There is no sound more quintessential to the Prague experience than the jingling bell of a tram. It’s cranked just before the vehicle rolls into a station; a warning to the crowd lingering on the street-level platform to avoid, at just this moment, stepping onto the tracks and being smashed by the electric wonder of public transportation.
As I write, I can hear the frequent electric whoosh of the 1 tram around the corner. It’s heading between obscure corners of the city that tourists never visit. While the tram is in itself a unique experience for the traveler, it is also as much a workhorse of the city’s transportation infrastructure as the streets, buses, and metro. It’s more a part of my life in and love for Prague than any of these others and every time I ride it, I’m terrified.
My love of the trams began the day I got my route map. Before they were an alien transport maze that I avoided for the certainty of foot travel. However, the map showed me that the 14 tram, via an oddly roundabout route, took me directly between two of my friends flats in half the time of walking. I spent many of those first tram rides leaning against the back window, pouring over the routes as I passed them. With an hour to kill I’d often grab the 22 tram to sight-see as it snaked up a winding hill near Prague castle at dusk or the 3 which was headed down along the river past the hills of Vyšehrad to where the old city thins out into modern suburbs. I once took the 14 tram far past it’s familiar stops on a cool autumn evening. I stepped off the train onto a deserted street where the smell of leaves clung in the air. On one side of the street a few houses sat in the dark while on the other side undeveloped fields sprawled unlit hundreds of yards up a hill: still within fifteen minutes of the city center.
A tram is like the mule of the transportion world: the offspring of a bus and train (and I think they’re also infertile). They run on electricity fed from lines hung over the tracks, occasionally in complicated spiderwebs that remind me of photos I’ve seen of olde New York City, before the electric lines were buried. Yet somehow, as often happens in this city, the juxtoposition of new and old adds to it’s beauty. The intricate lattice of these lines cut up the sky into a cubist painting while giant, steel centipedes glide past baroque architecture.
One of the more unique features of the Prague transit system in general and the trams specifically, is the ticketing system. The basic tickets can be purchased from machines or tabacconists randomly scattered about the city. Instead of allowing you one trip, from point A to B, they allow you X amount of travel time (20 or 60 minutes, depending). Upon entry to the tram, bus or the metro platform you have to stamp this little ticket with a time stamp though there is no turnstile. It’s basically on the honor system. Should your time expire while en route, technically one should stamp another ticket or, lacking one, dismount from the train; locate and purchase another ticket; then stamp and resume travel.
Other ticketing options allow for day, 3-day, week passes or, as I have, you can opt to purchase a month, 3-month, or 1-year pass – though these require special liscense to be created at the transit office: complete with a passport photo. Further still: this wonderful option has been discontinued in favor of an electronic system called the Opencard. It is with the Opencard that my terror began.
There were some small difficulties obtaining my card (which have since been resolved) but in the meantime, my three month pass lapsed into uselessness. Since I was no longer able to purchase a pass without this card, which needs two weeks to be created, I started riding the tram illicitly. If you’ve been following, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? There isn’t a turnstile to enter the tram or subway, there is just a time stamp and we’re on the honor system, right? Give me a break.
One fine winter day, just after my birthday, I was riding along – obliviously lost in the slums of Bombay – when someone nudged my shoudler and beligerently muttered something to me in Czech. I looked over expecting an old man to be requesting my seat or a bum looking for money but was instead suprised to be eye-to-eye with a signet ring: a gold star on a red background, the sign of the secret metro police. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized that my pass had expired the day before and my heart jumped into my throat. I’d heard that these police were ruthless in extracting fines from people without passes, especially foreigners. Not knowing what else to do I calmly closed my book, placed it in my bag and reached for my wallet. While I was doing this, the officer flashed a few more passengers who reluctantly started searching for validation. As the officer turned back to me I handed him my pass, closed inside it it’s own little blue wallet, while my mind raced with the excuses and arguments that I was about to make. Seeing blue transit wallet he suddenly trusted me and waved off the pass with the universal body language for, “you’re good.” Immediately afterwards an argument broke out with a passenger behind me and the two metro police turned their attention to yelling at him intimidatingly in Czech. I got off at the next stop and walked an couple extra blocks home.
Yes, instead of the honor system there is a team of secret police that patrol the metro system. They occasionally materialize our of the clutch of anonymous passengers brandishing a small ring substituting for a badge; or they lay in ambush at the top or bottom of the metro’s escalators. If unable to produce proper validation, you’re forced to pay a fine of 700Kc: on the spot. If you’re short on cash, they escort you to an ATM. And I hear they’re merciless.
So, as I wait for my Opencard to arrive, and ride the tram without a ticket (single ride tickets are too expensive and won’t be reimbursed), I watch with apprehension as each passenger boards the tram. Scanning the crowd for men that fit the description of the metro police: late twenties to fifties, fit, and wearing something unassuming (like an ugly sweater). Like most cops they travel in groups and like all men who make their living by ruthlessly demanding cash payments, they wear a dour expression which is as much a part of their uniform as the combat boots and navy blue jackets are to their more visible counter parts. But that is all I have to go on. It could be anyone.
My eyes pass by the beautiful women (only to return once the cost is clear). Each passenger is given an “ocular pat-down,” as Mac from Always Sunny would say: he’s too fat, too old, too skinny, no cop would smile like that, this guy is holding a shopping bag, that one stamped a ticket, is that a puppy in your crate? I watch each pair of men, seeing if they scan the crowd or pull out a book. I analyze body language to judge if they’re relaxed or ready for trouble. I spend most of the tram ride searching for something that I can’t quite define, turning this break between classes into a stressful ordeal.
There were another few close calls but I was almost always ready. At one point I noticed a uniformed metro police waiting on the platform as the tram was pulling up. I disembarked and headed in the other direction, then came back and waited for the next tram. Another time I saw them waiting by the stairs of the metro, writing tickets, a stop before mine. I stayed aboard and thanked my luck.
Finally, after a nervous month, analyzing each passenger – always ready to dash off the tram at a moments notice and call my waiting students to inform them of my lateness due to… transit difficulties – my Opencard was finally ready. It was waiting for me at the cities flagship library: a beautifully ancient building right off the Old Town Square. I finished my last class of day, detoured through Vyšehrad to enjoy the morning and down to the river to grab a tram. I contemplated buying a ticket for my last illegal ride but thought better of it. I’d come this far…. But I didn’t get caught during that last ride and I haven’t seen a metro cop since. Though, emerging from the library and noticed a scrap of paper dancing with the wind along the sidewalk. It was an unstamped 26Kč ticket. Now useless to me but available to my next visitor.