If there was one subculture of Barranquilla, Colombia on which I could write an entire book, it would be the public buses. Ranging from tiny, ten-seater slabs of metal that whip through the little pueblos, to larger and air-conditioned buses with uniformed drivers, each one offers its own anthropological experience. Although my apartment can get quite loud with every major bus line passing by it, you can’t beat the convenience of being able to walk out the door, hop on a bus and pretty much get to wherever you need to go in the city.
The Barranquilla buses have character. I think that’s the best way to describe them. Emerging from the south, you can see buses approaching with self-appointed nicknames like, “knight Rider!” or the colors of the local soccer team painted on the front. A man will be hanging out the door as he eyes potential passengers while pointing northward. “Do you want to get on?” he will inquire by shouting, “Derecho!” (straight!)
Thanks, I thought you were going to turn into the ditch, I sarcastically think to myself. Yes, cultural immersion makes me think sarcastically…a great coping mechanism.
My bus of choice is usually the K54, a large, green bus without air conditioning that passes by almost every ten minutes. You don’t often hear people talk about “missing the bus” because you can always catch the next one.
When the bus pulls up, drivers base their method of pick-up on your physical appearance. For instance, an older woman would receive a full stop and a stall until she can walk up the bus’s stairs and secure a firm grasp on the railing. For a younger guy like me, it’s usually a drive-by pickup, and I have to lead my right foot forward in order to catch the bus as it slows down for me. I quickly grab the railing as the bus lurches forward, hoisting myself further into the speeding hunk of metal.
There is usually a man standing in the doorway, either collecting money, or chilling (Perhaps a friend of the bus driver’s, or someone who is only going a couple blocks and didn’t pay the whole fare.) I unintentionally chest bump this person as the bus speeds up, making my way to the turnstile.
Parents with kids usually receive special treatment getting on and off the buses. It’s not really because the bus drivers are more careful, but because the crowded bus is usually looking out for the kids and their parents. Any bone-head driving mistake is going to bring on a mob of admonishment from the passengers. Mothers will often let go of their child while they give the driver their 1,500 pesos only to turn around and see their child pulled to the back of the bus, thanks to Newton’s First Law of course. Parents also prefer to let their children get off the bus first, at which point the bus may keep going assuming everyone had descended. Fortunately, this is when shouts from fellow riders, castigating the bus driver for his mistakes, get the bus to stop on a dime, so the mother can get down and join her kid.
It’s not uncommon to see good citizens hold onto someone’s child while his or her parents can pay the bus fare. I have also frequently seen kids hop up into a stranger’s lap without a second thought. Strangers unquestioningly look out for one another’s children. People take care of each other on the bus. Everyone knows what it is like to be speeding 50 miles per hour down a busy road, weaving in and out of traffic, and at the same time trying to protect your kids and paying the driver, an often impossible task without the help of one’s fellow riders.
Anyone that steps foot on the speeding heap of steel is taking a risk. Disembarking is sometimes a treacherous act because buses are allowed to stop absolutely anywhere to pick people up or drop them off (even if this means stopping on a busy highway). One time as I rang the bell to disembark, I moved my foot out the door only to clip a speeding motorcyclist in the thigh as he sped past. The bus driver had opened the door and expected me to descend on a street with approaching vehicles. After coming face to face with my own mortality, I waited for the driver to move a bit closer to the shoulder.
I can imagine that drivers would prefer to propel us out the door while going 65 miles per hour in order to pick up more passengers and get to their destination faster. However, a note to any passenger: you must look out for your own safely when riding the public transportation of Barranquilla. You always have to be aware of where you are getting off. Whereas in the states we often rely on the safety regulations imposed upon public transportation companies, it’s not as strict here.
A fellow teacher told me a story of a former expat who once got off the bus quickly without looking down at the road. This mistake led her to fall right into an open manhole splashing into the revolting Barranquilla sewage below. Although she wasn’t seriously injured, she had to be hospitalized as the bacteria made her severely ill for several weeks. This brought new meaning to the phrase, “Look before you leap.”
I have also heard talk of many robberies that take place on buses. Sometimes they are discreet, someone pulling a knife on the passenger, silently coercing him into passing over all of his valuables; sometimes they are unknown, people hopping off the bus only to realize their wallet is no longer in their purse; and sometimes they are completely terrorizing, armed robbers hopping on the bus forcing everyone to hand over their bags and any valuables they have.
I have never been victim of any of the aforementioned robberies, but I have known people who talk of them matter-of-factly. I am the type who would just as soon strip naked handing all of my possessions over to the robbers without being asked twice. That said, I have never been robbed at gunpoint or any sort of weapon-point, for that matter. We hear stories all the time, but they are the exceptions. We never hear about the typical, safe bus commutes in the news, which is about 99% of all bus rides.
The stories I hear in the news and from friends don’t worry me enough to stop taking the bus. There are thousands of people riding the buses every day and hundreds of buses running at the same time. The odds of getting robbed, especially at gunpoint, are very slim. Although Barranquilla is more dangerous than Minneapolis, Minnesota, I don’t want to perpetuate an overinflated stereotype. I commute to and from work everyday by bus, and I have never felt unsafe (besides when I kicked the motorcyclist in the thigh). Surely I don’t bust out my Kindle or watch Youtube videos on my Iphone on the bus (That’s just asking to be robbed), but I never hesitate to save a few bucks by taking the bus instead of a taxi. If you are smart about it, taking the bus can be very safe and convenient in Barranquilla.