With over 15,000 street vendors in Medellín selling everything from chocolates and mirrors to arepas and batteries, the men and women that hawk their wares make for a crucial part of the city’s informal economy. Many of these vendors make their way on to the public bus routes to sell their products. The Bogotá Post rode shotgun with the bus hustlers of Medellín to find out more.
Before the internet was a thing Dario made his living selling English books. “They would be books on how to learn English. Pronunciation, grammar, everything,” he told us, “I know the whole country,” he added, speaking of having been on the buses in Bogotá, Cali, Bucaramanga, Santa Marta and Cúcuta. He has also visited Ecuador and Venzuela, selling books on the buses there too. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said, given that there’s no other job where he could earn over $60,000 COP ($20 USD) a day. The income he has earned from the job has allowed him to raise his three sons. Dario is 52 years old and he has sold on buses for 27 years now. He has moved on from English books to sell chiclets and gum from an oversized tupperware container.
Stiven’s favourite rapper is 2pac. Hoping to make his passion a profession, he began climbing over turnstiles in Medellín’s buses at the age of 12 to perform to the passengers. “The bus drivers don’t always let you on,” he said, “but most are cool.” Riffing off a reggae beat that he downloaded from Youtube, Stiven improvises his lyrics based on the people he encounters on the bus; be it the pretty girl whom he fancies, the man in the very red polo shirt or the older woman who has moved places after hearing him rap. He is 19 years old now and he performs on 40-50 buses each day.
In Venezuela Maria was studying law. It had been her aim to be the first graduate in her family. Now her dream is that “all can be like it used to be.” She gets around COP$60-70,000 (USD$20-23) on good days and on bad days it’s more like COP$20,000. On the buses she offers hyperinflated Venezuelan bolivars in exchange for a donation. Her story is within a growing narrative in the larger cities of Colombia, where Venezuelans have fled to in the face of economic disparity in their homeland.
Maria’s friend Lucia also arrived here from Venezuela around 6 months ago. Lucia started off in the cafes before a friend recommended that she start selling sweets on the bus. “There are buses that let us on, but others say ‘no’. Or they might close the doors in your face,” Lucia said of her first experiences on the buses. Her income was less than her friend’s as she spent a lot of her time looking for work outside of the buses. On a good day she would get COP$35,000 but on a bad day she would get as low as COP$5,000. She’s hoping to find other work and eventually become a teacher, which is what she studied to be in Venezuela. She sells chocolate biscuits on Ruta 135.
Edwin Cadavid chose the bus life over a former addiction to drugs. Having spent a great deal of time on the streets has won him friends among the bus hustling community. His friend Jose sells cards with religious figures on them and, despite a lack of belief in a creator, both Edwin and Jose have faith that they’ll make it through the tougher times. This includes the violence they sometimes encounter on the buses. “If I’m waiting for a bus and someone gets in my route, sometimes they might pull a knife on me,” he said.
The vendors, known as vendedores ambulantes in Spanish, also face discrimination from public services as many are often displaced for selling their products in public spaces. Earlier last month a protest was held by street vendors as well as their representatives against measures by the local council to remove them from certain areas in Centro– Medellín’s downtown. The measures don’t affect those selling on buses, however, who will continue to earn their money making their way through crowded buses speeding through an even more congested city.