From Alabama to Colombia: Driving and Surviving in Bogota

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Once in a blue moon, I come up with an idea for the betterment of mankind.

This year’s model: Every car leaves the assembly line with a horn that permanently expires after 10 honks.

That’s it. A horn quota. Just 10 honks.

Use all 10 on one joyous ride home from the wings-and-beer joint after your March Madness team cuts down the nets. Or burn through your allotment in the driveway trying to scare that opossum away from the dog food bowl.

Better yet, save them for real emergencies.

Whatever, after 10 honks of the horn, you’ve blown it. No more honks. Ever.

This piece of inspiration came to me after closely observing the traffic of Bogota. A car horn here—make that the car horns of 9 million people here—seem to be a form of psychotherapy.

Rushed? Hoooonk! Angry! Hoooonk! Bored? Hoooonk! Ugly? Horny? Breathing? Hoooonk!

Yes, I’ve been driving in Bogota, as you can tell. It’s been … eye-opening.

When one considers the allures, the possibilities, of life in a new city, traffic doesn’t automatically enter the thought process. Green space, dining, the arts and historic sights—all those shiny baubles dance in the imagination.

It changes when you routinely wait through five changes of a red light to make a simple left-hand turn one block from your own apartment.

Ever gone to the amusement park to ride bumper cars? Remember the sensation of giddy chaos, the entropy, the close calls and unexpected collisions? Remember the vivid, constant sense of danger with electric sparks sizzling from the bumper car’s connection to the roof?

That’s the closest I can come to describing traffic here.

Bumper cars. Going lickety-split.

The traveler to Bogota can drive and survive. The tips I offer below will help. If you do drive and survive here, feel free to thank me with an adorable gift of gold bullion. Or a fat envelope. (U.S. dollars, please.)

Driving/Surviving Tips for Bogota: Do whatever you can to avoid driving …

1.

... Take instead the very efficient city bus system called TransMilenio. Just know in advance that everybody else in Bogota wants to avoid driving too. The buses get crowded. Bring breath mints—enough to share.

2.

... Get your hotel or a trusted acquaintance to call a taxi instead. But never—I repeat NEVER—hail a taxi on the city streets. Colombia made famous El Paseo Millonario (The Millionaire’s Ride). That’s when a cabbie picks up a passenger, then abducts him. They spend a cozy night driving from one ATM to another making a maximum account withdrawal at each until funds run out. Sometimes, this takes two nights. Sometimes, this takes two weeks. You get the picture.

3.

... especially if you have even sniffed a wine cork. Bogotanos tell me, to the person, that their country employs a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving. If a sobriety test finds even the faintest trace of alcohol—say, from that forgetful moment three days ago when you gargled with Listerine—you could spend the rest of your life writing pleading letters to family and the U.S. Embassy from a very small room.

4.

... if you foolishly rely on the concept of lanes to guide traffic flow. Not since the first flivver shakily meandered down a muddy street scaring chickens and horses (and blowing its horn), has the concept of traffic lanes been so useless. A road in Bogota has as many lanes as it has cars. As you drive, keep your head on a swivel and know—just know—that in a matter of seconds a car will abruptly nose in ahead of you … while another scoots around you into the place you planned to merge … and a third simply stops in the road ahead to unload a piano and some live baboons.

5.

... if you expect any help from law enforcement officials. I have been in Bogota for six weeks now. I have never, not once, seen an officer write a ticket for a moving violation. You are on your own.

6.

... if motorcycles bug you. Like worrisome stinging insects, they’re everywhere in Bogota. If you get trapped in a traffic amoeba (you will, and often), a motorcycle will zoom right past, ta-ta. It may clip your rearview mirror. So what? Rules of the road apparently do not apply to motorcycles. They do not stop at lights or stop signs; instead they roll forward until they can illegally cross, then dart between so-called lanes of traffic and knock mirrors wanky on the next 10 cars they pass. Oh, and if you have one of those miracle days on the freeway, when you move at speed and feel good about getting some place on time, expect a biker to blast past at Mach 2, shirt tail flapping, ass in the air. When this happens, be of good cheer. You’ve just seen an organ donor.

7.

... at night in a car with tinted windows. The car I use has them. My fiancée, Adela, bought it from her brother who lives in a more rural part of the world. In daylight hours, the tinting works great to fend off the dazzling and cancerous tropical sun. But at night, tinted windows turn Bogota into an after-hours set for The Walking Dead. Pedestrians flume into view, running like targets in a video game. Driving at night used to give me butterflies in my stomach. Now, I have flying monkeys.

8.

... if you need to drive every day. Colombia restricts vehicles with license plates ending in odd numbers to certain days of the week. Vehicles with even numbers drive the other days. Even with these restrictions, Bogota’s calles (east-west streets) and carreras (north-south streets) have so many cars that … well, let’s just say if Henry Ford had foreseen the epic traffic of Bogota, he might have set his first Model A on fire and driven it into Lake Huron. He could have saved planet earth.

9.

... solo. So much happens, so fast—in Spanish, for goodness sake—that driving a car takes a village. Find a buddy who will point out approaching turns, read the GPS, watch for motorcycles, flip the bird, etc. It makes things so much easier.

10.

... if you have horn allergies. In Bogota, any driver of a car 20 places back at a red light has a God-given obligation to stand on the horn with both feet the second before a light changes green. Machismo means no mercy. A driver behind you will honk murderously while you wait in kindness for a rickety old teacher and a dozen kids with Down Syndrome to cross a street in front of you. You’ll wish with all your heart and soul that the hijueputa’s horn-honking quota would expire, then and there.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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