In the last couple of days I've had to do a lot of running around in the course of having my wisdom teeth removed. (Remember that chapter of Cryptonomicon that dealt with Randy's wisdom teeth? Yeah. I had the "easy" one out today. It took 2 hours instead of 10 minutes, and the dentist was amazed by the gnarly roots on the "monstrosidad" of a tooth he wrenched from my skull.) Anyway, I had to do a lot of running around. And along the way, I noticed once again what a livable city Quito is.
First, there usually isn't much need to go very far. I don't know what the zoning policies of Metropolitan Quito are, or even if they have any, but they work well. There's a good mix of residential and comerical usage just about everywhere, and so most things are within walking distance. Very little of it is fancy, but it works.
Then, if you do have to travel a significant distance, it's both cheap and easy. Taxis, for example, are everywhere, and you can go pretty well anywhere for less than $5. I rarely pay more than two. You have to be a little careful about shifty cabbies, but it doesn't take long to learn the ropes.
The buses, though, top everything. They're even more common than cabs, they go everywhere, they only cost a quarter. However, riding a bus is not for the faint of heart. It took me a couple of months of acclimatization before I had the guts to try it. The thing is, there's no actual "bus system" in Quito. It's just an entrepreneurial free-for-all of little bus companies trying to make a buck moving QuiteÃ±os to and fro.
That's not to say that the buses are random. There are established routes, and these are posted on a sign in the front window of the bus. So you have about two seconds - between the sign becoming legible and the bus passing you - to decide if it's going your way. There's not much room on the sign, so it's a list of street names and landmarks, often abbreviated. You've got to be fairly familiar with the city to fill in all the gaps and do all the vector additions you need to make a decision.
The other thing is that, if you do decide to flag one down, it usually won't come to a complete stop. Ok, for little old ladies and children, the driver will take special pains. But such an obviously young and healthy fellow as myself just doesn't inspire that level of service. So you want to judge your opening carefully. You may have to cross a lane or two of traffic to get to the bus, and getting hit by a taxi won't advance your cause. Once you're there, getting on is pretty easy. The driver slows down, the barker gets out of the way (more about him in a moment), you grab the conveniently placed handholds, and up you go.
So the barriers to entry are fairly high, but once you've got things figured out, it's a nearly ideal system. Yesterday, I wandered out to the corner, hopped on a bus that looked like it was going in roughly the direction I wanted. As luck would have it, it dropped me off right in front of the radiograferia. Today my luck didn't quite hold: I had to walk 4 blocks to the dentist's office.
I think the division of labour has something to do with it. The driver drives, and the barker handles everything else. Mostly that means hanging out of the open door of the bus haranguing pedestrians with the bus route, but he also collects money, answers questions, keeps an eye out for the cops if there are more passengers than seats, and helps little old ladies aboard.
Going places in Quito is so much fun.
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