Combis are the tiny microbusses that ply the fine grain routes of the city. There are probably hundreds of routes throughout the city. They're a very cheap way to get around once you get comfortable with them.
At first, I thought the thing I hated worst about the commute was the combi ride. But really, it was just because I was worried about paying and getting the driver to stop in the right spot and not being totally comfortable with the language. There is something kind of scary about getting in a small vehicle at the giant metro terminal, which has about a hundred other combi routes, trusting that you got into the right combi and that your driver isn’t going to get into an accident and kill you or rip you off or mug you. But actually, I came to realize that I actually kind of enjoyed taking the combi home every day.
The metro system experience sucks. You’re mashed into a system of tunnels and cars and platforms, jostling for space, claustrophic in the depths below Mexico City, you drown in the ghost of ancient vanished lake. You enter the system and it processes you, down one directional chutes, passageways, tunnels, always being carried with the herd. And finally, it spits you out at a terminal sometimes close to where you want to be.
The metro is continuous, eternal, constantly gobbling the masses, digesting them through its innards, and depositing them, gasping for breath, at a dirty roadside. One always experiences the metro alone, anonymous and isolated as only a constantly changing faceless crowd can provide.
When you ride a combi, on the other hand, you travel with passengers. The number of passengers that can fit into a combi, 5-14, is just the right amount for a small play or musical. It takes no stretch of the imagination to assign roles to the cast. You can identify with and associate 15 people- you probably work closely with a group of about 15 people in your office. 15 people is a human number. The several hundred that can fit into a metro train, of which I can see at least a hundred, is a faceless crowd, are they even people?
On the metro, no one registers you other than to assess you for your looks, a short bit of surprise to see a gringo, perhaps a quick check of what you’re wearing and then the defensive glazed look is back. People greet the combi when they climb aboard, and everyone murmers an echo back. Who knows, you may all die together, might as well be pleasant traveling companions! There is something about the potential for disaster which make companions of us all.
To pay the driver, people hand their money to the next person and ask “will you pass this please?" and the money passes from person to person all the way to the driver, who will often hand back change, also passed person to person until it comes back to the original person. If there was one person between me and a friend on the metro, I don’t think I would try to pass as much as a peso.
And there is also the shared feeling- we are all people who have had long days, capped with a long metro ride, and now we are all heading home, filled with both the exhaustion or frustrations of the day and the anticipation of returning to home, perhaps family, perhaps a beer, at least to someplace where one can kick off ones shoes.
I guess that’s why I like it too- because it submerges the gringo status, at least temporarily. The way I ride the combi, the reasons I take it, my feelings aboard it, makes me a local, fellow tired passenger, and I get to see, perhaps, what a local sees.
No two people will experience the same city, but being a foreigner, a gringo, the city I experience is a standard deviation different than the Chilango walking down the street. We walk the same sidewalk, on the same street, but inhabit radically different cities.
There is no objective reality that is attainable for any city- I will never comprehend the ‘real’ Paris, Phoenix, Ponca City, Payson. However, there is a very hazy cloud with an even murkier, denser, core which consists of very similar cities as practiced and perceived by its truest inhabitants.
Urban and architectural explorations from Mexico City to Stuttgart Germany through the eyes of a iterant architectural designer