Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Metro

My first trip on Mexico City's massive transportation system was toward the Dr. Gálvez station on the metro bus. Who's Dr. Gálvez? we had asked our Mexican history professor. I had assumed he was a famous practitioner. Darned if I know, was her essential reply.

In a system where each stop is named, illustrated and slapped with a color-coded label, I have found that it is entirely possible to know exactly where you are going but be completely lost at the same time. Some of the stops, with signs depicting canon balls or revolutionary war heroes, drop you off at a library or a shopping mall. Others are more straightforward, with names like Hospital General or Observatorio, but Etiopia leaves you nowhere near the African country.

Don't get me wrong, the metro is quite useful. With trains arriving every few minutes, stops all over town, and maps handed out by metro security guards, I have found the system to be entirely navigable. But sometimes on those long trips, with nothing to do but stand pressed in between the five million commuters that ride the train every day, protecting my pockets and genitals from overly-friendly passengers, I contemplate getting off at random stops. Maybe Oceanía will take me to the beach. Maybe the one with the angel will take me to heaven. More often than not I end up in an alley, although often unknowingly close to a national monument from which the station takes its name.

According to Mexican journalist Juan Villoro, the metro signs "were designed as a modern code with a twofold purpose: proving that pre-Columbian culture was alive and well, while acknowledging that many of the riders were illiterate." In this sense, the metro once again proves to be headed in the right direction but completely lost at the same time. Despite all its modernity, Mexico still suffers from age-old problems.

Amidst men and women in business suits and company logo t-shirts pass the peddlers, hawking everything from lottery tickets to spelling books. You can't take a trip without being serenaded by guitar or assaulted with music from the "80s, 90s and now!" Some people just pass by barefoot, their hands extended to grandmas with cell phones and young lovers canoodling on the plastic train seats. While for many an office worker the train is a mode of transportation, for the poor and illiterate it is a livelihood. 

In this sense the train also serves a dual purpose. At the same time that it speeds the city's workers towards modernity, it has also become a place for those who are being left behind. People don't just travel here, they work here. For them there is no morning train to catch, no momentary discomfort from the humid subway air. This is it for them. They spend their lives underground, unable to enter into the normal city life above. 

While the origins of the man himself may be forgotten, the station at Dr. Gálvez is a lot of things to a lot of people. For me at least, it's the stop for the university.

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