A bead of sweat drips down my white brow in the rare Bogotá sun. I step to the curb, with my $1,400 pesos in hand and my index finger primed for pointing. It’s time to take the leap into the micro-chasm of Bogotá culture; the buseta. Armed with the knowledge of the name and color of the exhaust-belching beast which I intend to board, I’m feeling relatively confident of success. Here comes one, it’s yellow yes, what the does it say on that wooden tea-serving tray? Nor, Norm, Normandia, yes!
Reading the sign in a buseta window is like trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone. I spot another one in the distance, barreling through the streets, weaving in and out of traffic, and quite miraculously not hitting pedestrians, motorcyclists, or any other object in motion.
Yes, this is it. I wave my hand confidently, and the buseta yanks itself over to the curb, slamming brakes with all the passengers’ heads flying forward in a perfectly synchronized wave. Those unlucky passengers standing are sent into an involuntary mosh pit. I get one foot on the bus before the driver slams on the gas. Bracing for a fall, a kind passenger knowingly grabs my collar, hoisting me in like a winch. I mutter “gracias” and try to get my bearings.
When my vision steadies, I get a clear look at my surroundings. Sardine can or public transportation? – the difference seems ambiguous. I maneuver my way to hand over my change. A fluorescent Divino Niño (Baby Jesus) sticker with his arms extended is all that separates me from the driver, who yet again, slams the brakes as I go face-first into the glass with five other people clamoring for air. My change drops to the floor and the driver looks at me with disgust while grappling with horns and whistles.
Across this tide of humanity, a seat appears. Turning myself into part-Gumby, part-Neo from the Matrix, I slither, slide, grind, and do things to people that would have me considered a sex offender in Utah. Finally slumping into the chair, I exclaim to no one in particular, that much used expression: Gracias a Dios! (No translation need).
But then again, I should have known why the seat had opened up like a revelation to Moses. My seat-mate was a drunk of highly dubious smells. I knew what I was in for when everyone else got up and moved forward at the same instant he sat down. After deflecting some of his not so subtle statements proclaiming that my cellphone is ringing for him, the scene turns Monty Python. “Want to fight?” incites the man. In fact, at this stage, I seriously consider a punch to the head. Late for class and with the rain grinding the city to a halt, I keep my composure. Patience is more than a virtue on busetas: it’s your ticket to paradise.
The vagrant leaves, and shouts obscenties at me from the curb. The traffic easies and we are passengers once again. I need a minute to calm down and process this madness. The moving Barnum and Bailey of Bogotá buses welcomes its next guest. A lovely gentleman decked out in a suit from another century, one tooth, and a winning smile hops on and decides it’s his time to shine. The next Latin American idol if you will. Surprisingly, this middle aged Manu Chao isn’t half bad. After he hits the last high, I find myself clapping with the others and searching for change.
The characters come and go. Each a Malkovich in disguise, addressing an audience of exhaust and exhaustion. As we wind our way north the litany of forced displacement, poverty and recovering drug abuse stories gives way to certain ambivalence. I am close to my destination. Following a pinhole of light peeking through the tired masses like a camera obscura, I emerge into another world – that absent Bogotá of grey light and low clouds. Discomfort aside, I reflect on the controlled-chaos and ex- citement of an hour’s ride. Going by buseta was like stepping into reality television on wheels. The $1,400 pesos shouldn’t be considered a fare, but the price of admission.