The Fringes of Bogotá (Part 2 of 2)

Trip Start May 2006
Trip End Aug 17, 2006

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Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The steep street ended and we entered into a nondescript building with one large white room. About twenty 5-10 year old children were sitting in a circle in chairs. Before we even reached them, they greeted my friends Luca and Serena with and intimate familiarity, unbridled in their affection, and amazingly toward me.
Serena and Luca have been volunteering their time with these children once or twice a week. He invited me here to spend the day playing and working with them. They are some of most neglected kids in all of Bogotá, economically, personally, politically, and chosen from a much larger group by the director of the program Julio, who had grown up in a similar environment. He served in the military, but through all his hardships, he has resisted callousness and has an enormous idealistic heart that desperately wants these kids to have an opportunity in life, to overcome their Fucked At Birth status.
In addition to the three other adults, Julio´s sister Estella was here. We regathered in a circle and Julio lectured us about cardinal directions, explaining to the children the relationship between N, S, E, and W, until the majority of them could tell you what direction was relative to another. Luca then talked about maps, as today's activity was to create a map of the neighborhood. The kids were very respectful of the adults and each other, and always spirited to ask and answer any questions. Although they were all dressed adequately, their clothes had not been subject to many thorough washings and had the randomness of donation stamped on them, anything from FUBU to solid colored generic pants. A few them had strange marks, perhaps of abuse or just dirt, and some with the awkwardness of pre-adolescence, such as a small mouth with large teeth buttressing through.
We split into 4 groups and I joined Luca´s. Each of them received graph paper and a barely functional pencil. Out in front of the building, called The Salon, we helped them orient their maps get their bearings. They each drew the street and the location of the next-door school and the Salon, and then we decided to help them map where their houses were. At the end of the street, a series of zigzagging steps led to the upper neighborhood. This was truly the fringes of Bogotá, since if you woke up here, it would be natural to think you were in some rural village. The streets were earthen, splattered with rock and ruts, where animals such as cows, wandered around, and roosters were the perennial time keepesr. All the while, beautiful vistas portrayed the sprawl of Bogotá´s 8 million inhabitants. I pulled out the camera to takes some photos of this and of the group, and children instantly became enthralled, dying to see the images displayed on the tiny screen, possibly the first time in their life they had the opportunity to see themselves and their surroundings from an observational perspective. They must be something innate about that desire, though repressed, because they all wanted to take pictures of everything, all in such a humble, curious, melt you heart kind of way. I know individual children in the U.S. who have enough toys that they could easily be distributed to all these kids. The value of the camera probably equaled that of all their possessions combined.
We walked further up the hill and passed by one of the girl's homes. It was a shack built from prefab hollow blocks spackled together. A roof protected part of the little home. 5 people lived in this 2 room emergency permanent shelter. We said high to a boy's grandmother. Her teeth were about 50% intact, though those that remained looked like they were lassoed and pulled by a truck. They were an every angle and every size imaginable as though she had not lost some of her baby teeth. She was fetching water out of a catch-basin to boil corn with firewood. A few minutes later we came to the end of the line, the frontier where humans had not yet permeated and the forest still dominated. It would be like walking from Little Neck, Queens (a border neighborhood in New York City) into the wilderness. The last shack was supposedly inhabited by a drug-dealer. He had the best views, quietness, nature, decent air, and communal space, as do all the people this high up. In the north end of Bogotá, the most expensive Real estate is also on the mountain and is coveted for the same reasons, in addition to personal space and peace. There, private cars access the well maintained roads. Here, it is a 5-10 minute walk to the bus, then 20 minutes just down to the valley, and another 20 minutes to downtown, assuming minimum traffic. It may be Bogotá in name, but in practice, it is an accidental growth, a neglected tumor cut off from the body.
We cut across a trail and descended past a little convenience store and a dilapidated soccer field. Some of houses had a "Se Vende Chicha" sign. Chicha is a potent alcohol made from and with the color of corn. It takes no special equipment to conditions to make.
Back at the salon, Luca asked them to recreate their map, and include places of emotion, whether good or bad. One girl filled her map with the happy places of school, salon, home, and a soccer field. Another boy said the only happy place was the soccer field. He was indifferent to rest, an indifference that wrapped around pain. Lunch came in styrofoam containers filled with rice, meat, plantain and avocado. I kept the avocado and gave the rest away. The children ate not with an intense hunger, but with an intense delight.
Next came exercise and we walked into the forest and found an uneven but serviceable field with two basic goals. This is the highlight of the neighborhood, and at least for the kids, makes up for all that is lacking. How many people grow up a few minutes walk from a beautiful, peaceful, natural recreation area? We did not play soccer, but a game where the ball is passed by throwing it without moving, essentially ultimate frisbee with a soccer ball instead. For some reason, Julio was intensely competitive to the point where all except the biggest kids were left out on his team. Still, they all frolicked and desperately wanted me to pass them the ball, and I tried sharing it as much as possible, though the ease with which I could do as I please had the addictions of power embedded in our activity. A group of girls refuse to play and preferred sitting on a bent over tree on the edge of the forest. After a group photo, it was goodbye time and the kids seemed just as willing to go as they were to come, somewhat surprising, since I heard that the majority of the parents play little active role in their lives. Given the instability that permeates their lives, change is ordinary and not something to be feared or complained about. On the way down, we walked past a kid who was supposed to have to come. There was no excuse (except his mom wasn't around to tell him to go) and Julio scolded him lightly, since a kid was lucky to chosen, and not taking advantage of it, was an insult to Julio. He showed us a vacant (yet filled with debris) lot, where he wanted to build a house taller than the surrounding ones, which would cost a hefty 8,000 dollars. It was going to be a monument that one can surmount the most difficult of obstacles, only to return to and confront them again, undaunted and with the insatiable desire to improve your roots in the best way possible, to respect what they are since you are them.

(note: pictures will be sent once i have a broadband connection)
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