Thursday, 8 April 2010

La L

Walking around Bogota after two months here, the recyclers, the peddlers, the drunks and the prostitutes have just become just part of the scenery now. Admittedly, like most things here, they all have their specific districts. Santa Fe is brothel central, La L (aka The Bronx) is a crime-filled drug district, El Favorito is where all the motorcyclists stop off for a hit of Bazuka, and the centre is the home of petty theft, flea markets and lonely figures of walking rags.
Until now, I have been following fairly simple rules: keep alert, walk fast, know where the mountains lie. This sounds weird, but it helps.

Bogota has a bizarrely polarized class system, where people are categorized and characterized by the different estratos or neighbourhoods (1 being the lowest, 6 being the highest) in which they live. The wealthy live in the relatively clean, commercially defined and mall-peppered North. If the mountains are on your right then you are heading towards Business Town, smart clubs and European prices. Past the centre, headed in the Southern direction, the further down the taxi seat you slide. Mountains on the left = lock the doors, don’t break down. Having said this, whatever the district, the silicone religion prevails.

I work in the south three times a week so I'm quite used to getting there on my own and it doesn't really bother me to be there. Recently I have started another teaching program in 'Patio Bonito', which is a pretty rough area and in no way lives up to its name. I thought this was about as sketchy as the whole experience was going to get for me.

Today, Celine and I were due to go into Santa Fe to start a reading program with some of the kids who come into El Parche. This is a clinic which attends to all those who don't feel they can approach or are somehow not entitled to healthcare. It is run by a beautiful angel of a doctor called Tatiana, who is just one of those lovely people I could never even hope to be. She has endless patience and kindness with the various levels of hopelessness who walk through the door and she is part of the Procrear group which runs activities and workshops for the people who come in and their kids. So we were going to start the kids with some reading. We had organised this last week in a Procrear meeting where we had met a community worker called Javier, and he had suggested we do this class, and also at some point come to do a 'parcheando' (giving out food and drink to street people) with him one day.
When we turned up this morning nothing was really going on and the kids were involved in another activity. Whilst Celine (who will be a starting medicine in the summer) sat in on consultations with Tatiana, Javier turned to me and said 'Listo, vamos'.
Generally, I take advantage of anything going on out here, (bar the substances). Javier is part of the Procrear group, and despite only having been off the streets for a year, very trustworthy. So we started walking to what I thought would be an area no more shifty than the Prostitution zones or the bar districts. When I heard we were headed for the Bronx, La L, I seriously almost turned back. I have been lucky in that the people I work with are not paranoid scare- mongerers. They work in the difficult areas, know them well and give good advice which hasn't failed me yet. However, the day before I had had a long conversation with Hannah about La L and how not only she but many of her Colombian friends label it the most frightening places in Bogota. I had built it up as a sort of hell hole in my head and I wasn't far off.

I figured I was safer staying with Javier than bailing and walking back through Santa Fe on my own, though only after several minutes of discussion which culminated in me taking off my watch, shoving any valuables down my bra and zipping my hoody up ASBO style. Plus, I was curious.

Walking along, the density of street people increased alarmingly. These weren't the 'respectable' sort who casually rake through the dustbins of the centre, mug gringos and wash themselves in the fountains. Here, Men and women, half-unconscious or itching with lice and skin disease, lay sprawled in the direct and trickling line of a contemporary's morning ablutions. By the time we had finally reached La Quince, the squalid epicentre of depravity, the vacant expressions had dislocated into gnashing teeth, rolling eyes and the hypervigilent twitching caused by the long term Bazuka, Cocaine or Marijuana abuse. I barely looked up, partly because I didn't want to catch anyone's eye, but also because there was plenty to see on the ground. The mud was inches thick on the crumbling tarmac and it wasn't the brown, healthy British sort either, but a dark grey, poisonous looking concoction of human and animal excrement, rubbish and metal. It was crowded, barely space to move, and people crawled, raving, out from under tarpaulin and sacks. A little higher in my eyeline were rows of ironically sumptuous, three sided marijuana shacks, eating stalls selling near rotted fried pig fat, and sagging, broken vehicles. The smell of weed was overpowering and joints which were the thickness of my thumb and twice as long were casually passed between neighbours, the search for oblivion bringing with it the pot luck of TB contraction. Think Hieronymus Bosch, without the colour.

It was only about the size of a block, and as we walked round I more or less attached myslef to Javier who eventually directed me into a more respectable looking area where some sort of covered market displayed rows and rows of clothes. I almost didn't give it a second thought, until Javier told me this is where the inhabitants of La L swap their clothes for a drag of Bazuka. The ordinary sight transformed itself into a physical manifestation of consumption, quantifiable and eerie in its normality.

Later at dinner I spoke to Hannah again, whose visit to La L was on the arm of a street girl and disguised as a regular sex worker. She was told not to open her mouth and betray her gringo accent or there would be trouble. Having not seen the dead bodies or the street children who are paid to clear them away, apparently my experience of the place was tame.
Obviously I got back OK, and was grateful for the experience, though trying to put it into words when meeting Celine again was interesting. As a Literature student I have never really found myself stumped, but when I tried to speak all I saw were flashes and images. Javier shouldn't have taken me there really, but he was the safest person I could have gone with, so the calculation was correct.
Walking back after that place, Santa Fe looked like a high class resort with suddenly well-groomed call girls and paternal looking pimps.

OK, these are all a bit depressing, normal stuff happens here too. Next blog, hiking, adventuring and fritanga!


  1. Another good one. So exciting and full of suspense. Well you did it and you got back safely and everything is relative. But your depiction of such human degradation is horrible and moving and has echoes of a Hogarth cartoon of the poor and destitute in Georgian London. It also contrasts with the upbeat FT survey on Colombia two days ago which paints a very different Colombia . But then if it were not upbeat, it would do nothing to help attract foreign investment into the country.
    Sounds like you continue to enjoy yourself which is terrific. It must be amazing to wake up every morning and wonder what surprises and unforseen events lie ahead. It would be interesting to know how you are actually feeling as you encounter so many novel experiences and meet and work with so many different people. Is this something that will impact on you for the rest of your life? How is it all affecting your personal outlook on things?
    Can we skype this weekend? I am around, so let me know when. It would be lovely to have a long chat.

  2. more on the "L" -