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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]

A bus makes a ten-minute stop at a station. Passengers are allowed to alight to stretch their legs and get a refreshment if they so wish. One of those who does get off leaves his bag on his seat. He doesn’t return. Cue security chaos.

Unattended bags on buses? Not a problem in Colombia (for Expreso Gómez Villa at least)

Expreso Gómez Villa: All aboard the anything-goes bus! (Photo from horariodebuses.)

Well, in most countries, especially those with a history of terrorist attacks, a security incident would indeed be declared. Bomb disposal experts would most likely be called in and a controlled explosion carried out. Or at least something to that effect. It wouldn’t be a case of ‘carry on regardless’.

A costly coffee
Now, I know the Colombian state signed a peace agreement with one of its biggest internal threats, the Farc, back in 2016, but it would be stretching it somewhat to say the country today is a land of tranquillity.

So, that a bus could set off or resume its journey with an unclaimed bag on it seems rather lax.

This is what happened, at my expense, on a recent trip back to Bogotá from La Palma, Cundinamarca. The operator in question, the only one that runs this route from the capital, is Expreso Gómez Villa (aka Flota Rionegro). The temporary stop was in the town of Pacho.

The exact details are as follows:

The bus driver told me that we would be stopping for at least ten minutes. As Pacho was the final destination for some passengers on board and others were just getting on there, I left my bag on my seat to show it was taken. (This was a ticket-less journey for me, I’d simply paid the driver’s assistant in cash when I got on in La Palma, a normal practice for such pick-up places. With that, there were no assigned seats as you tend to get on longer journeys.)

Knowing Pacho, right outside the terminal there’s a panadería that actually makes — wait for it — fairly decent coffee! So I headed there, relaxed in the knowledge that ten minutes was more than enough time to get my brew (and also guesstimating, based on previous experiences at this very place, that it would most likely be a longer stop.)

‘I didn’t exactly blend in with the other, largely ruana-wearing, wrinkly-faced, dark-haired passengers.’

Returning to the terminal about eight minutes later — certainly no more than ten in any case — I got back on my bus. Only, as I quickly realised due to the lack of passengers and a puzzled-looking driver, it wasn’t my bus. No. The one I’d arrived on had already left, so Conductor Gordo (think The Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends), the driver of the bus I was now standing on in shock, informed me.

‘What?! But I was gone for no more than ten minutes! My bag’s on the other bus!’

Nonchalantly, Conductor Gordo reached for his mobile phone, called the driver of “my” bus and told him that he’d left a passenger behind.

He then whistled to a taxi driver and asked him to bring me to the now waiting bus a few kilometres outside Pacho, no more than a five-minute drive.

A blast of a time
Being left behind was one thing, but what added to my ire was that I had to pay the taxi driver 6,000 pesos — he was actually looking for 10,000 but we settled on six. That 6,000 pesos was one-fifth of the La Palma-Bogotá fare in total. I was less than pleased, to say the least.

Moreover, when I got on my bus, the driver and his assistant were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the guy.’ So it seemed that they at least had an inkling that they’d left somebody behind.

And why shouldn’t they have?! I was the only foreigner — gringo, if you dare — on the bus. What’s more, I was wearing a luminous green Irish cricket top. Thus, I didn’t exactly blend in with the other, largely ruana-wearing, wrinkly-faced, dark-haired passengers.

Of course, as is my wont, I did file a complaint with the company. With no actual ticket, I took a sneaky photo of the bus driver’s assistant as well as the number plate. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got nowhere with that, “even” after elevating it to the government body responsible for transport regulation, Supertransporte.

It’s true, I wasn’t expecting to get any sort of positive result from my formal complaint. I did it out of principle more than anything else. And considering the convoluted process — I’ve seen this flick before — it didn’t help to put my mind at ease.

My own frustrations aside, this episode doesn’t fill one with much confidence in Colombia’s ability to have the most basic of counter-terrorism measures in place, on buses in any case.

In mitigation, I am but an unthreatening foreigner. The Gómez Villa employees obviously knew that.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.

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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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