Bus Etiquette in Colombia

Bus in Bogotá

Do you ever pay attention to how people interact on buses? Or public transportation in general? It’s quite an interesting microcosm, if you think about it; all of these strangers squeezed into a tight place, arms, shoulders, legs, and butts all touching with people you’ve never met before and will probably never see again.

I think that the ways in which people interact on different modes of public transportation is one of the most fascinating cultural aspects to pay attention to when in another place. Here in Colombia, I’ve noticed a lot of customs on the buses that really stand out.

First, men will often give up their seats for women, which is pretty normal, but also, when a woman or an older person is stepping off the bus, men will almost always offer a hand or an arm to help them down. Moreover, if many people are standing and a seat opens up near a man standing, he will probably offer it to a woman.

Also, every time I have asked for directions, people have been extremely helpful, and made sure that I got off at the right stop, and once or twice even exited with me and showed me the right direction to go in.

What I think is just the nicest custom ever is that when a person is standing on the bus holding a heavy bag or many bags, someone (almost always a woman) who is sitting down will offer to hold the person’s bag until that person gets off or gets a seat.

The first time this happened to me, I was carrying a shopping bag with two pairs of shoes in boxes in it, and a woman offered to hold it for me because I had to stand and hold on. I was a bit nervous that she was taking my bag and I watched it very closely, but there was nothing to worry about; it’s just the norm.

I’ve noticed it happening many times since then, and I’ve also had the chance to reciprocate and hold people’s bags who are standing, and it always makes me happy because I think it’s so sweet and considerate that strangers do that for one another.

Another thing that people do on buses is if someone enters through the back door and there are a lot of people on the bus making the aisle very crowded, people will pass the person’s bus fare money up to the driver and then pass the passenger’s change back down. There is a unique sense of community on the buses here that I really like and I think it is very representative of the culture here in general.

One final frequent bus occurrence is people selling things or playing music in exchange for money. Some people rap, play the guitar and sing, or tell stories. Items people sell are usually candy or occasionally fruit, at least in the coast. Whenever the vendors enter the bus, they always greet the passengers and when they finish thank everyone for their attention and usually say something along the lines of God Bless.

When the people get on the bus to sell something, they offer the item to every passenger on the bus, and as a passenger you can either take it or say no, thank you, regardless of whether or not you want to buy it. After presenting the item to everyone, they tell you how much it costs and then go around to collect either the unwanted items or the money for their sale.

Riding a bus is a cultural experience within itself, and I highly recommend making sure to take public transportation on your next trip, Dear Reader, be it to a different city or a different country, and take note of the bus etiquette.

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3 thoughts on “Bus Etiquette in Colombia

  1. hey, its really nice to know that people there are polite and helpful. And the thing about a person getting into the bus from behind and paying the fare is also quiet unbelievable. Here in India too people are also helpful to some extent like when asking directions, giving away your seat to elderly or women with babies and also holding your bags (if that person looks nice and decent types otherwise loose hope on your bags because something would go missing from those bags) when you don’t have a seat. I guess all these things are common everywhere because when I was in Dubai people showed similar manners (you have lot of Indians there as well). When I was in Tanzania(Africa) people were so nice that I liked it so much there ( everybody would always greet you with smiling faces) and they would say WELCOME everytime. Well what I want to say here is you find nice people everywhere you go if you are nice to them :-)

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a bus in Colombia, but your experience does not surprise me.

    I had a few other thoughts reading this.

    One is, I have tended to notice different cultures and senses of etiquette around transportation in various countries, and depending on the mode. For example, I’ve noticed stark differences in airport behavior, though not quite so much on planes themselves (probably due to the fact that air travel is the most likely to put you in the company of different cultures than your own, but airports still retain an air of their location). Car culture is also another interesting phenomenon (excluding taxis, which are pretty much insane, sanity-check experiences in most non-Western cities but even some Western ones as well). For example, I noticed in the Middle East (or at least with Arabs), it was quite common to honk at pretty much everything, and a honk was typically not a emission of annoyance, just an expression of “Hey, I’m here!”. Trust me when I say it becomes just about impossible to close your eyes and snooze for 10 minutes while en route.

    Second, the first time I really began to notice transportation (and in particular, bus) etiquette was in Jerusalem and Israel. Talk about a very abrupt / rude / blunt / rough cultural experience! Very opposite of Latin America and probably most other places, which tend to be warmer or at least polite. That’s a broad-brush stroke — certainly there are warm and friendly and polite Israelis, even on public buses, but I guarantee you a public bus ride in Israel is the opposite of what you experience in Colombia. Also, though I can’t make the claim for all of France or the French, easily the most rude passenger in a public setting I’ve experienced (where the attitude was clearly cultural and not just because the person was a young punk or something) was a French woman in a queue for a bus in England (by the standard of, “when in Rome”, except she demanded Rome be Paris, apparently).

    Third, I have to say I recognize some of the group behaviors you identified in this post as being common in the US, but just in different settings. For example, at ballparks, a row could contain vociferous (vituperative?) fans of different ages, classes, races, and levels of sobriety rooting for opposite teams, but they’ll pretty much always pass money, drinks, and food down the aisle and back to the vendor. Also, when walking in most cities, I find most fellow pedestrians more than helpful and willing to go out of their way to get you on the right path when asking for directions. And your comment about people playing music or selling things on the bus instantly transported me to the subways of New York, where such experiences are darn near inescapable.

    My last comment would be, I noticed this post was timestamped 9/11/11. Especially given that the topic was transportation, I’m curious if you experienced anything memorable that day in Bogotá given that it was the tenth anniversary. Or maybe just a private reflection colored in some way by your environs?

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