The trams of Lisbon

The number of tourists we saw photographing the trams in Lisbon made us wonder if the they were being kept running for their novelty value alone. Each time one of these rattling, yellow coaches would pass us by, we’d see a tourist crouching somewhere close by composing a shot with the excitement of a bird watcher who has come across a rare species after camping in a rainforest for a week. The more meticulous of the lot would wait patiently on busy routes.

Trams in Lisbon reminded me of those I’d seen in Kolkata, although I never sat on any in India. I do have a vague childhood recollection of visiting some city with tram tracks on the road. I remember my parents telling me that the tracks were for a special kind of bus that ran on electricity. The trams ran no more, but the tracks had persisted. I am not sure whether this is in fact a memory, a dream or a scene from a film, but the Kolkata encounter was definitely my first tram experience.

The trams, though in active use by locals and tourists alike, are definitely a relic from another time. Their interiors are largely wooden and the straps hanging from their ceiling often leather. The tracks have been laid on the same tarred (and often cobbled) roads that are used by other vehicles. Traffic either races ahead or follows them deferentially. Some streets are so narrow that people patiently stand with their backs to the wall to let trams pass.

I’ll never forget the ride we took late one night. The tram was reasonably busy at first, but as our journey progressed people kept alighting till there were just 4 of us left on the tram. The tram jerked as it strained to negotiate the steep uphill slope of Lisbon’s streets. I had my heart in my mouth and wondered if we were going to tumble backwards in a free fall, while the wife seemed to be having the time of her life. I tried to catch a glimpse of the driver’s face and the serene look conveyed that it was business as usual. The tram eventually came to a halt at a roundabout in a lonely neighbourhood. This was a chilly, moonlit, mid-March evening in Lisbon. We walked to the stop a few steps away and waited for our tram back. The ride this time wasn’t any less rattly but by accounting for it in advance, the mind had begun to discount it as normal.

P.S. The trams in Lisbon also come in red.

October 14, 2012