The following is a guest blog entry by my boyfriend, Seth. Whereas I still have trouble navigating Bogotá’s bus system, he has nearly mastered the North/South routes. This is what he experiences on a typical workday.
Every weekday morning on my way to work, I walk the short two blocks to the Septima (Carrera 7)—the North/South arterial closest to our apartment—in order to catch the bus that will take me to my office. The buses, as ubiquitous as they are diverse, project the brand of their respective companies in colorful, elaborate, yet often faded, paint jobs. Unlike the publicly planned though privately operated Transmilenio, which services regular stations in dedicated lanes like an above ground subway, these often ancient beasts lumber, weave, and charge their way through Bogotá’s traffic. Everyday I watch as a small herd of buses leaves a cloud of acrid smoke in its wake as it approaches the red light. In each windshield is a sign, tightly packed with the names of small neighborhoods and streets, that allows prospective customers to discern where the bus is headed. For my part, I look for anything that says ‘K7 a Cll 116’ or higher. This lets me know that it will stay on the Septima at least until Usaquen, where my office is located. It never takes more than a minute for an appropriate choice to appear.
On this particular day, a short red and green minibus brings up the rear of the herd in the middle lane. As the brief traffic light changes to green, the bus shifts gears to accelerate. I wave out my hand as if to hail a taxi, and the jalopy abruptly weaves into the right lane. I hop on the first step and grab firmly onto the handrail. The bus lets out a roar and begins to move before the door has closed. I pass through the turnstile and slide a two thousand peso note into the small dish built into the opening between the driver and the cabin. Looking steadfastly ahead, the driver reaches back between first and second gear to grab the bill. He holds it as he shifts gears again and changes lanes to avoid hitting a stopped bus. He makes change from the piles of coins separated into stuffed plush containers while swerving to collect yet another passenger who has waved him down.
The interior is a mixture of faded, dingy upholstery and tarnished metal. Completing the décor are a melange of rosary decals, images of the Virgen, and an oversized plastic Pontiac hood ornament. There is standing room only at the moment, but the crowd thins quickly as we move north. This is little consolation since the seats are so closely spaced as to make it nearly impossible for me to sit. The people in Bogotá, especially the class that rides the buses, are generally very short. It is common to see women under five feet tall and men under 5’6”. They fit comfortably in the sardine can seats. I must angle to the side or else firmly lodge my knees into the back of the person in front of me.
About halfway to the office, the bus stops for a man who deftly hops the turnstile. Unlike the usual peddler of snacks or books, this man has a thick New York City accent and occasionally lapses into English as he makes his pitch. He is a Colombian national from Brooklyn. Having lived in King’s County from a very young age, he has recently been deported after forty years in the States to a country he doesn’t know. In a Spanish vocabulary more limited than mine, he explains that he is formally trained as a Continental sous-chef. He wants to find work here in Colombia but can’t because he first needs Colombian documents such as his Cedula. He also has to pay the fine for having never served in the Colombian military. He tells us his goal is to eventually return to the United States, his home. A few coins, no more than two dollars worth, are deposited into his outstretched hand before he bids us adieu, and heads for the bus behind us. I am reminded of Molotov’s song “Frijolero,” which I just heard on the radio during yesterday’s commute. (Warning: Lyrics are explicit though mostly in Spanish.)
[photo courtesy of TransportPhoto.net]