Third World Transportation: A Love Story

Travel days. Every shoestring traveler knows the sluggish tone associated with those words. 

I fervently contend that the differences between the developed world and the developing world are not half as big as most Westerners think. However, one major difference, which I am constantly subjected to, is the shortcomings of developing world transportation systems. 

As I begin writing this, I am about six hours into what was supposed to be a nine hour bus ride from Bogota to the southern Colombian city of Cali. It turned out to be closer to 12 hours, dropping me into the unfamiliar city at about a half hour past midnight. 

When you buy your ticket it only has the departure time, because accurately predicting an arrival time is futile. There are too many variables. 

Colombia is a very mountainous country. My generation of Coloradans takes for granted the privilege of having an interstate highway cutting through the mountains – with tunnels, bridges and multiple lanes – that transports you to you favorite ski resort in an hour. Eisenhower tunnel was only built in the ’70s, and my grandmother remembers how the drive from Denver to Evergreen was once a several hour journey. 

Even if Colobia’s hills are less tall than Colorado’s, they are far more sprawling. 

I remember how cool we thought it was in elementary school that busses didn’t have seat belts. I would have killed a man for a seat belt on this commute. Every sharp turn sent bodies and personal effects one seat over. I ended up rigging my backpack to an arm rest and stuffing my shoes between seats, while I held on for dear life on the more aggressive of manuevers. 

Keep in mind this was a large fleet bus: comfortable, spacious, complete with air conditioning and WiFi that actually worked the last hour of the drive. While my first-world problems were solved, someone forgot to address the fact that narrow one-lane roads were not built to handle an 80 ft. long, 20 ft. tall bus.

And thanks to some engineer’s benevolence, our bus had a large LED sign that shows all of the concerned passengers what speed they are going to die at. At any given moment, I was converting kilometers/hour to miles/hour to predict at what speed the centriptal froce would actually flip us over.

Amazingly, compared to many other places I’ve been, Colombia has some pretty well-maintained roads. 

This is because along our drive we had to stop at no less than 25 toll stations, which do wonders to traffic flow when only one window is open. Often these stations also act as checkpoints for military and police. While I commend Colombia on actively fighting the infamous cocaine trade, this means that anytime an officer decides to randamoly flag down the bus, we’re going nowhere for 15 minutes. 

It’s lots of fun to sit blindly in the top of the bus as a police officer fingers through your belongings below, looking for drugs. In Thailand, Wilson and I learned the hard way to keep all our valuables in our personal bags because they don’t always make it to the end otherwise.

While luxury vehicles like this one have bathrooms, good luck using it with any dignity. 

The violent twists and turns at the front of the bus are eveb more eggagerated at the back, making sure any attempts to aim your stream are unsuccesful. It’s like playing darts while jumping on a trampoline. If, god forbid, you feel the need to go number two, hope that you brought your own toilet paper – they don’t supply any, as is custom is this part of the world. This also prevents any cleanup of your mess for the next poor bastard. Ladies, unless you brought bleach, paper towels, a sponge and heavy duty rubber gloves, you’re not going to want to go in there. Generally it’s best to minimize the consumption of all foods and liquids – not that you have a choice if you didn’t plan ahead. Hunger and dehydration are much better alternatives.

But at least there’s entertainment. 

On TV screens that flip down from the cieling, customers are treated with a selection of Hollywood B-movies, tastefully dubbed over in Mexican Spanish. Whoever chooses these films is a real cinephile, but only when it comes to the work of Keanu Reeves. On a personal note, my lack of complex Spanish comprehension helped me ignore the plot and really focus on the enthusiastic body and face language that Keanu puts into all of his roles. In all seriousness, I’m fairly certain these DVDs are the ones that don’t sell from the $3 bins at American supermarkets. 

Since you can only take so much fine cinema, you are also afforded a plethora of dark, lonely silence – an opportunity to reflect on your life without distractions. 

12 hours on a bus does some crazy things to your head, especially in the black of night, when you are so close to rolling off a cliff in the middle of Colombia, knowing your last image could be that of Keanu Reeve’s face. You start talking to yourself in your head, in English and Spanish. You imagine epic works of fiction, assess your life goals and relive awkward social situations you thought you’d forgotten. It’s like dreaming, except you can’t escape because you’re already awake. Since you are in the middle of nowhere, with no idea when it might end, you get the unique experience of knowing what purgatory feels like. 

When you finally arrive at your destination, hours later than you could have ever predicted, you get your reward. 

In your mental and physical delerium – drained of all that makes you sad, weary, or frightened – you are enlightened with a profound sense of ecstasy and fruition. You are delighted to just be alive, to have suffered and survived. You realize that nothing in the world has ever made you happier than getting off that damned bus.

I’ve got a long ways to go before I reach Argentina. 

Sept. 25, 2013  Tostaky Cafe-Hostel  Cali, Colombia

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