Monday, October 22, 2007

Observations of Bogota (Part I)

Colombians love arepas. You can find them everywhere, in street stalls, convenience stores, and restaurants. When I’ve talked about food with locals, they’ll usually ask if I’ve had arepas and if I like them. The truth is, I only eat them if someone gives me one.

So what is an arepa? It is a flat, cornmeal patty, usually about four inches in diameter and a half inch thick which is grilled, baked, or fried. Their bland taste is often compensated by adding grated cheese before they are cooked. Chocolate arepas are popular as well. Now those I enjoy. They’re made from sweet corn and are very thin and eaten like a sandwich with chocolate inside. Anything can be added to arepas as they serve like tortillas. They have such little nutritional value and don’t have much taste so I try to avoid them altogether. Just don’t tell any Colombians I said this. It’d be like telling an American I don’t like hamburgers or hot dogs.

Bikes, Buses, and Cars
Bogota is a big city, about eight-million people big. There is no train system. People travel mostly by bus or car. Depending on your license plate tag, you can only drive in Bogota on certain days. For example, my friend Luis Carlos, who lives in the neighboring town of Chia, can’t drive into Bogota on Tuesdays and Fridays. If he does, he will likely be pulled over by police and receive a hefty fine, the kind of fine that will keep him from driving anywhere for a while. The people I’ve talked to obey this law as it is strictly enforced. Without this law it would be utter chaos. As it is now there is too much traffic, especially between 5:30 and 8:30 in the evening, when people are finishing work. At this time cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper on the main roads and the side roads are clogged.

In the evening the buses are no different. The main public transportation is the Transmilenio buses, a fleet of big red buses that travel along the main roads throughout the city. There are two lanes blocked off on the streets just for Transmilenio buses, which have only been around for a few years in the constantly expanding and improving city bus system. The bus drivers often drive like they are rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital. I’m often swearing at them under my breath. At peak hours I’m standing between a half-dozen locals who are all at least six inches shorter than me, and the driver accelerates toward a red light and then slams on the brakes nearly causing a Colombian-Gringo sandwich. This brings me to another point: personal space. In the United States we value our personal space, in the grocery store, on the bus or train, anywhere. In Colombia it doesn’t really exist. Riding Transmilenio is sometimes like dancing close to someone in a discoteca. People are simply rude. When the bus stops people try to enter it at the same time people are trying to exit. They push, lean, and generally have no consideration for anyone but themselves. Don’t get me wrong, Colombians are friendly people when you talk to them. However, on the streets and in the bus, they are assholes. They tend not to push me as much as others, I think, because I’m much bigger than most. Also, now I expect to be pushed so I brace myself for it and I’m virtually always the stronger person. This probably sounds like I’m in the middle of a rugby match and many times it feels that way.

While Transmilenio is the main bus system, there are thousands of small buses that drive throughout the city. These smaller buses have routes, but no particular stops. They stop whenever they see a pedestrian put his hand in the air or wave his hand or finger. They too drive like they are late for a hot date, but it is often less crowded and you can find a seat. In addition, they will always stop for you. They cost about a thousand pesos versus the 1,400 peso fee to ride Transmilenio.

Riding the bus does have its advantages as the main roads are often clogged as I said earlier. It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents. Drivers like to weave in and out of traffic, often not signaling. They use their horns instead, often beeping like assholes. For instance, a bus will stop to pick up someone on the sidewalk, thus causing a queue. The cars behind the bus will often hold down their horns in obnoxious fashion. It makes me want to punch the drivers in the face. Every little second or space not filled causes discontent among the drivers. The traffic lights are even set up for this in-a-big-hurry attitude. They turn from red to yellow to green so the drivers don’t have to anticipate green lights.

Maybe this is why my favorite thing to do is walk, if possible. Walking, too, has its risks. There are bike lanes along the sidewalk that you must avoid, unlike in America where the bike paths are often on the side of the road. Biking is fairly popular, although there seem to be more motorcyclists, who are required to wear reflective yellow or orange vests with a specific designated number across it. All in all, Colombians are great people, just as long as they are not trying to go somewhere.

It took me over a month to find a laundromat. I wore the same underwear twice. Some days I didn’t wear any at all. I even washed some of my clothes by hand in the sink. I had paid a woman to wash my clothes but she charged me a small fortune – about $17 for a half-load of laundry. I was desperate. I asked around. Everyone said there were no laundry machines in Bogota, at least none that you could do yourself. You had to pay them a ridiculously high fee to do it for you. No thanks. One day I was walking down a side street in my neighborhood when I found an American-style laundromat. Hallelujah! It was much cheaper and much faster. It’s hard to believe a city of eight million is washing their clothes by hand. I have to believe if someone brought a decent laundromat chain to Bogota they would make a fortune.

Cell Phones
Llámame. No tengo minutos. Call me. I don’t have any minutes. This is something friends often say to one another, myself included. All incoming cell phone calls are free with no exceptions. There are no free nights and weekends like cell phones in America. Comcel is the biggest mobile phone company in the country. It is owned by the Mexican group America Movil, which is the largest corporation in Latin America and owned by Carlos Slim Helu, the richest person in the world. Slim’s estimated fortune is $67.8 billion. And we can’t get free nights or weekends.

To ameliorate this problem, I’ve recently downloaded Skype, an online software program that lets users talk to other users, all free of charge. It’s a great way to chat with family if you live overseas. You won’t have to spend money on calling cards or other services. My user name is: BrettGaramella if you want to talk to me. The Skype link is:


DianaCats said...

Hi Brett!! Just wanna tell you I like your blog very much. A few things:

- Arepas: there are many kind of arepas, due to the many regions of the country. "... don’t have much taste so I try to avoid them altogether. Just don’t tell any Colombians I said this" Too late :D
- Transportation: "When the bus stops people try to enter it at the same time people are trying to exit" I know! I hate it, it happens here in Medellín too at the Metro.
- Laundry: "It’s hard to believe a city of eight million is washing their clothes by hand." Eermmm... usually every family has a washing machine at home. Or there are people who rent machines for hours to others!! The laundromat chain wouldn't work here.
- Cell phones: "Llamadame" jejeje: "llámame". And Skype rules!!

Hope you're enjoying your time in Bogotá!!

Brett Garamella said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and sharing your knowledge with me. I'm still have so much to learn about Colombia, and appreciate when people like you fill me in.
About the laundry, it's true many families have washing machines, but I'm not sure if "usually every family" has one. There are many people who can only afford to wash their clothes by hand. I have seen these people in the neighborhoods that surround the city, such as Ciudad Bolivar. I think not using laundromats is a cultural difference but could be changed with the exposure of good, cheap laundromat self-services.
Nevertheless, thanks again for reading my blog and best of luck in Medellin!

darren said...

Hi Brett, could you please tell me the address in Bogota of the American-style laundry, i would like to use it soon.

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