Traffic is a cross-cultural topic with everyone having his or her own war stories to relate. The veteran road warriors share their local wisdom with rookies entering the fray, such as “Here in Los Angeles, we stick to the freeway” or “In Caracas, we use shortcuts to avoid traffic jams.” Lima is a city with traffic bottlenecks of different and sometimes uncommon nature compared to its sister cities around the globe, at least in contrast to those that I had the pleasure of visiting. I became aware of the nature of their high seas of congestion when my parents agreed to take me to the Centro Peruano-Japonés, where I was interested in pursuing my Martial Arts studies. I wanted to take audit classes and examine facilities for the students. I had completed three years of judo in an Ottawa dojo, a defensive discipline, which had greatly aided me in becoming more serene and focused. The value of hard work as some may say. I wanted to progress in Peru, a country that housed a strong concentration of Japanese people. They continued to preserve aspects of their culture, including the ancient arts of self-defence. The unfortunate thing was having to cross the city through very disorganized and heavy traffic patterns. The dreaded rush hour. I cannot remember how long the trip was, but I soon decided judo would have to take a back seat in my own road of life. We did not even get to the destination.
|A normal day in Lima traffic|
When travelling through the streets of Lima, you would think there are no rules to driving. Cutting people off is a normal daily manoeuvre and almost everyone is prepared for this. If you give an inch, be ready for the other person to take a mile. Expect it. Intersections can get clogged with four cars, each of these unwilling to surrender that precious inch to another motorist. The holy trinity of Me, Myself and I dictated priority. The logic was: a) it is important for me to get where I have to go; b) everyone in my way is an obstacle to complete my task. The wide avenues have several pretty little white lines (more or less lines depending on the specific road in question), suggesting this is a three-lane road. This lane concept had been agreed during some international summit for ministers of transportation and communication or something of the sorts, as it is a generally embraced concept worldwide. However, the ingenious Peruvian people realized they could fit more cars in the given space between curbs. It was a clever problem-solving method increasing road capacity, facilitating intimacy with the neighbouring drivers and passengers as they waited in a large parkade hoping for order to prevail. The white dividing lines on the pavement sole purpose was décor, propping up the prestige of an already elegant thoroughfare. Minor streets, such as my Monte Real in Chacarilla, did not have these aforementioned lines. Actually, most streets did not even have signs, perhaps due to the rapid growth of the city in a short time leading to respective governments dropping signs from their priorities, which is understandable. Socio-economic concerns are paramount along with the development of human capital. My guess was that locals were so familiar with their own city that it was not necessary to have signs. Here I became an expert using points of reference to know where I was or how to locate specific areas when going to a given location.
The variety of cars involved in the carnival of transit provided some insight as to the income disparity of the metropolis’s inhabitants. Perhaps in Canada, my home and most recent posting, this was somewhat more camouflaged as owners were supposed to adhere to certain standards and regulations qualifying their vehicle as roadworthy. The city bus population was made up of second or third hand vans originating from Asia – some of these had original markings in Japanese – and carried colourful passengers almost hanging from its windows shouting at pedestrians on the street. Don’t be offended if you encounter this as many public transit riders cannot read or write. The approaching voices from the vans announce the heading of the van. I remember the first time I encountered this I thought I had offended or angered the locals with my attire or behaviour unknowingly. The widely accepted use of older generation models of automobiles contributed to concern for overall safety, especially as some cars may not have had headlights able to operate in a night driving theatre. It may be romantic for a couple to be illuminated solely by ambient lights as they sit in a car in the dark, but quite dangerous for a pedestrian timing his or her run across the Panamericana freeway. Although some places did have pedestrian overpasses, some opted for an Olympic dash through waves of incoming traffic. Other interesting concoctions from Asian automakers dressed for their participation in the local dance rehearsal on the pavement were the Daewoo Tico (one of my favourites as you could stick your arm out the window and touch the street), many Toyotas and Nissans bringing flashbacks of a different age in the industry, the beloved, reliable Volkswagen Beatle, buzzing through the busy streets as well and even Soviet-era Ladas. Those were indestructible cars but I never met anyone who could properly fit in one. The Tico was an incredible machine designed to combat aerodynamics. I had seen many of these overturned, but due to its boxy build, they could easily be re-flipped and continue to their destination. If their engines were pushed hard enough, the cars would even levitate.
The real kings of the road there were the cab drivers. They knew the ins and outs of this place. First of all, the radio taxi service, the kind you order the night before or call a central number for pickup is beyond secondary in the travellers’ menu. During our first year we tried different services, including one of the leaders, EcoTaxi, whose drivers had issues in simply showing up. One day, a driver showed up when we had not even requested or needed the service. Through my friends, especially Alejandro Alves and Glen Swanson, I learned that the easiest way of getting anywhere was going to the edge of the sidewalk in any street, waive your hand in the air when a car approaches and they would stop. A taxi. They were not of any specific colour as they were individually owned and operated. Who knows if any of them ever bothered to register. The only way you could tell they were a taxi was when they were within a close enough range, a hot pink sticker on the windshield would display the letters T-A-X-I. Once the vehicle comes to a stop, the first thing you do is say where you want to go and they will not reply with an affirmation as to the fare. You must never say yes. Foreigners like myself had often been told $15 to $25 Soles – somewhere between $5 to $8 US dollars - only because we looked like outsiders, therefore, we were rolling in cash. If this were true I would probably have hired a helicopter taxi. You then reply with a ridiculously low rate that you know will be shot down. Then eventually you can agree to a price. I learned that one of the best things if the negotiation breaks down is to move away from the window of the car saying “No way, man!” (not to use the more colourful and “obscene-to-some” language) loud enough. Chances are the driver will fold. Then you can resume the negotiation committing to $5 Soles (in the neighbourhood of $2 US Dollars) and he will be game. I say “he” because I never met a female taxi driver in my time there. Of course, you have to be reasonable with them as this is their daily bread and they have families like all of us. Make sure you do not get ripped off, but be sure not to rip them off either, after all, it is a service.
|The world class Daewoo Tico posing next to a city bus|
Besides knowing relatively well their city, the main streets and neighbourhoods, many of the drivers had other jobs. They were not driving cabs for fun. I learned this through one of the drivers I seemed to get three times in one week from pure coincidence. The third time I asked for his name and he told me his friends called him Piña (Pineapple in English). His face must have suffered from a terrible case of acne as a youth due to the several holes in his skin, resembling the outside of a pineapple. He was a lawyer with a degree from a Peruvian university. He was knowledgeable as we chatted about issues affecting his beautiful country and he was curious about the world outside of his Peru. His work as a professional alone could not pay the bills to dig his family out of the pueblos jóvenes. Other drivers I met were in similar situations with jobs as policemen, civil engineers and teachers. You could always tell when they were truthful in their dialogue and purpose in life. I enjoyed talking to these friendly drivers to become more acquainted with their struggle and continuously asked myself how I could help. They were hard workers and resourceful but could not catch a break. Who knew if they would. Although I became a good negotiator for my fares, I always gave them a tip, which was not customary, hoping the extra little bit would help these brave road warriors put some more food on the table for their families to survive another day. Most fourteen year olds here were put to work to help feed the family and school was only for the really privileged.