I stepped into the cab at the intersection of Carrera 10 and Calle 4, one of Bogota’s many blurred frontiers between civility and third world urban reality. In heavy traffic, it’s about a 15 to 20 minute ride to the skyscrapers and modern high-rise apartments and shopping malls of the centro internacional to the north, but a reality that’s a world away.
To the west is San Bernardo, a run-down gritty barrio plagued by the petty crime, violence and drug abuse that hits many poor megacity centers particularly hard. To the east is the barrio Las Cruces, at first glance and by comparison merely forlorn and forgotten. Despite its quieter feel, it’s a direction I’m told not to wander in too far on my own. In between lies the Escuela Antonio Jose Uribe, a public school attended by some 3,000 students from grades one through eleven every day.
I just finished chatting with and photographing Guache, one of Bogota’s most respected and prolific street muralists, who this week is leading a community project in Las Cruces to paint the school’s north-facing wall, one that lines the street that acts as a corridor between the two barrios. A small fair, with live music and food, will conclude the project tomorrow (31 July).
I was sitting in the back seat, quiet, busy jotting notes into my notebook, as we made slow but steady progress through the midday traffic. The driver, irritated by other drivers and the on again off again rain, respected my backseat solitude. But not for long. It was the weather that broke the silence.
“I’m really tired of the weather here,” he said. “Do you like the weather in Bogota?” It was a rhetorical question because he didn’t stop speaking.
“Very strange weather we’re having. I’d like to go to the United States where the weather would be much better.”
I asked him which part of the U.S. he’d visited.
“I haven’t been there, but I’m sure the weather’s better than Bogota. I’m sure many things there are better than in Bogota.”
He went quiet briefly, but began again as soon as I clicked open my pen.
“The situation here is terrible,” he said as we stopped briefly in the shadow of the Bancolombia bank building. “The politics, the corruption, the war. Here in the center it’s nice, it’s rich, there are few real problems. They like to talk about how the new Colombia is becoming rich, more powerful.
“But in the south,” he continued, “beginning where I picked you up, there’s just misery. There’s drugs, crime, prostitution, violence, children going to bed hungry. Their parents going to bed hungry. So many poor. So much sadness. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
He paused again, just long enough for me to jot down the gist of this wholly unexpected but thoughtful rant. He was the second of as many cab drivers today who spoke, unprompted, of the poverty in Bogota. Maybe the neighborhoods we drove through, prompted by the gray wet chill outside, inspired them.
As the light turned green he shook his head.
“But it’s the same in the United States, isn’t it,” he said. This time he paused expecting a reply.
I told him that in some parts, yes, but that there were many very nice areas as well. “Just like here,” I said.
“Con aqui, mismo,” he repeated, smiling at my awkward Spanish. He was silent until we reached my stop.
“I’ll just stay here,” he said, handing me his business card after I paid my fare. “Call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
For the record, today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 573rd (!!) straight, was snapped on 25 July 2015 near the intersection of Carrera 13 and Calle 25 in central Bogota. Nobody seemed too concerned about the fire.