If you watch the news, you have probably heard a lot about Colombia's problems. This country has its stereotypical issues, like the mafia and drug trade with its world famous cocaine industry. But there are smaller, less visible, problems that can make you cringe in Colombia. I'm talking about the War of the Penny. This is a term used to describe the situation that public transportation employees find themselves in as they try to scrape out their livelihood from within the dirt, smog, potholes and dangerous car races that make up the city's traffic culture.
All public transport workers, including cab drivers, bus drivers, and minivan-sized bus drivers, are combatants in the War of the Penny. All this means is that no one gets paid a fixed salary for the hours they work. They get paid commission for the number of passengers they pick up. These hardworking, hungry, poor men have to work 12 to 16 hours a day just to have enough money for the monthly bills, and a few hours off a week to spend with their wives and children. Thus they must compete, because their bread is on the sidewalks waiting to be picked up by the first bus, cab, or collective. It's a little troubling to see these vehicles, especially the buses, literally race down roads, big and small, desperately trying to hit top speed, just to come to a head-jerking stop a block down the street. I imagine that you've seen cars cut each other off on the freeway – but have you ever seen school buses cut each other off on a busy downtown cross street, over and over, all day?
The buses are a story in themselves. They are like America's school buses, except they are colorfully painted and named after colors, neighborhoods, foods and animals. The have names like Calipso, the Tucan, the Sugarcane Fields, the Blue Dish, the CrÃ¨me and Red and other interesting names.
When you get on you have to pay the bus driver directly, who is expected to count the money to ensure the correct amount, and give you change if need be. You walk through a rotating rail that takes count of the number of passengers. This is how the driver gets paid. Now if you don't have enough money you can always offer what you have to driver, and jump over the rail, or get on from the back. One time I saw about 20 teenage boys get on for 5,000 pesos – the normal fair is 1,200 pesos per head.
So you pay, sit down, hold on, and pray for your life, because you are now in the middle of a war. The ride is always bumpy, due to the poor roads, and worse – if you're sitting in the back of the bus, you'll get off with bruises on your back and butt from the hard plastic seats.
Rush hour traffic at the end of the workday will have buses full of standing passengers. Abrupt take offs and stops make hands grip the hand rails tight, and hips rock left to right. I never got used to it while I was out there. I constantly felt the urge to yell What's wrong with you, man?!, or Que pasa, hombre? before stepping off, happy to be alive. There are bus accidents all the time. On Dec. 24, two inter-city buses collided head on. One was trying to pass a car on a two-lane, two-way highway. They were both full. Twenty-three people lost their lives, and 50 people were injured.
But the buses aren't all bad news. In fact, they are a vital source of employment for poor peddlers. People, mostly young men, often ask the driver for permission to sell some small products – everything from candy to incense to keychains, pens and jokebooks. A guy will step on, deliver a very formal speech that only the two people in front can hear, and distribute the merchandise, tripping and hopping with the bumpy ride. He's lucky if two people help him out with 200 pesos.
The War of the Penny has created an ugly, yet amusing reality in Columbia's streets. Survival rides on a bus, literally, for the driver, the passengers, and micro-entrepreneurs. Old women with arthritis become athletes as they cross the street. They are civilians on battleground, caught in their city's War of the Penny.