Barranquilla Buses Part 2: A Fascinating Subculture



Buses are often decorated to show Colombian and Barranquilla pride. The inside is a representation of the driver’s identity, and the outside is a flashy cultural demonstration.


An in-depth analysis of the Barranquilla bus culture tickles my funny bone. Before and after work the bus is overly crowded. I will climb the ladder only to find people crammed up against the turnstile unable to go any further. Upon closer analysis, I look to the back of the bus and realize there are wide-open spaces to stand. Everyone is smashed up in the front of the bus while I am looking beyond to greener pastures. I can almost hear birds chirping and see deer running through a meadow near the back. Meanwhile, I slip my hand down to my pocket accidentally brushing another passenger’s butt in order to find the change needed to pay the driver. The passenger turns around, disgruntled at first, and then her expression softens as she sees that it was an unusually tall gringo that just brushed her behind. “Perdón,” I say, chuckling uneasily.

When in Rome, relax. That’s what the Romans are doing.

In my initial bus-riding experiences, the passengers seemed completely oblivious to their surroundings. I envied them. These are people who can board a bus, find any spot where their feet touch the ground, and contently stand there until disembarking without a tinge of anxiety.

I think my downfall in Barranquilla is that I am too concerned about my surroundings, and I am too worried about being considerate. I am beginning to think my considerateness is actually causing me to be inconsiderate. For example, when I get on a bus, I always look for an open space as far back in the bus as I can go. Knowing more passengers will be embarking on this journey in due time, I know that the logical choice is to fill the bus from back to front. However, without fail, in Barranquilla I must plow my way through the passengers, like I am trying to get through the mosh pit at a rock concert. Upon reaching the back, there is no aknowledgment from other passengers that I have taken this path for a reason; nobody follows my lead. Before I start to swear under my breath about how inconsiderate these Barranquilleros are, a nice old lady in the seat next to where I am standing offers to hold my bag so I don’t have to stand and hold something heavy at the same time. Hmmm, inconsiderate? No. Oblivious? No. Unconcerned with trivial matters despite how inconvenient this lack of concern makes life? Possibly. “Common courtesy,” I believe, is defined differently in any given sub-culture. We can’t get all bent out of shape when our definitions of common courtesy do not align with our new surroundings.

My personality conflicts with this culture because I get annoyed if things are not done in the most logical way (or what my upbringing has conditioned me to deem logical). I stress about these things because I am spending so much energy trying to figure out what are the most considerate things I should be doing myself.  I dwell on the best way to do things when everyone else is simply and peacefully doing what has always been done.

Moreover, I stress about how I am perceived. Are others looking at me? Do they think I am a jerk? Are they going to get mad at me? All these thoughts are running through my head and taking a toll on my mind. Those around me have a reactionary perspective. They see an opportunity to hold someone’s bag, they do it, and they stop thinking about it. No anxiety, no contemplating, no cynicism.

The greatest lesson learned on the bus is to not be hung up on perceptions and trivial matters. When in Rome don’t worry too much about not doing as the Romans do. Relax, because that’s what the Romans are doing. I think even in Minnesota we sometimes try so hard to be NICE that it actually becomes annoying, and makes us unhappy. The bus has taught me that I need to practice being nice when I can and when I think of it, and not worry so much about going out of my way to be considerate. Opportunities will arise when we can show our true character. I think Barranquilleros are better at waiting tranquilly for those opportunities.

Sometimes the bus is completely crammed like a can of sardines. This is the worst when the temperature is above 90 and humid, which is basically every day except from December to March. In one case of overcrowding, I had been on the bus for about 10 minutes already when people started to pile on about 3 per minute. I was standing, and I was eventually pushed up against a mother sitting with her baby. On this particular day, it was scorching hot, and I started sweating profusely. Leaning over this baby, due to inadequate space, I couldn’t avoid dripping my sweat on this babies forehead. Luckily, the baby started to giggle because perhaps my salty perspiration was refreshing to this child on such a hot day. The mother, acknowledging my perspiration (because for some reason nobody else sweats!), realized what was happening and smiled at her child. Then she looked at me and said in Spanish, “Hace calor.”

“Si,” I said. “Hace calor.”

Here’s me, so embarrassed at having perspired on a baby, soaking its forehead with salty drops emanating from my own body, and the mom smiling, no big deal. This was one of those instances when I thought, “I am the only one in this bus that would be uptight about sweating on a baby.” It was a revelation of sorts. 

Read “Barranquilla Buses Part 3: A Culture of Reciprocity and Entrepreneurialism” 


One thought on “Barranquilla Buses Part 2: A Fascinating Subculture

  1. Pingback: Barranquilla Buses Part 1: Crazy but Convenient | Oye, Gringo!

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