The way that we, as Peace Corps Volunteers in Colombia, get from our sites to the city is by taking buses. The buses that you take between the 3 major cities (Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena) are smaller, air conditioned, rarely over-sold, and generally only make a couple stops. The experience on these buses is not unlike what one would experience in the US. But the buses that you take from city to smaller town is a different story. These little inter-pueblo buses are a place where one might experience real culture shock – I know I have.
When I was at my training site, the bus we always took was called Cootrans Oriente, named Oriente for the highway they follow on the eastern side of the Atlántico border (the department/state that I live in). All buses look different, depending on the driver. The buses also almost always go to the same destination, so when I lived in Palmar de Varela, you’d always see the same 6 buses driving around town to pick people up. The other Oriente buses either didn’t reach that far or passed by the town on the highway.
My first bus experience was when we had our volunteer site visits. Our leader, Gene, told my group that we were going to get on the first bus to pass regardless of how full it was. Sure enough, when the bus came, and he stuck out his hand to indicate that we wanted the bus to stop for us, there were people hanging out the back door. Regardless, we pushed our way in, and by the next town all of us had seats.
What I didn’t expect on that first trek was for people to board the bus selling goods. And often when vendors board, they don’t ask you if they want what they’re selling; rather, they drop whatever they’re selling in everyone’s lap, and once everyone on the bus has something, they give their spiel (often a sob story) and tell everyone how much their stuff is. Then they do another loop and either take money from people or take their item back. The very first time this happened, it was literally just one paper Valentine. More often, though, it’s something mildly useful like a word search and pen or some candy. Besides that, people often board the buses doing mini-magic shows, comedy bits, preaching, or playing music. On top of that, the driver often has his own vallenato playing on the sound system, so it’s never really a quiet ride.
Each bus driver has a right-hand man, the portero or doorman. Unlike in the States where you always pay up front, most often on the buses I’ve taken, you wait for the portero to come asking for money. The poor guy has to do this regardless of how full the bus is, although I think it’s more uncomfortable for the passengers than it is for him (I’ve had a lot of people’s butts on my shoulder on the bus). Famously in my town, one of the Colombian national team’s strikers, Carlos Bacca, was a portero before he got recruited to a professional soccer team.
Another thing that shocked me on my first trip was that the doors almost always stay open. Even flying down the highway. Honestly, though, while I sometimes wonder how often people fall out, more often I think, “thank God for this wonderful ventilation.” Even with the doors open, when the bus is in the middle of the city at a crawling pace, it is a hot place. Bus = lots of people + really hot + really loud + weird smells (think chickens, giant potato sacks) = not super comfortable. Yet I don’t always dread my bus trips, as weird as that may be.