Ode to the Combi
There are so many ways …
Skateboarding. Uber Black XL. Netjets. Tesla Roadster. Hummer H2. Skipping. The balloons from Up. Heelys. The slingshot from Jackass 3. Back seat of a police car.
… to get from here to there …
Snoopy one, the Goodyear blimp. Toyota Prius. BASE jumping. Hard work.
… that we don’t often consider all of the full array of our options.
Riding shotgun in an ice cream truck. Banana boat. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Double backflips.
I know this list seems complete, but it’s not. We didn’t even mention speed skating!
All of these ways to travel can be found without leaving the USA. But what kind of transformative transportation can be found by venturing outside of Philly?
What about leaving the US, entirely?
Before I answer this question, I want you to guess what the most common mode of transportation is in Mexico (no Googling!). Five seconds… No, it’s not parkour, even though I’m still mobilizing the courage to ask the two bandana dudes at my school if I can hang with them and try a gainer off the stairs. Stay tuned. Ok, time.
The answer is cars.
Now forget that the answer is cars, because I do not have a car here, and if I tried to drive myself I would implode, as I noted in a previous post. Regardless, the transformative mode of transportation that I am graced with in Naucalpan, Mexico is the Combi (pronounced comb-bee).
The Combi, my most common mode of transport here, holds a special place in my heart. Its outward appearance hides the magic that lies inside. Twice daily, I wave my hands and hop into this apparent rapist van to move around Naucalpan.
This is something I would love to explain without context to ten-year-old me.
Me: Hey dude, it’s me, well you. Haha this is crazy! *goes for high five but 10 year-old me cowers in fear* Anyway, when you are 23 you’ll live alone in Mexico and instead of cars, you’ll take these fun white vans everywhere!
10 y.o. me: Why will I be living… wait, will cars still exist?
Me: Sh*t, I gotta go, this was a real waste of the time machine. Try to short the housing market soon. K bye!
Combis run on gas. As a neophyte electric car enthusiast, this saddens me, but if any car deserves to run on gas, it is this magical machine. The word Combi is derived from “Kombi,” which of course is a subtype of the Volkswagen Transporter Type 2. According to Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, the VW Transporter is the best-selling van ever, with over 12 million units sold.
Enough history. At some point between 1949 and today, these vans showed up here in Mexico and became the microbus of choice. Check out this cool link if you want to see the best part of its arrival.
Inside the NBA Combi
Here is a photo that I took on Tuesday of the interior of a Combi. Please withhold judgment, blockhead disease is a serious problem in Naucalpan—not unlike the Gusher-head epidemic that plagued us in the early 2000s.
More on the layout at the end, but I would be remiss in not providing a description of the full experience. Hopefully you’ll feel like you’ve taken the magical ride by the end.
Unless we Combi patrons are packed in like sardines, ample leg room exists, so my rides to school, home, and the park are all pleasurable—except for the ever-present terror of being on the roads here, of course. Taking the 45-minute ride to the subway for city access is slightly more… physical.
The driver—ideally blasting gangsta rap—wisely avoids main roads to evade an extra hour of traffic. After two trips, I discovered the reason that the Combis have these roads to themselves: cars cannot handle the beating.
Like Kobe Bryant baptizing Dwight Howard and teaching him that the NBA is not high school, regular cars quickly learn that the back roads are reserved for the big boys. On some streets, it is regular bumpy. This, of course, is a conscious decision on behalf of the government to not pave roads that is exclusively used by us, the plebes.
On medium-bumpy streets, I’ll occasionally be dislodged into the air as a projectile if I’m not paying attention, but again, nothing major.
On the bumpiest of streets, the story is different. The word “pothole” comes up short in its ability to describe these situations. A proper term would be “the crater left by one of the many isolated meteorites that has befallen Avenida Benito Juárez” or “another well-placed IED by local residents to blow up the road and prevent speeding.”
The 45-minute ride, though it makes me nauseous, is actually somewhat cathartic. Last week, some other Americans allowed me to film them during a trip to the subway.
Combis offer more than an intense, physical experience. Much like skipping and BASE jumping, there is a spiritual component, which is primarily manifested in the greeting ritual.
In Mexico, verbally greeting strangers is more prevalent that it is in the USA. People say “buenos días,” “buenas tardes,” or “buenas noches” depending on the time of day (I’m aware this fact is beneath some of you). This social custom is observed by many upon entering the Combi; after a few weeks, I had picked up on this and happily joined in.
Since I’m not a normal person, I couldn’t join in and participate like a normal person would. Partly because I purposefully make situations uncomfortable due to a compulsive streak and partly because these things give me something to do, I decided early on that I would always be the last person to verbally express the greeting.
Usually, this involves me greeting, then responding to each greeting with another greeting. But, on one glorious day, I got into a one-on-one exchange with a fellow neurotic. Neither of us backed down until the 5th “buenas tardes,” and the rest of the Combi was thoroughly rattled. From that day forward, my rides have belonged to the spiritual realm.
In a confined space where all passengers try to communicate their stops with the driver, social interactions are inevitable. Whenever interactions occur, there are great perils. This is doubly true for me, for I play a daily game to see how long I can avoid blowing my cover of being a gringo. I hop in the van, pay tribute to the passengers (see: “spiritual”), and pay not tribute, but pesos to the driver.
At some point during the greeting, passing my pesos, or shouting “EL PUENTE, POR FAVOR” to the driver, my plot to blend in as a “light-skinned Mexican” is always uncovered; the speaking really blows it, as does the Odd Future t-shirt.
Despite all of my signals that scream “white dude from the US,” I always feel strangely accomplished when elderly men lean over and ask me if I’m German; for no reason whatsoever, no other subset of the population has ever asked me this.
I’ll finish with my two favorite Combi incidents.
Who’s the Rat??
A great thing about Combis is that the passengers represent a cross-section of society. I see men and women in sharp business suits, my stupid reflection in the window, smiling children, and my personal favorite, fights about who is the rat.
Seeing multiple police trucks (yes, huge trucks that are laden with snipers in the truck bed) is nothing new, so as I sprinted to catch the Combi, the flashing lights did not grab my attention. When the cop ordered all men on board to step off for a bag check, however, he had my attention.
Fortunately, only carrying a lunch box and Ben Franklin biography kept me from getting detained, but a lady in our van was unhappy with the free pass when we boarded again.
Woman: There is a rat in this van!
Man with sketchy bag: THERE IS NO RAT HERE!
Woman: I know that one of you is the rat!
Man with sketchy bag: NO! The rat is in the van behind us, and you know it. Dammit! Do not call me a rat.
*Longest three minutes of silence in my life, then someone gets in the van*
Me: BUENAS NOCHES!
I promised you, my former future devoted reader, that I would return to the Combi interior at the end of my post, and here we are. This is an amateur sketch I made of the seating arrangement as seen from above.
It comfortably seats 10 passengers, as you can see above.
But, it can uncomfortably seat 14.
When I’m convinced that I’m being Punk’d by Ashton Kutcher, it seats 18.
All of these seats fit normal sized people, except for the high chair—yes, the red “X” between the driver and the front passenger that is designed for toddlers and causes people over 5’6 to rest their head on the windshield.
Dressed in football pants and cleats and with a backpack strapped on, I was told to squeeze in to the high chair if I wanted a ride—as an integral member of the scout team, I saw no choice. Much like the pothole home video from earlier, I was very lucky that somebody was close enough to snap a picture before I got out.
Please excuse the attire. We do not celebrate Thanksgiving here, so the festivities start early.