Now that we’ve arrived in Medellin, I want to take a minute to review some of our accomplishments in Bogota. The work went slower than Casey is used to from her summer visits, and at times we felt stuck, but in fact we got a lot done. We managed to pull off interviews with most of the organizations we wanted, we downloaded a massive press database, we reviewed many years of articles for some of the municipalities we’re researching, we submitted two grant applications, and we had fun with friends – some old and some new.
I’m proud of all that. But, the thing I’m most proud of us for is something a little different – it’s for learning and, might I say, mastering the Transmilenio…
I’ve mentioned the Transmilenio in previous posts. It’s the bus system that Bogota has instead of an actual train. And it’s crazy. The buses have their own roads, and therefore don’t have to deal with Bogota’s terrible traffic (although they do stop at streetlights), but they still stop at stations, instead of street corners. The system has received acclaim for all it does to get people around more efficiently (and at the cost of about 70 cents a ride), and yet, when you’re using, you kind of just wonder why they didn’t just build a real train system.
But they didn’t. Bogota built the Transmilenio. It’s kind of like a little boy wishing and wishing he had a younger sibling, and being so excited when his parents adopt one just a younger year than him, who then proceeds to take every chance possible to kick the boy in the nuts.
I know I sound dramatic. But really, even our Bogota friends think the Transmilenio is a mixed blessing. They readily acknowledge that people on it are rude. Riders don’t get out of the station doorway when others want to get on and off the bus. In fact, so as not to lose their place near the door, they don’t even budge. And that means nearly every time you get on and off you end up pushing and clawing your way through a mass of people. Also, getting on the buses, which are often packed (because a bus isn’t nearly as long as a train and therefore can’t take as many people), Casey was twice elbowed sharply in the back by men who didn’t want to give up any personal space. And we’re told by other women this elbowing tactic is pretty common, despite the fact that everyone is wedged in like sardines in a match box.
Another crazy thing about the Transmilenio – which no longer bothers our Bogota friends, but which I think is insane – is that the bus routes only go one way. That means, let’s say you want to go downtown from our old apartment to the national library. Obviously, you’d take the K23 route. And then, when you finished your day reading months and months of newspapers from the year 2000, you would walk back to the Transmi stop you got off at. But upon arrival you’d find that there is no northbound K23. In fact, as far as we could tell, there is no bus at all that makes the same stops going north as the K23 does going south (correct me if I’m wrong, Transmi loyalists). So then you have to find a map at the station and figure out what bus routes stop there and at the station you want to get off at, and happen to be running at the time (not all routes operate all day). Meanwhile, as you plod around in the station, piles of people block your way at station doorways and, sometimes, in front of the one sign that shows the routes. Further, when you do figure out the routes you could take, you then have to figure out at which part of the station they stop. Becasue the station is longer than the buses, they stop in different places, meaning people are always sprinting from one doorway to another (usually to get a connection). This also means that if there are three bus routes you could take, you have to guess which one is going to have a bus arrive first, because if you wait at the doorway of another one, and guess wrong, you’ll likely find yourself sprinting. Awesome.
All that said, I really wanted to figure out the Transmi system. Traffic was so bad I just couldn’t stand being in taxis and regular buses (and I probably also liked the challenge a bit). Casey, on the other hand, would have been happy to never take the Transmilenio the entire time we were in Bogota. She hated the pushing, elbowing and sardining. She hated having to worry if we were getting pickpocketed or going to get robbed (which happens occasionally). When she got on the back of a bus she hated how the bouncing around made her nauseous. And when I was trying to figure out how to use the system, and dragging her along, she kind of hated me. In fact, in our first month in Bogota, really the only thing we fought about was the Transmilenio.
But, remember, this Transmi rant was framed as a success story. And indeed it is one, because by the end of our time in Bogota, we’d pretty well figured it out. We’d downloaded an iphone app that helped us figure which routes we needed, we’d learned to always go to the front of the bus, and I’d glared at the short and obnoxious but confident-behind-their-elbows men that caused Casey pain. And after realizing that the only thing causing us marital stress was the Transmi, we even managed to figure a way to stop fighting about it.
And then, on our second to last night in Bogota, we were given a final test. After an evening meeting and lecture, at a university we’d never been to before, we walked out onto the street and found our safe-taxi app wasn’t working. A Transmi stop we’d never used was a block away. Should we try it? Casey found that preferable to hailing a taxi on the street. So we walked up the ramp that took us over the street and then down into the station. There, we found the route sign, and looked for all the routes that stopped at our stop by our new apartment. Together, we found a few routes. We then walked to where one of them stopped, and read that it was in fact running that evening. And then, right away, the B28 pulled up, to a door that had no crowd in front of it. It was a route Casey had found on the sign, and the bus itself was almost empty. We got on and started cruising past traffic in our private lane. The B28, it turns out, is an express route, so it made only three stops before ours. And then there we were. We’d covered much of the city in just minutes, at a cost of less that $2, and without a single elbow.
As we got off I hoped that no one would rob us before we got home. Getting robbed would be awful, and it would ruin what had been a downright pleasant experience on the Transmilenio.