My current studies abroad in Japan have given me the opportunity to learn a wide variety of things about myself and the world around me. For instance, I’ve discovered that I have a taste for adventure. That is to say, I yearn to have adventures, but I spend the entire adventure in question wanting to wrap myself up in the nearest carpet and magically fly home in my sleep like a bean-and-cheese burrito launched from a fire hose. What’s more, I’ve learned that Vassar’s grant programs provide excellent opportunities for students who go abroad. Kicking around an unfamiliar city is a lot more fun when somebody else is footing the bill!
But among the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in the Land of the Rising Sun is one that I could have also learned in New York City, only at much greater risk of being turned into subway pizza: namely, how to ace a morning commute. Reader, have you ever gotten on a bus or a train, looked around at all the gray-faced business people around you and thought, “How do they do it?” Well, after an entire two months of commuting, I now know everything there is to know about the morning schlep, and I can transmit it to you for the low, low price of $0—although this does rise to $3 during peak hours.
First of all: Get yourself a card! Don’t be one of those tourists holding everything up as they fumble for change. We live in the 21st century, and while we may not have flying cars, every transport system everywhere on Earth now accepts payments via little magical tap cards. How do you use these, you may ask? You simply go into a transit station, squint at a filthy, graffiti-defaced machine operating in a foreign language (New York MTA English counts as a foreign language for these purposes) and finally pay a nominal fee for a little card that you will lose almost immediately. You can often charge these up with a lot of money, so make sure to put your college savings on them, especially if you are traveling in a dangerous part of the world such as Canada. The thrill of seeing the big balance number come up on the ticket gate screen when you tap is more than worth the risk!
Secondly: Know your etiquette! The way that savvy commuters separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is by watching who can successfully manage the complex game of travel manners. For example, in Japan, the correct way to ride the subway is in dead, intimidating silence. In New York City, on the other hand, you practically have to talk loudly so that you can be heard over the man carrying a boombox playing “MTV’s Worst of the ʼ90s.” Just watch what others around you are doing and follow their lead—but don’t watch too closely, or else you might end up learning the hard way that the local culture punishes those who stare by slapping them repeatedly with dead fish. This practice also explains the smell common to many public transport systems.
Thirdly: Get up close and personal! One thing all commutes have in common is the central paradox of morning travel: namely, no one wants to be there, and yet everyone is. Often, as a joke, transit companies will place “maximum occupancy” stickers in strategic, highly-visible locations around their vehicles. This is so the passengers, most of whom are currently becoming intimately acquainted with a stranger’s inexplicably-pungent body odor, can laugh merrily at the irony of it all. As a bonus, sometimes the train or bus will become so crowded that those in the center of the space can’t reach any handholds, sending them tumbling comically around after every stop like toddlers in a Zorb. You can rest assured that the transit planners are watching all this through hidden cameras and laughing; after all, as low-paid public servants, they have to find some way to extract value from their work.
So there you have it! That’s commuting for you in a nutshell—although often your subway car will feel much, much smaller than a nutshell. If you follow these tips, I personally guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong with any public transit trip you take for your entire life. Note that I can’t be held legally responsible for that statement—lawyers would have trouble reaching me to serve me with papers, considering that I am now firmly sandwiched between four large, sweaty businesspeople.