Four years ago, I was in Singapore—arguably one of the safest countries in the world—when I found myself in the back of a stranger’s gray minivan heading back to what would (hopefully) be my hotel. After my friend and I left a bar and couldn’t find taxis, she had used her Mandarin to flag down the vehicle of a family driving back from an IT convention and convinced them to give us a ride home. We ended up getting dropped off at a chicken and rice restaurant because, well, priorities.
I vowed never to hitchhike again, until two years later, when I found myself in Buenos Aires on the back of a strange Argentine’s motorcycle, post New Year’s, heading to breakfast at 7 am because, again, priorities.
As I’ve gotten older and have traveled more, I understand that strangers’ vehicles do not really qualify as public transportation. Therefore, to safely explore a city, I have since opted to take the local tube, metro, or subway. Though it can be overwhelming, taking public transportation can give you the best insights into the nature and vibe of a town. Plus, it teaches you how weird people everywhere really are. While the train lines and the bus numbers change, there are some universal rules that I always follow when hopping aboard anything that moves faster than 2 miles per hour.
Always plan a second route.
When I was visiting London for a few days, I became a short-lived master of the specific routes of the Tube. However, one evening when I was rushing to get back to my hotel, the dreaded announcement of a technical difficulty came over the loudspeakers (I swear British English is its own language). The train was going to be parked at this random station indefinitely. Since I was in a rush, I jumped out at the station and came above ground. Realizing I only had a vague idea of where I was, I started walking down the street to find another Tube line and even attempted to navigate the bus system, both ending in utter failures. Annoyed, I tried to hail a cab but they were all taken. Just to add icing on my pathetic cake, it began to downpour because London sits under an everlasting cumulonimbus cloud. So, basically, I relived a horrible scene from an equally horrible Jennifer Aniston movie and walked five blocks in the rain to just turn around and go back on the original broken-down rail.
Side note: I later found out there was a direct bus to the street of my hotel right near the train stop.
During peak hours, work your way to the door well before your stop.
In Mumbai, India, the trains are packed sardine cans with bold and desperate commuters clinging onto the outsides while racing to their potential doom (or home, depending on what comes first or what you actually want). My good friend was one of the those unlucky souls packed so tightly in the middle of the car that he was unable to maneuver his way to the front in time for his stop; he watched the door close from within the train and he hurdled on to the next stop. This happened two or three more times on the same journey, with each stop bringing him significantly further away from his home. By the time he was able to battle his way off the train, he had traveled over 35 minutes away from his intended stop, forcing him to cross the platform and jump right back on the train and backtrack his route. This resulted in an extra hour-and-a-half commute back to his destination and a few veins bursting in his forehead.
Always have ample money on your bus pass or subway card; never let the amount run low.
If you are vacationing in a foreign city, look into investing in a day pass or something long-term instead of just a single ride. This way, you will save money in the long run if you plan on taking the trains a lot, and you won’t have to worry about the zones or specific costs of each stop. In addition, if you miss your stop, you won’t feel particularly wounded that you have to buy another ticket again. Save your dignity-reducing actions for later in the evening.
Do NOT make eye contact.
As a human, I understand the urge to people watch and casually observe, but when on public transport, staring at someone in a close proximity is extremely uncomfortable and can warrant some unnecessary responses. I generally get really into staring at the same smudged spot on the door or begin a highly detailed analysis of my nail cuticles.
My dear friend made the mistake of looking at a disheveled man sitting across from her on a New York subway, catching his gaze for a second too long. I’m not sure in which animal world a lingering gaze is a cue for self-pleasure, but the man was inspired to stand up, move closer to her, and stare at her while shoving his hands under his trench coat (they are always in trench coats!) and fondling his unmentionables. Utterly horrified, my friend sat paralyzed ‘til the next stop, where she immediately switched train cars. I’m not saying every time you look someone in the eye they masturbate, but I’m not NOT saying that either.
Exercise caution when taking out all your Apple products.
Fine, maybe Android for you heathens, but either way, I wouldn’t recommend carelessly waving your iPod, tablet, or smartphone around. The more you take public transit, the easier it is to let your guard down, but try to make it a point to really be aware of your surroundings. This sounds simple, but as an ardent breaker of this rule, I’m speaking on experience. When my friends and I were in Chicago taking the L back home around 9:30 pm, my friend was telling us a story, holding her brand new iPhone in her hand. Just as we were approaching a stop, a boy no older than 14 walked by us and immediately tried to snatch the phone from her hand and run out the door. Luckily, my friend had an iron grip on the phone and glass-shattering screams, and the boy ran off sans phone and sans hearing. Naturally, everyone else in the car pretended to be dead and didn’t bother to even blink at her screams.
So, whether you are a daily commuter in Boston or a novice navigating the trains of Bangkok, I suggest you follow these simple rules of public transit to ensure a stress-free ride.
Or you could take a ride on a South American’s Vespa for breakfast. I promise you, you won’t regret that, either.
Photo by Sara Slattery