Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tale of Two Bogotás

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.

Zona Rosa.
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.

Bogotá Hooters.
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…


  1. What a great description of the Two Bogotas, and there is almost nothing in between. It breaks my heart each time I return to Colombia and feel so sad & hopeless watching my people begging for a piece of bread, children without clothes to wear, etc
    But what does the rich and the government do besides derrochar su dinero having a great time?. We have freedom and democracy in Colombia: For what? As a poor person you can't enjoy any of the extravagance amenities you can find in zona rosa and many other exclusive places.
    I'm really glad you're taking your time and making an effort to tell the story: the untold...
    Colombia's president just came to the States and he was granted the TLC. Do you really believe that the desplazados and the poor will benefit from it? I doubt it.
    Keep up the good job and remain strong because it's is going to be a long and a very hard year for you. You haven't seen all..

  2. Nice comparison to Dickens. I enjoy your writing style. It's interesting to see both sides of a big city - it's often the case that there is a huge divide between rich and poor and obviously we get the onslaught of beauty from the advertising campaigns. I have only explored Bogota for a day so far. Definitely need to go back and dig my heels in for a bit.

    I've been enjoying your blog (especially the April Fool's post. Wondered if you might be up for being interviewed on my blog for a section called Expats in Colombia - 10 questions, photo of you, all through email in your own time. It would be great to get a few words from you on there if you're up for it.

    Let me know.


    I've been

  3. Thank you for your feedback guys! Yes, I'd say the most difficult thing I've faced here is stomaching the insane gap between the rich and the poor. I know it exists in every county, but the visibility of inequality is so in-your face it blows your mind.


    I would love to take you up on your offer to interview me for you blog. Send you questions to my email at!

  4. Hey Mike,

    Just recently stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for writing this article, I really appreciated your perspective. You've got a new subscriber :)

    - Jasmine

  5. Glad you like the blog Jasmine! Thank you for your readership!

  6. Hi Mike! I am a Colombian living in Los Angeles... I just found your blog and I love it! Unfortunately, this is the sad reality of my beautiful and beloved Bogotá... Thank you for everything you are doing for our people and for loving my country!
    Looking forward to read more stories about your time in Colombia!


  7. Hi Laura!

    I'm glad you like my blog. I am going to have plenty of more stories to tell before the year is over, so I won't disappoint! Thanks for reading.


  8. Hey Mike,

    Stumbled across your blog--I think through Twitter...?--but I love it! My boyfriend and I are going to Colombia in August, so I really appreciate blogs like this one that show all sides of the country, good and bad. While I have enjoyed all of your post, this one really stood out to me. It's very poignant and thoughtful. Have you ever checked out the Matador Network travel website? They publish a lot of what they call "non-linear writing", and I think this post is a perfect example of this style of writing. Some people just throw random scenes together trying to make a story, but your scenes actually told one, and a powerful story at that. I don't have any authority other than the fact that I read Matador every day and think I have a good idea of what they like to publish, but I would suggest that you send them this story so others can have the opportunity to read this fabulous piece.