public transport

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Communication Break-Down

I've lost my mobile phone. Again.

I had it for four years, after loosing the previous one somewhere in the Congolese jungle. This time, I lost it on a Belgian train, or possibly on the bus. Doesn't matter, there's more chance of me finding back the old one in the rainforests of the Congo after four years.

So if I don't call you, or answer your call, this time I've got a good excuse.

2009 Sucks

It's freezing cold, temperatures here are dropping as low as minus ten (°C). It snowed during the weekend, and the streets are covered in grey slush while the sidewalks have more in common with ice rinks. I have to risk life and limb every morning to get to the bus stop, where I wait until my nose drops off and icicles hang off my ears for a bus that is always late. On Monday, I had to play Super-bus-passenger and come to the rescue because all the traffic in the main road to the train station got blocked.

Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz

The umpteenth train strike today, making me loose time going to work and - more importantly - coming back. With a number of trains not running at all, we were stuffed like spam in a can in our coupe. Although I did manage to find a seat just in time, lucky sardine that I am. So nice to have people sitting on your shoulder, falling on your lap (not nice young ladies either, only big old hippos with moustaches) and pushing their handbags in your ear.

My bus was still there, but the doors were already closed and it was waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. If you have a nice bus driver, he'll let you in. I had the biggest prick since the invention of the bus ticket, so I had to run accross the street to the next stop (there's only 300 meters between the two stops nearest to the station, don't ask me why).

And for all this 'service' they even had the nerve to increase their prices!

The Science Of Taking A Bus

Taking a bus is not that easy. In fact, the bus companies (we got one for every region of the country : a Flemish one, a Wallonian one and one in Brussels) should distribute manuals. Yesterday an elderly couple was accompanying their grand-daughter on the bus – or maybe just harassing an innocent teenage girl. When they see that their stop is coming up, they start to say their goodbyes, kissing and hugging and giving farewell speeches and all. Then they tried to exit through the entrance, which was not possible because of all the people entering the bus. By the time they had found the exit and shuffled to it, the doors closed again. The next stop was a couple of blocks away. Not so much a problem for a young lad in the prime of his years such as me, but a long walk for those venerable old legs.

A bit further we enter a street and approach a bus stop full with people. They stare at the bus like a bunch of sheep that wouldn’t stop grazing their meadow even if a nuclear missile slammed into the ground right next to them. They didn’t signal the bus driver to stop, so the bus driver didn’t stop. They looked very surprised because the bus didn’t stop. Luckily, bus drivers have a sixth sense for these involuntary lobotomy victims, so he stopped a bit further and allowed the sheep to get on the bus.

I’m telling you all this to camouflage a bit what I did this morning. I was so busy contemplating the origins, direction and meaning of the universe, the existence of a supreme being (other than me) and whether women would really leave messages and phone numbers in men’s rooms – in other words my brain was still pre-heating that morning – that I completely missed my bus stop. My regular bus stop is very easy to recognise, what with that giant train station right in front of you and all the busses stopping there. So our bus stopped, people got on and off, we left again, passed the train station and only THEN did I realise that something was wrong.

Nothing so bad as getting off at a stop where no-one ever gets off and walk back to the train station.

Taxi!

If you want to get around in Niamey, you take a taxi. They're cheap and usually in reasonable working order thanks to a regular control by the authorities, but taking a taxi here is a bit different from other places.

They don't necessarily take you where you want to go. When you stop one, the driver will ask where you want to go. If you're the first costumer, he will take you there but on the way he will pick up other people. If there's already someone in the taxi, it depends if they are going in the same general direction. So a taxi ride is never direct from one point to the other, but eventually you will get there. But the price for a ride is cheap because of this taxi sharing tradition. Although it can get quite cramped with five or six people in one cab.

Mission Impossible

Something had happened on the Brussels subway system yesterday morning. I don’t know what but there weren’t any trains for about fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes during morning rush hour is a long time, so when I arrived on the platform it was stacked with people. While I was waiting other people arrived and they had to cue on the stairs and beyond. When the first train finally did arrive, people couldn’t get off the train because there was no more room left on the platform. I had to wait for the third train before I could finally climb on, together with a bunch of bloody tourists who went to visit the European Parliament. They were totally oblivious to the fact that it was rush hour and that people wanted to get off at the next stops. So a couple of commuters couldn’t get out in time and had to wait until the bloody tourists left the train three stops further.

In the evening, the subway was working fine. I left an hour later from work after finishing a subroutine of the database I’m making (I must tell you about that one time, it is sooooo interesting). But my 18.25 train to Antwerp was late, announced with a probable delay of five minutes. Ten minutes later, and still no train in sight. Another one came, the local train that also stops in Antwerp, after halting every three minutes and five kilometres, whenever the train driver spots a group of people and/or bovines. So since my train could arrive any minute, I decided to let that one go without me.

Of course, my train never came. But no problem, another train to Antwerp was about to arrive. Except that the announcer announced the announcement that the train had a probable delay of ten minutes. Note how they always use the word ‘probable’, which more often than not means ‘probably not’ or ‘much more than’. By the time this train had arrived, I almost wasn’t capable to board it, since my body was half frozen.

So it was with an exact (not probable) delay of an hour that I arrived in Antwerp Central Station. Naturally, I had forgotten my mobile phone that day, so no way to inform my loved one about my troubles and whereabouts.

I descended towards the subway station underneath Central Station, where I discovered that all trams (Antwerp’s subway system is a bit more modest than Brussels’, it’s more of an underground tram than a real subway) were blocked. A defect tramcar blocked the tunnels, so we had to wait until it was removed. After then minutes, we saw it pass by, pulled along by a maintenance tram. When my tram finally did arrive, one of its doors stopped just in front of me. It didn’t open and only then did I notice the sticker saying that these doors were out of order.

I was too tired to get into a superhuman rage, tearing the tram apart and bashing my fists trough the subway station’s walls until it collapsed and the whole Central Station above it. A moment later, I was all happy again, thanks to the guy standing next to me who smelled so much of alcohol that I got drunk on the spot.

So all’s well that ends well.

Accordeon Attack

When the train entered the subway station, it was the usual hassle at the doors to get in. When they opened, I heard the distinct sound of a drunken git playing the accordeon in an attempt to rob some fellow travellers of their change. He turned around, with the big instrument hanging over his belly, and looked me directly in the face with a big grin.

Bloody hell’, I muttered.

I ran for another door and just managed to get into the next car before they closed. I had a relatively quiet ride, only disturbed from time to time by the blood chilling cries of the people in the next car being submitted to the dreaded ‘accordeon-in-a-tunnel’ death ride. When I finally arrived at my destination, I saw the accordeon guy leaving the other car… alone, with a deadly grin upon his face. The silence in the railcar was eerie. I tucked my scarf into my coat and hastily left the station, without turning around.

They’re Out To Get Me, Not Getting Me Out There

Two weeks ago, there was a national strike. Most of Belgium came to a standstill, largely because virtually no public transport worked that day. Much, if not all of this chaos passed me by, because as you may recall I was ill at the time. So I was quite happy to be lying in my bed while my fellow commuters desperately tried to get to work.

But THEY noticed.

THEY know.

THEY won’t let anybody escape…

Time and trains are relative

Since I bought it a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been devouring Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. I discovered Card’s work through one of the sequels to Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow. As usual, the first book in the series was nowhere to be found in the whole kingdom of Belgium. That is, until I found it recently in an English bookshop in Brussels.

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