03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking on No Impact Week From Abroad: Lima's Transportation System Sucks

So here we are in the middle of No Impact Week, and so far my family has found the experience to be something of a mixed bag.

Before the challenge began, I wrote about how I thought that I'd just become lazy toward doing the right thing for the environment while living in Peru. I also wrote that perhaps living in Peru would make the challenge easier than living in the United States.

I think I was mostly wrong about both of those things.

Consumption and Trash

To my surprise, we actually produce very little unnecessary trash here. Most of it is food or diapers. We had been using paper towels though (we had become lazy), and switched back to a reusable sponge cloth. Our decision to use disposable diapers was based on the logistics of moving about five times in my daughter's first year of life, and also their convenience. I acknowledge this is something I'd like to change if we choose to have another child, as we are without doubt contributing to what Huffington Post writer Robin Madel describes as the future geologic time frame known as the "Pampers Layer."

Aside from the diapers and food scraps though, I feel pretty good about the low level of trash we produce.

As something of an aside, I had a hard time distinguishing between the purposes of Day 1 and Day 2 in the No Impact Experiment. Anyone else think the same thing? Maybe this can be refined a little bit next time around.

Likewise, I think that the surveys we are asked to take could be a little bit better designed. While I think they will yield some interesting data, some of the questions did not match well with the available responses.


So far transportation has created the most trouble for our family. For the past few days, my wife Alicia has traveled home from her job on buses. Usually she rides home in a taxi. In the U.S., this change in commute might not be as big of a deal. But for Alicia it has caused considerable discomfort for several reasons:

1. It takes 30 extra minutes. Our daughter Coral usually goes to bed about an hour after Alicia gets home. The little time she could spend with Coral has been reduced by nearly half. This change is frustrating for Alicia, and also Coral who on one day started to throw a fit and complain that her mom had not come home yet.

2. It is less safe. Lima's transportation system basically has three elements: taxi cabs, private buses, and private cars. Most people in Lima can only afford to take the private buses known as combis.

Since combis are basically private businesses, it is in their interest to move down the streets as quickly as possible. They race with other combis in hopes of being the first to arrive where a group of people is standing. In short, they want to pick up the bulk of the passengers.

Each combi has a driver and a person who stands in the door. The person standing in the door rushes people in and out of the combi, and knocks on the side of the combi when everyone is inside the bus, regardless of whether or not they are safely standing or seated. He or she then walks through the bus (if there's time), collecting the fare and distributing small insurance tickets. These little slips of paper are important if the combi crashes.

There are even individuals who work as informal statisticians, tracking in real-time how many combis have recently passed by certain stops. They sell their information to combis in quick 10 second transactions. I've started to wonder if these people could be employed to improve Lima's transportation system, but I've yet to figure out how.

As a passenger, once you are on the combi, you must be vigilant with your belongings. Obviously, the nicer dressed you are the more of a target you might become for thieves.

So this is the context for why Lima's buses are less safe. Alicia needs to dress nicely for work, and feels like she is more of a target in this context, and I agree. While it certainly doesn't happen all the time, on Monday when my wife traveled home she said that the combi nearly crashed, throwing everyone against the wall of the bus.

Doesn't sound fun, right? Oddly enough, the combis have inspired a hugely popular game in Peru that is available on Facebook. It is called "Crazy Combi." I myself have not played yet, but have Facebook friends who regularly play.

3. Lima has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The World Health Organization claims that Lima has an average level of air pollution nine times higher than what is considered to be acceptable for healthy living. Lima has even recently required traffic officers to wear gas masks. Used cars are thought to be responsible for 86% of the air pollution in Lima and the average car is about 18 years old.

When you are on a combi, you are more or less forced to suck in the fumes as you travel. This is needless to say given the context, a big health hazard.

While Alicia probably won't commute home via combi regularly after this week, I had a little more success walking to pick up Coral from her preschool. Yesterday one of her classmates had a birthday party though, and so she returned home with a ball that was a party gift. She already has two other balls, so this one is unnecessary. Granted, at least it's a gift that encourages kids to be outside. We also had fun playing with it in a park on the way home.


Despite the fun at the park, we also needed to walk along streets with heavy traffic that could not be avoided. So we are also sucking up a few more fumes than we do driving in our car and had to cross a few dangerous roads. Granted, I am willing to make this trip sometimes, but everyday seems like an unnecessary health and safety risk.

In other words, it seems that Lima's transportation system is so bad that it leaves us with few viable options to change our own commuting behavior, protect our health and take care of the environment. This is disappointing, but it underscores how big of an impact transportation has on our world.


I don't have much to write about food, other than that we did our best to buy our week's worth of groceries with as little packaging as possible and not buy any meat, fish, or chicken. I found a good recipe for black bean burgers that I wholeheartedly recommend. If anything, the need to find new meals to eat has been a benefit of the No Impact Challenge.

So that's how our No Impact Week is going. How about yours? What's been going well and what's been going badly? Anyone else have any tales from living abroad that have influenced your experience?