Three Tips for Public Safety

A recent incident and rather close call as well regarding my personal safety reminded me of how important it is to take certain precautions when you are out and about especially in an unfamiliar setting. If you’re in a new city or a new country, you’ll want to double down even more on your own safety when you don’t know your way around or are not able to communicate well in the local language. Urban environments tend to be the most difficult safety wise which is why I am compiling a list of these three public safety tips that I often use and which you may also find useful.

Now, these three tips may not be able to keep you 100% safe, but they will lower the odds and substantially minimize your exposure to risky situations and potential danger. One tip that should be common sense to begin with but which I sometimes neglect is to always be on your guard in some measurable way. To let your guard down even just for a little while can be all someone needs to attack, harm, or rob you in some way. The most important thing you can do in an unfamiliar setting is never let your guard down and to stay vigilant.

These three tips add on to that basic philosophy and will help you in additional ways. While I am far of a safety expert and am not a security professional, I give these tips based on my own experiences and reasoning. I hope that you find them useful and are able to utilize them for your own personal security. While this is definitely not an exhaustive list, I definitely believe that these three tips are some of the most common sense and reasonable out there when it comes to exercising caution in public.

  1. Keep away from the sidewalk curb or edge

You may not see this tip as being very important, but I find this is an underrated one when it comes to staying safe in public. You’ll want to maintain your distance from oncoming traffic as much as possible and I find that it’s safer to be closer to the building than to the curb. These days, you simply never know if a car, bus, or even a truck could lose control and end up mounting the curb to cause serious harm to you or another person.

Also, if you happen to be in a city where snatch-and-grab robberies can happen quickly, you want to make it as hard as possible for those robbers in a car or in a motorcycle to nab your personal items. You will want to keep away from them as much as possible when walking on the sidewalk. It makes it easier for them to grab your purse, bag, backpack, or phone the closer you are in proximity to the street.

Lastly, regarding events in the past, intentional attacks by criminals or terrorists using vehicles while a very remote possibility is something you could keep in mind by staying away from the street traffic. You should maintain awareness when you’re walking on the sidewalk as well which will lead me to my next point in a later tip. If you have a loved one with you whether that’s a romantic partner or a family member who might be more vulnerable, consider putting yourself closer to the street and have them be at your side closer to the building. If they’re older, don’t move as well, or have to take a call or answer some texts, it would be the wise thing to do to have them walk by your side away from the street especially if they’re distracted by something else. While this tip isn’t very popular, I find that it makes a lot of sense and can enhance your awareness.

  1. Face towards the entrance of the café or restaurant

Maybe you’re out at a café enjoying a nice coffee or at a restaurant celebrating your birthday, regardless of the circumstance involved, I recommend that when your sitting at a table or a counter or a bar, try to always face towards the entrance or exit to be aware of what’s going around you. Restaurants, cafes, and bars can be loud, distracting, and disorientating but it’s key to your personal safety to know where the entrances and exits are at all times in case of an emergency. Emergencies are unlikely to happen in these public settings but it’s better to be safe than sorry by knowing who’s coming in and who’s leaving. It’s also good to scout out the additional entrances and exits of the place you’re at if you can do a walk-around after you arrive.

If you are in a big group or a larger party of people at a restaurant or bar, try to do your best to sit facing the exit as well. It can be more difficult, but most people are not aware of this safety tip, but it shows that you are being responsible in caring for the safety of the group by looking at what’s going on around you. While it is extremely unlikely that anything bad would happen in a restaurant or a bar or café, you are at a significant disadvantage to react to any situation if you are facing towards the wall or towards the kitchen. What would even be worse leads me to my third tip involving using the smartphone at these kinds of places instead of minding your surroundings or paying attention to the people with you or around you.

  1. Put the phone away in public as much as possible

Your smartphone can be a big hindrance to both your awareness in public of potential dangers and hazards as well as making you an easier target for theft or robbery. While it is usually safe to use your phone in most places, depending on the city or country, you may want to leave it at home or wait until you’re at a café, bank, or a restaurant to use it. To walk around with it and advertise its value is an increased risk which you may want to do without. While it can be helpful in mapping out your location and where you need to go next, it can highlight the fact that you are a tourist or are not aware of your surroundings even more.

On top of that, walking with your phone out is not a good idea because you will be completely unaware as to what is going on around you in terms of cars, buses, bikes, motorcycles, or potential street hazards. Having your phone out not only compromises your safety but your awareness as well. Try to memorize your immediate area so you will not be tempted to use your phone as much. Also, even when you are out at a restaurant, café, or bar, it is best to use your phone sparingly so as to not distract yourself from your surroundings or from your friends or family who are out with you. Your phone is a great tool, but it can take away from your public safety very easily if you use it too much or make it obvious as to how much street value it has.

My key point in writing this article is to make sure you don’t fall victim to some sort of accident or tragedy because you weren’t paying attention. You should always be striving to be aware of your surroundings and to make it a personal priority to maintain vigilance in public. Things can happen very quickly and it’s extremely important these days to stay ready in case something happens unlikely as that may be. Use these tips at your own discretion and if you would like to add your own public safety tips, please feel free to do so in the comments section.

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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.

The City of Eternal Spring

Medellin, a bustling metropolis of over three million people, has a popular and well-known nickname, “The City of Eternal Spring.” I can say for certain that this particular nickname is well warranted and appropriate given the moderate temperatures and humidity that make up the day and night here. Among the cities and towns I’ve visited in Colombia thus far, Medellin is special in that its’ climate is hospitable and agreeable.

Luckily, after a long day’s work at my new school, I can come back home without sweating through my shirt and dress pants. When it does rain here, it’s refreshing and cool. Sometimes, it can pour really hard but usually only for short periods of time and despite July and August being the prime months for the rainy season, it hasn’t been that frequent of an occurrence.

In addition to its’ great climate, there are other qualities that make Medellin a unique city. Its’ transportation is well organized and runs smoothly. The metro system here is one of the few in South America and is clean, affordable, and has frequent trains. I’ve been impressed at how easy it is to get around the city without breaking the bank. In addition to the metro, there are also the ‘Colectivo’ buses, the Metro Plus bus system, the Metro Cable car system, plentiful taxis, and Uber if you really need to get around in a hurry. Motorcycles, which I noticed to be quite popular on the Atlantic coast, are also another great way to get around especially if you’re not patient with the traffic here.

Caution is necessary, as ‘right of way’ does not exist for the pedestrian so you have to be an eye out for both cars, taxis, motorcycles, and large buses. Everything seems to run efficiently when it comes to getting people to and from their jobs whether they are in the north, south, or central part of the city. While I haven’t spent much time in Bogota or Cali, I would say that Medellin is the most interconnected city in Colombia when it comes to transportation.

Residents of Medellin and the Antioquia region in general are commonly known as ‘Paisas.’ This nickname is also spot on given the fact that these people are really born and raised here in the countryside. Compared with Costenos, Paisas are accustomed to the mountains and hills that surround their fair city. It’s been an adjustment for me given my past experience of living near the Atlantic coast of the country. It’s a unique opportunity to be able to see Colombia through a different lens.

While the food is similar to what you would find in other parts of Colombia, Paisa cuisine is unique in offering hearty dishes like ‘La Bandeja Paisa’ and ‘Cazuela Antioquia.’ Rather than seafood, Antioquia pride itself on its’ offerings of different kinds of meat served with potatoes, avocado, tomatoes, etc. Each region of Colombia including Antioquia are known for its’ cuisine offerings which may be unique to the particular region.

To put it bluntly, Medellin is a city which contrasts its’ natural surroundings of mountains and rivers with its’ skyscrapers, bridges, and freeways. In any view of the city, you get a mix of pure nature and urban settings. Tucked below the valley, the city rises with its’ buildings and elevated metro to contend with the nearby green mountains that surround the city. The most special sight to me occurs at night when the lights of the city flicker brightly across the valley and off the side of the mountains. Each white and orange light that shines in the valley at night signifies one of the homes, apartments, and buildings that house a few of the city’s overall three million residents.

I have only been in Medellin for two weeks so far but I can tell that this is a special place. In addition to the great climate, good public transportation, tasty local cuisine, and stunning views of nature, the city’s inhabitants are friendly and helpful. Sometimes, to me, it doesn’t feel like a big city but a cluster of small towns that make up an urban area. Part of the fun of living here is discovering new neighborhoods that each has something different to offer. There are cool museums and botanical gardens to see at the University of Antioquia, trendy restaurants and bars that make up most of the Laureles / Estadio neighborhood, and the heart of the nightlife scene in El Poblado. It’s also cool to check out the more suburban neighborhoods that are within a metro ride of Medellin such as Envigado and Sabaneta.

Even if one were to get bored with Medellin, there are a lot of things to do, and places to see in the Antioquia region. In addition, there’s also a number of day trips out there to explore the local nature scene and to experience more traditional villages. It would be unrealistic for me to say that you can get bored living in Medellin because it really is a vibrant cultural capital and I believe that a lot of tourists and residents from other Colombian cities now acknowledge that fact. Having had an unfortunate negative reputation in the international news media for many decades, Medellin is a city on the rise with a deep culture, cool neighborhoods, and hard-working, friendly people who want to show you the best of what their home city and region have to offer. I am very happy with my decision to have come back here to Colombia and to make my current residence here in ‘The City of Eternal Spring.’ Hopefully, as a reader of my blog and website, you’ll come down to visit Medellin sometime to find out just what all the hype is about.

CooTrans Oriente

Speeding down, swerving in and out of traffic along the ‘Ruta Caribe’ at 100-120 km/h is the well-known and distinctive mode of transportation known as the ‘CooTrans Oriente.’ These auto-buses are affordable, widely used by the locals, and timely by arriving and departing every 20 minutes from town to town on their way to and from Barranquilla.

Established over twenty-five years ago here in the Atlantico department, CooTrans Oriente has become a mainstay when it comes to transporting people, goods, and services along the coast. Because of my Spanish classes and/or due to my technical training sessions, I am often riding the CooTrans Oriente multiple times per week so I have been accustomed to the norms and rules of this transportation enterprise here on the Atlantic coast.

I have taken a lot of buses in my life so far and most have been boring and uniform in design, color, and the attitude of both drivers and passengers. However, the CooTrans Oriente is unlike any other bus I’ve ever taken before. First of all, it’s colorful with every color represented in the spectrum from white to black, red to green being shown in the exterior of the bus. Each driver is allowed to design the interior and you can often see shag carpeting used for the steering wheel or for the gear shifter.

The conductors of the buses will pay tribute to Jesus Christ, God, and the Virgin Mary with religious scripture and sayings from the Bible. In addition, often, the drivers will highlight their family members and pay tribute to them by putting their names on the front dashboards in colorful font and lettering. CooTrans Oriente is a small company but it is extremely unique in allowing the drivers to personalize the buses, especially the designs for the interiors and the back windows.

It is very difficult to imagine bus drivers in the U.S. or in Europe being allowed to design their own buses or being able to display religious symbols or sayings so openly. Each bus is similar in its CooTrans Oriente lettering and the exterior has the same colors in mostly being red and blue. However, it’s a different story when it comes to the side and back windows. I have seen various tributes to video games like ‘Gears of War’ to displays of fandom for the popular ‘Juniors’ football team of Barranquilla to intricately designed religious murals depicting ‘The Last Supper.’ It is a real joy to just watch the buses go by and try to see the different symbols, designs, and murals that each make them unique.

More than just the colors and designs of CooTrans Oriente is the culture of the bus itself. Passengers will help each other out and have also helped me out tremendously. When I’m standing up on the bus after a long day of meetings or classes and I’m carrying two bags of groceries from the grocery store, a fellow passenger will allow me to put one of my bags on their laps to ease my carrying load a bit. It’s an extremely thoughtful and kind gesture, which I have not seen replicated elsewhere in the world thus far.

Also, it is common and allowed for venders to come on the bus to sell different snacks and drinks for those passengers thirsty and/or hungry enough to want to partake in especially if there’s a lot of traffic. There is also a more personal touch on this bus as you have an ‘Ayudante’ or helper who is present to take your money for the bus fare instead of loading your money on a card or putting the money in a machine near the driver as I’m used to from riding the buses back home.

Traveling on the CooTrans Oriente is quite an experience in of itself. Drivers will often offer a rolling stop to you when passing by the bus stop, which means you’ll have to hoist yourself and climb up the stairs quickly to catch the bus before it departs without you. Certain drivers will not follow the speed limit on the highway and will usually drive very quickly at 20-30 km/h above the normal speed for autobuses. This can be a bit harrowing to deal with at first but by driving very fast, you do catch an amazing wind breeze sitting by the windows which helps alleviate the Caribbean heat. The ‘Ruta Caribe’ for part of its highway only has a one-way express/lane for either direction. There is also no barrier in the expressway present, which would separate the drivers who are going in the opposite directions along the route.

There has been many times where the bus drivers will end up driving in the lane heading in the opposite direction to avoid traffic or speed ahead of the cars/motorcars/taxis in front of them to reach their final destination quicker. I have to be honest in that this rash decision-making honestly terrified me at first but the bus drivers here are extremely experienced and knowledgeable. They will only drive onto the lane heading the opposite direction if they don’t see any cars/trucks coming head on. I am not sure about the safety record of CooTrans Oriente but I do know that the seats are very comfortable and are made of some sort of leather material. So far, I haven’t witnessed or been involved with any accidents while riding the buses so I must say that the drivers here are quite good and that they know what they are doing.

Also, without any doubt, there will always be Colombian music played through the speakers for the passengers to enjoy during their travels. Sometimes, it’s Vallenato, and other times it’s Champeta, Cumbia, etc. There was one time recently where they had a music video playing with an actual TV at the front of the bus, which was pretty cool to see. The music video had scantily clad women dancing next to the main hip hop guy as he rapped in Spanish about their physical characteristics that he enjoys the most. None of the parents with children on the bus seemed to mind the video though.

Overall, I have enjoyed riding ‘CooTrans Oriente’ so far during my time here in Colombia and will continue to do so. The buses will take you to any part of Atlantico department from what I have noticed and it’s an affordable, cost-effective way to get around from town to town. The passengers, especially those sitting down, are very courteous and will help you out with your bags and even give up your seat for you. For female passengers, especially, the ‘Ayudante’ will lend his hand to help you ladies off of the bus and able-bodied men including myself will give up our seat for you whenever necessary as well.

In many ways, ‘CooTrans Oriente’ reflects the Caribbean Colombian culture. A deep love of their music, being colorful and animated, very open with kindness and warmth even to strangers, and having a wild side as well that comes out every now and then. There’s also the distinct feeling that like the people, the CooTrans Oriente doesn’t take itself too seriously, and knows how to have a good time even when driving down the highway at 120 km/h.