Today I walked from work to my apartment. I teach at a multinational pharmaceutical company near Parque de la 93. For those of you not familiar with Parque de la 93, it’s a pleasant urban park surrounded by upscale cafes, bars, and restaurants. The area is home to a lot of multinationals and fancy apartment buildings. So upon leaving my office, you could be in an upscale sector of any large city — New York, Chicago London– things are shiny and pretty and decidedly first world. By the time you reach the 75, you’ve entered eastern Europe (and not charming, undisturbed by WWII Eastern Europe…): Lots of smallish student bars, Internet cafes, long-haired, guitar-carrying hippies, cement block-style buildings, non-newness and non-shininess. Walk a little further toward the 65-66 on la Caracas (perhaps the most notorious street in Bogota), and suddenly, all you see are small hardware stores, used appliance shops, homeless people and drug addicts. I walked by a sitting on cardboard and wearing what looked like blankets mumbling to herself and preparing a bazuko pipe. She looked like she was about 100 years old and it struck me then that you really do reach a point where you absolutely don’t care what people think of you anymore. As sad as it sounds to say it, it was hard to recognize a human under the blankets, filth and smell. This particular stretch of La Caracas smells so strongly of urine that you can’t even smell the pollution. It’s like a forgotten little section where anything goes and you could be in the worst part of any third world city. It’s pretty crazy how you can cross three different stages of development in a 30 block area.
It always surprises me that North and South America, both colonized at approximately the same time by two European superpowers, had such different societal outcomes. I wonder if Latin America had been conquered by the English instead things would have turned out differently. This isn’t exactly a very PC entry and some might argue I’m speaking from a middle class perspective, but no matter how you spin it, I feel like poverty is hidden in the U.S; in Latin America, it’s everywhere; it’s a characterizing factor that you can’t escape from no matter what direction you look toward. It’s in your face in a way it isn’t in the U.S. Even in the nicest neighborhood you’re going to see a homeless drug addict sleeping on a bed of cardboard or a middle-aged woman wearing a baseball cap and clothes a little too tight for her 40-year old body selling gum, cell phone minutes and other sweets from a makeshift wooden stand. After living here for a while, seeing a shaky wooden recycling cart pulled by a sad and decrepit-looking mule traveling on the road next to a brand new BMW becomes perfectly normal. You don’t even notice it anymore. This is Colombia — that’s what everyone here says whenever discussing anything unpleasant. That seems to be the general attitude here : This is Colombia and we need to accept the good with the bad and not expect any drastic changes any time soon. The fact that I’m no longer shocked by anything, from buildings that are literally falling down before my eyes to not blinking when I walk by an ancient woman smoking crack on a street corner kind of tells you how this kind of sad resignation evolves and establishes itself.