In a recent piece, Nick Casey, the New York Times’ latest arrival to Caracas, wrote about our well-lit and modern Metro Stations. I wonder if he has ever been in Plaza Venezuela during rush hour, because he might think otherwise about our main public transportation system.
When Caracas Metro was inaugurated in 1983 it was a big change. A modern subway for a city built around cars and highways, leaving most caraqueños outside a public transportation system. When its operations began, the fare was a few cents more expensive than riding a bus. Trains were rarely delayed, and traveling was quiet, pleasant, crowds were rare. Only teenagers like me dared to laugh and speak aloud in those trains during the 80’s where our citizens took pride in behaving as they thought a first world citizen should.
That changed with the years as the metro stations spread around Caracas and underground travel became commonplace. The main change was price-driven, and has little to do with the subway itself: for the past years, a metro ride has been considerably and consistently cheaper than any other mode of transportation in the city. Now that the government has approved an increase in bus fare that almost doubled in price, (from 20Bs to 35Bs.), a metro ride seems ever more attractive at a measly 4Bs, almost one tenth of what you would pay for a bus ride.
As a result, the trains are crowded at every hour. But I guess that’s normal and happens in every big city around the world.
Our metro system has also suffered other changes, because problems that once were kept outside have entered our trains and stations as well. Poverty and crime have become regular passengers that no one can avoid to see.
It’s almost impossible to get on a train without running into someone selling bubble gum, chocolates or cookies like Susy or Cocossette. All of them begin with a very similar line: “Antes que nada la educación, quién me da los buenos días”. And they actually expect the people in the wagon to answer loudly like a classroom chanting good morning to their teacher (and, surprisingly, some people DO answer!). Maybe you don’t like buhoneros on trains, but as I heard a few days ago from a young passenger sitting beside me: “At least he is selling something… because you have to help those who are sick. And you have to support the ones with playing music for handouts. What’s the difference, it’s all the same shit!!!”.
I envy such peace of mind, but I can’t afford a fourth phone to be stolen from me.
He is right. Begging and busking is as common as selling stuff on the trains. People with disabilities and who claim to have cancer or AIDS walk around telling their sad stories. But the saddest was a very old woman with short gray hair and dressed in rags, just walking through the wagon with an extended hand. No words were needed to explain her sorrow and need.
Begging is annoying, but harmless…but there are also muggings and violence. I’ve been lucky, I’ve never been robbed or accosted while riding the Metro. But theft is all too common and I wouldn’t ever dare use my cell phone while on the train. Other, braver passengers don’t care and play Candy Crush or listen to music on their devices during their trips. I envy such peace of mind, but I can’t afford a fourth phone to be stolen from me.
The effects of crime and insecurity can be seen all the time. It’s normal to be greeted in the morning with calls for law enforcement over the Metro loudspeakers: “Oficiales de la Guardia Nacional favor ir al andén número 2.” Stations are always strongly guarded. One morning while going downstairs to the platform I heard a very polite request, “excuse me, ma’am”. When I moved to my right to let him pass, I realized it was an entire assault troop of national guards running towards a crowd.
I’ve seen fights break out when the Plaza Venezuela transfer station is too crowded and nobody can walk where they intended. I’ve broken into sprints before without knowing why, but when you see so many people running towards you, you run first, ask later. I’ve travelled from Antímano to Plaza Venezuela standing in a wagon with no air conditioning. I usually get to work without problems, and even get other passengers to pity my students while I grade exams on the train. But once in a while I get stuck in and endless delay and cannot make it to class.
I guess we can’t complain because our subway is almost free.
Now and then, you can witness something memorable. I’ve never met these guys with the cuatros, but I’ve enjoyed our hip hoppers. I’ve never recorded their songs (remember, I’ll never use my phone there) but I found some stuff on youtube. Hope you enjoy it!