Willow Wonderings

combi cozy

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ride and seek
breathe softly the humming whisper
motor strumming, brush of jagged knees
meets your hips. woman with long hair on her way
to sell helado for hijitos, teenage boy with earbuds,
man with olive eyes, plaid vest, and a cane,
driver with the guts to swerve.
look softly, inhale the gaze
man in work truck inches away
your eyes could brush through cracked
open windows
like mirror-heavy reflections. combi hums
and breathes heavily, your lungs slowly
inhale mountains
standing firmly, the only ones that know
how to travel, stable. in here,
you will not know if there is an earthquake.
bodies shake and the streets resemble
nothing but vibrations, clapping knees, music
screaming through speakers, chaos
that is every ounce of together, embarassment
and sweat, the shared inches that make
the ojalá of pilgrimage.

Every day, moving through the bustling streets of Arequipa, transportation is an adventure.

After recovering from a wicked resfriado, I convinced myself that I could walk to school and back this week. The distance is about 1.7 miles, and the view of the volcanoe Misty keeps me oriented throughout the trek. As it was humbling to find out, however, I easily get lost, and this climate is more dry than it appears (so much water needed). I also tend to get overwhelmed by the intermingling of passengers with honking taxis, so walking tends to be a formidable challenge.

If not on foot, I have one of a few options — I can pay for a taxi, around the equivalent of $3 to cross town (and meet some wonderful taxistas who are kind enough to drive foreigners with bad accents) OR I can share a combi, a glorified minivan with limited seating, with a dozen or so arequipeños.

The combi system fascinates me. One, each van demands one brave soul to stand and call out the name of the streets it travels for the entirety of the journey. Two, the system requires you to pay once you exit (around thirty cents), rather than paying to enter. Third, it carries men, women, children, elderly, students – all jumbled and bumping into one another as equals. Four, there are rarely seats for everyone. It is a toss-up as to whether everyone will fit in the door.

Today, a few friends from Davidson and I took a combi an hour each way to the outskirts of the city where we worked with a local non-profit. The ride took us through the streets of shopping malls and national banks, through districts of tire shops, right out to the canyons and underdeveloped areas where dogs travel in pairs in aimless wandering and the homes with broken concrete floors take a line in series.

Throughout this week, I was thinking about how displaced I can feel in a different country. I have been feeling an ache for community. Sometimes wonder if it is natural to uproot oneself to live in a different country, and how others may perceive foreigners on the public transport system. What is this gringa doing riding on a combi and trying to study Spanish with her knees crammed between the seats and her dictionary?

I loved riding the bus in Charlotte this summer because I felt that it facilitated conversations and bonding with neighbors that I would never otherwise come to know. I remember meeting mothers that had recently immigrated to Mexico alongside those experiencing homelessness, and mothers who wanted to share their faith testimonies. Like in the streets of Arequipa, class lines are sharply divided by those who can afford to ride in private cars versus those who ride on buses. The difference here, though, is that only a small minority can afford a car. The rest of the city travels on foot, taxi, or the unpredictability of the combi system.

I am reminded today that public transit is important for everyone to experience, and not just as a cultural phenomenon. It teaches us to be human. Community happens in shared spaces, like combi buses, where we learn to sit and cram together. Everyone is uncomfortable, no one has a clear view of the city or an escape from the heat. We are all stuck in one heap together.

There is also an element of anonymity and solitude on public transit systems. Our shared condition is lack of control and a degree of isolation. Even though our bodies are crammed together and I may understand their phone conversation, I know nothing about my neighbor or her destination. Everyone enters and exits on their own camino, making community an ephemeral dance of passengers in and out of the sliding doors

And like we can expect for all travels, things will go wrong. The schedule will be delayed, you will not find a seat, there will be ample traffic. In these situations in which we are not in control, there is always a choice. Do I surrender to the ride or listen to anxiety? Do I hug my body in for self-protection or trust my neighbor?

I have yet to find the courage to make a friend on the combi system. But I have appreciated the solidarity of strangers that warn me to put my cell phone away so it will not be stolen. I am also grateful for the shared silence. I have taken courage from the examples of Peruvians that readily have given up their seats for elderly women and children. I am grateful for the drivers with the guts to swerve through a city at top-speed, and then pause to get passengers wherever they may be encountered on the sidewalk. And mostly, I am grateful for the guide who opens and closes the door a hundred times every hour for the influx of passengers.

While I have learned and come to appreciate it, city traveling is not always the easiest experience. It is intimidating, sometimes anxiety-provoking and takes planning. Yet through that challenge, I am brought out of my own skin. I feel God´s grace working in the traveling community. Sole wanderers, we share air and sweat and breath, all anonymously. I thank God for those moments we can sit and be together. I thank God we are alive, we can breathe, we can experience the movement that is life even when we do not know where we are going. I thank God we are not alone, no matter how lonely we may feel in passing moments.

And, ojalá, eventually, we make it!

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