A Study in Contrasts – the Medellin Metro and the Boston T

I’ve used a lot of different metropolitan transit systems in cities I’ve either visited or lived in. From Istanbul to Berlin to Washington, DC, it’s fascinating to see how different cultures and countries treat their metro systems. Some cities emphasize the ability to eat and drink at established vendors right next to the platform, while others emphasize the ability to know exactly when the next train will be arriving with real-time updates. In a way, these metro systems are a microcosm of a country’s culture. Unbeknownst to most travelers, you can learn a lot about a city and a country as a whole based on how they approach their public transportation. Each metro system I’ve used has had their own kind of flair to them whether it’s the London Underground’s cleanliness, New York Subway’s 24-hour service, and Istanbul’s kind food merchants.

Out of all the metro systems I’ve rode on, there are currently two in the world that stand out to me in their approach to customer service. While most systems rarely have attendants to help people enter or leave the train, the two cities that are the exception to this rule are Boston and Medellin. These two transit systems actually have attendants working on behalf of the transportation authority to help passengers to use the metro effectively but with different approaches. For example, the way Boston does its’ customer service would be more hands-off while in Medellin it is much more hands on.

This difference in culture may play into the fact that the Boston T system has been in operation since 1897 and the locals are pretty adept at navigating the transit system considering its’ more than a century old. When it comes to Medellin, the metro system there began in 1995, which is a little over twenty years old. Medellin currently has the only urban train network in Colombia. Still though, you could draw the conclusion that the way the customer service of these two transit systems functions is reflective of the overall culture. In the U.S., we tend to be more individualistic especially when it comes to our urban transportation. When I lived in Medellin, I was enamored with how collective the metro system was when compared to where I’m currently living. In Boston, it’s much more about every man or woman for himself or herself as they try to navigate the system regardless of whether you’re a long-time local or a first-time visitor.

For Medellin, the aspect of their metro system that stood out most to me was the number of attendants who would help riders enter the train platform, instruct users on how to board and exit the trains, and how to refill and use their metro cards. Instead of just one or two attendants there on behalf of the transportation authority, there were usually up to a dozen workers assisting customers at each station. It was really nice for me to see the attention to detail that the metro system had in terms of assisting passengers to use the system effectively. This approach was crucial especially during a busy rush hour when there would be thousands of passengers wanting to enter and exit the train station.

Having a dedicated group of workers on hand to help smooth things over and make sure passengers were respecting each other and the transit system was a really impressive thing to witness. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Medellin metro system is well kept and has no littering, little rats running around etc. at any of its’ dozens of train stations. Compared to other cities, Medellin does a great job with its’ communal approach to the metro system. One of the catchphrases of their advertising is to ‘Vive La Cultura de Metro’, which basically translates to living the metro culture by respecting others and keeping the system clean.

Other cities could benefit from replicating the effective customer service, the emphasis on cleanliness, and the easy access to information that the Medellin Metro provides. Like any other transit system in a major city, it still does get quite congested during rush hour, and it can be hard to get on the train during peak hours due to lack of trains available. I know this from my own past experiences of having to fight to get on the train at 6 AM some mornings when I was a teacher there.

When it comes to the Boston T system, it’s the oldest in the United States and doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to. However, compared to the New York or Washington, DC transit systems, there is some customer service and assistance given. However, when you compare Boston to Medellin in this regard, it’s really no contest. While there are usually one or two attendants from the transit authority present, they don’t really actively help passengers. Sometimes, you can see a transit worker more interested in a smartphone game than to see if anyone needs help or has a question. Instead of being on the train platform to help riders get on and get off the train without issue, they usually just stand by the entrance to the station making sure everybody pays their fare.

Coming from where I was living in Medellin before I moved to Boston, this was a bit of a culture shock to me. It’s nice to have one or two more customer service attendants around to ask questions but I wish there were more attendants on the platform handling crowd control and enforcing the unwritten rules of getting on or leaving the train especially during rush hour. Also, compared to the dozen workers at any train station platform in Medellin, a city like Boston should have a few more people helping out compared to one or two workers per station.

Perhaps this cultural contrast is due to the fact that metro systems in the United States are much more individualistic in nature and the fact that public transit has been part of cities’ makeup for decades especially in the Northeast. I’m guessing that the majority of Bostonians would prefer to be left alone during the morning and evening commute rather than have hands-on help from transit service officials especially at a station platform. However, it might make everyone’s day a bit better and smoother if there were workers actively helping to assist people to refill their transit cards, making sure the rush hour commute goes smoothly, and aiding travelers to the city with directions.

When you travel to different countries, it is tempting to compare and contrast approaches to daily life. In any city, the transit system is an extension of the culture and I find it interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries in how they run their metro systems. It’s good to see how other cities and other countries do things because you’re able to see within your own culture what could be better or more improved. However, what may suit your own tastes may not suit others as much, even your own countrymen.

Train systems like whole cultures tend to be more individualistic or communal. What one city may lack in efficiency, they can make up for it in customer service. I believe it’s best to shoot for improvement in all areas to create a better travel experience. Having the trains run on time, being treated fairly by attendants, and enjoying clean, safe rides are keys for any metro system to achieve. Hopefully as more and more people travel and see the world, we can better see what ways we can improve our own cities and countries by seeing how others do it themselves.


A Chance Encounter

When it comes to traveling, most people often remember the places they’ve been, the food they ate, and the fun activities they did during their trips. However, what often gets lost in the shuffle is the ability to appreciate and remember the interesting people you meet during your travels, usually at the most random of times and in the most random of places. The best part of traveling can often be those chance encounters on the road that lead to you gaining a new friend, who might be a local from the country you’re visiting or another fellow foreigner who’s exploring the same places as you by coincidence.

One such encounter happened to me very recently during my first trip to Peru. I got up very early at around four in the morning to catch the train from the Peruvian village of Ollantaytambo to the town of Machu Picchu, which is located a couple of hundred feet below the famous ruins of the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. Running on just five hours of sleep and anxious to make sure that I had all my paperwork in store for the visit to Machu Picchu, I was not in a talkative mood and feeling pretty lethargic.

I boarded the train at around 5 am and was even more dismayed by the fact that I was assigned an ‘aisle’ seat instead of my usual preference for a ‘window’ seat. Rather than being able to view the beautiful, cascading Andean mountains and the river running through them beneath the train tracks, I would only be able to glance a peak of the scenery by arching my head over, behind, or in front of the person next to me who would soon be occupying my prized window seat.

Still though, I reminded myself internally to not be such a downer and to be grateful that I would soon be departing for one of the wonders of the modern world, which very few people get to visit during their lifetimes. I am also a big fan of train travel, and Peru Rail provided quite a comfortable ride to and from the town of Machu Picchu. Eventually, a man carrying two big toys in his hands asked in Spanish, “Con permiso” politely as he motioned that he was coming through to sit down in the open window seat next to me. I obliged politely and looked on with curiosity at he placed these large two toys on the tray table in front of him nonchalantly.

I thought to myself at the time that it was a curious sight to see a grown man holding two toys that a child would play with, and to especially be sitting by himself with them and not with a son or daughter nearby. The toys themselves captured my attention because they were two of my favorite toys that I owned when I was a child myself. If you have ever seen the ‘Toy Story’ movies, you’ll know that those characters were popular when I was growing up in the 1990’s and even until today due to the series’ recent surge in popularity.

I loved ‘Toy Story’ as a kid and I still do especially given the fact that I saw the movie ‘Toy Story 4’ a couple of years ago and that was just before I graduated from college. The two toys themselves were replicas of the two main characters, Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody, who I had owned in my younger days. I spent many afternoons watching Buzz lift off and having Woody swing his plastic lasso around like a real cowboy would do. Some toys, even when you’re an adult, hold a deep connection for you and bring back a lot of memories that have since receded a long time ago.

Now, suddenly, my interest had been peaked in the man sitting next to me due to the toys that he was bringing with him to Machu Picchu. I started by telling him in Spanish how I used to love playing with those same toys of Buzz and Woody when I was a child. He was very friendly in responding to my curiosity and stated that; yes, he likes the toys a lot too and bought them for his two-year old son recently for his birthday. That put in place another piece of the puzzle for me as I realized that this man was not traveling to Machu Picchu by himself but was sharing this unique experience with his wife and his children.

For being such an early time in the morning to have a conversation, the man whose name I learned was Jorge (first name changed for privacy reasons) was polite, friendly, and patient with my imperfect Spanish. It’s one thing to speak in a foreign language when you’re fully awake in the middle of the afternoon and it’s a much more challenging task to be coherent in a foreign language at 5:30 in the morning when you are lethargic and groggy. However, I was able to communicate with Jorge pretty easily and he was able to practice some of his English as well. Like myself, Jorge also works in the education sector. He is a secretary at a primary / secondary school in Peru, and has been doing this job for over ten years. He is passionate about education and was curious about my experiences as an English teaching fellow in Medellin, Colombia.

From what I could tell about Jorge, he was a caring husband and father. He showed me pictures of his two young children on his iPhone with the traditional ceremonies that they would go through at their primary school. It was pretty interesting to see how they would dress up these little kids in traditional Peruvian clothing for these school events. Jorge must have taken a liking to me because even when one of the cabin crew for the Peru Rail train asked Jorge if he would like someone to move from the other row so he could sit with his wife and his children, he politely declined as I think he was really enjoying the conversation we were having. It also didn’t hurt that his family members were only sitting a row behind him so he could easily reach them if there was anything they needed, including if his little boy happened to want to play with Buzz and Woody again.

It was extremely interesting for me to hear from Jorge as a local and native citizen of Peru about his experiences visiting different parts of his country. He gave a lot of interesting insights about the regional differences between food, people, and the culture depending on where in Peru you were visiting. On this recent trip, I was only able to explore Lima and Cusco, but due to Jorge’s recommendations, I have a pretty good idea of where I would go in Peru for my next visit. I was happy to chat with Jorge about what it was like to grow up and live in New York, as well as talking about popular American music and movies that we both have a mutual fondness for. Despite having been born thousands of miles from each other on different continents and with different cultural backgrounds, we were able to bond as human beings because our similarities in terms of personality and interests were greater than our inherent differences of culture and country of birth.

Perhaps most notable for me about getting to know Jorge was how mature he was for his age. Jorge is only six years older than me but has a steady job, a wife and two young children. A lot of people my age and older are forgoing those traditional responsibilities of life but it says a lot about a man who provides for his family and is able to do things for them like take them on a trip to Machu Picchu. Men like Jorge are admirable in that they are responsible, mature, and do not shy away from their commitments. While all men carve their own path in life, they should try to exemplify the same traits as my new Peruvian friend Jorge has done. Maturity, responsibility, and a kindness to strangers like myself; these are the best traits to emulate when you witness them in another person. That’s how you become a true adult and someone who can be the leader of a family. It’s easy to say that my hour and a half spent talking to Jorge taught me more than just about old toys, it taught me a lot about adulthood and what it means to be a good man.

As we pulled into the Machu Picchu station, Jorge was very gracious and said that if I ever wanted to experience the best of Peruvian cuisine in Lima, where he and his family live, I was more than welcome to join them in the future. I told them that I would be happy to extend the same offer to them if they were ever in Medellin or even in New York if I was back there again. We exchanged our Facebook information, said our goodbyes, and parted ways as we both left the train to our final destinations. I continued on to my full-day visit to Huayna Picchu / Machu Picchu (which was amazing by the way, but that’s for another blog post).

You may ask by now if you’ve read this whole post: Ben, why did you decide to tell me about a chance encounter with a Peruvian guy on a train to Machu Picchu? The answer to your question is quite simple: It’s because traveling isn’t just about eating new foods, seeing cool places, or doing awesome activities. I enjoy all of the above and then some but traveling is also about getting to know the locals like Jorge and learning more about their country and their culture from their perspective.

Traveling is and always has been about broadening one’s horizons and getting outside of your comfort zone. For me, I’ve always been on the shy side personally but by traveling especially by myself, I’m forced to meet new people and start a conversation. I can only say that it’s done wonders for me in terms of building my confidence, improving my self-reliance, and lowering my anxiety when it comes to meeting new people. Traveling is more than just the experiences you’ve had and the places you’ve seen but it’s also about the new people you meet. Your memories will include the people you meet and you’ll look back on those same memories very fondly one day. You may never see that person again but at least you’ll know that they made your trip a little bit more special and rewarding because you met them in the first place.

I hope that as a reader of my blog that you’ll take this story to heart and remember to not be shy when it comes to meeting new people, regardless of whether you’re traveling or are at a party where you don’t know anybody there. The best stories come out of those experiences where you can met someone cool or unique and have a good time getting to know them. You may even be able to make a lifelong friend just by being willing to open your mouth and make the words come out.