T for two – transport with you

I know that I am not suffering the monotony of using the same transport everyday.  Within the two or three weeks I spend in a city the ordinariness of using transport still escapes me.  In some ways it is amazing to be flabbergasted and interested in what local people do everyday without thinking about it.  However, I can’t help but wonder if there is a different beauty, which I can’t capture, in having urban transport as the background of your life rather than the focus (as is the case for me).

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With this in mind, I set my alarm for an hour well before sunrise to accompany my friend and see the world of his everyday commute.  Being forced to witness this time of day always gives me a thrill, but I must try and imagine how this thrill would wear off if this happened everyday.  Well, it was misty and dark and then we passed a good looking zombie wearing sunglasses and listening to music.  As we walked to the metro my friend started to talk about the things he notices on his commute.  He passes the same girl everyday and can gauge whether he’s running late by where he meets her – she has become a clock to him – but one with a face and thoughts that one can only imagine (because one never talks to the people they see everyday).  We cross the road this way and that and I try not to take too many photos even though the light is beautiful.  We run across the main road as the green man is flashing and the sound for deaf pedestrians, which reminds me of a futuristic battle, makes the run that little bit more fun.

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Then we go down into the world of the metro.  In Madrid, this is a world with limited signal for phones (from my own experience) and hence the people who are awake enough to read, are reading books.  I’ve noticed an abundance of book shops in this city and I think the metro is doing a good job at keeping book sales up.  I love watching everyone focused on their own little worlds swaying together with the movement of the metro.  It is a great display of collective individuality (unless everyone is reading the same book I guess).  Between my attempts to secretly film the feel of the metro and chatting to my friend, we arrive at our stop in no time at all.  We were standing the whole time but it wasn’t a strain.  If we were trying to read I guess it would be a different story.

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As we re-enter the world of natural light and traffic sounds, we head for the bus queue.  In Sydney I would always see these queues and feel sorry for the people in them.  Perhaps because it is a queue with no apparent door or window, like when we would have to queue up at school in arbitrary places for arbitrary reasons.  But the queue wasn’t so bad.  We were placed well – we didn’t have to wait too long and we would get a seat (provided no pregnant or older people needed it).  My friend gave me a bit of a guided tour as we went along, he described where the sunrise can be beautiful (if it’s not a foggy day) and where the bus sometimes jolts all the standing passengers as it picks up speed around the corner.  Today we were lucky because we had one of the good bus drivers – not the one that intentionally throws the bus from side to side (maybe he wanted to work on a theme park ride but his parents forced him to settle for the more stable career of being bus driver).

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We get off at the stop before my friend’s work.  This is the better stop because he can see the mountains on a fine day.  It doesn’t matter that there is a big highway in his foreground, the beauty of his walk is found in the background.  I enjoyed hanging out with my friend and gaining insights into his transport world that I think an interview would have only given me a small taste of.  I guess my observation and presence changed his commute though – maybe this is why I gave up on physics.

Learning spanish

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I tried to fight the feeling in my throat that was telling me that a cold was coming.  I had just arrived late at night in Madrid and I was making my way to my friend’s house.  I was (probably illegally) taking my bicycle on the metro and hoping there wasn’t going to be too many stairs.  At the interchange, I left my spanish speaking friend, and ventured into the world of no comprendo alone.  However, within five minutes a girl started talking to me on the travelator (at that moment I had a desire to see what it would be like to ride a bicycle on a travelator but I haven’t tested this yet).  She made a huge effort to speak English to me and she was sweet and full of life – I couldn’t possibly be tired and sick – so I smiled and enjoyed her company all the way to my stop.  I was already amazed with this city and the public transport system, and it was probably because of this beautiful girl on the metro more than the connections and frequency of the services.

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I have since collapsed in a heap on several occasions as the cold reared it’s ugly head.  Any feeble attempt to learn Spanish has been quashed by the loss of my voice, but the Spanish and their city are impressing me nonetheless.  I have been walking and cycling, catching metros and buses – and so far all is well.  People tend to be friendly, the streets are full of life and using the metro tends to be a smooth sort of experience.  There are plenty of motor bikes and scooters carrying elegant women and men in suits with a mediterranean flair.   There is an amazing park which you can ride through to get to other parts of town (reminds me of riding through centennial park to go to university in Sydney).

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I am enjoying riding my bicycle in the streets even though there are less people on bicycles than in Berlin.  There are some cycleways and cycle lanes and it tends to be fun as you have to be more alert.  When there are less people on the road, you also feel like you are in on a secret that most of the city is yet to find out (the secret is that cycling in the city is awesome).  There are some hills in Madrid, but I think that just makes cycling more interesting.  I love riding past amazing monuments and buildings – being able to be playful around such works of art and grandeur.  So far I have had lots of (what I assume are) positive interactions with other road users (I need to learn more spanish to be sure).   Once I can speak, and hopefully speak spanish, I will have even more fun.

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moods of transport

Sometimes I feel like I treat people as blank canvases when I ask them questions like ‘how does it feel to use a certain mode of transport’.  Life is much more complex than that.  We are hopping onto our bike, or jumping onto the train in various moods, with various things on our mind and after all sorts of things have happened in our lives.    And when we jump on in a happy mood our experience is completely different to when we have some melancholy or frustration.

In my ups and downs of travel and discovery along with the confusion involved in embarking on my own for a massive project, my mind and emotions have been going all over the place.   So there is nothing objective about the way I experience different modes of transport in different city, and I don’t expect this from anyone else.  So firstly I’d like to apologise for simplifying the world of using transport sometimes.  It is very hard to interview people with translators and get to the bottom of everything without taking up too much of people’s time.

However, I think transport plays an important role when we are suffering or enjoying highs and lows in life.  I have found myself crying on my bicycle from time to time, seeing smudges of light in the night streetscapes.  But there has been a beauty to being able to let the wind flow through my head my while I’ve been suffering some kind of heart ache.  It has helped me get over some of my troubles, and I can embrace the sensations of the moment to feel alive when I’ve felt numb.  In a different way, watching the world pass from a cosy public transport carriage has given me some space to let myself dwell on, and then expel, various problems that have been bothering me.  Perhaps seeing everything pass by lets me know I can let my problems go too.  It’s not always good, but it is amazing that we can get some psychological benefits from our transport from time to time.

When I’ve been happy and riding my bicycle, I have found myself hitting natural highs – like I’m floating – and I will break out in song and silliness with ease.  Sometimes on public transport or walking I’ve wanted to make everyone around my somehow smile.  And sometimes it seems to work.  I have walked like I’m wanting to dance and even driven in cars tapping on the steering while listening to the radio.  So happiness (or sadness) is brought on board when we catch various modes of transport, and the travel experience mixes with it, to give us something – sometimes for the better, sometimes not …. that’s just my take on it.

How a bicycle transforms a city

I have spent one bikeless week in berlin and then in the last few days I’ve become all bicycled up.  I am glad I got to spend a week without, in order to see the difference in the feel, the pace and the stimulation of the city.  I suddenly got to play with this city that I’d been taking so seriously.

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On a bicycle I can go from being completely immersed in my surroundings to feeling like I don’t care where I am because I am just having fun in my own little world of movement, rhythm and resistance.  I think this is important, particularly when traveling – when your mind is racing with new stuff to take in and a sense of wanting to make the most of where you are.   You can end up overloading yourself with ideals about where you are and how you should be appreciating it – kind of like when you go to a museum and you feel obliged to spend time to find the beauty and significance of everything you pass.  It can be draining.  I love to be enjoying my ride and then suddenly catch a glimpse of something that takes my breath away.  Luckily on a bicycle you can pull over easily and then spend the time to be awestruck or you can carry on embracing the fleeting moment of beauty you witnessed.

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The city has also opened up to me in other ways.  I feel more like a local for one, because I get the opportunity to ride with friends that are living here.  I get to see the way they get around their city and follow, slowly working out the lay of the land.  When I go exploring for myself, it isn’t just names (and long german names at that) that I can use for orientation.  Suddenly I have concepts of distance and landmarks and the ambience of various roads that make me recall where I am.  I can still get a little lost but on a bicycle I call it exploring.  I also appreciate walking more, with my little bicycle beside me I can wonder along at walking pace but I can then get going whenever my attention deficit ways kick in and I want to get moving.  I also feel more relaxed with observing people and occasionally taking photos for my film.  Maybe this is because I feel more apart of the scene I am filming or maybe because I can make a quick escape from the scene.

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I don’t think as much about each trip I’m going to take – now I have bought a bicycle it costs nothing.   I don’t have to plan my day around where I’m going to use my 2.60 euro tickets.  I just go here and there and randomly come across shops I need to go to or places I’ve wanted to see.  I think it would have been much easier to buy a bicycle if I’d had a bicycle for example :P.

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I am still getting used to cycling in Berlin.  It is important to work out the topology of trust on the road.  I have come from a city where I could barely trust anyone on the road and needed to make eye contact wherever possible.  I also couldn’t trust the street surface not to suddenly produce a massive hole or cracks for me to fall into.  Now, I have to trust more in order to ride like a local.  In Berlin bicycle paths switch from on street lanes to designated parts of the sidewalk which may be marked by a different paving pattern or by a line.  I have to trust people not to cross that line, cars not to abuse the bicycle lane, other cyclists to keep a steady path and the pavement to stay smooth even when transitioning from path to road.  I feel slow compared to the average cyclist here and I am wondering whether it’s because I’m still not in full swing of the trust on the roads here or it may be because I’m just not that fit after too much good food in Turkey.

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Well I better go and enjoy another bicycled up day.  See you.

U9 to Zoologischer Garten then change to the S7 to Ostbanhof

Today I carried my baggage from one part of Berlin to another.  For once I was less focused on secretly filming the moods and behaviours of others – I had too many bags for such nonsense – so I was just a normal or perhaps extra-normal passenger.  I was relieved to arrive at the platform for the metro, the heels of my shoes are paper thin from months of travel across all sorts of pavements (and they weren’t in great shape to begin with).  I dug through my sea of bags to find a ticket to validate.  This validation process involves putting the correct end of a ticket into a little yellow box and waiting for a shuddering thump of the stamp of the time, date and place.  From this point you have two hours to use the ‘system’ to get where you need to go – I hope it won’t take that long.  I’m carrying my handbag, a camera bag, a shopping bag, a green bag filled with juggling stuff, chargers and books, and floating amongst the bags is a jumper and a tripod.  So I’m kind of keen to find a seat on the metro that should be arriving in one minute.  I wonder what the pecking order should be – how old does someone have to look for a girl with four bags to give up her seat.  In Germany not many people seem to be giving up their seats for others anyway.

As everyone piles onto the carriage, I slowly manage to get on.  I spy a seat but it is further up the carriage and as I head towards it, I am hit by the acceleration of the train pulling me back like I’m swimming upstream.  I smile as I enjoy the struggle against this force and how it jolts my body around.  I get to the seat and try to swing my bags around so my girth isn’t impacting on the people to the sides of me.  I don’t quite pull it off and I get a little sneer from the lady to my right.  I will avoid eye contact with her for the rest of the trip.  So we, the passengers, are lined up on each of the walls of the carriage, facing each other.  It feels like these carriages are designed for people watching, but we all manage to avoid looking at any particular person long enough to make any real eye contact.  It’s an art form.  You watch the people who are watching someone or something else, preferable far enough away from you so your gaze escapes their peripheral vision.  In front of me I have a bunch of youngsters/youths/kids/I don’t know what to call them without sounding patronising or like they are up to no good.  Anyway, they have been shopping (or maybe shop lifting and then my use of youths sounds appropriate) and have loaded bags.  There are also two very plain women who keep on looking at the same things, but I don’t think they know each other – they are having a synchronised people watching session.

For one of the first times in Berlin, I manage to get off the metro at the right stop.  I feel proud, but also embarrassed at my previous failed attempts – I impulsively have been getting off the metro when I hear a station that sounds like the one I’m meant to get off, only to find that it was only the first and last letter that was the same.  I follow the crowd, including a few rough looking dogs on leashes, around to the S-bahn.  As I juggle my bags in a much more awkward way than I originally carried them, I hope that the walk is short.  It is. As much as I love the stairs normally, or taking the speedy side (the left in Germany) to walk up the escalator, I relax into my little slot on the slower right side of the escalator and let it do its thing.

I have perfect timing (or the trains come all the time) as the train arrived seconds after I arrived on the platform.  I only had time to have a little look around and spot my imaginary transit romance for this trip.  I instinctively get into the same carriage as him (or maybe he got into the same carriage as me) and I find a seat next to the window.  This time we have a different seating arrangement – four seat booth style – so there are really only two people you look directly at.  So maybe I should explain this imaginary transit romance – sometimes subconsciously I start to imagine little romances with random guys I see on public transport, I know they will never eventuate but that makes them more fun.  I just pretend we are two connected souls that are trying to work out how to show our love for each other on a crowded old metro carriage.  But then we get off at different stops and the romance ends there.  Anyway, halfway through the journey, a man sits down beside me.  I attempt to cram my bags closer to my body to give him more space, but he says something polite in German, so I let it be and he smiles – some Germans can be kind on the metro – das ist gut.  Knowing I have a bit of time on the S7 I have somehow managed, using a very tricky yoga pose (I do believe there should be yoga classes which specialise in awkward transport manoeuvres), to pull out a book and now I am reading.  To make my romance more interesting, another young guy glances down at me, the girl who is surrounded by bags, tripods and absorbed in a book – at that moment I glance up at him cutely but then turn back to the book – he must think I’m one of those disorganised, arty, interesting, intellectual and inte-other stuff too.  How easily fooled one can be on the train.   He sits next to me when the polite man gets off.  This is when I get absorbed in my book and don’t dare glance sideways – whatever happens with my transit romances, the worst thing would be real contact with one of the characters that let my imagination stray.

I should point out at this point, I have decided I’m going to write about this trip.  Perhaps it’s the neurotic parole in the novel I’m reading, or just getting a chance to glance out the window and remember how beautiful things are.  Whatever it is, I’ve started narrating the trip in my head (it was all in the present tense then but now it’s a mix of past, present and maybe even future).  It is the time of sunset and most of the sky is filled with subtle colours, and the light on the buildings is soft and makes everything seem less intimidating – even spectacular monuments.  I am enjoying the colours of the apartment blocks.  Perhaps one day I would like to live in a pink building with white window sills.  From time to time I catch a glimpse of my reflection and the reflection of other people in the train.  I like this mainly because it randomly appear and it is unclear – just when we pass a dark patch in our surroundings I see fragments of reflection.  I like how I get to see people from all different angles and I get to look at them without looking in their direction.

Amongst all this romance and looking around I am still trying to read my book, but Berlin is genuinely intriguing, as is the self-obsessed narrator in the book I’m reading.  I find myself not having enough time on the train to do everything I want as I read and look around.  I’m new to this city and I guess one can get bored of beauty, so maybe the book would eventually win if I lived here.  My stop comes and I get off without excess anticipation.  I leave my window seat and my imaginary transit romances.  I had felt quite at home for a little while there, but I make sure I have all my bags that were surrounding me, and head for the exit.

Getting disoriented in Berlin

Berlin – I was told I would fall in love with you, but it’s very hard to fall in love when it has been predicted for you.  So I am still working out what my relationship is with this city that is a mixture of history, beauty and a somewhat laid back approach to life.  It just doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously.

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My first impressions of Berlin were from the spacious interior of the express bus from Tegel airport.  I first spotted people riding bikes not too far into my journey, they were so casual and calm it looked like they were floating along – especially when you can only see their top half from the bus window.  Apart from the bicycle lanes the streets looked very hostile for cycling – big roads with no shelter – highways and bi-ways style.  However, as the journey went on, I started to see more ornate buildings, narrower streets and trees filled with beautiful green leaves.  It suddenly felt like a village – a very big villages with lots of incredible buildings.   Apart from my chance to look around, the bus trip also allowed me to discover the no-nonsense, almost stoic nature of the female bus driver.  At one point the bus turned into a road which had roadworks and a truck was parked facing the wrong way on our side of the road so we couldn’t pass.  The bus driver turned off the bus and went to talk to the truck driver to hurry him along.  I guess she wasn’t happy with the idea of her bus being late – Germany has a reputation to keep – so the truck moved out of her way bloody fast.  Although everyone warns me that Berlin is one of the most relaxed cities when it comes to schedules, compared to Malawi, I’d say everything runs like clockwork here.

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Now that I have been here for a week, I can safely say I have lost all sense of direction.  I’m not sure if it’s the city, or the fact that I’ve been sleepy for the last week, but on a number of occasions I’ve found myself going in the opposite direction to the way I thought.  I usually pride myself on my navigational skills, but here I am turning maps around (or turning my head around when the map is fixed to a bus shelter) in disbelief while trying to make sense of the streets around me.  Thankfully most bus shelters have maps inside them so I can recheck where I am again and again.  I blame my disorientation on three things – streets that are not quite straight but appear pretty straight to me, metros that take you underground and twist you all around the place before you reappear in what seems like another world, and thirdly long german names for streets and metro stops – with some that start and end the same but have different gobbledygook in the middle.  This disorientation makes me feel a little bit frustrated from time to time (because I cannot go anywhere with efficiency or with any certainty), but more than anything I feel a lack of autonomy.

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I am hoping that once I start riding a bicycle this will improve both my sleepiness and my sense of direction, otherwise I’m going to be riding around in circles with my eyes shut.  I feel like Berlin is almost safe enough to do, but don’t worry mum, I won’t try this just yet.

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finding momentum from a very small starting point

I would like to expand on an issue I brought up in my last post – cycling (or the lack thereof) in Ankara.   After buying a bicycle in Ankara I ended up hitting the streets of Ankara most days and I slowly learnt to be more comfortable on the roads.  I saw the occasional cyclist, I got to know how to get around and I had some lovely interactions with various road users while I was on my bike – I started to remember the joys of riding rather than being always on edge.  I met other people who also rode bicycles and they told me of the freedom it brought them, even within the struggles of Ankara’s traffic.  This brought me hope, and I felt like the feelings for cycling we were having could become contagious, with a little help from some cycling promotion and infrastructure from the local council.  At a personal level I could see a glimpse of momentum for cycling in this city, where I had felt nothing at first.

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Along with my casual/normal riding, I also participated in a weekly group ride and witnessed a demonstration of the dangers of cycling.  Both events were influenced by the recent death of two cyclists, killed in separate incidences where attitudes and awareness of cycling in the motoring community were to blame.  It was an interesting experience for me to see these gatherings of cyclists in a city where I had struggled to see any presence of cycling.  My instant reaction to seeing everyone gathering for the group ride was glee.  It was great to see so many people caring about the conditions of cycling and other members of the cycling community, and for them to be taking the opportunity to ride together.  I liked that the group was showing the rest of the people on the road – walkers, drivers, bus catchers, everyone – that cycling was possible, it was something people were keen to do and most importantly our smiles showed that it could be fun.

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However, amongst the beauty of seeing so many people out on bikes together there was an emphasis on the dangers of cycling.  I could understand why they made the weekly group ride a memorial to the cyclists who had died and it was nice to show our respect while joining together to ride.  However, the demonstration which occurred the following Sunday made me feel ill-at-ease.   There was a theatrical performance in the park which involved people lying down pretending to be dead and injured.  Everyone who joined the demonstration were told to wear black and show sombre faces (no smiling or laughing).  I tried to gather what messages would come form such a demonstration.  There was a great turnout of people, so the first message was a support for cycling and the improvement of cycling infrastructure and culture to reduce the dangers of cycling.  But amongst this, I cannot help but feel that this demonstration was increasing the sense of fear the community has to cycling and reducing the images of fun and freedom that are part of the psyche of almost everyone I have met who rides in any city in the world.

So, I guess a starting point for community demonstrations about cycling should be what messages need to be portrayed to politicians, bureaucrats, people already cycling and the community at large.  Ankara has a huge way to go to make the streets safe and fun for everyone to ride but is it responsible to emphasise danger and give people a reason to fear cycling?  I think the importance of improved infrastructure needs to be in the minds of the bureaucrats, the economic, social and environmental benefits of cycling need to be drilled into the heads of the politicians and the community need to see that cyclists are humans like everyone else.  Everyone in the city of Ankara has to believe that they could one day ride in their city, and that when they are using the streets they should be looking after everyone that is sharing it with them, including cyclists.  These are just my thoughts – I know it’s a tough moment – when drastic changes are needed and cycling is such a marginal form of transport, that it seems easier to ignore it, but once things turn around and the momentum starts, I think it will be so worth it!

In my spare time over the next couple of months, I would love to be involved in developing a cycling strategy for this city.  If anyone has any information or ideas to help me, please get in contact.  Let’s see what we can do.

Ankara – a planned city with lots of different directions

So, my approach to ankara involved a few days in istanbul and a couple on the aegean coast and everyone I met kept warning me about how boring Ankara was.  ‘It’s just a capital city with lots of public servants, it’s a planned city with no history’.  I kept thinking about canberra.  But worse than canberra they said no one rides bicycles in Ankara.  I was starting to feel a little reluctant to get the overnight bus to a place which had ‘car’ in it’s name.  But boring cities can still have interesting transport, and everything is relative – a city in turkey with no history still has castles and turkish baths and museums.

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I have now spent a few days in Ankara – it’s the first city of my project with a metro system, but sadly it seems to be lacking a bicycle presence.  It’s a lively city with lots of pedestrians.  There are overhead pedestrian walkways to cross roads, wide footpaths and some pedestrian malls in the centre of the city that are teaming with people.  Having said this, locals complain that not all the pedestrian infrastructure has been well allocated.  I don’t know about this, but I know the council of Ankara likes spending money on things like colourful fluorescent lights in trees and benches in the median strip of a highway (which can come in handy when you have been standing and waiting for a gap in the traffic I guess but not really where I’d want to spend my Sundays).  But however they are catered for, the pedestrians are definitely a force in Ankara.  They have a way of crossing the road which surpasses all others I have seen.  They just go for it, whether the there is a green man (oh, they have awesome animated green men here) or red man, if there is enough of them, they just take on the cars and cause traffic to back up for miles as they refuse the cars entry to the intersection.

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The pedestrians and public transport (buses and dolmuses – the turkish equivalent of a matatu) interact freely, with people getting on and off dolmuses (and sometimes buses) anywhere along the road.  The dolmuses will beep at pedestrians to see if they want a ride and they will jump around the lanes to get to a potential customer.  While the traffic isn’t as chaotic as India, the lane structure can certainly be interesting at times, and dolmuses have a way of weaving their rather large derrieres through all sorts of gaps.  Buses can be quite full at times but I have been luck enough to catch the less crowded buses of the ramadan holiday time.  Now traffic is back in full swing I will have to try and my luck on some more crowded transport.

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However, I have just made my most significant purchase in a long time and I want to make the most of it.  I bought a brand new bicycle.  The reasons are as follows:

  • I want to have good control to face the traffic of Ankara
  • I have only seen one other girl riding a bicycle in Ankara so it’s important to show that cycling can be fun and slightly stylish
  • Most bicycles sold are children’s bikes or mountain bikes and we have to start getting the bike shops interested in marketing to commuting cyclists.
  • I want to have fun and feel good on my bicycle even when facing the hills of Ankara (which I didn’t find too many of today but the locals keep telling me it’s a hilly city)
  • It’s my birthday on Thursday and there is a group ride and I want it to be fun

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Ok, so I have a bicycle and I’ve attacked the traffic.  No one on the road is expecting you, so being careful of car doors and swerving vehicles is key for survival.  On my ride I couldn’t help but want to give this city some cycling infrastructure or at least a map to help people get through this town.  There are wide footpaths in some areas which could be converted to shared paths, there are spare bits of road in other areas that is currently doing nothing (except when a dolmus tries to squeeze through), there are lots of areas without parked cars, where a bicycle lane could fit.  I also don’t think the hills are that bad, the weather seems nice enough and I’ve seen much worse traffic in my time.  I feel like Ankara is crying out for someone to start a cycling revolution here.  It’s filled with university students and public servants – the same kind of people that are riding everyday in Canberra.  So the plan is to try and plant some seeds in people’s head by getting out and riding this city with a smile for a week.  I might even try and make my own map of different routes as I get better at knowing where I’m going and knowing the quieter ways to go.

It’s time we talked about matatus

So I’ve briefly mentioned matatus throughout my discussions on nairobi, but they deserve more attention than that.  Matatus are such a part of the culture of nairobi and were part of the reason I became interested in the culture around urban transport all those many years ago.  Matatus have such a strong culture around them that it is one of the biggest barriers to introducing any other forms of public transport.  Some people are proud this culture, others less so, but everyone knows it’s there.

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First of all, what is a matatu?  Some refer to all buses and vans used for public transport as matatus while others look at it more like goldilocks.  There are the big buses, which are too big to be called matatus and are hence called ‘buses’ (surprise surprise), there are minivans that are too small to be called matatus and are hence called ‘nissans’ (they are all secondhand or maybe thirdhand from japan) and then there are the colourful vehicles which are just the right size to be called matatus and they are hence called ‘matatus’.

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Buses have set stops (or stages as they are called in Nairobi).  So you wait, get on, find a seat and then the conductor comes around to collect your money, give you a ticket, and turn the funny contraption that looks like it’s come from a world where bigger and heavier machines were the bomb.  The bus is filled with seats and the idea of standing is left to people hunching is minivans in rural areas.  In most of the buses I caught, the atmosphere was quiet, there was occasional music and there was even sometimes people getting on the bus to sell their wares.

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On matatus and nissans the ambience can vary drastically.  There are those for business people that are quiet and serious.  Some people talk I guess, or look at their phones, maybe listen to their own music.  Then their are the matatus that are designed for particular audiences such as students.  Here, noise is essential – and if there is a beat with so much base you can’t feel the bumps in the road – you know it’s going to attract the customers.  People don’t just hop onto any matatu and the touts see that they make enough noise (they call it welcoming to whistle and yell at you) to ensure you choose the matatu they are touting for.  So a matatu stage becomes a bit of a stage as the touts perform their acts of persuasion.  Once you have clambered in, you might be waiting for the tout to fill up the vehicle before you go or if you’re lucky it is almost full (full one meant there was no excess air in the matatu, but now it just means the seats are filled up).

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When the music is loud, you cannot talk to anyone unless you shout and everyone just bobs up and down to the music – there are often cushioned roofs – I guess that’s for if your bobbing becomes extreme.  The decorations can mesmerise you for a while – with posters of rappers and general bling lining the walls of the matatus in all sorts of colours.  These decorations and music are more than a way to attract customers, they are an important form of expressions with nairobi, with every nairobi driver taking pride in their vehicle.

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I guess at the end of the day, what is so interesting about matatus is what they represent to the people of the city.  Even when they are dangerous and loud, they still have a place in the hearts of the people of Nairobi.  They are seen as part of the fabric of the city.  I guess this is an important part of any transport system and something I’m searching for in cities around the world.