“You look at them with such pity,” Diego snapped.
I hurriedly averted my eyes from the forlorn figure of a tramp, huddled beneath his blanket in a filthy shop doorway.
“Oh, it’s an English thing,” I said hurriedly.
“They usually have dogs and you know how English people feel about dogs.”
“No, you feel sorry for them,” Diego replied.
“There is no reason to feel sorry for them.”
I opened my mouth to argue.
“No,” my Colombian friend continued.
“They all came here when there was trouble in the countryside.
“But the countryside is safe now. They should either go back or find work here in Bogotá.”
I started a valiant protest.
“But you don’t know that’s the case with every tramp,” I pleaded.
“Some of them might have been abused at home. If I was abused I’d have run away too and ended up on the streets.
“Then it’s pretty difficult to find work.”
“No way,” my friend interjected.
“I speak to these guys. They speak as many languages as I do.
(Diego speaks five languages at the last count)
“There is no way they can’t find work,” he continued.
“They’re just lazy.”
I opened my mouth to continue the argument.
“You’re wrong,” my friend said firmly, before I could speak.
I let the matter drop, but I didn’t forget it.
I noticed that some of Diego’s friends gave money to beggars.
I also noticed that all of the cab drivers in Bogotá keep a small stash of coins beside their steering wheel, ready to hand out at the traffic lights.
Still, I’m not one to give money to people on the streets.
Although I always tried to remember to buy my Big Issue at home, handing out cash generally means opening your purse in public. I don’t think that’s too smart.
But today was different.
I was in a very good mood and the sun was warm on my face.
A young man, with ragged clothes and shining eyes, stopped me just outside the supermarket.
“Please mum, give me some money for food,” he begged in Spanish.
Maybe it was the shining eyes beneath the grime that stopped me.
Or perhaps it was because he was about my age and he still called me ‘mum’.
I opened my wallet and delivered my usual sermon designed to make beggars feel even worse than they already do.
“No smoking and no alcohol,” I insisted in Spanish.
Why should beggars be allowed any vices to alleviate their suffering?
“I don’t smoke and I don’t drink,” the beggar replied, in perfect English.
I was stunned.
“You speak English?” I exclaimed.
The beggar smiled proudly.
“Yes mum,” he said, nodding his head earnestly.
“And I also speak French.”