Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bogota, Colombia: Lost in the Slums

The nice thing about Bogota is that it's streets are on a grid.  That meant that I could get as lost as I wanted and I could still find my way home, no GPS, no map, just old fashion street signs. There's no better feeling than being lost and I was totally fucking lost.  Somehow, I'd found my way to the worst part of the city. There were no tourists here and locals knew better than to visit this area. I was in a stretch of town that most taxis wouldn't come to.  I knew that I was on my own as I stood in front of a church that was frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes. It was the kind of place a person went when there was nowhere else to turn, the place to go when God was the only one left.

A young transvestite was sitting on the church steps. His hair was a mess and his makeup looked like graffiti. The strap of his dress had slipped down on his arm exposing his breast.  My immediate reaction was to help him cover his chest, but then I realized that it was his breast, not her breast and it didn't really mater anyways. As I looked at the dress strap in the crux of his arm, I couldn't help but notice the track marks.  I could tell by the look on his face that he was a million miles away. He had the look that only heroin could give. Coke, meth, speed and glue were all common in Columbia but you had to have cash to get heroin in these parts. I couldn't help but wonder about the kid's story.

Suddenly I was jerked back to reality by a sound of something scratching along the pavement behind me. I spun around to find a man with no legs pulling himself across the ground on his stomach, His jeans were shredded and his hair was caked with dirt and blood. It felt like I was living in a Hollywood zombie movie except that the zombies in those movies don't look near as real. I was expecting the man to stop and chew on my leg, or at least ask for money but he didn't do either. He drug his body right past me as if I wasn't there. I looked up from the man into the direction he was heading to find a slum worse than anything I could have imagined. The place was swarming with junkies. It was as if there was an invisible fence keeping them in. With their blank stares and crawling skin, never in my life had I seen such a concentration of addicts.

I was drawn to the street like a moth to a flame. I hopped on the bike and slowly approached the area. Half of the junkies continued to wander about in a trance like state but the other half followed me with their eyes. Their gazes seemed to weigh down on me with an immense gravity. I couldn't help but feel like a defenseless calf trying to drink from a crocodile infested watering hole as the junkies stared me down. I approached an alleyway when I was hit with the rancid smell of shit, piss and decaying garbage. Down the alleyway the walls were lined with tiny shanty homes with roofs made of plastic and walls made of cardboard. The ground was covered with garbage, rubble and human excrement but that was hardly noticeable due to the shear number of people in the alleyway. Some of them sat on the ground, some of them stumbled around and some lay flat on their backs but they all wore the same glazed over, trance like expression.

I knew that if I was able to find the words to describe the scene I was looking at, no one would ever believe me. That's when I had the worst possible idea. I thought that if I was quick enough and smooth enough, nobody would notice. I slowed my bike to a stop and and took the bag off my shoulder. Already, I was attracting attention.  A few men who were watching me stood up. I knew I had to be quick. I reached into my bag and brought my camera up to the brim. No one could notice but they did. One of the men yelled something at me and a few of them began to hurry my way. Shit! Shit! I knew I had to get out of there quick. More men stood up and the zombies began to waken from their drug induced trance. I pushed forward on the bike and pedaled as hard as I could. For a short time, I could hear the footsteps coming after me. I rode hard for more than a block before I dared to look back. When I did, I saw a group of men staring at me with their heavy gazes. Others had returned to their zombie like state and seemed to wander about as if nothing had happened.

Cities are immense places filled with diversity. As I pedaled through the slums, I knew that I was in one of the worst areas and that's what I had come to Bogota to see. But if I only told you about this small drug infested quarter of the city, I wouldn't be telling you the truth. The travel writer Gary Shteyngart once said:

Often I'm afraid. Not for my life so much. These days, from Ramallah to Baku to Asheville, the world is actually shockingly safe. I'm afraid that I won't get it right. That I'll bring to many biases. That I won't see the lies.

The truth is that Bogota is a place with many faces. It's a place with a horrific past fueled with drug wars and violence and a place with a promising future. It's a place with culture, diversity and a rich history. While I was there, I was offered a place to stay and fed breakfast by a college kid names Andres. A businessman named Felix took me around the city in his car and refused to let me pay for lunch. Never have I been so embraced by a people and never have I seen so much fear and terror in a people at the same time. I've come to learn that cities have personalities just like people do. Some cities have noting to hide and seem to be an open book. I can ride my bike around these cities for a day then bid them goodbye knowing that I have the place figured out and that I will never see it again. Some places, like Bogota, are amazingly complex. I've since made a second trip to Bogota and I have a feeling that I may make many more before I figure the city out.

I suppose that if I were to give any advice to someone traveling to Bogota, it would be this: Keep one hand in a fist and one hand ready for a warm embrace. At any moment, you'll never know which one you'll need.

*Disclaimer* The church pictured is not located in the drug infested slums. As I mentioned, I was unable to take pictures in that area. That picture was taken with my friend Felix who drove me to the Chapel of Guadalupe which overlooks the entire city of Bogota. Of the many beautiful scenes in the area, that was perhaps my favorite.

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