23 June 2010
An older woman got on the bus on my way home from school the other day. I got up to give her my seat and after she declined, told me that I shouldn’t have to stand and then apologized for the inconvenience, she took my seat. She then did something, that had I not seen it happen before, I would have 1) had no idea what was happening and 2) been a little nervous. She extracted my book and jacket from the crook of my arm, took my water bottle and reached with a smile for my backpack. I, being afraid to offend her in any way (which is a tendency that sometimes gets me into trouble), took my backpack off my shoulder and set it on her lap. She was actually holding all of my stuff, so that I wouldn’t be bothered with it when I was standing up!
Courtesy, or lack thereof, here is a complicated and wonderful thing. A stranger on the bus will take care of your things for you, and sentences are laced with cues of respect: I am called su merced often (a title taken from Spanish colonial rule that translates to something to the likes of your mercifulness), a friend of mine has taken to being called “doctora” even though she is nothing of the sort, all conversations start with Buenos dias/tardes/noches señor/señora and at the slightest inconvenience you are told “que pena para ud.” (literally, what a shame for you). Not to mention, that people will actually strike up conversations with you on the bus, in a city of around 7 million people. On the other hand, when getting on that bus, despite the irrationality of it and the myriad signs imploring the masses to allow individuals to exit before boarding, every day there is a jam of people shoving, pushing and wedging their way past those exiting.
You can also be waiting in any line and people will just stand in front of you, like you were never there, or were not actually waiting in line at all, just happened to be contentedly standing in that space. Regardless of these little pet peeves, Colombia is filled with some of the most genuinely nice people that I’ve ever met.
But, I digress. When the woman next to the older woman got off the bus I climbed back into my seat and took back all of my belongings and started chatting with the older woman who was interested in where I was from and what I was doing here. When I told her that I was working in Altos de Cazucá she, like most people when they hear this, concocted an expression that is something like a mixture of surprise and worry. But, then she started talking about Soacha: A place where people from the North of the city never venture unless it’s necessary for work, filled with poverty, displacement and many problems. Then the obligatory, “please be very careful there”. This dialogue I get a lot. But, then she started to talk about Soacha when she was a girl. She had been raised in Bogotá and leaving the city, they would pass through miles and miles of farms and finally drive through the small pueblo of Soacha. Then, displacement started occurring not too long ago and the displaced began flooding the town, generally bringing with them little more than a few pesos. Houses were erected downtown and up the hills and the area exploded. That small pueblo, in just a few years, became the 12th largest city in the country.