A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Transmilenio — The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Transmilenio — The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

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When I found out that I was going to be living in Bogota for this school year, I immediately started googling Bogota and the Transmilenio. While Medellin, another major city in Colombia, has a famed Metro system, the capital of the country does not, and a huge chunk of the population relies on the Transmilenio bus system in order to get around the city.

(I even took the time to watch this rather corny video about how to use the Transmilenio. It’s surprisingly accurate about how to use it, but was completely inaccurate about the number of people you have to fight through at each station for a bus.)

There are actually three different public transport systems in Bogota, but they are often referred to synonymously under the umbrella term “Transmi and Sitp”.

First, there are the actual Transmilenio buses. These buses are my personal favorite, because you have to swipe your Transmi card to get into the terminal and, once inside, it operates much like a subway system, with various doors for different buses that have different routes throughout the city. The added bonus of the Transmilenio buses is that there are also usually police officers milling about in the station. This doesn´t do much to stop theft that occurs on the buses, but it does prevent vendors who hop onto the buses (selling anything from food to stickers to music) from getting to aggressive if somebody doesn´t want to buy from them.

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[Photo: This is what the inside of the terminals look like. At certain times of the day, they are so crowded you can’t walk through, but at other times of the day they are completely empty. While it’s certainly more interesting when it’s crowded, I didn’t want to risk having my phone stolen by taking a picture.]

The second type of public transport is the Sitp buses. These buses function much like the Transmilenio buses; you have to swipe your Transmi card to get into the bus and they have routes that the drivers are not allowed to deviate from. However, since these buses have to drive with traffic they are incredibly unreliable. I once stood at a bus stop for thirty minutes waiting for a bus that never showed up.

The third type of public transport are called “collectivos”. Like the Sitp buses, they are public buses, but they function as relics of a very old, confusing, and unregulated transportation system that existed before the Transmilenio system went through a huge period of regulation and change. These buses do not have scheduled stops—instead, you if you see a collective and you want to get on, you wave your hand and hope it stops to let you on. They do not have set routes. Instead, they each feature a plaque at the front of the bus with the names of neighborhoods that they drive through.

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[Photo: Red Transmilenios follow a very strict path. In most places, you have stand in one of the caged terminals, but along certain roads you can just hop on from the terminal.]

As a foreigner with very little knowledge of the neighborhoods in Bogota, I´ve avoided collectivos and have yet to take one.

The cards needed to take the Transmilenio are also particularly interesting. The majority of those of us who live in Bogota have red Transmi cards. I, however, have a blue card that was given to me by a professor who was in the process of leaving the university when I arrived. I have no clue where to get these blue cards, or if they are still given out, but the card continues to function so I will continue to use it. I´ve heard that certain cards will allow you to pay below the normal fare rate of 1,800 pesos (about fifty cents), but I haven´t ever been able to verify it. (I have also been told there are green cards. I don´t know what´s different about these cards or where to get them, but they apparently exist.)

About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.

I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.

While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.

I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.


Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Colombia, Norway, northeastern China, Nicaragua, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, El Salvador, England, Finland, Russia, Cyprus, and Haiti. We also publish student reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.

Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

21 Comments

Filed under Laura Blasena, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

21 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Transmilenio — The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. Delaney Babich

    Hi there! This was a very fun article to read, because personally I have the hardest time with public transportation! I could not imagine taking it in such a large city, with those crowds of people you talked about. I think the subway-like operation of the Transmilenio buses is genius, it would make it easier for everyone to figure out their way around town. I spent a semester in New Zealand, and had to take the buses there, and for the first week I had no idea what I was doing. I hope you have figured it out and safely get to all of your destinations!

  2. Matt Breeze

    Public transit can be fascinating and confusing! You have made that clear in your article and I appreciate it. The multiple layers of public transit seem to be working well in Bogota, and for you, which is good to hear! How does Duluth public transportation compare? Do you think there is something to be learned and emulated here in Duluth, or greater Minnesota? What is it like to have to fight through large crowds of people to get on a bus?

    • Laura Blasena

      Hi Matt,

      I took the bus in Duluth when I was a freshman in college, but after the first semester I never relied on it. With snow in the winter and the time it takes to get anywhere using the bus, I never found the transit system reliable.

      Having something like the Transmilenio system or any sort of public transport system throughout Minnesota would be wonderful! Everybody in Bogota complains about the Transmilenio system, but the fact it goes everywhere in the country is so very convenient. However, I think that the culture of car usage as well as the huge distance that exists between everything in Minnesota would make a large-scale public transport system difficult.

  3. Jenna Algoo

    That sounds extremely scary but so cool! The only relative experience I’ve have with a subway system was in NYC and it doesn’t sound close to comparable. How do the police take care of the vendors? Are they generally nice about stopping them or are they violent with them? Has there been anything that has swayed you to not want to use the system?

    • Laura Blasena

      Hi Jenna,

      The police officers fall somewhere between being very wishy-washy and way too in-your-face.

      Most of them are very young men (early twenties) and they ignore passangers and vendors and just chat and tell jokes in the terminals, but I have seen police slam vendors up against walls and pat them down multiple times. If a vendor is a woman, elderly, or disabled they usually leave them alone, but if it`s a young man they usually stop him and search him no matter what.

      Police officers sometimes routinely stop young men who are passengers as well, and ask to see their cedula (ID card).

  4. James Fuerniss

    What made you want to take a year and spend it in Columbia? That’s really cool to immerse yourself in an experience like that! Did you ever have any issues using the bus system or did it go smoothly? That must have been pretty difficult to adjust to as well! Overall it sounds like a really unique and interesting experience!

    • Laura Blasena

      Hi James!

      I ended up applying to be an ETA in Colombia through the Fulbright program because I have cousins (originally from the United States) that moved to Medellin (another big city in Colombia) a few years ago, so it seemed like the best country to apply to.

      Everything usually works well with the bus station now, but it definitely took some getting used to! I had to develop the ability to be “pushy” to ride the bus during busy times. Everybody stands directly in front of the doors and don`t move to allow people to get on or off the bus, so when I first started using the bus system I would miss my bus all the time because I didn`t want to shove anybody out of the way. It took some getting used to!

  5. Sarah Grace Devine

    Your are brave for going through that struggle, to me public transportation is one of the most stressful things in life. Have you had any personal experiences with vendors getting too aggressive and do you notice if they treat you differently because you are a foreigner?

  6. Meghan Lozinski

    Transportation is, in my opinion, the hardest part about visiting new places, especially if it is a different language. I have been travelling for most of my life and I just recently started travelling without my parents and I never realized how much thought when into how to get somewhere until I was at the train station in Chicago with no idea how to get to my hotel. I have read all of your installments and have enjoyed the commonality they have with anyone who has done travelling.

  7. Jimmy Lovrien

    It’s very interesting to read about the different types of buses in Colombia. I’m used to Duluth’s system. I’m from a small town, so the DTA is big for me. What I found particularly interesting was Sitp buses that still somehow exist. Why haven’t they become obsolete?

    • Laura Blasena

      The Sitp buses run along the calles (east to west) while Transmilenio buses run primarily along carreras (north to south), which I think is the main reason for the Sitp buses to still be in use.

      I`ve recently learned that the Collectivos (the small, unregulated buses) are still in service because the majority of them are owned by rich families that made their fortune off of a past monopoly of public transport before the Transmilenio. Since the families have money and continue to make money, they continue to keep the buses running despite it being slightly illegal.

  8. Tabetha Filzen

    It sounds pretty complicated to have so many different busing transportation. If I was in another country, it would take maybe weeks before I would actually ride the public transportation by myself. I have never rode on a public city bus before. I would not know what to expect. Is it common to have things stolen from you while walking inside a crowded terminal? Are there other ways for you to get around without have to ride a bus? Are the costs for riding the bus any different than in Minnesota?

    • Laura Blasena

      Things definitely get stolen on public transport. However, it isn`t nearly as bad as some people make it out to be. People always have their phones out, listening to music, etc., but I have to be more careful than the average person because I stick out in a crowd as a foreigner and am considered an “easy target”.

      The Transmilenio is 1800 pesos to ride, which is a little more than 50 cents. Once you check into the terminal, you can take buses forever until you check out!

      As for other modes of transportation, there are people that walk or bike to work every day. There are also taxis, which are incredibly cheap when compared to the United States (10,000 pesos is a pricey taxi ride at a little over 3 US dollars), but I get paid in pesos so I use buses when they`re available.

  9. Rebecca Smith

    You mentioned that you didn’t want to risk your phone getting stolen if you stopped to take a picture. Would someone just snatch it right out of your hand, or would they just target you and try to pickpocket you? That’s something I don’t think would even register for me – I would likely go through a couple phones during my stay there! Do you think you’ll ever take a “collectivo” during your time in Bogota? It might be a fun experience if you have a day off or have a lot of time (as long as you don’t end up in a dangerous neighborhood of course).

    • Laura Blasena

      Phones get pickpocketed a lot on public transport. During busy times of the day you are literally smashed between people, so it would be next to impossible to feel if somebody reached into your pocket. Everybody keeps their phones in zippered jacket pockets or hidden somewhere on their person.

      Phones also get grabbed out of hands occassionally. People are often running through the terminal to jump onto buses at the last second, and the doors to the terminal stay open a few seconds after the bus departs so it`s possible for people to grab your phone and jump out of the terminal to get away. Of course, they run the risk of being hit by one of the massive Transmilenio buses.

      I, personally, will not be taking a collectivo during my stay in Bogota. A friend of mine was held up with a shard of glass on a collectivo and had her phone stolen. They work just fine! But since they`re less regulated they`re a bit less safe.

  10. Deng Dimayuga

    It’s very interesting to think about how public transportation systems have developed over time and how they differ depending on country, region, or city. Have you had a chance to use a sort of taxi system in Bogota? Also, during your trips on the Transmilenio buses, how have people regarded other’s personal space?

    • Laura Blasena

      Personal space doesn`t exist on the Transmilenio!

      People in Bogota are definitely much more concerned with “personal space” than other areas of Colombia, but during busy hours it gets incredibly packed. I have been forced to ride the bus past my stop because I`ve been unable to get off, and I`ve also been shoved off the bus before my stop because the crowd decided that I was in the way.

  11. Thomas Landgren

    Wonderful article! I complain about taking the Duluth transit buses and how they can be confusing, but after reading this segment i have nothing to complain about. I wish that you could have gotten a picture of the terminal when it was packed but after reading about the possibility of it being stolen i would keep it close to me. It’s amazing how they are still using three different types of buses, wouldn’t it be far easier for the government to implement just one main transit system? Would you say that more citizens in Colombia use the transit system than cars? How reliable are the buses? Do people even use collectivos regularly? I am really enjoying your pieces, I can’t wait for the next installment!

    • Laura Blasena

      The Transmilenio and Sitp buses are part of the same transit system, but the collectivos are primarily owned by families that made money off of public transport before the government stepped in. Collectivos are cheaper (by a few hundred pesos or so=, and for some people (who use them regularly) more convenient, so they are still very regularly used.

      Collectivos, however, aren`t reliable. The Transmilenio system usually is reliable to a fault. During peak hours it`s hard for the buses that go to the caged terminals to arrive on time because of traffic, but otherwise they arrive on schedule.

  12. The DTA terrifies me, which is a little odd because I took a transit bus for 3 years when in middle school, but I think if I had to go to a different country I would be even more out of my depth. I’m sure that they have a more organized system than what is seen here in Duluth, and because it’s similar to a subway it would feel somewhat more consistent. I actually like the subway feel, the L in Chicago is the least stressful public transportation I’ve encountered so far. I liked reading about the experience you’ve had and find the different card colors fascinating. Hopefully you haven’t had the misfortune to have anything stolen.

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