Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Five Pedlers

Colectivo buses.
Sitting on the colectivo bus headed home from Nueva Esperanza, I peered out the window to see the majestic Andes rising up from the Sabana de Bogotá. My head jerked back and forth from the bumpy ride—the bus driver appeared to be making a conscience effort to hit every single pothole along the road.

After exiting the Juan Rey barrio, we turned onto one of Bogotá’s main thoroughfares, Primero de Mayo, and the ride became much smoother, much to my beleaguered body’s relief. When the bus stopped to let passengers off and on, a dark-skinned man missing a front tooth boarded and addressed the passengers, saying not to worry; he wasn’t here to rob us, but to sell chocolate bars to help support his family. The man walked down the cramped aisle, passing out chocolate bars and once everyone had one, returned to the front of the bus. Facing the passengers, he gave a lengthy spiel about the merits of his chocolate bars that would have given Willy Wonka a run for his money. His speech delivered, the man walked back down the aisle, collecting money from those who he had convinced and recovering the chocolate from those had not.

Inside a colectivo.
At the next stop, the man got off and a young woman got on, carrying a box of variegated pens. Just like her predecessor, she addressed the passengers, passed out the pens and began a lengthy oration as to why her pens were worth coughing up $1,000 pesos.

The same cycle was repeated two more times over the next ten minutes—one salesperson would get off and immediately be replaced by another. Although their goods varied from candy to pencils to notebooks, they all used the same sales strategy; pass their product out to each passenger, deliver an Obama-esque speech about the merits of their product then return to collect the money.

Finally, five minutes went by without someone boarding to sell us something and I thought we might be in the clear, but alas, I was proven wrong when a tall, gaunt man carrying a boom box boarded the bus. He begins blasting a familiar rap beat and breaks down into Spanish rap. I exchange wry looks with an 89-year old woman sitting next to me as we find ourselves being musically mugged by this would-be Colombian Jay-Z.

A contemplative homeless man in Bogota.
At this point, everyone on the bus, including myself, had become annoyed by the incessant flow of people trying to sell us stuff we didn’t want. When an older woman boarded the bus and began what I believed would be the same old thing, I thought to myself, “Are you kidding me?”

But this woman was different—she had nothing to sell. She told us about how difficult her life is—that she was there to ask us for anything we could spare to help feed her hungry grandchildren. In the face of such raw desperation, my initial annoyance melted into sympathy and I realized I was wrong to have felt resentment for her and the others. These were people strangled by penury who were only trying to scrape together enough pesos to feed their families.

Who was I, someone who had never known want, to judge?

It is easy for those who have a lot to grow to resent or worse—ignore those who have nothing. The complexities of poverty and economic inequality cause many of us to wrongly blame the poor for landing themselves in such a precarious condition. Rather than treat the poor as equals, we develop emotional calluses to stay sane in the face of such inexplicable socioeconomic imparity.

My reaction to the bus peddlers denuded my guilt of having developed such calluses.

But no more.

It is a gross error in judgment to blame the poor for poverty.

It’s time to rip open those calluses. Let it bleed. Feel the sting.

Because if I, or anyone, hope to make a lick of a difference in this world, the humanity of the poor must never be forgotten.


  1. What a wonderful post, Mike. It was really well written and conveyed a meaningful message. Keep up the good work!

    Fi Mac

  2. I enjoyed this entry a lot. Thanks for putting so well what we forget so often. You're giving us a great insight about Colombia.

  3. That was a heart-felt post, Mike. It's true what you said about resentment, but also that it's easy to forget where we come from and the things we've never known that some people face every day. Sometimes it takes a simple moment like this to help us remember.

  4. This is an excellent read, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I also get frustrated with the hop on and hop off nature of the Colombian bus systems sometimes, but it is so important to reflect on why that happens and how it came to be a way of life for so many...

  5. And because of this, you will be back home a better man with a wider view of the world. Great post!