Dispatches from Montevideo
Patrick Madden, of Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, spent the end of 2012 on a Fulbright Fellowship in Uruguay with his family, teaching some seminars and writing some essays.
In Which the Essayist Rides the Bus, Offering Great Ideas for Technological Innovations.
Almost twenty years ago, when I was a missionary living very near where I’m living now, Elder Gray and I rarely rode the bus but when we did we did so with great frustration. The jostling, the heat, the shoulder-rubbing, the stifling exhaust, the rumblings and rockings, the hubbub of the street sounds all gathered to clog the senses, effacing their finer settings. We felt an obligation to offer our seats to nearly anyone who boarded after the seats were full, so we rarely rode more than a few blocks sitting. Because we were both tall and relatively unused to our surroundings, if we stood we could not see street signs and landmarks through the shoulder-level windows, so we had a hard time knowing when to get off. Why, we wondered, was there no way to predict which bus would get us where we were going fastest and most comfortable? Why couldn’t some intrepid inventor devise a device to display at each bus stop the next ten buses to arrive along with their current number of available seats? We were tired of riding standing up, or hopping on one bus only to see just after we paid that a faster or emptier one was right behind us.
Nobody has yet invented such a service, at least not in Uruguay. The closest I’ve seen anywhere are overhead signs in certain subway stations announcing the next few trains to arrive, but those are relatively simple and limited. And the closest thing available now in Uruguay is text messaging from one of the bus companies (the largest among five that operate in Montevideo) on one of the three cell phone networks. You send “Bus 174” (for instance) to 933 and their server tells you when that particular line will reach the bus stop nearest where you’re waiting. Still, this is limited.
So here’s what I’m proposing. You’re free to take my ideas and make a prototype and pitch it to the Ministerio de Transporte or transpose it to the city of your choice. I ask only that you give me some credit and whatever compensation you deem appropriate. OK?
A smart phone app tied to all the city buses that can tell you where they are, when (approximately) they’ll arrive at your stop or at any number of stops in a user-determined radius, and (approximately) how long they’ll take to get you where you’re going. You can plug in your destination (or even your origin, if it’s different from where you’re standing) and see not only the buses that’ll take you there generally, but the ones that are already on their way. Say you need to get to Hospital Perreira Rosell. There’s a 526 coming, you can see it, but you know it does that ten-minute tour through Barrio Conciliación. The app will tell you if there’s a 174 just two minutes away, or if you’ll get stuck waiting more than that ten minutes just to catch the faster bus. Even more importantly, it will tell you how many seats are available, and will average over time the number of seats typically available on each bus at that time of day through the entire route you need to take. Finally, a nice bonus feature: it will tell you what kind of music (or soccer match) the driver is listening to. I try to be open to all variations in culture, but I once had to ride for over an hour on a bus that played cumbia, and not only cumbia, auto-tuned cumbia, which is the kind of music the CIA plays in dank dungeons to suspected terrorists to get a confession out of them (I suppose). Doesn’t that sound like a perfectly delightful and useful app? Within a few months, everybody in Uruguay would be using it, so you could sell advertising or charge a few pesos for downloads or whatever it is that you do to make money. I’m just the ideas guy. I have no grasp of economics.
I do have a typical layman’s grasp of the passage of time, however, and this is one thing I’ve noticed about riding the buses in Montevideo: they shift your perceptions of time. Soon after we arrived I made the mistake of looking up the distance to my children’s high school and was dismayed that a trip of only 10 miles took no less than 53 minutes, and that’s just the bus ride, not the walking and waiting on either end. I almost short-circuited when I understood the preposterous inefficiency of the commute.
I get the sense that Montevideanos shift more easily into and out of bus time than I do, that they’ve adapted their temporal perceptions in such a way that they don’t really mind the accumulated wasted years spent jostling along jagged paths stopping and starting, picking up and dropping off. Nowhere more so than on a bus does my stereotypical getting-and-spending Americanness bubble up in me. No one whose mind is tainted by the Protestant/capitalist mania for efficiency—“and mine is painfully so”—can suffer a Montevideo bus ride well. Yet I know, from years of emulating the great essayists of the past, that I do sin in my acceptance of this paradigm. So I determined to ride idly-productively, reading books, listening to radio programs, people-watching, staring out the window attentively awaiting the essays that might grace my senses.
My most frequent trip, at least twice a week to and from the University of Montevideo, takes anywhere from 50 to 65 minutes. I usually go on the 174, which avoids downtown, wending through central and northerly neighborhoods, sticking mostly to residential streets until it breaks out in 8 de Octubre’s commercial district and then drops me off just south of Tres Cruces, an interdepartmental bus station and giant white cross in the middle of the intersection celebrating/commemorating Pope John Paul II’s 1988 visit to Uruguay. I love this cross because at its base there are skull-bedecked warnings about the high-voltage electrical circuitry for the spotlights that illuminate it at night. I’m not sure anybody else feels the glee I feel when I see right there at the foot of the cross a sign that says “Warning: Danger of Death,” but it cracks me up every time. Danger of death? The cross? I even detour my walking sometimes just so I can cross the street and pause to chuckle in the median.
Ahem. OK. But let me rewind the voyage several miles to the Peñarol neighborhood along Aparicio Saravia, a combination industrial/business/residential street that cuts diagonally across a northerly midsection of the city. One day as I struggled with sleepiness and put aside my book, I caught a glimpse of a haphazard black graffito on the front wall of a home pleading
Tathi, I love you
As the bus rumbled eastward and just as I was putting thoughts to the image, I saw another message in the same scrawl: “Forgive me, dear.” And then another “I love you.” As I thought to check the other side of the street, I found yet another declaration: “Tathi, I love you.” My mind thrilled with the hidden story. Who had written it? What had he done? Why paint the messages here? Had Tathi forgiven him?
Later, I mentioned the graffiti to Karina, suggesting that maybe Tathi rode the same bus I did. Or, Karina suggested, maybe she lives in the neighborhood. I thought I’d find out. My plan was to call on some of the people whose walls were defaced and ask them. I imagined that they’d have no idea who Tathi or her disgraced suitor were, but maybe I’d get some good conversations out of the exercise. In any case, I could say I gave it a shot. I’m always telling my students to live for their essays, take on small challenges to fill out their writing, so it made sense that I’d go in search of these people. But I didn’t expect to find them. In fact, I was already writing my ending in my head, waxing poetical about how they are each of us, how all have sinned and fall short of the glory, how I kind of hope Tathi forgave the poor knucklehead, how
every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven.
— Eduardo Galeano from The Book of Embraces
But, this being Uruguay, at the very first house I tried one overcast Saturday afternoon, I met a woman who basically knew both Tathi and the “nincompoop” who’d sullied the front wall. Her name was Hilda, she was nearly 80, had moved to the neighborhood four years prior with her now-84 year-old husband because in retirement they couldn’t quite maintain the house they’d lived in for years before. Their only child had died at age 53 from cancer, so they were left alone. Her father was German, like many people who used to live in the neighborhood, including sailors from the Graf Spee, a Nazi cruiser scuttled in the bay in 1940, and other refugees from the Second World War, including Carlos Schneck, who used to make deli meats and sell them door-to-door until he built his factory, just down the road, before it moved to its current location. We had a pleasant conversation, in part lamenting the dilapidation of the city, the shantytown just east of there, the government’s inability to inspire change. She said she hoped that Tathi had rejected the kid even more fully after the graffiti stunt. “If you want to declare your love for someone, you don’t spray it all over other people’s property. You say it face to face.” She looked over her shoulder in the direction of her husband, there with his newspaper in his easy chair just behind the front window. Then we said our farewells and I headed next door to the convenience store to inquire further about the young lovers.
The woman behind the counter took out her cell phone and tried to call Tathi, but it went straight to voicemail. So she sent me into town to a motorcycle shop to find Rafael. I left her my phone number, and she said she’d tell Tathi to call me.
I found Rafael quite easily, it would appear, but he either misunderstood me or didn’t want to talk, because he told me “he’s upstairs cleaning up,” and then soon rode off on his motorcycle. I learned that I had been talking to Rafael only after the mechanic came out and another kid said, “You didn’t want to talk to the mechanic? Rafa’s the guy you talked to first.” So I left my number there, too, with vague information about why in the world I wanted to talk with Rafael.
Neither of them has called me.
I can go back, I suppose, and maybe I will. I’m curious to put faces and features to the story behind those forlorn messages, to know the causes and the outcome, to assess the efficacy of vandalism. Also, I promised Hilda that if I got a chance to reason with the kid, I’d strongly suggest that he buy a bucket of whitewash and repair the damages. The truth is I didn’t quite catch many details about Rafael, having spoken to him only briefly and unknowingly, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in my attentiveness. So I picture him as just another one of those teenagers posturing as tough guys on the sidewalk, laughing too loudly and razzing each other over the dreadful beat of the cumbia music from the shop radio. If I saw him again, I wouldn’t recognize him. But if I did go back and find him, or Tathi, what would I know then? That he was a real jerk, unrepentant and unworthy of forgiveness? That he was abusive or disrespectful? That he was drunk the night he grabbed a can of black spray paint and wept all the way home from Tathi’s? That his friends give him a hard time, attack him for his “weakness”? That she’s mortified to see her name everywhere? That she’s moved by the sincerity of the expression? That her mother thinks it’s kind of cute? That Tathi’s really sorry she ever broke it off, and they’re thinking of getting married? That his crime was nothing more than arriving late one night to pick her up? That he’s now ashamed he ever wrote those avowals all over town? Whatever the “real” story, I worry that it would be uncomfortable, not the happy ending we are hoping for.
In any case, where do I get off, thinking I could know these people with only one quick interview? I could certainly find out more than I know now, but then what? I’m no prophet. I can’t know what’s in store for Rafael and Tathi, and even were I to gather more information, even if I could pinpoint their present position, I could do no more than write a paltry summary and blind man’s vision of their future. In the wendings and windings, the twists and turns, the jostling heat of love, especially young love, who can predict a destination, much less know when anyone’s arrived?
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