|Looking down on the streets near Nueva Esperanza.|
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
As I stand on third floor balcony overlooking the dilapidated neighborhood surrounding Nueva Esperanza, I cannot help but think of these words, immortalized by Charles Dickens over 150 years previous. Abounding crumbling buildings stand in stark contrast to Nueva Esperanza’s modern, sound architecture. On the streets below, homeless dogs of every imaginable breed peruse piles of curbside refuse in search of sustenance—one of them squats to take a dump in the middle of the road while another patiently waits to lop it up. Young gang members dressed like the spawn of Snoop Dog wander the streets in search of their next victim—perhaps an unlucky student, teacher or the mother lode—the gringo they’ve heard to be working in the area.
|The Juan Rey Barrio around Nueva Esperanza.|
Later, I find myself making the rounds within a sea of sixth graders, answering their copious questions about the assigned task. I feel a pang of hunger and instinctively head to my backpack to down a handful of peanuts. My stomach satisfied, I turn to see a few students watching me with envious eyes and am immediately ashamed of my insensitivity.
Towards the end of the period, a pair of older students lug in a crate filled with pre-packaged meals. I reach inside to inspect today’s bounty—plátano muffins, milk and mangos. I grab as much as I can carry and begin to pass out the government-issued provisions to my students.
“Gracias, teacher,” each student says as I hand them what is likely to be the most significant meal they will have all day.
When school ends, I see an aseador sweeping up shards of broken glass as I head out the front door—the night before one of the local gangs attacked the school with a barrage of rocks, shattering many of the building’s windows.
Headed home on a colectivo bus, I watch a woman carrying a bag of colored pens get on, her two daughters beside her. The woman asks for everyone’s attention and begins her sales pitch as she passes out a pen to each passenger. Once everyone has a pen, she returns to the front of the bus to collect the money. A few people pay, but most hand back the pens, uninterested. Although a cheap pen is the last thing I need, one of her daughters reminds me of my baby cousin Grace and I decide to buy three.
|Bogotá Hard Rock Cafe.|
That evening, I head north on TransMilenio to meet friends for dinner. Watching the cityscape pass by, I spot a horse cart racing a taxi for road supremacy and, surprisingly, giving the taxi a run for its money. Passing by a maximum security prison, I am shocked to see an elementary school built right next to its high barbed-wire-tipped walls.
As we cross the invisible border dividing north from south, I notice my fellow passengers’ cheap Nokias transform into BlackBerries and iPhones. Outside, modest homes and tiendas sprout into skyscrapers rivaling those of the San Francisco financial district.
I get off at the Héroes stop, enter Zona Rosa and find myself in another world. Crossing the street, I see a red Lamborghini burn out as it turns the corner. I pass by posh restaurants with English names—there is a CitiBank, a Harley Davidson Store, the nicest Burger King I have ever seen and even a Hooters.
Continuing on, I see fashionably-dressed women and men sporting expensive suits and watches to boot. Designer clothing stores line the streets as far as the eye can see, with flashy casinos distributed here, there and in between. It could have been San Francisco or New York.
|Crepes & Waffles.|
After eating dinner at a popular restaurant called Crepes & Waffles, I return south on TransMilenio. I take out my Lonely Planet Colombia guide and read its description of the country:
Colombia’s back. After decades of civil conflict, Colombia is now safe to visit and travelers are discovering what they’ve been missing. The diversity of the country may astonish you. Modern cities with skyscrapers and nightclubs? Check. Gorgeous Caribbean beaches? Check. Jungle walks and Amazon safaris? Check. Colonial cities, archaeological ruins, high-mountain trekking, whalewatching, coffee plantations, scuba diving, surfing, the list goes on.
I close the book and consider what I have just read. Colombia is back—but for whom? For the impoverished masses who rush to Bogotá in search of opportunity, but find only desperation and a government that could care less if they live or die? Or is it for the wealthy Colombian minority and foreigners who come here in search of cheap drugs and a good time?
|The two Bogotás.|
As the bus speeds towards my adopted home in Bogotá’s darker half, the last part of Dickens' passage plays through my mind:
...we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…