A Lawrentian in Chile

Burnett, Shaunna

The first thing I had to learn here was how to commute. This entailed cozying up to the bus system. Every santiaguino calls buses micros and can regale you with stories of them. Micros are an emblem of Santiago: they are in telenovelas, interest columns, and a music video by a group called Los Bunkers. However, the times they are a-changin’, and so are the micros.
Micros are yellow, like school buses, but each interior is different. Some sparkle from the driver’s many decorative mirrors. Others are pasted with stickers of the Virgin Mary and other religious paraphernalia. The less ostentatiously Catholic choose stickers of cartoons and music groups. The music depends on the drivers’ moods. Some micros have curtains. The methods of getting on and off are always slightly unpredictable. All are decorated with graffiti. Would-be passengers must hail micros like taxis and, during rush hour, it’s best not to look too much like a student. Students’ reduced fares mean drivers sometimes ignore their hails. However, micros are always entertaining. Often, people play music for money or walk down the aisle selling popsicles and candy. It’s always a place to people-watch.
My first impressions of the micros were of confusion and occasional terror. In the video adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” there is a fantastic scene of the Knight Bus where the audience is convinced that the bus’s outrageous maneuvers cannot continue without catastrophe. Meanwhile, the driver maintains a stoic calm maintained by nerves of steel or failing eyesight. I thought it was marvelously ingenious, until I rode the micros here and realized that Santiago is living the less magical and more dangerous reality.
The drivers race each other, rumbling and weaving recklessly across lanes. Accidents are frequent, although less so now than in the past. Late night, deserted micros are risky. During rush hours, people wedge themselves onto micros and around each other, social classes mixing indiscriminately. An elderly lady given a seat holds the giver’s bag on her lap in exchange. When someone clambers up the back stairs because the front stairs have already filled with passengers, everyone passes his money hand to hand to the driver. Every person carrying more than his person is resented, but borne mostly with patience. The micros are a strange mix of indifference – people rarely look at or converse with each other – and human kindness.
The lurching yellow micros are now competing with newly introduced mammoth, lime green micros. These new micros’ steering is automatic and the decor is modern in a Star Trek sense. Their drivers seem infected with goodwill, yielding to other cars and stopping for yellow lights. These green giants are still packed with passengers, but travel ponderously and cautiously. Of course, modern though they are, they travel too slowly for santiaguinos’ taste. Even though I know they will overcome the old yellow micros, I find I am glad to have known Santiago before the advent of these pertinently efficient and safe ones.