There are things in life that you click with immediately, you try something, or do something, or meet someone and it’s easy—everything feels right. Daily transportation here in Bolivia, for me, has not been one of those things.
The primary form of transportation here in Cochabamba—for those without cars or motorcycles—is the trufi, vans ranging in size from minivans to 12 passenger vans, with a fixed route, which you can hop on and off of as you please. In principle, that seems like a great system. Find the trufi that stops closest to your house, get on, and then get off at your destination. However, what seems great on paper, does not always translate to a good thing in real life. First, until two weeks ago, there was no application, website, or even person that could tell you all of the trufi routes and what trufis to take to get to what places (an app just came out with trufi and micro routes, which is a good start, but still doesn’t show many routes correctly and is missing a lot of routes). For the majority of my time here however, if I had to take a new trufi, I had to ask the driver whether he would pass by the place I needed to go. There were several issues with this. Since I was new to the city and thus did not know the name of the street or the exact name of the destination I wanted to go to, it was possible, even if the driver said the trufi would pass by where I was going, it wouldn’t pass my destination. Also, sometimes the drivers didn’t know the destination or knew it by a different name and the trufi actually would have passed by there, but the driver told me it wouldn’t so I didn’t get on. Finally, due to blockades, accidents, road closures, traffic and other typical occurrences on the roads of Cochabamba, trufis sometimes take alternate routes and don’t go the same way every time, which can be confusing and/or annoying, especially if a trufi that normally passes a destination you often go to does not go by there, or randomly passes by a place such as your homestay, but then when you are riding in it, goes to a different destination.
Second, I am just under 6’ 2” tall, and trufis were not designed for tall/large people. They were designed to cramp as many people as possible into the smallest space possible, regardless of comfort. It begins at the doorway, where I rarely enter gracefully due to the size of the entrance (even in the largest trufis), people’s legs and belongings crowding the floor, and burdened by my own backpack and sometimes other bags. Once I am through the door, there is typically and awkward second or two where I squeeze through other passengers, trying not to smack them in the face with my bags, until I make it to the empty seat. Sitting down in the seat is not much better than entering the trufi or the short journey to the seat. It is often a game of wedging oneself into a seat where the space between the seat you are entering and the seat in front is so close that it seems even a person with legs half as long as mine would be uncomfortably cramped. If you have a trufi where you can sit comfortably with your legs facing forward it is a cause for celebration. Even if you do have the leg space though, it is rare that you will be able to sit comfortably as it is likely that another person will be cramped in next to you on the tiny seats, or in the case of the mini vans cramped along with you and another person on the row, which really should only fit two people, but is forced to accommodate three. The physical discomfort is amplified by the smells and climate produced by so many people cramped in such a small space, especially when the windows don’t work or it is raining heavily so everyone boards the trufi soaking wet, causing the back of the trufi to feel like a sauna that smells like a wet dog. Safe to say, for me, riding in a trufi has not generally been an enjoyable experience.
Third, trufi drivers are the fast and the furious. They step on the gas until they encounter a speed bump, which there happen to be a lot of on the routes I take on a daily basis, and suddenly they slam on the breaks. Choppy, bumpy, jarring, and painful would all be words I would use to describe a trufi ride, as I often bump my head on the ceilings (which are extremely low in most cases) or feel my knees compress into the seat in front of me with each bump and sudden stop. Smooth is not a word to describe trufis or the roads of Tiquipaya/Cochabamba. Another thing that is not very smooth with trufis is how the payment system works. There is not a card you can swipe or ticket you can buy. All transactions are done in cash, or in most cases coins. This would not be a problem at all were in not for the fact that I never seem to have coins or small bills. This means I have had some unpleasant interactions with trufi drivers trying to pay with larger bills because that was all I had at the time, which they did not seem keen to accept, or in one case did not accept at all. In that case, the driver asked me to go to the nearest store and exchange the money for smaller bills, while the rest of the entirely full trufi waited. Unfortunately, that store refused to change my money, so I had to go to the next store over, the trufi still waiting. However, my luck was no better in that store and when I started to walk back to the trufi to explain that I couldn’t change the money, the driver just drove off without me paying him after waiting there for 3 minutes. I think that has been my least favorite encounter with a trufi driver thus far and since that event I have come up with strategies to make sure I avoid another similar encounter, such as buying small snacks with larger bills, whenever I don’t have coins or small bills, so I always receive small bills as change.
That adaptation and solution I came up with to avoid one of the aspects I dislike about trufis, demonstrates one of the most important characteristics of my experience with trufis. Over the last three paragraphs, I have described the reasons why I dislike trufis. It is true; trufis would not be my choice mode of transportation. I doubt it would be the choice mode of transportation for most people. However, everyday, thousands of people get on and off trufis zooming around Cochabamba. What I have thus far failed to mention about trufis is how much I have learned from riding them. I have learned to view transportation and my own privilege in terms of transportation in a new light. Back in the U.S., I can drive a car directly from my house to my destination whenever I want. I now realize the immense privilege I have in being able to do that. Another thing trufis have given me is a greater capacity for patience and flexibility. Almost every day, I walk to a place where the correct trufi passes by and then I walk more when I get off in order to actually arrive at my destination. I wait for a trufi for 20 minutes or more as the correct trufi never seems to arrive, or worse, one after another, completely full trufis keep passing me by, raising my hopes and then dashing them again. Furthermore, I have learned to be flexible from riding trufis, adapting to the changing routes, crazy driving styles, lack of uniform time it takes to get from one place to another, and cramped spaces. I have also figured out how to make trufis more comfortable and bearable for me, coming up with ways to pass the time in the trufi. I read, study Spanish vocabulary, watch downloaded Netflix shows, listen to music, and even just take a moment to look out the window and find things I appreciate about the world passing by. It is surprising to me how much such a mundane and dislikeable part of my daily life here in Bolivia, has actually given me some of the most important lessons and skills that I have learned during this program. I do not think I will ever be a fan of trufis, but I can say for sure that I value what I have learned from the time I have spent in them.