UPDATE, JULY 2010: Read Life is But a Dream in La Candelaria before concluding anything negative.
The Suit in La Candelaria
One night in La Candelaria I was watching the corner from my 3rd floor hotel room around 8:30 pm. At this corner there’s always a vagrant or two going through trash bags, asking passersby for money, etc.
Down the hill a young Colombian in a suit carrying a briefcase walked toward this corner. Heading down the same hill away from the corner was a dirtball. Dirtball may not have been a panhandler or thief, but he obviously didn’t work for a living. Dirtball didn’t ask The Suit for change. As soon as they passed each other, The Suit jerked his head around to keep an eye on Dirtball.
After he dismissed any potential risk, The Suit had almost approached the corner. At this pace, The Suit would expose himself to any other dirtballs lurking up or down the cross-street. Further up the hill a group of gringos were walking. Instead of continuing at a walking pace, The Suit picked up his briefcase with two hands and took off. Running like a punter with the ball, The Suit caught up with the gringos and slowed down a few yards behind so he’d look like he were in their group.
Bogota’s high crime reputation isn’t undeserved. As much as Bogota and Colombia have improved, it’s still bad. Coming from one of America’s statistically higher crime cities, I didn’t think Bogota would be a problem. But it’s a whole different ball game. In American high crime cities, there are terribly dangerous parts which are relatively segregated. There is less spillover than Bogota.
The Suit running with his briefcase wasn’t some scared tourist. He knows it’s not safe to walk around along with a suit briefcase after dark in La Candelaria. I told some Colombians how I got mugged. They were surprised I was out that late, a gringo in a leather jacket. They said, No puedes dar papaya (You can’t give papaya). Don’t make it so easy.
Most people aren’t out late at night. I’ve moved to Chapinero and even here the streets empty around 8 pm. It’s the strangest thing to see – a city of 8 million turns into a ghost town after dark. Imagine a city the size of Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington DC seemingly asleep at 9 pm every night, aside from the bar districts.
Before moving here I discovered Christopher K’s Bogota blog. It gives the sense that living in Bogota is like prison. He emailed me saying he “walks around in a hyper-vigilant state” and has trouble “relaxing when he goes back to the States.” I thought he was exaggerating, but now I can see how Bogota could cause that. Looking over my shoulder is habit now.
The mentality in Colombia is noticeably different than Peru. There are more panhandlers and they’re more aggressive. Poverty’s not to blame since Peru is poorer. The panhandlers in Peru put their hand out but don’t bother or follow you like in Bogota.
One day I was working on my laptop on a coffee shop patio in Chapinero. A ghetto bastard was insulting everybody on the crowded patio. I had my headphones on so I only noticed because he was doing it in such an animated way, waving his arms. The middle class Colombians wore annoyed expressions, politely waiting for the guy to go away.
Bogotá panhandlers will insult you if you don’t give. The Brick Incident aside, other bums have said something smart or insulting. To me it’s often in English: “Fuck you, asshole” or “Thanks brother for your help.”
Once I was walking with Damien (who is black) on the west side of Avenida Caracas. A somewhat clean beggar saw me and his eyes lit up. “¡Gringo!” he exclaimed. I’m hungry, can I have some money? He didn’t even look at Damien, racist bastard! In Peru people warm up to gringos in the street, even in Lima. In Bogota it’s ‘Gringo, give me money’!
UPDATE, August 2009 – It’s drugs. Drugs make the difference.
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