On Comfort Zones, and How (Not) to Take a Cab in Bogotá

So you may or may not have heard about what happened to the DEA agent here last week. They’ll figure out the full story in time, but what seems to be the truth as far as we know is that the guy hailed a cab near midnight in a busy (wealthy) part of town, was driven a few blocks before some other guys got in and tried to rob him (what’s called a paseo millonario here — normally they’ll drive you around to a few ATMs and make you withdraw as much money as possible before dropping you off on a random street somewhere. This is why I never carry bank cards when I go out at night, as an extra precaution). The guy must have tried to fight back, which ended badly for him — a few stab wounds, taken to the hospital, died shortly thereafter. I’m sure there’s a shitstorm happening over at the US Embassy right now — according to someone I know who works there, the memos have been flying all week, which I think is about as serious as bureaucracy gets — because this guy pretty much did everything they tell you not to do. Never hail cabs off the street, especially not at night; always lock the doors when you get in the cab; make sure your friends see the placa (plate) of the car you’re taking; don’t carry your credit cards with you if you’re out drinking at night; be extra cautious when leaving high-traffic zones frequented by people with lots of money. These are all things people will tell you not to do a million times; whether you listen is your own choice. And many of us really don’t. I know that up until about two months ago, I didn’t. At least not as much as I should have.

So let’s back up a second here, because I’m skipping ahead. One thing that you notice after living in Bogotá for three days, three weeks, three years: everyone has been robbed. Everyone. Colombians, foreigners, tourists, residents — it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story: a bag slashed on a bus, a wallet taken on the TransMilenio, a man with a gun in Candelaria, robbers pretending to be house painters in an apartment building, phone calls describing fake kidnappings and asking for money. The question isn’t if, it’s when.

But the thing is, sometimes the when takes a long time to arrive. Sometimes you’re here for a year, and yeah, you get bad vibes from sketchy dudes on the bus sometimes or worry that someone is standing too close to you and move away, but that’s it. And you start to forget to keep two hands on your phone, to watch your bag, to be careful where you go to the ATM. You start to get comfortable.

Comfort is a good thing, of course. We all want to be comfortable where we live, and this is as good a place to be comfortable as any. But comfort can’t come at the cost of safety and awareness, and that’s where we start to slip. That’s where my friend slipped when she didn’t keep an eye on her bag while out dancing; where I slipped sitting by the ocean in Cartagena; where this guy probably slipped when he opened the door to the first cab that came by. We forget that our happiness doesn’t put us in a bubble, and that it can happen at any time. That if it happens to Colombians, it will happen to us. That all we can do is take every reasonable precaution, and listen to the people who know better when they tell us to, for the love of god, just wait the extra three minutes it takes to call a cab.

But let’s be clear about this, Colombia is not a hotbed of daily kidnappings and stabbings. This is not Mexico. It’s not Pakistan. Bogotá is not Aleppo. The vast majority of people here are wonderful and well-intentioned, taxi drivers included. I’ve been lectured on several occasions by fatherly taxi drivers who are concerned that I’m not taking enough precautions to be safe. I once had a half-hour conversation about life, travel and the national university at 2 a.m. with a cab driver who is probably younger than my brother. Yes, the security could be better, overall, but it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people in any given place and job are just trying to do that job and keep moving on. We all just need to pay attention to where we’re going.

OISA: Chivas

This week, in my other writing gig over at Only In South America, I explain chivas — Colombia’s answer to the party bus, and the cause of this one time I thought I witnessed my friend die. Don’t drink and try to step out of a moving vehicle, kids.

The 25-Step Guide to Successfully Taking a Bus in Bogotá

  1. Walk to the intersection of the two largest streets near you. Hope that the bus you need will conveniently run along one of these streets.
  2. Every 15 seconds or so, turn your head from one direction to the other. You wouldn’t want to miss the bus!
  3. Decide you’re at least 60% sure the bus you need is green. Pay attention to all of the buses, but pay extra-close attention to the green ones.
  4. Squint frantically at the sign in the front window of each approaching bus, trying desperately to read as many of the neighborhoods as possible before it goes hurtling past you at pedestrian-killing speed. Attempt not to fall into the street while reading the aforementioned signs. Succeed at this, more or less.
  5. Get impatient after about ten minutes, decide to settle for a bus that passes even close to where you’re going.
  6. See a bus that has your destination in its sign. The bus looks especially rattletrap and scary. Let it pass.
  7. Take this previous bus as a positive sign that there must be other buses heading in that direction. Feel confident about your decision to wait for one that at least appears to have functioning brakes.
  8. Wait.
  9. Wait some more.
  10. Start to wish you’d just gone with the first damn bus when it came by. It couldn’t be that bad.
  11. Wonder whether the buses have all been rerouted today for some inexplicable reason. This is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, since it happens all the time.
  12. See the bus, finally! It says the neighborhood you need! It is also red. Try to figure out why you were so certain it was green.
  13. Hail the bus, which screeches to a stop about 20 feet in front of you. Scamper to it and swing yourself onto the stairs. Brace yourself for the bus to lurch back into traffic as soon as your second foot leaves the ground. Try not to fall back out the open door.
  14. Catch the strap of your bag as you push through the turnstile. Piss off the woman standing on the stairs behind you as you try to wriggle it free. Hope she doesn’t fall back out the open door.
  15. Give your fare to the small child sitting in the front seat, on the other side of the glass partition. She is probably the driver’s daughter. She is probably about eight years old. She should definitely be in school right now.
  16. Miraculously find a seat next to the aisle. Proceed to get smacked in the shoulder or face by the bags or arms or bodies of every single person who passes by for the rest of the ride. Wonder why spatial awareness is so difficult for everyone.
  17. Get stuck in a horrible traffic jam about ten blocks from where you boarded the bus. Fidget anxiously in your seat as it takes half an hour to go four more blocks. Hope your iPod doesn’t die.
  18. Check your phone for any scolding text messages. Reflect on the fact that your friends are probably going to stop hanging out with you at some point because of how goddamn long it takes you to get everywhere. Accept that you can only blame your chronic lateness on the transportation for so long before people expect you to start learning from your mistakes.
  19. Conclude that you have yet to learn from your mistakes. Try not to think about that Einstein quote about repetition and insanity.
  20. Breathe a sigh of relief as your bus finally passes through the green light to the sweet, sweet freedom of the open road.
  21. Resist the urge to strangle something when it becomes clear that the open road freedom only lasts for three blocks before it turns back into a tangled, cacophonous catastrophe devoid of any recognizable road rules or human decency all over again.
  22. For the next ten minutes, devote yourself to gnawing on your thumbnail as your bus slowly crawls toward an intersection with a major, TransMilenio-containing road.
  23. Elbow your way past the rappers or guitar players or ladies selling candy or whoever is currently entertaining/asking the passengers for money and leap off the bus as soon as it crosses the road.
  24. Take the TransMilenio instead.
  25. Arrive forty minutes after you said you would. Consider this to be a fairly acceptable time frame and, in fact, a minor victory.