Known as combis in Peru and busetas in Colombia, these are small, privately-owned public transportation buses. Every city and country has their own quirks and methods. For example, in Peru you pay upon exiting. In Bogota, you can pay less than the fare by flashing a 1000 note from the curb and, if the driver stops, entering through the back or hopping the turn-sty. Once on board there are independent vendors of all sorts of trinkets and snacks, cantantes (musicians of jazz, reggaeton, ballads), story-tellers of fairy tales or sob stories of their lives, and beggars or gimps who board the bus and solicit from their captive audience. The following buseta story entails almost every quirk about Bogota busetas, except the all-too-common gang robberies.
I chose this article title just for alliteration (‘boring’ starts with B). But the buses can be VERY boring. In fact, if you don’t live close to where you work, life in Bogota would be an absolute hell. Many people commute through cold rain in packed, public transportation 3+ hours / day.
This article was contributed by Dan, an English teacher in Bogota. If you’re looking for a teacher, email me (colin at expat-chronicles dot com) and I’ll put you in touch with him.
I stand on the curb with my 1400 pesos in hand, index finger primed for pointing. It’s time to make the leap, literally, onto a micro-chasm of Bogota culture: the buseta. I have the name and color of the exhaust-belching beast I intend to board.
Bueno, here comes one. It’s yellow, yes! What does it say? Nor, Norm, Normandia, yes! Snap, it’s gone. I missed it. Reading the sign of an oncoming buseta in time is like trying to decipher a heater vs. a curve coming from Nolan Ryan. I spot another in the distance, barreling down the street, weaving in and out of traffic, not quite hitting pedestrians, motorcyclists, donkeys, or any other moving object.
This one has the same color and look, but I can’t see the sign yet. Fuck it, I wave my hand confidently and the buseta swerves to the curb, slamming its brakes with all the passengers’ heads flying forward. The unlucky bastards standing are sent into an involuntary mosh pit. Yep, I see Normandia as I step one foot on the bus before the driver slams on the gas again. Bracing for a fall, a kind passenger grabs my collar, pulling me in. I mutter “Gracias” and try to get my bearings.
When my vision steadies, I wonder “Is this a bus or a sardine can?” As soon as I maneuver my way to dump my change into the hand of the driver, he stomps on the brakes and I slam face-first into the glass wall, with five others all clamoring for the same air. My change flies all about. The driver looks at me with disgust and turns back to the wheel, jabbering along to some incoherent mamba complete with horns and whistles.
I spot someone get up, leaving a seat open. Turning myself into part-Gumby and part-Neo from The Matrix, I slither, slide, grind, and slump into the seat, sweat pouring down my brow. Soon there is a mass exodus from the bus and I feel a sense of normalcy return. But this is a fleeting moment, gone like a thief in La Candelaria.
I am chosen as a seat-mate by a stinking drunk bum. Everyone else from the back of the bus got up and moved forward as soon as he sat down. I’m not worried as the man is the size of my little niece, with half the coordination. After deflecting his not-so-subtle statements proclaiming that my phone is ringing for him, the gentleman asks, “¿Peleamos?” Let’s fight? Yes, peleamos my friend. I would like nothing better than to land a flat kick directly to your forehead, sending you out to your stop in style. Being as we are now in a freak, blinding rain and I am late for my class, I think better of doing anything that may result in myself being outside waiting for another buseta. So I resume staring off into nothing and waiting for the next move.
After several minutes of uncomfortable silence the bumski decides to leave. Immediately after exiting, he stands outside with the bus door open and we stare at each other. Then he flicks an AIDS-flavored spitball in my direction. Narrowly dodging, I hurl some Spanish obscenities his way. “¡Cochino, basura! ¡La limpieza te espera!”
This sends him into a rage and he tries to get back on the bus. But it’s too late as the door slams in his face. He’s stuck outside, pounding the door and shouting. Feeling swept-up in the madness, I moon him. I MOONED HIM! With the bus stuck in traffic, the bum going bonkers outside, cars and buses honking in unison, and my creamy-white buns firmly against the window, I experience a moment of pure jubilation.
The traffic subsides and we move along, leaving the bum in the rain. Then comes our next guest: a lovely gentleman in a suit from another century, one tooth, and a winning smile. He hops on and decides it’s his time to be the next Latin American Idol. Surprisingly, he isn’t bad. After his tune, I find myself clapping with the others and searching for change. The next audition features a young lad complaining of poverty. He sleeps with six other people on a single bed, eats corn cobs for lunch, and uses a potato sack for a blanket. I find myself near tears, digging for every peso I got.
After emptying my pockets and feeling like I did my good deed for the day, I look out the window expecting to see the guy thankfully on the way to his family or a grocery store. To the contrary, I see him meet a group of friends, laughing and pointing in my direction as they make their way to the nearest cigarrería.
Traveling via buseta is like jumping into a reality TV show on wheels. The 1 mil 4 cientos isn’t bus fare. It’s the price of admission.
Dan is an experienced English teacher in Bogota. If you need English teaching services, email colin at expat-chronicles dot com to be put in touch with him.