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.