Where there’s a lollipop… there’s hope…

There is only one thing that divides people more than poverty – and that’s talking about poverty.

Take, for example, those people in Bogotá who sell products on buses. A pen salesman will sell you a pen, but most of his pens come packaged in his unverifiable sob story. Some of my friends – those who veer to the right – call it begging. To me, it’s a trade – they try to sell, you buy if you want and what corner of capitalism has yet to be infected by a little emotional engineering?

I have two rules when it comes to buying goods on buses: 1) I buy if I want or need the product, usually pens or chocolate and 2) I buy if I like the person and I think they’re doing a good job – the amounts involved are small and I consider it my contribution to the shadow economy.

And so I recognised today’s sweet seller immediately. His name is Gabriel. I boarded a bus in the middle of one of Gabriel’s sales pitches once, seconds before he asked his disinterested audience if they could remember his name. I accidentally caught his eye and shook my head awkwardly. “That’s because you arrived late Miss,” he scolded. “Don’t let it happen again.”

I hid a smile and, obviously, I bought some sweets.

Now, finally, I’ve heard the whole story. Gabriel professes to be yet another some-time student who can’t afford his university, yet refuses to quit the dream of graduating. He reminded me so much of a good friend of mine that I started scrabbling for change before he even paused for breath.

We’ll pretend my good friend is called Luis.

But before you hear about Luis, I should tell you, if you didn’t already know, that Colombia operates a two-tier university system. Only those with the very best school grades can attend public universities, which are essentially free to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The rest pay through the nose for private universities, which can be a bitter struggle.

A university education is so important in Colombia, my dear friend initially starved himself to attend a private university. In the beginning he only had enough money for his lodgings, his fees and one meal a day. So he skipped breakfast, studied, ate the biggest lunch he could, studied, then went to sleep at 6pm to ensure he wasn’t hungry again. Apparently homeless people also employ this tactic. When Luis’s family found out what he was doing, they briefly forbade him from attending university.

A few months later he started attending again, from 7am to 9am, working 10am to 3pm, studying briefly, then working again from 6pm to 10pm, plus all weekend. If I could, I would send Luis to England where he could roam between university campuses, seeking out those who drink their way through their degrees, then protest at how much they have to borrow for the privilege.

Because Luis believes higher education is a privilege. When other students took to the streets to demand free higher education for all, as a “basic human right” I asked him what he thought. He grimaced. “Food and clean water is a basic human right,” he shrugged. “University is a sacrifice.”

(I think deep down he half hates it too, dreaming of that distant day when he has that all-important paper in his hand)

Last time I saw him he told me his grades were so good he’d won a scholarship which would cover half his fees for the next semester. Unfortunately, he had to turn it down. He can’t afford to study two semesters in a row, even at half price. He has, however, found a temporary job which pays 15,000 pesos a day (£5.26) for a seven-hour day. I assume he’s still open to other offers.

Anyway, Gabriel reminded me so much of Luis – he’d travelled to Bogotá to study but was currently on a forced ‘break’ from university, he said – that I resolved to give him every coin I had, in exchange for one of the pink lollipops he was selling. It amounted to the tragic sum of 500 pesos, which is around 18p.

“You’re so lovely,” he lied, ever the salesman as he flirted his way through the bus. “This is in case you feel hungry later,” he whispered, slipping me another pink lollipop.

Hmmmm, food for thought. I should probably give it to Luis. Just to show my support.

Never give up


  1. Miguel Tabares

    You just need to show your utilities receipt, so they know what’s your estrato and according to that they calculate how much you have to pay… 1,2 and 3 pay lower fees ($200,000 to $400,000 pesos). 4, 5, 6, 7 pay much higher fees…. I don’t know up to how much it goes. However I have heard about people transfering from private to public universities being from higher ”estratos” and they have to pay same tutition they payed in their private school. Though this was a few years ago, I don´t know if still works that way with so many reforms who knows. My sister attends to a public university and that’s what she had to do. They even gave her a small subsidio for transportation and meals cuz she lived out of town and conmute to Cali everyday. The Icetex has lots of loans especially aimed to estratos 1 and 2 and they don´t even have to pay the whole debt just a small part, I think it’s just half of it or even less not sure, please check the website. I know they cover tuition fees, transportation, meals and even a laptop. And the good thing is you don’t need higher or outstanding grades to apply, just good academic stance and that’s all.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hey, thanks so much for this. The Icetex thing sounds too good to be true but I will definitely see if he looked into it. Incidentally, apparently Luis has to work three hours a day, for free, in his private university’s office doing admin in return for the scholarship. They certainly make you work for it here!

      1. Miguel Tabares

        It’s true…. Lol. Icetex is a public agencie, it belongs to the government. It has both scholarships and loans to fund undergraduate and graduate studies and language studies also. Money is transfered straight to the university… so you don’t have to be worried about being robbed in your way to the bank…. It doesn’t matter if is public or private and for language and graduate studies they have loans and scholarships to study overseas and even forgeiners who want to study here can apply. I´m glad to hear he’s back in school again an has a job. In the states is easy to go to college and have a part time job but here is not the case… he can also take fewer classes each semester and get a better job, it would take a lot more time to earn his degree but he wouldn’t be overwhelmed with so many things… I know people who has done it that way…. He definitely has to look for Icetex if he’s estrato 1, 2, or 3 there’re lots of advantages for him over there here’s the link http://www.icetex.gov.co

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