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Poverty and wealth: the two faces of Bogota

I’m addicted to travel…so much so that a few years ago I took a teaching job in Colombia, which stank, but I would have never gone to that part of South America, paid for, no less, otherwise. Basically, going to Colombia, gave me the chance to increase my number of visited countries.

The trip began with the interview at the visa office here in Toronto, which consisted of being told by the interviewer, in a nutshell, that I could very well die, and therefore how many people, namely family, knew where I was going?

It didn’t exactly give me a warm fuzzy feeling. Not for nothing, Bogota is the kidnap capital of the world. But still, I went.

Bogota is a city of vast contrasts, from the desperately poor people living in the ghettos, or in Spanish, barrios with no electricity and corrugated tin roofs. To the young soldiers, armed with fully loaded machine guns who guard the city. In sharp contrast are the lush orchid gardens, flowering blissfully in the surprisingly warm mountain villages above the city’s noise and pollution. Bogota is a city that remembers hostile guerrilla activity in Plaza Major in the 1980s. It is also a city with incredible art, culture, and food.

Bogota’s Plaza Major

I lived in mid-town Bogota, the highly polluted capital of Colombia with a population of around seven million people. Bogota sits in a very windy valley surrounded by the incredible Andes Mountains. The average temperature is around 14 degrees Celsius and the maximum high temperature is 21 degrees Celsius. Though when the sun is out in full-force, usually by late afternoon, it feels more like 30 C. Bogota is also the third highest city in the world. Its altitude is over eight thousand feet.

It is such an incredibly polluted city primarily because there are no emissions regulations in place for most vehicles, many of which look quite ancient and spew black, putrid smoke that make it hard to breathe, so wearing something over your mouth and nose is advisable.  The air quality has been tested and the results are scary; nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead, to name only some.

Bogota, like much of the third world, has no middle class. What Bogota has are six sections that the city has been divided into.  Theoretically keeping the poor and rich apart. Number one is the lowest, and so the poorest. I lived in the fifth section, so, pretty good, you’d think.  A barrio, it was not, but it was very difficult to have so much and see the brutal effects of third world market economics literally at my doorstep.

On the main intersection of my neighbourhood, children would often be sitting at the cross walk, begging. But, in Colombia, children don’t beg in the normal “Here’s my hand, give me money,” kind of way. Instead, they perform acrobatics, more times than not in their bare feet, sometimes on broken glass, that was so common to see on the road, while they were visibly high. I saw a child who couldn’t have been more than seven doing some serious back flips, while a littler girl, and a young teenager, holding a baby, looked on. It was very hard to watch.

Sunset from Micol’s city apartment

My apartment in the wealthy fifth section of the city was old, and unkempt.

It was a huge apartment. It had three bedrooms and four bathrooms, one of which was called the maid’s bathroom.  There were broken windows in the kitchen and three locks on the door to the unit, but still it was luxury. Even with the bedbugs. It had a rickety, old-style elevator, the kind where you have to close the door before it can start to ascend, or descend, depending on which way you were heading. There was a gap between the door and the floor, and through this gap I once lost my apartment keys!

Like any apartment in a wealthy district, mine had doormen. Though they seemed or were, I wasn’t sure, unarmed. How unfair was that! When only two streets over they had doormen patrolling with some serious weaponry. Two streets over the apartments were modern and flashy and had fancy native flowers in big, beautiful vases in the foyers.  They were the kinds of flowers that the rich anywhere buy and discard very readily, not caring at all how long it takes a flower to grow, and how hard someone had to work to go to the mountains and jungles to get them, because they are big, heavy stemmed flowers.
My apartment didn’t have a foyer. So, naturally it had no flowers.

The doormen worked in long shifts, so someone was always there. One doorman an older man, Armando, or Armando the unbelievably nosy –who could speak with his eyebrows alone, would raise his eyebrows as if to say, “What are you up to, hmmm?” He was shocked to see hot running water in my apartment, which says something about the state of poverty he came from. The other was a younger man named Nelson, who was always trying to sleep, but was very competent! Nelson surprised once me by springing, miraculously into action, and found my key that had made its way through the gap between the elevator.

The children whom I taught were the super- wealthy. Every morning, a bus belonging to the school would come to pick me up. I was the first person on because I lived at the beginning of that particular bus route. It also picked up many students who lived on that route to the school, as well as a few other teachers.

It was never an uncommon site to see the children who lived in big, sprawling, gated houses have their mothers waiting just outside the door, to usher them out. Then, at the garden gate, leading to the street, their maid would be standing, holding their backpacks. The child might take it, but more times than not, our bus monitor would dash off the bus, quickly grab it, and anything else the maid might have, such as any instruments or gym equipment and usher the child to her/ his assigned seat, and then securely tuck their belongings away for them.

These things always shocked and disgusted me. But only me. For everyone else it was, literally, business as usual.

My bus would arrive every morning at 5:15. I got up at around 4 am. This way I didn’t have to rush and could more or less take my time. Some of that time was spent leaving my apartment some 10 or 15 minutes early to head down and have a smoke, and be astounded by the fact that the whole city was wide awake already.  I would usually be down in front of my apartment by 4:45, or 5 am.

The bus driver never rushed me, like he would the children who couldn’t carry their own bags. He would sometimes get so fed up, that if they weren’t at the curb, or whatever assigned waiting spot, he’d leave. End of story.

But to me, he would say kindly, to take my time, because I was always very punctual, and once in a while he would join me in a smoke.
I often wondered if the children I taught knew just how lucky they were.

One Saturday I saw seven or eight young men, not in my neighbourhood, somewhere “nicer” standing on each other’s shoulders’, in a triangle, right in the middle of the road. It was incredible! I wanted to take a picture! Even give them change, but I knew that would be hard, because a) I was trying to cross, b) not get hit (which was a feat in itself!) and c) watch them. Not only were they poor, they were black, meaning they had two strikes against them in the caste system of Colombian poverty. I thought they were incredible, but the people I was with thought differently, and admonished me strongly about even stopping to look.

Bogota has a train that runs through it. The train tracks were near my place.

Flowers on the railway tracks

Those tracks were home to many a homeless man, who used the grassy refuge as his bedroom and bathroom. I remember using the tracks once or twice to cross instead of through the street, and watched as a man undid his pants and squatted to empty his bowels. It was not easy to watch but still I forced myself.

Some of the images of Bogota that will stay with me forever are of so many elderly people on the streets, working, selling things. Things like large, heavy flowers and plants from the mountains, toys, gum, desserts. In Canada our elderly people, are, for the most part, well taken care of and given a pension, so that eating isn’t a luxury. I will also remember going to downtown Bogota and experiencing the whimsical street theatre, which was a welcome break from so much pain, which consisted of clowns following you if they liked you and giving you a smiley face sticker. I will also remember an old woman with a black eye sitting on a bench, next to a man, and a woman in a park down the street from my place, getting beaten by a man, that she seemed to know, as a cop looked on. And once, at night, I saw the scariest sight, a large truck with an open roof and slats up the sides. It was parked across the street from where I sat, and the police or the military, I couldn’t tell which, went around gathering people, and throwing them into the truck. The people in the truck looked out like terrified animals. And then the truck disappeared, as silently as it came. And everyone pretended they hadn’t seen a thing.

Upon leaving the country, I had to pay a fee at the airport, something I certainly was never told about beforehand. Even on travel sites with forums on Colombia, not one person who had visited mentioned anything about the exit tax. Funny.

It is certainly a city with many sides. The side that stands out most for me is the juxtaposition of the poverty with the greed of wealth.

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