Buses and the Community

Something that continues to fascinate me living here in Bogotá is the marked difference between human closeness and one’s sense of community on a daily basis. I have wondered to myself ‘why should this be the case?’ on a variety of occasions, and frequently my conclusion comes to: religion (Catholic-conservatism creates a sense of charity and obligation to one’s fellow man), strong family values (versus North American egotism) and a proximity to indigenous roots (most cultures of which operate around a communal core, personal belongings are traditionally absent and personal identity is generally not pronounced over and above another’s, excepting the ‘cacique’ or chief). There are a variety of situations where one might notice this phenomenon, but I experience it everyday on the pollution-promoting buses that run all over the city.

On buses packed like sardine cans, fare is passed hand to hand from the back to the front, and change back again. This change might pass through half a dozen pairs of hands, and in a city so rampant with theft, it’s a bit surprising to see at first. Sometimes when the bus is particularly packed, drivers will open the back door of larger ‘busetas’ or ‘buses’ for a passenger to squeeze on; every time I see this happen, the new arrival pays and gets his change back via the ‘collective’ that is everyone on the bus!

A lady who is lucky enough to have a seat sees that you are struggling with your bag of groceries, or even your backpack! – and offers to hold it for you amid the chaos. Though this would ease the discomfort of riding on a bus that sometimes is too short to stand up straight (these are the ‘colectivos’ – the smallest of the buses, which have only one door for exit/entry), I rarely take people up on the offer. North American paranoia?

The bus driver ranges in age and intelligence, seemingly from all walks of life they come. Some blast the dreaded ‘vallenato’ – essentially Colombia’s equivalent to NA’s ‘country’. Other times, you’ll hear ‘reggaeton’ and club tracks. My personal favourite are the old school romantics who play ‘boleros’ and ‘rancheros’ (the former, big band or guitar led ballads, ranging from mid-1800s to current, though the best are from the 50s/60s; the latter, a blend of ‘bolero’ with Mexican ‘mariachi’). But each bus feels like a home on wheels, the personal office of the driver:  the driver’s cab often decked out with cheap luxuries (faux-velvet lining and chintzy decals, pictures of the Holy Mary and beaded rosaries), a quality they share with the ‘taxistas’.

They navigate the roads in a fury of stop and start; unless they’re on their cell phones, when you’ll drift along at a walking pace. Taking cash and giving change many do, all while shifting gears and maintaining a steady acceleration. Sometimes there is a helper, friend, cousin, brother, girlfriend – along for the ride, frequently put to work to take fares and make change. If there is not adequate change, the driver will assail neighboring taxi drivers and juice peddlers at intersections until he gets it. I have waited as a passenger until I’m uncomfortably close to my destination to get my change back. (Tip: bring small notes, 5 mil (thousand) pesos or smaller, preferable). This is the same for most shops, even those of a more upper market clientele, in which cases I have waited twenty minutes for change. Sometimes though, when they say ‘ay, no tiene más sencillo?’ (exasperated huff, you don’t have smaller notes?), they’re lying. So, tip number two is: don’t look worried and don’t start reaching into your pocket to look. If you want to break a fifty in a gas station or a shop inside a mall, they almost definitely have change. Look them in the eye and say ‘no, no tengo más sencillo. Qué pena con usted…’ (no, I don’t. Sorry about that.). Half the time, my Colombian boyfriend starts to eat his snack at the ‘tienda’ (store) before paying, so there won’t be any preferential bill treatment. 🙂

One final element that cannot be forgotten about the buses are the ‘cuenteros’ (storytellers),  ‘callejeros’ (buskers) and men who simply come on the bus to sell candy or beg (less common). Generally speaking, these individuals will introduce themselves very personally to the whole bus – we learn how they’ve come to get there, what their intention is and what they stand for (artistically, socially, politically…). Musicians play guitar and sing songs, and storytellers tell…well, stories. These could be personal or old folk tales. They might give a full presentation about their diseased child or spouse and the financial descent into which it’s sent them spiraling down. The quality of both types of traveling entertainers varies and the extent to which their traveling audience gives depends on that quality. Very often though, passengers are completely engaged in the songs and stories, clapping and gasping adequately throughout. Their takings can be impressive. According to what I’ve seen, they’re not seen as pests but as an engaging alternative to looking out the window – perhaps this is rooted again in indigenous storytelling traditions, and isn’t that comforting that it’s finding a way to carry on in this day and age… Most of the time it’s inoffensive, though occasionally I am very nauseated on the bus and the blaring narration becomes noise pollution that increases my motion sickness: all in a day’s transportation around Bogotá (mostly going up and down the 7a).

Today was the first time I felt uncomfortable with a traveling entertainer, as the young boy who jumped on the bus looked like a thief and like he’d taken a popper an hour beforehand. He begged aggressively and threateningly warned the passengers not to ignore him. Thank Christ, one person gave him some change – most likely just so he would get off the bus, which he did. He was calling everyone on the bus a ‘gonorrhea’ as he jumped into the street. I felt a collective sigh upon his departure and a quiet murmur ensue. I guess others were thanking Christ, too…

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