#vanlife 

I read this article in the New Yorker a few days ago – I suppose to anyone who has ever thought critically about social media, none of it was a surprise. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying #vanlife of a different order in La Paz – the vans, referred to as minibuses, that form an essential part of public transport in the city. Destinations to key areas are clearly listed on the windshield and you just need to call out to the driver to stop when you want to get off. By following my movement over Google maps (I save the maps of the cities offline so I can access them even without data roaming), it’s made for an easy mode of transport, for a mere 2Bs per trip (2.60Bs if you’re going to or coming from Zona Sur). Beats bargaining with cabbies. 

What I enjoy most about these rides is the rich people-watching experience. People on the sidewalks don’t realise you are staring at them going about their business (yes I know how creepy that sounds) and you get a great feel of the minutiae of daily life in the city. You traverse neighbourhoods that aren’t part of the tourist circuit, and give your tired feet a rest. You watch neighbourhoods change according to the income levels of those who live there. You might even pass the president’s residence. 

The van rides have their own code of conduct. Many, though not all, chirp a “buenas dias!” when they board, and a chorus of greetings and echoed in return by the passengers. The last one getting on or off slides the doors shut. If a person sitting on the collapsible aisle seat has to make way for a disembarking passenger sitting behind, he gets up quickly while the person next to or behind him deftly folds the seat shut and hops out. People always shift to the back seats or squeeze in to make space for one more person and women holding babies always get a seat. It’s all very efficient and cordial and I never tire of observing these rituals.

I also appreciate the drivers and passengers who pretend that I’m not speaking garbled Spanish to indicate I want to get off – I call out “esquina por favor” even when there are no corners. Or “quiero bajar por favor”, even though I’m not entirely sure that’s grammatical. 

At first glance La Paz seems a little messy and perhaps has too many attributes of a developing city where thoughtful urban planning hasn’t kept pace, the nice parks and the cool teleferico (cable car) system aside. But cities are made by the people who live there and the minibus system seems to be a sensible one that has evolved locally one, and works. We saw a similar cab system in Cochabamba, and I marvel that it’s so normal for the city’s residents, while Singapore needs endless debates over whether a cab-sharing or carpooling can take off…

So, cheers to the future of La Paz’s minibus universe, but one with less polluting vehicles perhaps.  

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