Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Trains, Planes and Brujitas
As I spent Sunday on a day trip partaking in the strangest form of transportation I have ever experienced, I thought I would take the time to describe that event and the other forms of transportation native to Colombia. From most frequented to least (least being Sunday’s wild ride), here we go:
I travel to and from Chiquitines and most other places I need to go here using public transportation. The main city system of public transportation is called the Mio and for the most part, it’s very reliable and sophisticated. In fact, Cali’s public transit system was implemented a few years ago following the pioneering design of Bogota’s rapid transit system .According to this model, the four center lanes of main thoroughfares are dedicated to bus traffic only, and you enter the bus system through your station’s turnstile, then ride where you need to on the same fare until you exit a different turnstile at your destination. Fares are inexpensive at 1600 pesos (less than a dollar) per trip and the buses are modern and in good condition. Despite the seeming order of the system though, there are several factors that make the Mio an adventure in itself some days.
For starters, it is usually packed. And when I say packed I mean smashed up against the glass door, stranger’s bossom in your face kind of packed. In fact, every time I think it can’t be more full, Mio defies all odds to prove me wrong. Add to that how it is customary to push and shove your way onto the bus filled way beyond capacity and it is that much more unbearable. Luckily I have grown more or less accustomed to this routine though. I can now stand my ground with the best of them. I have not yet gotten used to how the bus is designed to accommodate tiny little Colombians and not giant Americans like myself, however. I hit my head on the overhead grab bars as I exit on a daily basis and have to jam my knees toward my chest in certain seats.
To get a better picture of what it’s like to be a foreign giant on the Mio, check out Keely’s description. That particular experience was the most entertaining commute I’ve had to date and it happened on a day full of chaos and congestion as the drivers of the smaller buses in Cali were striking because of the Mio’s plans to take over their routes and replace their buses. The drivers’ fears of job loss were mostly founded. However, there is good cause, at least in my opinion, to clear out the smaller bus system.
Based on my one experience with the smaller bus system, I’m ready for them to go. While they will stop wherever you would like them to on the route, they are tiny, old, falling apart, polluting and quite frankly a little terrifying. They zoom in between lanes pulling over whenever they feel like it while you hang on for dear life and hope you’re going in the right direction. There’s typically a passenger (who knows how he is selected to his position) who plays the part of blinker as well by hanging out the door to wave traffic off. As Magnolia stated, this guy is not asking you to let him pass, he’s telling you that he’s going to take three lanes at a time to make his exit whether you like it or not. Watch out world.
A twenty minute ride in a taxi here costs a whopping six dollars. Six dollars. While hesitant to use taxis in the U.S. (when in cities big enough to have them – Iowa girl here… ), I am all for calling a taxi here when in need. They are tiny and also tend to swerve through traffic but in a way much less distressing than the small buses. I’ve been warned to call a taxi service when needed and not to catch a random cab from the street because of safety issues, but overall, they are the ideal way to get from point A to point B here.
My host family doesn’t own a car but Angelica’s parents do and I frequently hitch a ride with the Chiquitines doctor to the bus stop after work. Like most other places outside of the SUV-loving U.S., cars here are small. They are mostly compact little things like the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Aveo or any number of Renault vehicles. Don’t let their size fool you though – like the buses, Colombians sure know how to fill them up. On one otherwise non-eventful Sunday here a few weeks back, we fit nine people and a dog in Angelica’s mother’s car. Nine. Granted, two of them were children but still. Nine. Don’t for a second think that we drove more cautiously because of the cargo either. We proceeded to zoom through traffic, occupying two lanes at a time, honking at every intersection, tapping the brakes at stop signs and never ever ever using a blinker as we traveled to our destination. Pretend you never read this, Mom.
By far the most interested form of travel I have encountered here, the brujitas of San Cipriano are a class of transportation in and of themselves. Imagine that on a day trip to the river after spending two hours traversing windy mountain roads, you arrive in a tiny little town. The tour guide leads you toward a set of railroad tracks a few blocks from where the bus leaves you and you find yourself looking around in puzzlement, as there is no train in sight. All you can spot are these tiny little platforms resembling a couple of wooden pallets nailed together, with wheels on the bottom, a crude wooden bench on top, and a motorbike equipped with only one tire attached. There’s no way that’s how we’re getting to the nature reserve, right?
At this point one of the most terrifying/entertaining rides of my life began. These wooden platforms were indeed how we were to arrive at our destination. On our tour guide’s command, we squished a minimum of twelve people on one of these things and hung on for dear life as the driver, AKA the guy revving the motorbike as the back wheel turned over the rail, started us off. As there wasn’t any place to hang onto though, we really just tried to think skinny and low to the ground as we started picking up speed. Despite the fact that we were going thirty miles per hour without any kind of safety anything, the ride was actually pretty comical. The group in front of ours had to get off and push their platform when it couldn’t make it up a tiny incline and five minutes after we had a laugh at them, our motorbike ran out of gas. Our driver was kind enough to push our platform the fifty yards or so to the next place he could fill up, however (with a jug of gas brought out by a guy sitting on his patio next to the tracks), so we didn’t have to break a sweat.
The brujitas are actually the only way to travel between towns in the area we were visiting, as there are no roads to connect them and the area suffers from extreme poverty. Did I also mention that it’s an active rail line? The whole time this was going down, I was praying that a train wouldn’t come barreling around the next curve. Or if it did, that at least it would sound it’s horn long before then. As we crossed a handful of bridges over small to moderate-sized rivers with the trestles no more than six inches from our toes and the drop off to the water just beyond those, the praying intensified. God save the brujitas.
Again, pretend you never read this, Mom.