Anyone who has ever spent time applying for a visa will know the process does not put you in the best of moods.
Still, I was feeling reasonably cheery this morning. Yes, I had a 5am alarm call. Yes, I was standing in the wet, bedraggled queue outside the office at 7am. But, by 8am, I had the information I needed and I was free.
So I decided to treat myself to a decent breakfast.
I was stuffing a combination of eggs, arepa and orange juice into my mouth and reading my Colombia guide book (yes, it’s a rookie error, but, in my defence, I’m researching a trip to the jungle) when I heard a voice at my elbow.
“Are you American?” asked a smiley but dirty-looking man in a perfect US accent.
“No,” I grunted, my mind still on the Amazon.
“Ah, so you’re from Amsterdam?” he continued.
I looked at him squarely and confirmed my nationality.
“That’s cool, we like you English people,” he responded, his words rushing out in his eagerness to speak.
“I’m Colombian, but I was raised in New York, but I had to come back here, but, anyway, I really like English people, did you know you’re part of our history?” he continued, before embarking on a long historical tale about Colombia.
I listened with mock patience, but I was secretly interested. He was a lively, articulate man with a funny patter.
Eventually though, he managed to finish his story.
“It’s so nice you listened to me,” he said, his words still spewing forth in a rush.
“No-one ever listens to me. But you must know, I live on the streets and sometimes they beat me and stab me, look at my leg, it’s infected, it’s really deep,” he exclaimed, pulling up his trouser leg to show me a rotting wound.
“Please, no, not here,” I spluttered, making a move to leave. It was a tiny place and the other customers were looking with more than a little alarm at his oozing leg.
“Look, look, these are all the pills I have to take,” he said, thrusting a bag of medicine under my nose.
“I can’t get proper treatment. Would you believe it? And I’m an American,” he sniffed sadly.
(I really wanted to tell him that thanks to certain factions of his former society, Obamacare is almost certain to fail and, therefore, “being American” doesn’t actually mean that much when it comes to the availability of healthcare. But I didn’t want to spoil his speech.)
Instead, I made another motion to leave.
“Can I have that bread?” he asked, pointing to my untouched roll.
“Of course,” I replied, pushing it towards him.
“Do you think you could give me 15 dollars? Just so I can spend the night in a hostel. I have a card for the hostel. I can give you my watch as well?” he continued.
Now even the waitress was looking seriously alarmed.
“This is not the right place to beg. If you wait outside, I’ll give you some money, but not here,” I replied firmly. Even though I only had 18,000 pesos on me (£5.90) there was no way I was opening my wallet.
The man left. The waitress asked if I needed someone to walk outside with me, but I told her I was fine and ignored her incredulous look when I said I had 5,000 pesos to give him (£1.64)
I gave him the money. He tried to give me one of his bracelets as a gift in return but I refused.
“You know Victoria, they say beauty is only skin deep but that’s not true with you. You are beautiful to the core,” he said.
I nodded. It’s funny how beautiful some people can look when they have 5,000 pesos nestled in their outstretched palm.
“But you know, if you gave me two more of these I could afford that hostel,” he winked, waving the note.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you I only had 3,000 pesos left in my wallet,” I replied, walking away.
I assumed I would forget the man instantly, like I do most beggars, but, inexplicably, I was walking to the bank when I felt a sudden urge to cry.
I didn’t know what to do. I could take 50,000 pesos (£16.40) which is a fortune in Colombia and give it to the man. But – and who could blame him – he would probably drink himself stupid and my money would generate both a fortune for his local shopkeeper and a thumping hangover for him.
Equally, I could have turned around and bought him a frothy hot chocolate from Juan Valdez. But I hesitated, only because he’d chosen to beg in the tree-lined park where I spend at least three hours every day.
I already have a few characters who I ‘help’ occasionally with the odd bar of chocolate or bottle of coke (the lad who sleeps by the TransMilenio station, the woman who lives outside Carulla) and, selfish or not, I don’t want any more.
So, I felt stuck and a little ridiculous with tears running down my cheeks at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning.
I don’t know why he got to me. I guess it’s harder when someone asks you for money and tells you their story in your own language. It feels so much more personal.
Now, far too late, I’ve had a change of heart. I want to see this man again and make amends for my haughty and pointless indecisiveness – and just buy him a bloody hot chocolate.
Still, in the meantime, perhaps if everyone who reads this blog could buy a coffee for the next homeless person they see, it might alleviate my guilt a little bit.
But be quicker than me if anyone offers to show you their stab wound. Expecially if you’ve just wolfed your breakfast.
Hi, i´m a colombian who is studying and living in London…I ve found your blog pretty interesting since it presents to everyone the colombia that foreigners will see when they visit. so is a amazing document for us to understand the oportunities and strenghts we have. so i would like to encourage you to keep blogging.
in the other hand is very likely that wound is fake (you would be surprise on how good this guys get into the wound faking bussines) and this guy probably wander around the DAS offices looking for easy soul breakable targets.
Anyway I hope you carry on writing and describing our beatyfully suffered colombia.