Buses are not only a place for life lessons. They are also quite entertaining. The K54 Sobusa, the bus that I take to and from school everyday, functions as a rolling concert, circus, market, school supply store, church, charity, place of business, and artistic display of identity and pride.
First of all, bus drivers usually allow peddlers, beggars and street musicians onto the buses in order to earn a few hundred pesos. The first time I saw a man hop on the bus with a basket of butter cookies, I was hesitant to buy. As he passes out cookies to each passenger, most people take them, inspecting them, contemplating whether or not to buy, and then either give them back to the salesman or pay for a few cookies.
I didn’t know what to think about the cookie man. Was he putting in an honest, hard-day’s work after exhausting possibilities of other job prospects, or was he taking an easy way out dropping out of school to sell cookies to commuters? As a beginner in public transport, I wasn’t accustomed to the hidden economy and entrepreneurialism of the city buses. My subconscious has been conditioned to view peddlers negatively. “They are just trying to get your money,” people have told me, instilling in me the fear that every vendor was trying to take advantage of me. However, after many commutes on the city bus, I learned to more deeply analyze the workings of this subculture economy.
Typically those trying to sell us things appear to be threatening. We remember our family vacations in which we were bombarded by the guy selling fake overpriced Oakleys and Ray Bans to us tourists. We are annoyed at first, and often afraid they will take advantage of us. But it’s important to step back and contemplate the culture of reciprocity taking place here on the K54. This is a sub-economy. The drivers, the passengers, and the peddlers are usually benefitting in some way. Most people politely take the things that are handed them, something that many folks where I come from would try to avoid from the fear of getting tricked into buying something. If they don’t feel like buying, they simply give the goods back to the peddler with no obligation, and everyone politely goes about their business.
The bus venders and performers are an accepted part of the atmosphere in Barranquilla. Most commuters and bus drivers welcome the nomadic merchant who makes a living hopping from bus to bus. It was enlightening to see the respect and politeness offered to these peddlers. What surprised me most was the drivers’ willingness to allow these people onto their buses for free. There tends to be solidarity amongst many Barranquilleros who are all simply trying to put food on the table.
Most people do not seem annoyed with the peddlers, and many enjoy the services they provide. I, for one, have grown to like appreciate them. Even the bus drivers appreciate these people as they often get much-needed small bills and coins from the peddlers in exchange for their larger bills. The bus entertainers and salespersons seem to fit right in to the grand scheme of things. They jump the turnstile to avoid the passenger counter. They balance their basket of goods on the railings, often slipping the driver a pack of gum as a thanks. They blurt out a clearly rehearsed sales pitch, pass around their goods, and then shout “gracias” to the driver as a signal that they are ready to hop off the bus and look for the next one approaching.
As much as the venders and performers fit into the interworking of city life, they also add some spice to the daily commute. My favorites are the musicians…sometimes. I once met a musician at a party who I asked if he went to school or if he studied music. He had his guitar at the party, and he was talented. He told me that he studied at “Bellas Calles” or “beautiful streets,” making a play-on-words (Bellas Artes is a popular fine arts university in the area.) A couple months later, this same musician came on my bus and began a charismatic performance. “Muy…bueno muy…buenos dias!” he announced in a rock star-like voice. Then he played a couple sentimental, but catchy, tunes for all of the commuters. Afterwards he told everyone he was selling CD’s of his music and accepting donations because “being a student of Bellas Calles doesn’t actually pay very well.”
I have always had an admiration for struggling musicians, especially when these musicians can actually play and are pleasant to listen to. As a general rule, I usually give money to anyone who has made my commute better and my day a little happier. Philanthropy does not have a clear set of universal guidelines. For a philanthropist or one sympathetic to the people struggling to make a buck, Colombia could be a real pocket-emptier because there are so many people providing small services here and there, desperately trying to make a living. At first I found it bothersome with so many people trying to make money from the daily commuter. Now I have become quite fond of the bus entrepreneur. They often provide services that I need or want. The question I usually ask myself before donating change is, “Did this man provide me with a service that made my life better in some way?” and “What difference will my money make in the person’s life and possibly in the rest of the world?” The bus peddlers are different from beggars on the street in a few ways. The bus entrepreneurs have guts, and they show initiative. When someone hops on the bus with a tiny, battery-powered boom box and starts rapping to a bunch of work-worn passengers, I can’t help but respect his or her bravery. The ability to put aside all embarrassment and sing in random places in order to follow a dream or simply make enough to buy dinner is admirable. Sometimes even playing with broken guitar strings, a cracked guitar, or with passengers pushing hurriedly passed them through the aisles, these musicians play on.
The most inspiring is a gentleman that hoists himself up by his arms because Polio has permanently destroyed the use of his legs. This man waits at the same T-intersection everyday where the bus is required to stop to look for traffic. After crawling over to the bus, hoisting himself up on the stairs with his arms, he slides under the turnstile. He tapes wooden blocks to his hands, so he can “safely” crawl around on the ground and up into the bus. He starts his speech to the passengers, not pleading for money or asking for sympathy, but blessing everyone on the bus with a prayer. As he pulls himself through the bus aisle, sliding on his cinder blocks, most people can’t help but pull out their spare change.
The man with Polio is there waiting for buses day after day in the hot Barranquilla sun. Whereas some people may sit on a sidewalk begging for money, this guy has found the one way in which he can actually provide for himself. The passengers know it: there is not much else this man could do with his life besides beg on a street corner. What he has given me is a reminder that we can always work a little harder. We often tend to be closed-minded when brainstorming solutions to our problems. It’s hard to say anything in life is too difficult when you see that old man, diseased and seemingly all alone in the world, heave himself onto the K54.
I’m Not in Suburban Minnesota Anymore
Also trying to make a few pesos are clowns, magicians, Bible verse readers, orphans handing out smiley-face stickers, men selling mechanical pencils, and, the ones I am especially wary of, those selling sample bottles of medicine. No matter how bad my headache, I don’t think I would take pills that I bought on the K54.
Half the time the services offered on the bus are practical or enjoyable, but other times they can really drive me nuts. I come from a relatively quiet culture, and I am even quiet as far as Minnesota standards go. After teaching children all day, which every teacher can attest is an incredibly loud profession, the last thing I want to do is have a noisy commute home. Sometimes old men will climb on the bus and daringly try to sing opera, or magicians will ask to borrow your sunglasses for a trick, knowing full well that the trick could result in a shattered pair of glasses.
During one commute home, a man was selling chocolate candy bars, and as he passed them out to people, he told them, “Dios les bendiga,” or “God bless you.” When he got to one young lady sitting near me in the back, she shook her finger at the man and seemed to be scolding him. The little Spanish I could understand revealed that she was offended because he was only saying “God bless you,” to the passengers that were taking a candy bar. She was enraged because this man was using God’s blessings as propaganda to sell candy bars, and she evidently wanted to let him know that he has no authority to decide who God blesses.
The skinny young vendor chuckled uncomfortably, unsure of what to say at first. Blessing people had probably been a well-rehearsed sales pitch of his for quite some time. After returning from collecting his money, he decided to tell this woman his thoughts. “Cuando yo lo digo, es de mi Corazon.” In other words, when he says, “God bless you,” he is not saying it to sell candy bars, but to offer a blessing “from his heart.” The lady wasn’t buying it. I simply sat and enjoyed the show.
Of course both people parted ways lightheartedly as most arguments often go on public transportation. People love social interaction here in Barranquilla. Sometimes I even wonder if the people in these theatrical pieces truly have these convictions they exhibit, or if it’s simply a ploy to strike up a conversation and add some spice to their daily commute. I think the lady was right though. It baffles me how much the vendors begin their sales pitch with “Dios les bendiga,” or use the phrase only when someone buys a candy bar from them.
I also like how the bus represents the identity of the person who drives it. The feeling I get when I see the inside of each bus is usually comparable to the feeling I get when looking around a circus tent. Sometimes there are large, dirty stuffed animals hanging from window suctions. If the bus driver has family, he usually has name stickers of his kids and wife clinging to the dashboard or overhead wall. Every once in awhile I see posters hung from the windows, one urging me to move towards the back, and another one listing the many benefits of abstinence.
On one occasion I noticed a newspaper clipping with the heading, roughly translated, “Stop throwing trash out the windows of the buses.” I was thrilled to see it, as the shameless littering has been one cultural shocker for me since arriving in Barranquilla. Many people don’t even think to walk five extra feet to throw their wrappers in a trashcan. Ironically, on the same ride in which I saw the sign, a young woman threw her chip wrapper out the window.
Sometimes the social irresponsibility is enough to engage me and keep me occupied on a monotonous commute. It was on the K54 bus, and a woman had just bought a lollipop from a peddler. After opening it, she proceeded to try and throw the wrapper out the door of the bus, but the wind blocked its path, and it fluttered back onto the bus’s floor. At that moment something must have clicked in her conscience, and she decided that she could not leave a wrapper on the bus floor. To assuage her guilt, she picked it up and tossed it out the window! In her mind, she was making Barranquilla a cleaner place. It reminded me of Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory. I imagined Piaget studying some of these passengers and grouping them into the sensorimotor stage (from an infant’s birth to age two), believing the object doesn’t exist if it is no longer in sight. Throwing things out the bus window is like magic – the garbage disappears, right?
The most memorable bus narrative was when a mother got on the bus with her daughter, who was eating a melting ice cream bar. The daughter suddenly didn’t want the rest of the ice cream bar, and the mother took it from her. I assumed she was going to finish her daughter’s ice cream or perhaps put it in a wrapper to throw away later. I was sitting behind her, and the back door of the bus was between me and her. To my shock she turned around and was clearly contemplating throwing the entire ice cream out the back door, leading me to panic because the wind would blow it right back into my face. Fortunately, she thought better of it, but then…
She started to eat the ice cream, and she wasn’t too keen on the nuts that were sprinkled on the ice cream, so she began spitting them out on the bus floor. Realizing she might look “rude,” but displaying absolutely no shame, she stopped spitting and began picking them out of her mouth and then throwing them onto the bus floor. Her delayed “conscience” kicked in once again, and she decided that it would be less rude to reach across the complete stranger sitting to her right and throw her saliva-saturated nuts out the window with a jerky flick of her wrist, barely missing the stranger’s nose with each flicked nut. Expecting the man to give her a piece of his mind, I was surprised to find utter indifference on his part. A behavior that to me seemed ludicrous to do in public, this man was going to sit there like nothing was happening, like it was no big deal this woman was taking nuts out of her mouth to reach across his face and throw them out the window.
A Healthy Relationship with Public Transport
The bus is rarely a dull commute. It can be hectic, stressful, noisy and crowded, but the Barranquilla buses have taught me a lot about culture. For the most part, I am proud to ride to work everyday with people who will often give up their seats, or hold bags for their fellow commuters. Despite certain aforementioned exceptions, people generally display camaraderie and value community. Public transportation anywhere has its theatrical, and often appalling, moments. Regardless, Barranquilla buses have not only entertained me, they have given me a glimpse into an important sub-culture and economy and have taught me to relax more in a foreign land. Now I sit back, take everything in, learn about why things work the way they do, and embrace the reciprocity of public transportation.