, when one comes, it's followed by a bazillion others. making stops and picking up passengers at the wave of a hand or a word to the driver, the microbus is often the bane of every other driver's street-savy existence. not only does it occupy the right-hand lane with it's starts and stops, it often bears into left lane territory, cutting across traffic in it's tank-like impunity. it appears to be against a micro driver's moral code to use the directional blinker; sticking an arm out the window is the signal that suffices. most often, though, it's the menacing nose of the bus veering left that lets the rest know they're about to get cut off. if traffic's light and speed bumps are few, they'll gun it, pedal to the metal, turning their route into a roller coaster ride. ask my dad--heading home from lunch up the hill, he was hooting with delighted terror, mashing his foot into the floorboard, telepathically telling the driver to remember those things called the breaks. passing one under normal circumstances is frequently enough for a little adrenaline rush. relegating them to the rear-view mirror while primping oneself must be akin to best of extreme sports.
patricio's never put a spoon to his eye while guiding his car through the madness--he gained traffic mastery by becoming a bus driver himself. instead of a micro, he was captain of a combi, or a volkswagen van that also enjoys status in the ranks of public transportation. taking fewer passengers but moving them around more quickly in his bullet-sized bus, patricio worked his route for a couple of years, elevating his driving skills to that of official road warrior. the police may know the mind of a criminal, but patricio knows the mind of a bus driver. a big advantage, if you'll excuse the pun.
thankfully, not everyone in this metropolis owns a car. and those who do, if it's not up to emissions standards, have to keep the car parked at least one day a week. these folks, of course, number in the millions, and this is where bus drivers step up to the challenge. with the exception of the metrobus in mexico city proper, camiones (buses), micros (pronounced "mee-crows"), and combis are privately owned and operated. still, they're registered with the city or suburban municipalities, following different routes, with their destinations listed in florescent pinks, greens and yellows on windshield-posted placards. on occasion, destinations written with shoe polish help fill in the blanks in a pinch. this individual ownership is bad news for traffic and the environment, good news in the sphere of employment. and though the lack of emissions regulation enforcement for buses is appalling, the personalization potential for most vehicles is too much fun to ignore.
in addition to the bright-colored cards, many bus drivers have a cacharpo, a buddy hanging out the door to yell out destinations at various stops. they'll also often shout that the bus has seats available--even if it doesn't--or hold out their hand, with the number of fingers up indicating the number of available seats inside.
camión and micro drivers with more spare change and the desire to spend it on their business will trick out the interior with everything from leather stick shift sheaths to velvet pompoms fringing the dash. they'll install curtains in the windows and small shrines, complete with flowers, crosses, guadalupes and rosaries in the center of the windshield. blasting their signature tunes or radio station over the speaker system, some will also invest in different horn sounds, like the semi-truck style pulled with a rope, the cat-call whistle (i got one of those today), or my personal favorite--the tarzan yodel. in spite of the meticulous decor, most micros manage to look on the outside like they've been resurrected from death-by-a-beating, their seat cushions in shreds, enough legroom for a people measuring four foot eleven. if the drivers are, indeed, road warriors, their buses are big, rectangular battle scars.
as a general rule, though, micro drivers seem to spend the most time putting their individual mark on their ride by plastering telling white words across the shaded part of their windshields. it's a way for passengers to get to know the conductor, but it's also a statement about the driver's personality, who he loves and, very commonly, his taste in music. it's nice to recognize "che," "denisse," and "paula" rolling up the street in all its gothic-lettered glory. "snoop doggy," "cypress hill," and "depeche mode" are also familiar theme-mobiles, along with the inventive type to the left who keeps his vent tipped up,revealing his version of a british union jack. i hold a particular fondness for the guy who declares in permanent print, across the back window, that "all woman are crazy."
they all pass by in a constant parade down the avenue parallel to our quiet street, at least five every sixty seconds. click here to watch it happen. they're headed to points along the edge of mexico city proper, the metro stations of toreo, popotla, rosario, politécnico, tacuba, and chapultepec looming large in the corners of their windshields. they're loud, they're stinky, and they often drive us crazy. but they drive us where we need to go. they're oh, so quintessentially, mexico city.