Colombia felt like a side trip, which is strange for me to say, since it lay squarely in the path of Brazil, my destination. I did make some effort to veer off the Bogotá-Leticia axis, but it wasn't very energetic or sincere, and I was too content to let the diversions come to me. Never before had I been fingerprinted in connection with moneychanging: That's Entertainment! The Brazilian vice-consulate in Leticia said its name on its facade but said "Karaoke" on its pillars: that may have been entertainment, too, but I didn't go in and check. In Bogotá I did try to visit the Police Museum, eager to compare it to Pretoria's, but the long walk out to the neighborhood was so grim, and I decided to confirm first that it was even where the map said it was, then take mass transit.

Which Bogotá has, sort of. All Latin American cities have extensive and intensive bus service, and quite a few have good or at least plentiful commuter rail. Bogotá has what is intended to be a mixture: the TransMilenio. You may glimpse it, though you may never ride it: it does not serve the airport or the intercity bus terminal. What you will see are long low glass boxes that look like suburban train stations, apparently isolated by railroad tracks on two sides. But those aren't tracks, those are dedicated freeway lanes, on which run articulated buses. Which all say "TransMilenio."

And good luck catching one.

I did, but the experience felt orthogonal to the usual Latin-American or Third-World ones, where modernity either hasn't arrived (ex.: potable water) or has fully arrived (ex.: cellphones). The TransMilenio has gone in some other direction, and then only partially. To even get to a station, you may have to scamper across big busy roadways, the ones whose inner, leftmost lanes are now reserved for these buses. When you arrive, you cannot review the possibilities without first paying a fare, as the route maps are inside, and positioned so even with all the glass, you can't see 'em from without. To pay a fare, you must first buy a rechargeable card. The card is read electronically at the turnstiles, but can be recharged only manually, at staffed booths. The fare is itself variable. There is, not implausibly, a surcharge for rush-hour travel, but this is unusual in Latin America, and off-putting. The TransMilenio seems to be asking, "Wouldn't you rather ride some other time?"

You probably rather would - like after researching the fool thing on the Internet.

This won't help very much, but actually you don't have a choice. Which is unfortunate because website design has got a ways to go in Colombia. Good usable websites are not hard to find and imitate or even flat-out copy, so I wonder why nobody in Colombia even troubled to look. Or if anybody did, to put that copy in the intuitive place, which would be That site exists, but to give you ridership stats and the vision statement; only below the fold is Or somebody's rumbo - maybe not yours. There are two maps available, one of which lets you select a rectangle of Bogotá - weird and impractical in an old old city with few right angles. Neither map lets you zoom or drag. Both show the network, with each route bearing a single color but two letters of the alphabet (e.g., J and K, which are the same, only K goes northwest and J southeast - got that?). Coexisting with the network are some very pale gray threads, avenues or other physical features, too few to establish frames of reference. The non-rectangle-afflicted map will invite you to click start and stop points, but without highlighting either; indeed, you have to scroll back up the page to make sure your start-point click even registered.

At last you get itineraries. Some. If it's Saturday and you propose to ride Sunday, the thing will not admit that you can do that. You can click on stations, and you will be shown maps - of the stations' interiors, which are largely identical, since they're all just boxes. There is nothing about the neighborhoods outside those boxes.

All this can change, and soon. Website design and maintenance are easy. But the saturating user-unfriendliness makes me wonder if this is already exactly what Colombians expect and want. I might add that the intercity bus terminal's website gives the place's address under "Who are we?" rather than "Where are we?", and "How to get here?" shows only about a two-block periphery - it's up to you to figure out where this patch of Bogotá fits in the metropolis. At least the terminal's website provides hyperlinks to bus companies' sites. Not that those are always helpful. Wanting to go to Girardot, and come back, I found that Expreso Bolivariano didn't do the latter. I used their e-mail feature to ask about this. Never got a reply.

I did in fact go to Girardot, and come back, on Flota La Macarena, whose site, and vehicles, and personnel, all made sense. I must toss in somewhere that I found Colombians themselves perfectly polite and responsive in person, except for the TransMilenio employee who wouldn't or couldn't explain why my rechargeable card just quit. I should've handed her the smallest Colombian coin and asked her to add its value to the card, just to demonstrate (or overcome) the malfunction. Keep that in mind.

Meanwhile, the country remains a semi-blank to me. Its transportation choices, on a continent where people take mass transit very seriously, constitute some kind of vision, part-modern, part-careless, and part-stubborn. The path between Bogotá and Girardot has to have been important for centuries, yet the highway is even now only partially widened - and where it is widened, there are, uniquely in my Latin American experience, big signs prohibiting hitchhiking. Who was worried about that? As for Leticia, and also its Brazilian sister-city Tabatinga, almost all traffic is motor scooters. This does make sense in towns with no highway access whatsoever - everything heavy has to be floated in on the Amazon - but somehow I feel that in Brazil the considerations are merely practical, whereas in Colombia someone might get the idea this kind of popping sputtering two-wheeled world is actually virtuous. Like bicycles, only faster! Plus FARC is out there, so you should stay close to home anyway! Bad ideas have a way of persisting in Latin America, especially Spanish America.

(I suspect I'm really picking on Colombia here, which I shouldn't do even if I spent in it 500 nights, not just five. But if you're interested enough to try the TransMilenio, you're in shape to confirm or debunk these ideas, all of which I hope are vulnerable to disproof. I do however confidently posit that it's some kind of Latin America, Colombia is. My cabbie back out to the airport called Hugo Chávez's death "the news of the month, the year, the century," and that is some kind of Latin American hyperbole. I hadn't paid close attention, except to see a crawl on a cable-news channel asserting that Venezuelans were stocking up on supplies, as if this were a natural response to a change at the top. Was that so? I don't know, but that anyone would think it at all was some kind of Latin American reaction.)

© 2013 J.A.Hutter

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