Little known fact about me: I’m from Hong Kong. Ha! Who am I kidding, I might as well have “HK” tattooed on my forehead seeing as I talk about it so incessantly. An actual little known fact about me though is that I wrote one of my college essays about my love of the MTR, the Hong Kong subway system. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, I swear. Hear me out. Subways are by far my favourite mode of public transportation. Subways are democratic and used by people of all walks of life. In Hong Kong, subway stops dot every part of the city and are connected in a rainbow grid of lines as vibrant as the neighbourhoods they service. Subways are great – easy to use, traffic free, and predictable. Though no subway system in my opinion comes close to the 99.9% on time, pristine, and air conditioned Hong Kong system, I’ve always enjoyed taking subways around the world.
You see, there’s nothing more local and authentic than taking a subway during rush hour. In Buenos Aires, I have gotten myself into a short-term but extremely committed relationship with the Subte (short for “subterranean”). I have a thirty-minute subway commute to work everyday. And while this seems mundane, some of my greatest personal victories, little moments of triumph and empowerment, have occurred while zipping around underneath the streets of this chaotic capital.
Little victory número uno: There’s nothing more satisfying than a good life hack. Something as small as figuring out the best place to wait for the train in the morning in order to guarantee finding a seat or a comfortable spot has really made me feel like I belong in this city. It’s very hard for me to look like I’m a local by virtue of my chinese-ness. Other than my Chinatown wanderings, I think the only times where I have come close to passing for a local have been on the Subte. I’ve really started to fit in with the dreary-eyed morning commute crowd, especially since I’ve started to read books in Spanish during the journey. Finding a good spot on my morning trip and relaxing with my book really just sets me up for success for the rest of my day.
Subte moment número dos: I knew I had made it in this city when I was one day stopped on the way to the Subte by an elderly couple that was lost. Like I said before, I definitely don’t look like a porteña local. However, I guess something about my fast-paced, self-assured, rush hour stomp to the Subte signalled to this lovely couple that I knew what I was doing. They stopped me on a street corner and kindly asked me where the closest Subte stop was. The poor things were visiting from one of the provinces and had been walking in the wrong direction for almost ten minutes! Feeling good about myself, and as surprised as ever by my actually decent Spanish, I walked with them to the station and even managed to tell them how many stops they needed to go before reaching their destination (I have the green line almost memorised at this point. Wasn’t kidding about being in a seriously committed relationship).
And finally, my favourite Subte moment: One day, at crammed-in-like-sardines-level rush hour, I managed to squeeze myself into a corner seat. However, at the next stop, this old lady who looked like she was about to faint stumbled onto the train. Naturally I let her sit. She looked extremely ill and I was very concerned for her. I worked up the nerve to talk to her in Spanish.
“Perdon señora, está bien?” (Are you ok ma’am?)
“Me duele la espina” (My spine hurts). I truly felt for her as I watched her grimace with every jolt that rocked the train. However, what inspired me was how all the other women around me came to her aid as well. This old lady had managed to find herself in a corner composed entirely of women. One of them offered to give her water, another to hold her bag, and another gave her a piece of gum. She asked for updates on how many stops she had to go and I gladly talked to her until she finally reached her destination. When I first got here, I was a little nervous about taking public transportation after hearing stories about robberies and what not. And while I’m still very cautious (I rock the front backpack/pregnant lady look everyday), I am happy to report that women on the Subte take care of their own.
Now, I’ve had my fair share of mishaps underground. One time, I had to wait for three trains to pass before I finally managed to elbow my way into a carriage during rush hour. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough space in the first ones. It’s that I wasn’t confident enough to push myself in. Sometimes, the Subte really requires some grit. I’ve also found myself on trains that suddenly go out of service halfway up the line and have more often than I’d like to admit climbed out of a station at the wrong exit. That being said, the rhythm of taking the subway everyday has really made me feel like a porteña. I’ve loved spending hours reading on the train and I feel more and more local every time I swipe my Sube card or give someone directions.
And while I still think that the MTR is far superior, I will give Buenos Aires this: you’d be hard pressed to find a violinist playing Despacito in any other subway system in the world.