Poco loco público

This little island‘s got a lot of things going for it, but public transport ain’t one of them.

My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to make my way from Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city (pop. ~200,000), to San Juan, its largest (pop. ~2 million). One might assume this would be easy; one would be wrong.

Puerto Rico has a population of four million, most of which at any given point can usually found in traffic jams, beeping at each other in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way. There are no scheduled buses, no train services (aside from an underused $2 billion white elephant in SJ that goes from nowhere to nowhere) and, in fact, no public transportation of any kind except for the público, a shared taxi along the lines of the jitney, servees, sherut, minibus and its million other Third World cousins.

Ponce has a spiffy new público terminal only a few blocks from the hotel, so a little before 6 PM (just as all the shops around me were battening down their hatches and reloading their AK-47s) I peeped in for a visit. There were neat piers, showing all sorts of fascinating places that you could go, but there were no cars, no people, no information desks, no kiosks, no schedules, nada. I shrugged my shoulders in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way and moseyed back to eat more ice cream at King’s.

So this morning, at (for me) the dauntingly early time of 8:45 AM, I set off to explore públicoland once more. Fortunately, I was waylayed by the friendly tourist info office guy, who informed me that I should’ve been at the terminal at least an hour and a half ago, and would surely be doomed if I failed to haul my gringo ass over by 10 AM. I panicked in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way, which means I ate a leisurely breakfast, meticulously packed up my stuff (why does it seem to multiply by itself?) and rolled my tote down to Calle Union to check out the situation.

There was a large gaggle of people hanging out at pier 5A, who asked me if I was going to San Juan, and I thought how lucky I was — surely we’d be on our way in minutes! Alas, it soon transpired that everybody except me was a público driver, and they needed another 5 pax before the next one would depart. Every other público in the terminal was a clapped-out minivan with dents and a random paintjob, but those to SJ — and only those to SJ — are pimped out white Crown Chevys with red vinyl seats that only need a retractable roof and a couple of boricua flygirls (mm, Catholic schoolgirl uniforms) in the backseat to act as props in a rap video. (Yes, I thoroughly regret not taking a picture.) I chatted with the one guy who spoke good English (thanks to a 15-year stint in NY and PA), practiced my woeful Spanish with the others and whiled away the time until 11 AM, at which time I realized that the total sum of other people who want to go from PR’s second largest city to its largest city on this fine Wednesday morning appeared to stay constant at zero. However, the cabbies had told me that around 1-2 PM-ish, the solitary chófer from San Juan would set off on his return trip home, passengers or no passengers, so I had a clear ventana de oportunidad here. I informed the drivers of my intentions, they nodded, plopped my bag in Don Chófer’s trunk and admonished me to be back by 12, or else.

“Over-cautious twit”, I thought, and set off back to the city to poke around the La Perla theater (being renovated) and the Ponce History Museum (renovation nearly complete, but they forgot to install a single word of English explanations). Cultural quota filled up, I then stopped to pick up a sandwich cubano from the deli nearby, and in a laid-back Caribbean way sauntered back to the bus terminal 15 minutes past 12… only to find el Chófer standing in the middle of the street, telling me to get my lily-white gringo ass into his público pronto. Miraculously, he’d found three others who wanted to go to SJ, and as soon as my mofongo-softened butt hit the seat, he pushed the pedal to the metal and sailed off towards the highway.

After having heard Sapphire’s 3.5-hr horror story, I was rather surprised that our driver headed straight for the tollway, and despite a dribble of construction and a tropical downpour along the way we made the 100 km from Ponce to SJ in slightly over an hour. (The rain actually helped: after it started, he was able to drive straight through the AutoExpresa RFID toll lanes without stopping, because the cameras can’t read yellow público plates in the rain!)

I’d made it to Rio Piedras, público capital of Puerto Rico, now I needed to go the last 10 km to San Juan Viejo. I’d been told that “B-1” was the correct bus to take, but such a beast didn’t seem to exist, and following el chófer’s final advice to Pregunta! Pregunta!, was informed that “A-9” would be a better choice. The A-9 pier was next to the Metrobus Ruta 1 and Metrobus Express piers, which also seemed to go to San Juan, but the bus driver at the Metrobus Express pier was gesticulating wildly in a laid-back, Caribbean style with a cop and wasn’t going anywhere. A chunky Latina chick noted that I’m far away from home, I noted back that yes, I am, and asked which bus I should take. “Any of ’em!”, was the answer, so I sat down and, in a laid-back Caribbean style, chomped on my slightly mushed but still utterly delectable cubano. (I’m still not sure what’s in it, but at least one part of the equation was salted ham.) I was down to my last bite when a M-1 suddenly materialized, causing a surge of people from the A-9 and M-E queues toward it, so I joined in the fray, deposited my two quarters and clambered on board.

This time, too, the journey took around an hour, although it seemed rather longer as it was mostly spent stuck in traffic. A frisson of excitement was provided by the light fixture above me, which regularly leaked water onto me and my fellow passengers, not heeding the advice of the Ass Baboons of Venus, who so clearly notified us all that “water and electricity are dangerous”.

But I did, eventually, find myself in Plaza Colon at the base of San Juan, and I surprised even myself by navigating my way to the HoJo Plaza de Armas without even glancing at a map. Total time from returning to Ponce’s terminal to checking in at the hotel was a little under 3 hours, and total cost (bus fare included) was US$15.50.  Now let’s see if I can find a decent dinner that costs less than that…

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India 6: Googling at Gurgaon

Pounding bricks in Gurgaon, IndiaToday I’m going to take you on the world’s shortest sightseeing tour, in which we will cross the street from one shopping mall to another. The shopping malls are located in India Shining, the proud, new, resurgent India out to take over the world; however, the street is still firmly in Bharat, the ageless, eternal land of preordained destiny and reincarnation.

Our journey starts at the DT City Centre mall in Gurgaon. It’s a smallish box-shaped shopping mall, three stories high, with maybe 50 shops, rather cramped, and would be entirely unremarkable in most of the developed world — but it was among the first to open in Gurgaon and is a landmark of sufficient stature that a Metro station planned outside will be named after it. Tenants include Ruby Tuesday, where Indians get to indulge their fantasies of being America (wood paneling, cowboy-themed crap, old Coke ads on the walls) and meals of hamburgers and fries cost Rs.500 (~US$10) a pop. Opposite it is Pizza Hut, in the inner atrium is a Barista coffee shop, and most other tenants are small little shops selling jewelry or scarves or CDs or whatever it is that small little shopping mall outlets sell.

As we step out the door, we can watch the security parade, in which all shoppers are made to walk through a metal detector. As everybody is toting purses or backpacks, the detector duly says “beep”, which the security guards duly ignore as they wave everybody onward. But we’re going in the opposite direction. Outside the shopping mall is a parking lot, with modern, expensive cars (nearly all recently dented, scratched and banged). But between the parking lot and the street, there is a 20-meter strip of rutted dirt, muddy in the rain, dusty in the sun. It’s on an inclined hillside, but there are no steps or stairs, so shopper clambers over it randomly, gingerly treading around cow poop and garbage. There’s no road from the parking lot either, so you can also entertain yourself by watching cars try to avoid the worst potholes and pedestrians try to avoid getting run over by monster SUVs.

The strip has recently been bisected by a strip of pavement, running parallel to the main road, but not connected to the parking lot or the main road. This road is inhabited by a permanent logjam of rickshaw drivers, and the strip of dirt next to it has the guy who sells roast yams for Rs.5 (~US$0.10) a pop, the guy who sells paan masala and a scrum of beggars: the mother with listless rag doll child, the wizened old sadhu who looks at you with sad eyes and wordlessly motions toward his mouth, the aggressive ten-year-old girl with a dusty shock of hair, a permanent coat of grime and bony fingers that she uses to pinch those you who don’t pay up.

If you turn your head left, you’ll see a chunk of land cordoned off with Delhi Metro barriers: they’re doing preliminary drillings for an elevated high-speed mass transit system. On the right side, there is a massive construction site for a new shopping mall, and you can watch men bending steel and women carrying baskets of bricks on their heads as the work proceeds. Once the mall is complete, there will be an unbroken sprawl of malls eastward: DT City Centre, One India Place, Vipul’s Agora, Sahara Mall, CWC Mall, and MGF Mega Mall.

But we’ll keep going in a straight line. Ahead of us is Mehrauli-Gurgaon (MG) Road, one of Gurgaon’s two main links to Delhi. It’s three lanes in both directions and full of cars, autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, cows and the occasional bullock cart from morning till night. Unusually, there is a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights here; however, the lights are near-universally ignored, and people can thus only cross on foot by massing into clumps of sufficient volume that their bulk and the messy cleanup that hitting them would require intimidates even the most leadfooted of drivers. In the middle of the road is a median strip and a fence, with a gap here for the crossing, usually inhabited by a beggar lady and her baby, whose shit-streaked, naked, blue behind attracts both flies and alms.

If you make it across without being flattened by a truck (Tata Bye Bye!), you’ll find yourself standing in the busy lanes used by cars driving into and out from the MGF Metropolitan Mall. There are no provisions of any kind of pedestrians, so you just have to pick your way across the lane dividers and traffic wardens towards the stairs that come out of the mall and abruptly terminate on the pavement. MGF is anchored by a big cinema multiplex, and from the outside you can also spot a large McDonalds, a popular TGI Friday’s outlet and a Citibank ATM, which is permanently watched over by a dedicated security guard.

As you enter the mall, through another metal detector whose sole purpose seems to be to provide background noise (beep beep!), you’re greeted by a 10-meter pair of curvaceous breasts, barely contained in a lace top. It’s an advertisement for lingerie, in a country where an on-screen kiss in Dhoom 2 (released Nov 2006) generated outrage and a ongoing trial for obscenity. On the left wall, a Bollywood actress in butt-hugging jeans and a clingy silver top; on the right side, a model shows off her backless dress, two slinky legs and pumps that could also be used to skewer kebabs. At the far end of the mall is Chor Bizarre, where you can pay Rs. 500 (a decent monthly wage in some parts of Bihar) for a meal of Delhi-style street food, served by liveried waiters from an antique automobile converted into a buffet table, and whose general manager wrings his hands in genuine distress if you complain that the golguppa shells are a little too chewy.

Road upgrading donkey style, Gurgaon, IndiaThe laws of writing dictate that I’m supposed to provide some kind of pithy closing statement here, but this is one of those times when India leaves me at a loss for words. Nowhere, but nowhere, in the world will you find the wealth of sheer misery that is India. The slow rollback of Gandhi’s murderously deluded policies of self-reliance and recent surge of economic growth is the best thing that has ever happened in this benighted land, but this distance to be covered yet is dauntingly vast. I’ll be back some day, but for now my quota is full.

And oh yes — do you want to do something? Donate to WaterPartners. Amoebic dysentery nearly killed a friend of mine, but she had the best medical care money can buy: millions of children every year aren’t as lucky, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.