UPDATE 2010 – I don’t hate downtown Bogota. Things have changed since this was written. See Life is But a Dream in La Candelaria.
I’ll use ‘bum’ to describe professional panhandlers, thieves, addicts, and hybrids of those three.
We took the TransMilenio from Chapinero and got off at Avenue Jimenez. As soon as we hit the avenue I saw two bums having a meeting in the median. One of them had a bat in his hand. It wasn’t literally a baseball bat, but a piece of wood 2 x 2 inches in thickness, about 3 feet long. It wasn’t as long as a baseball bat and the wood wasn’t as dense. But in effect, a bum was walking around with a mini-baseball bat.
UPDATE 2010 – I’ve learned why bums carry bats. It’s not to rob people, although they may be used for that. Dogs HATE bums, so bums carry bats to defend themselves from dogs.
This walk is safe during the day. There are dozens of cheap stores and informal markets, and restaurants further up the hill. I noticed most people on the street were dirty bums. Rosa said, “Que miedo. Mucho mendigo.” Kind of scary, lots of bums.
Further up the hill Rosa exclaimed, “¡Ay, mira!” She pointed across the street at a bum trotting barefoot down the hill (I say trotting, but he was probably running as fast as he could). He had long, nappy hair with a beard and wore only shorts. He was so caked in filth he looked more black than white. I could see more dirt than skin. A true skank, half-naked, running down the street.
In La Candelaria I showed Rosa the beautiful La Candelaria. I was approached by a professional panhandler with a hard-sell. He asked in native English if I was American. Native English. He tried to shake my hand, explaining he was from Queens. Bums that speak native English: where else in Latin America? The funny thing is he’s not the first native English-speaking bum I’ve come across in Bogota.
After La Candelaria, we walked to Plaza Bolivar. I noticed a young, dirty, gangster-bum with his hoodie up (although it was quite hot out) ahead of us on the other side of the street. He turned his head to give a dirty look to every person he passed. I decided to maintain a slow pace so we wouldn’t pass him. I didn’t want my back to him.
We arrived at Plaza Bolivar. Rosa took pictures, then we took a taxi to Monserrate. The taxi driver started talking to Rosa when he realized she was Peruvian. What does she think of Bogota? She said it’s beautiful but it seems dangerous. Lima’s not a safe city, and downtown Lima at night certainly isn’t the place to be, but it isn’t Bogota. Mucho mendigo. The taxi driver explained downtown has improved. He said the 90s were a nightmare. You could get mugged, stabbed, or beaten up in broad daylight.
We went back downtown so Rosa could buy tourist stuff. A dirty bum with his hand out sat against a wall on the sidewalk. His beard didn’t have a trace of grey, nor did his long hair. But his body was already too decrepit and void of vitality to beg on his feet. When he saw me he said “¿Un pancito gringo?” A piece of bread, gringo? What they mean is they’d like a little money to buy a piece of bread. American bums don’t say “Piece of bread?” because gringos will actually go to the store, buy bread, and bring it to them. But they really just want money. I ignored the bum. He said it again as I got closer. ¿Un pancito gringo? Again as I passed, and again louder after I had passed him. Shut the fuck up!
The sun was going down so we started our walk back to the TransMilenio. I saw a filthy old bum with a disgusting beard hauling a huge plastic bag over his shoulder. He dropped the bag when he saw my big bald head and big gringo frame to start his sales pitch. I quickly shook my head to save his time. He picked his bag up and walked off, turning his body in a way so that his bag of trash hit me.
I was fuming on the bus ride home. I’ve grown desensitized to bums, but I still get angry at the more triflin’ ones. I was happy to get back to Chapinero. I looked at the clean and normal people on the Chapinero streets with profound appreciation.
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