Riding the metro during morning rush hour in Santiago, Chile is not for the meek, physically weak, or claustrophobic among us. It is a task – a challenge – to arrive somewhere by 9 am in Santiago if you don’t own a car. As the metropolis’ 6 million inhabitants all try to get across the city at the same time, the metro system turns into a sea of people teeming with energy, urgency, and seriousness.
As I walked from the crisp morning air of the street down to the train platform this morning, Santiago’s population slowly surrounded me. The ceramic tiles on the platform’s floor were nowhere to be seen, covered by leather work shoes, summery high heels, and the black leather loafers that belong to the common high school uniform. People edged their way up to the bumpy yellow line on the edge of the platform.
At these busy stations, the official Transantiago guards, dressed in neon yellow vests patrol the platforms. Every time a train comes in they yell at people to stand behind the yellow line. After the doors open, a guard at each door has the task of pushing the people on the platform to the sides to make way for the passengers that are exiting the train. They then fearfully extract themselves from the crowd while everyone eagerly – and often violently – pushes onto the train. How much personnel does Transantiago have to hire to make sure that its riders don’t trample each other? More than you and I would think.
The crowd on the platform this morning was about 4 people thick, so I knew I had to wait for the second train to come. With some patience, I nudged and forced my way on, glad that I could reach one of the handrails before the train lurched into motion. I was plastered up against three different people, grabbing the opening of my bag to secure it. I was looking a middle-aged woman right in the face, only about 2 inches away from her. She could probably smell the strawberries that I had eaten for breakfast minutes before. I shifted my feet uncomfortably, but found that I had nowhere to move them.
We whizzed through the tunnels, a sleek and fast-paced submarine on Santiago’s ocean floor. But, I wasn’t safe yet. I had to change trains at one of the busiest transfer stations called Baquedano.
As the conductor announced, “Baquedano,” the large group near the door mobilized! Everyone tried to squirm his or her hips and shoulders in front of each other, lacking the patience to be polite. I didn’t have to make an effort to go towards the door because I was ushered right along, bumping into the man in front of me. I felt like the only one in a school of fish who didn’t know where we were going. As I stepped onto the platform, I was blasted backwards by people trying to get onto the train. A final push on my part broke me away from the crowd, bringing me next to the wall. I took a deep breath, and started towards my transfer train.
This crowd was three times thicker than the one on the last platform! I had to wait for three trains to arrive before I had the chance and fortune to sneak my way on. I watched a woman unwisely cram herself past a bursting train door, about to whip shut. The sliding door began to close, and she twisted her body so that she barely missed it. The doors hugged her hip but were less merciful towards her skirt hem.
When I finally reached the front of the group, I jammed my way through the violent waves of passengers, turning my body and thrusting my shoulder sideways to get past the train doors. The doors closed and we were on our way. I exhaled. It was 8:30am, and the hardest part of my day was over! Although it was a small step, being able to function as a Santiago resident was bringing me a little bit closer to understanding Chilean society. The air in the car was still stuffy and sweaty. I was packed in tightly again, but at least I had escaped the flood of people on the platform.
Anika Rice is a third year at UC Berkeley who is studying Human Geography and Spanish, with an interest in Latin American issues. She has been lucky enough to study abroad in Chile and The Netherlands, and loves creating new communities of friends around the world. Besides her school interests, Anika is a yogi, Chinese tea enthusiast, climber, experimental cook, and sometimes plays guitar.