Una Tormenta Más

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Every day at rush hour, every car of the red Transmilenio bus is always beyond full. The bus pulls up to the station and hoards of people push themselves into each other: the masses can always give a little bit more. When there are that many people– tired from a long day at work– you don’t need the hand rails; the spongy crowd puckers and holds you. The sea of transit-goers is a patch of sea anemone that blushes and sways when the bus hits a bump. Lately, the public has been complaining: there aren’t enough buses, delays cost people their jobs, incidences of pickpocketing and women being accosted are becoming more frequent.

Taking the L18 Transmilenio back home from work at rush hour, there are six stops between the station I got on and the station I will get off. I think about how I’d react if a stranger on the bus would try any funny business with me, imagine cowboy-like reflexes springing my right hand over the hand of an ill-fated, grazing palm; fracture a finger or two without blinking, but when I actually feel a caress on my backside– so casual that it could easily be attributed to the too-close-for-comfort quarters, so casual that I could easily be inventing intentionality out of casualty— I ignore it, shift my body to the right.

Five stations left: I take a deep breath of sweat condensed in the hot air recirculating through the car. Rain and headlights upon the sealed windows of the bus make tiny yellow streamers ripple down the glass, echo faint shadows of urban celebrations onto the faces of the passengers. I try to focus on the Salt-N-Pepa plugged into my ears, Whatta man, whatta man, whatta man, whatta mighty good man… I shuffle to the left. Maybe it’s someone’s purse? Maybe I’m fabricating a fictional situation out of stress or claustrophobia? I look back at the man standing behind me. He is a man around the age of 45, wearing a dirty, denim jacket and a standard pair of rectangular glasses. His chin is down. He does not make eye contact. His hand is wedged into his pocket. Four stations left.

My friend and I had a conversation about this very topic just days earlier. He explained that when women tolerate these kinds of transgressions, the offenders learn that they can get away with such behavior; whether it be a full-on, stuffed animal claw machine-style grab or a repeated, “accidental” graze with the back of one’s hand. My friend says that some men bury their hands in their pocket, meanwhile rubbing this hand against a nearby passenger and themselves; as if the fact that his skin never makes contact with the other individual makes him innocent; as if the thin layer of fabric wasn’t just a thin, cowardly layer of himself.

I jolt again. “Quite la mano;” Move your hand, I say finally, firmly, turning back for only a moment. The man responds with various comments, but— headphones in— I cannot hear what he is saying. I don’t want to. His negative tone murmurs indistinctly from behind the music…  Whatta mighty good maaan… I want to go home. I do not want to listen to him, do not want any more of his existence on me, but on this bus I am a sponge; puckering indiscriminately, taking in rain and sweat and saliva. There is no room to move. You can always give more of yourself to make room for more of someone else. The masses can always give a little bit more. We are stopped

at this point, enveloped in rush hour abandonment; the bus spewing futile smoke signal pollution into the night. The bus is running, but unable to move. I am unable to move. The traffic jam of Bogotá’s tightened chest both cradles and deserts our red bus. Air deserts my lungs. I am torn between wanting to stand up for myself and fearing that my foreign accent will dub me a liar. I am torn between worrying that I am accusing this person of something he didn’t actually do and letting my body become some man’s handrail because I choose to see (Whatta miiiighty miiightayyy) strangers as good. I choose to not be afraid, but avoiding fear does not mean bravery.  If you are afraid of the dark and close your eyes, that does not mean bravery. Closed lids shut out darkness but they don’t make it go away. Closed lids are just thin, cowardly layers of yourself. I count the remaining stations of my pride, one by one.

Ventriloquists try to trick their audience into believing they are not there, that their doll is twitching or talking or cracking jokes on its own accord. Even with the interrogating spotlight, their hand embedded into the doll’s back, they swear before the world they have nothing to do with that thing.

The pole nearest to the door of the bus looks like a vertebrae made up of the hands which grip onto it. I stretch my arm over the shoulder of the woman in front of me to reserve a small property for my clenched grasp on that pole. The woman is somewhere between the age of 30 and 35, I’d guess. She wears a navy cardigan over a white button-down shirt. Her brown hair is tied back into a businesslike bun. Two creases drape around the stage of her rested lips. Two stations left. I focus on her, to not focus on him, but her eyes—two brown bullets– are on the man behind me. Center stage, her lips fold into a trap door of rage. The curtains on her face open and, responding to the man, she yells, “Cochino!”

Filthy pig! And I wonder if she is responding to whatever he had been saying or responding to me telling him to move his hand; if she is reacting to my possibly unwarranted response or actual profanities. People start backing away as much as they can. The battery on my mp3 player dies and the rain pummels the windows. The bus hits a bus and a wave of sweat rises up my back and curls over my head. The sea anemone fan back and forth wildly. The man yells, “¡No hice nada! ¡No hice nada!” I didn’t do anything! and my lungs are full of water or doubt or fear because maybe I was wrong. Maybe the doll sitting on its master’s lap really is crying on its own, warping its own wood with its dummy tears. Maybe it wasn’t sleight of hand. The best puppeteer or magician is one that makes its audience believe that everything they felt to be true could be wrong. Even the worst abuser can do the same.

Suddenly, a man leaps out of his seat, grabs one of the horizontal bars attached to the ceiling, swings from it and lunges his boot into the belly of the screaming man. I imagine we are underwater. Limbs flail inches away from my body and I can feel the bubbles rushing off of them. Someone grabs me by the shoulders to pull me back. Two police officers in neon yellow vests over dark green uniforms, who had been posted at the front of the bus, push their way through the crowd with difficulty. They pull the men apart. The man who had been sitting yells, This guy touched the girl! as the other man continues to yell, “¡No hice nada! ¡Preguntale a ella!” Ask her! “¡No hice nada!” The man in the denim jacket outstretches his arm, the harpoon of his pointer finger directed at me. Everything stands still. The rain hushes the crowd. The police officers look up while restraining the two men. The restrained men stare at me. The woman with the whirlpool bun stares at me. All the passengers stare at me and the ones who are too far back stand on their tip-toes.

And I say nothing. I don’t move. I just hold my breath because it is the very last thing that is still mine.

Her eyes fixed on the man who stood behind me, the woman snarls, It was him! Take him out of here! So they do. They pull him to the front exit of the bus and the police and the man

get off. We start moving again. A wave of quiet chatter flows throughout the two connected cars of the bus. Just before arriving to the next station, the one before mine, the woman turns to me and says, “Tienes que defenderte.” You have to stand up for yourself. I don’t respond. The doors open. Cowardly clutching my backpack to my chest, I exit the bus and walk home.

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TRANSMILENIO: EL FRACASO DE BOGOTA PARA LA CLASE TRABAJADORA

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Up until a few years ago, Bogotanos have been relatively happy with the Transmilenio system since it was put in in December of 2000. Recently, however, there have been problems. Bogotá’s urbanization rate is 5.5% each year and many of the new arrivals are people who moved from rural, poorer towns. Many white collared people and upper-middle class commuters clog up the separated, non-bus-designated lanes of the highway with their spacious, metal boxes while Transmilenio-users clog the confines of the buses directly with their bodies. There are too many working-class citizens for each one to deserve his or her own piece of personal space, for the city to afford to consider each individual as more than dispensable cargo.

People are mad. Bogotá is trying to address the complaints while spending as little as possible.

At 7 o’clock, the Transmilenio station ‘Calle 100,’ which sits between the two directions of the north highway, is illuminated; showcasing the hordes of tired Colombians like zoo animals. The plexiglass sliding doors of the platform are forced open with ever exceeding capacity, the crowd overflowing onto a narrow metal lip of the platform that droops dangerously close to traffic. Buses for every route but the one we all need roll by, jeeringly. When the signature, red buses that serve our route finally do arrive, it is like opening a door to find a brick wall behind it. Occasionally the people at the front of the mass push themselves against the strangers aboard the glistening G12 trying to make the wall budge, but it usually doesn’t. Then, the bus doors buckle closed—just barely, like your uncle’s belt after a family dinner—and rumbles down the highway once more. To add insult to injury, as it leaves the station it coughs clouds of exhaust smoke into the faces of people who—for a moment—had hope of making their way home.  

At this point, there must be at least 150 people stuffed onto the narrow platform. I have been waiting for forty minutes at this point, but I suspect that the majority of the people in front of me have been waiting for considerably longer. Many begin to groan loudly, to whistle, to yell, “¡Más buses!” which occasionally escalates into a 10-second chant. Finally, those at the front of the grouping– those whose hair had been steadily coursing through the air in proximity to the traffic—decided to jump down off the platform and into the first of two lanes designated specifically for the buses. They threw up their fists in demonstration as a C19 bus, on its way to Portal Suba, slowed and stopped before them. This liquidation of transit-goers only slightly loosened the tight constraint of elbows burying into each other. The new grouping standing at the edge began to hit the stationary bus that sat caught in the crossfire. Some began punching the plexiglass window directly beside the driver, whose reaction I couldn’t make out from behind a sea of dark brown hair. The chanting starts up again. “¡MAS BUSES! ¡MAS BUSES!” The police show up roughly seven minutes later. Along with the other Colombian women who are of similar shrunken stature to my own, I struggle to balance on my tippy toes, to see what’s happening. Roughly 20 people, of all ages and all men, had hopped the meter and a half down off the platform and onto street level. It appears as if no one is being arrested and as though the police are calmly trying to reason with them.  

The police in Colombia don’t have the best reputation, from accepting bribes to picking on people without any legitimate reason, but these days the police force is working with the Transmilenio company to preserve the rights of the people. The steps that they’ve been taking have been small and only slightly effective: scrolling, digital messages that appear at every station read, “Mujeres: Marca 115 en sus celulares si eres victima de violencia;” (Women, dial 115 on your cell phones if you are a victim of violence.) More police officers are present in the stations and on the buses for safety purposes: they are, at the very least, sympathetic of the problems which the Bogotanos are facing. Regardless, acts of violence against women still occur; overcrowding provides a convenient setting for the latter and for pickpocketing; delays due to insufficient buses cost people their jobs.

In the end, roughly twenty minutes later, a G12 drives by in the other lane designated for the Transmilenio buses and the police hurry the protesters on board. This, in turn, riles up the crowd of the people still on the platform, causing some people from the back to try to push their way to the front and jump off to board this bus. Some people shift to let the rowdier people through while others refuse to budge, causing spurts of shoving matches to resonate throughout the pack. The stopped C19 bus continues on its way, the passengers trapped on the well-lit bus looking tired and relieved to be moving again. A few minutes later, another G12 pulls up to the platform and I am one of the lucky few who is able to fit onboard.

As a frequent user of the Transmilenio, this is not the first time I have seen outbursts of aggression related to the regrettable system and it will, undoubtedly, not be the last. It’s a real shame that the so-called “best way to get around the city” is also one that is saturated in crisis. These incidents, which recently have been piling up like miles on a speedometer, are physical representations of the ways in which the city continues to forsake the working class. In a way, these passengers of the Transmilenio are zoo animals; self-caged and marginalized for a lack of a better transit option and as a result of keepers who prefer to let their inhabitants tear each other apart than to actually listen and to respond to their roars. 

On the Bridge

In the rain, the 9 PM highway is paved with glistening mandarins.
A boy walks hand in hand with his mother
across the bridge that bends over the twelve lanes of traffic.
He wears a navy, Chicago Bulls sweatshirt.
She wears a taupe raincoat and gray pajama pants
tucked into white galoshes
with the repeating pattern of Golden Retrievers.
Their hoods are both up.
In the boy’s other hand, he holds the tied rubber knot
of a white, surgical glove blown up like a balloon.
As he bounces his arm,
the northbound headlights reveal a smiley face
drawn onto the swollen palm with permanent marker.

About halfway across the bridge,
the two approach a man passing in the opposite direction.
His worn jean jacket, unshaven face and perforated shoes
suggest that he is homeless.
Atop a head of scraggly gray hair,
he wears a gold crown
from Burger King.
One of the paper peaks sags, disintegrating,
worn from more storms
than just this one.
The king is tired,
apparent by his hunched back and weary shuffle,
his unhurried anticipation of what awaits him
at the other side.
Has the habit of adorning this accessory
outlasted the good luck of the charm it was wished to be?

The dogs on mother’s galoshes take notice of the man,
snarling their upper lips as he nears,
veering the woman and the boy
further to their respective edge of the guard rail.
The king either pays no notice to this gesture
or he is used to his ability to repel
or he is too tired to care, but
from behind latex
the rubber glove cannot see grime
or empty pockets
or even the crown.
It just sees a person,
does what it does best
and waves;
as they cross paths in the rain,
moving towards their respective kingdoms
or lack thereof.

_______

Imagine you are at a rock concert. The band that you are there to see will be coming onto the stage soon and the crowd begins pushing forward. The dense group feigns civility while the canopy of shoulders hides jabbing elbows and toes of boots jamming into the heels of those in front of them.
… but instead of a band stepping on a stage it is a bus reaching the sliding doors of a platform and instead of a crowd pushing toward the front it is a group of people pushing towards one of the two gates to which you can swipe your card and catch your bus. Ladies and Gentlemen: this is the Transmilenio. The Transmilenio is one of two options of public transportation in Bogotá, excluding taxis, of course. Both are different forms of buses. Transmilenios are red buses that only stop at platforms designated to their route. They have two lanes on each side of the highway designated for them. Then there’s Las Busetas, buses no more than seven rows deep, that stop on any part of the side of the road where their is a person holding their arm out. You pay in cash, either directly to the hand of the driver, who reaches back while driving, or to a person sitting next to the driver, if that bus has one. Each of these Busetas has a name (I think of the general neighborhoods of their routes? Not positive), the Kr (Carrera) number that it stays on for the majority of the route and the Cll (Calle) number which is as far as it goes. Carreras run north to south and calles run east to west. So, for example, if I want to go to calle 45 going south that runs along carrera 13, I’m going to look for one that says “Kr 13” and “Cll (insert any number between 1-45, to make sure it at least goes that far without turning).” The downside of Busetas (pronounced boo seh tahs) is that they take FOREVER. Especially at rush hour, they make a TON of stops. The Transmilenios go longer distances faster, so time-wise, assuming one of the stations is near your destination, is usually the way to go. The problem is that EVERYONE KNOWS IT, hence the concert analogy (slightly more respectable that the sardines-in-a-tin-can analogy).

To get to my private classes, which I’ll be doing for the next month, Tuesday through Thursday, I take the Transmilenio, which takes me from calle 67 to calle 150 (roughly). It’s necessary, but quite claustrophobic. For my first lesson, I tried walking from the Transmi stop to the apartment, but I got lost and it ended up taking about 40 minutes on foot to arrive. Not the best option. What most people do is line up to take a “Pedal Taxi,” which line up right nearby the bus stop. What are they, you ask? They are little carriages whose sides and roofs are made of blue tarps (to shield passengers from the rain) pulled by bikers. To arrive at the apartment from the bus stop, which would be a substantial walk, costs only 1.000-2.000 pesos (50 cents to 1 USD) !! It’s absurd!! And very convenient for me!! But also absurd!! Anyways, the walk to the Transmi stop, the ride and the bike taxi in total make for a trip of around 45 minutes to an hour. This should help paint a picture of part of my daily tri-weekly commute.

On Tuesday, after my private class (6.30-8.30 PM) I met up with a friend who I had met while living in Buenos Aires, who now lives here with his wife and daughter. I ended up spending the night, which allowed me to spend the morning hanging out with their absolute ANGEL of a daughter, Mila, drawing with her and dancing to a Shakira playlist that her daddy put on.

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On Wednesday, I met up with a friend who took me to lunch gave me a tour of the neighborhood, La Macarena. And no, I didn’t dance the Macarena in the Macarena! I’m going to save that for Christmas!
(See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wihV1drvpc0 for reference)

Today I met a friend (through ‘Couchsurfing’) who also took me to lunch (lucky me!) and then showed me the office of his production company which he started. Cool stuff.

Tomorrow I’ll have classes all day, but I’ll try to squeeze in a poem.

Con amor,
Xena