Weaving my way through the crowded Florida Street Mall, it was hard to think of anything other than getting back to my room. The last few days had seen me flat on my back from a nasty flu and even though I thought my strength had returned, this outing had proved otherwise. Any remaining strength was waning quickly as I struggled through the heart of Buenos Aires in the middle of peak hour. This was the last place I really wanted to be right now.
Reaching the entrance to the subway I allowed my feet to slide lazily down the steps while holding onto the side rail and concentrating on staying upright. Passing through the turnstiles it becomes clear that coming here was probably a bad idea. People lined against the edge of the platform from one end to the other. The masses waiting for a train stood in silence, forming a wall over five bodies deep, and a nervousness filled the air while the people waited impatiently for the train to arrive.
But the train was not arriving. Instead of frequent trains passing by every couple of minutes, the trains were taking more than seven minutes each to arrive. This too long for the number of people arriving, and the station was continuing to fill with people. Only one station from the end of the line the train should not have been as full as it was when it arrived. Every carriage was jammed full of bodies. People had filled the train completely with standing room squashed from shoulder to shoulder and belly to belly.
None-the-less, when the doors opened, the crowds on the platform pushed and squeezed their way toward them, and in what seemed like Moses’ parting of the sea, they actually made progress. Somehow, as they pushed and forced their way in, a space opened up from nowhere to absorb another ten to fifteen bodies. This was not without frustration, even with moments boiling over into anger, yet those pushing forward did not lose their place, fighting with one arm while continuing to push with the other.
Stunned by the sight, I remained at a distance while watching it all happen. It did not seem right. Surely the next train would have less people, would come earlier, would place limits on how many could enter. I steadied my weak body against a nearby pole, realising that waiting too long was not going to be an option soon.
The next train came after a long delay and it too was similarly filled with people. Having observed before how people had been able to enter, I decided to risk it. So placing my body at the doorway, I simply let the crowds on the platform do the pushing. It worked, and very quickly I was onboard. Somehow though, I ended up nearly on the other side of the train.
It was a very tight squeeze inside when we pulled to a stop at the next station. To the chagrin of everybody aboard, the doors opened. I could not see how many people were waiting to get on the train, but there was a sudden surge of people pushing and pushing. Somehow more people managed to get onboard, pressing our bodies against others to the point that it was now very uncomfortable.
As it was, it was both tight and uncomfortable. The very idea that any others may consider it possible to enter was very unreasonable. Yet that is exactly what happened. In something that must have looked like a football training push, at the next stop an aggressive group at the next station pushed and heaved and squeezed and strained until they managed to squeeze us all enough to get themselves inside. As the train parted from the station, they were still trying to get their body parts out of the way of the door for it to close.
What was uncomfortable before was now exceedingly so. My body was now being squeezed by other bodies so hard that it made breathing difficult. I guess if you take a crowd of people and force the air out of their lungs there must be enough room to get a couple of more people in. Parts of me hurt as the train moved and swayed from one side to another. When we came to the sharp curve on the track the carriage shook sideways fiercely as it always did, but instead of people stumbling and falling, we all just swayed like lilies in a gentle breeze, moving almost as one.
At the next station more people tried to force their way in. They did not succeed, as it truly was impossible now. Even with their combined strength increasing my agony from the power of their pushing, it allowed no more space. This did not stop them continuing to try to force their way in. Finally, a disgruntled woman screamed out, “Stop! Can’t you see that there is no more room?”
From this station onward we all rode in silence. The doors opened at each of the following stations, and people still tried to get in, but nobody succeeded.
Finally, as we continued the journey, people started wanting to get off. Those who did manage it were all close to the door. My station was coming quickly and as I surveyed my position from the opposite side of the train it looked almost impossible. Would I be able to get off even though I could hardly move? When we reached the station just before mine, I decide to try.
In a crowded train the normal procedure is to announce your intention to get off at the next station. This tells people to make room for you to move toward the doors. So after announcing my intention to get off at the next station the people moved to make way for me. Well, they moved something anyway. Some moved a leg, others their shoulder, while others sucked their bellies in to try and give me some space to move through. With some wiggling and pushing it was possible to make it almost to the middle of the carriage. It had been tough though.
Once again, now with the station approaching fast, I cried out that I wanted to get off at this station. A man a little more than arms reach from me also wanted to get off. We both began pushing and wiggling. It was not working very well. The people around me could not move and indicated this with their eyes and facial gestures. We were all so pressed together. I began to wonder at which station I would eventually be able to get off. Yet as the lights of the platform flashed past the windows and the train slowed to a stop, I decided to give it one more attempt.
Although the people around me could not move and we were squeezed so tight together it was hard to breathe, I once again cried out that I was getting off and pushed forward. Hard. Somewhere, somehow, there were tiny gaps that opened up for me. Somebody moved their shoulder, another their leg. I threw myself forward and wiggled and squirmed much like a child trying to get out of their parent’s arms. It helped that I was taller than many others, as bit by bit I was starting to move forward.
I was still only about half-way to the door by the time the train had stopped. The doors do not stay open too long so my time was quickly running out. Starting to feel a little frantic, I pushed somewhat harder, all the time trying not to hurt or offend the people against whom I was pushing. It got harder the closer I got to the door. Suddenly somebody stepped out of the train and the people parted. It was unexpected and I almost fell face first onto the platform, catching myself at the last moment. As I looked up the other man trying to get off was also half-falling out of the door too. We looked at each other for a moment with a knowing look. It was one of those looks shared only between people who have endured the same hardships. Both of us were glad to have finally left the crushing ride.
At last I had found air and space. The crowded platform seemed incredibly open and comfortable now. It was easy to move through the people to the exit. Behind me the doors started to close and the train began to pull out of the station. A man unwilling to wait ran alongside one of the open doors with one foot inside. With an extra push he hung from the outside and tried to force his way in. The train accelerated away from the station. I presume he made it.
For me, my ride was over. Behind me many others were waiting for their turn, squashed in like sardines in a can. This was not an experience that I would forget easily, but neither was it one that I would be likely to repeat. Riding the train at high tide is not a great place to be.