Bogotá: The city where no-one ever helps anyone

I recently started a new contract, to write a coffee table book chronicling the achievements of a Bogotá company and, if you are going to write a book about a company, you need to spend a lot of time in their office. So much time that I recently had to enlist the help of a Colombian friend to decide how on Earth I was going to get home every day. Anyone who knows Bogotá knows our mornings are fine but, post-5pm, our city descends into chaos.

Still, everything is possible and, after examining all the options we decided that the healthiest, cheapest, most environmentally-friendly and, strangely, the fastest, method was for me to walk the hour between the office and the house. I love walking anyway and although I start that walk shattered, confused and with my brain all over the place, I end it organised and positive with all my mental lists written and my dreams fully prioritised.

“But you know marica,” my friend said, noticing the new colour in my cheeks. “If you are going to do that walk you are going to have to find different shoes. You are going to have to take tennis shoes to work. I know it is going to look ridiculous with your little work dresses and your fitted coats, but you cannot walk in those shoes.”

And so I began bringing trainers to work and I go home looking a tiny bit crazy but, apparently, my feet are healthier and it is taking me a lot less than an hour.

Last week the same friend called and asked if I could pop into his house on the way home from work and he would give me a cup of tea and a lift home. When he answered the door, he burst out laughing.

“You look like a crazy person,” he said, neatly forgetting that the trainers had been his idea.

We soon set off for my house in his car, which is more like a showpiece than a vehicle, a vintage classic that he tends like a pet and the car is so old and beautiful and ornate and quirky and worthy of admiration… that it gave a small splutter and died right outside the most expensive bar in Bogotá.

That’s a bar full of Presidents and Presidents’ aides and beauty queens and billionaires and people who can not only afford to pay £13/$20/40,000 pesos for a baby gin and tonic but who do so, night after night.

We sat in silence for a moment.

“Darling, can you steer?” my friend said, trying not to giggle.

“Not a chance, I wouldn’t take control of this car if you paid me,” I said.

“Fine,” he smiled. “Then you are going to have to push. Lucky you are wearing those tennis shoes eh?”

And that is how, dressed like a crazy person, I ended up pushing a vintage car down one of the most exclusive streets in the capital of Colombia, until finally I was joined by a drippy, Government-type in a suit who was clutching a folder full of papers. And I am telling you, if he puts the same effort into running our country as he did into pushing that car, well, we are all in trouble.

Eventually the car was able to trundle along by itself, though, with me skipping along behind it and the Government drip finally relieved of his duties, until my friend reached the lights and prepared to cross one of the busiest three-lane roads in Bogotá.

“We are never going to make it,” I said, sliding back into the passenger seat.

“Yes we are! We are going to use the power of gravity!” my friend trilled as the lights turned green.

“No! No, we are not!” he shrieked a second later, as the car failed to move. “Go! Go! Push! Push!”

I tumbled out of the car and began to shove it across the septima, yes, the septima, in front of all those people in their cars, cabs and buses and I was wearing a dress, tights and a fitted coat and trainers and my friend had his left leg flailing out of the driver’s seat in a desperate attempt to paddle and ensure we made it across before the lights changed again and all of us, car included, had a very undignified end.

Now I don’t know how many of you inhabit the Bogotá of the night (this was about 9pm) but I am guessing, considering it gets dark at 6pm, that most of you do and are familiar with the army that emerges once our skies turn inky and the people like us, the lucky ones, go home and eat fresh food and watch nonsense on television.

I mean the homeless people and the recyclers, those people who go through our bins searching and scavenging, eating the food we didn’t want and saving, sorting and selling the stuff we thought was useless but actually, and God knows where, can be sold and re-used in an economy that keeps hundreds of people alive.

And they are an army, organised, hard-working and meticulous and I pushed the car past two of them, women who laughed kindly at me from the kerb, until I passed the third person, a man, and finally gave up.

“Help me out,” I gasped, knowing it was wrong to ask a person who was just beginning a horrendous night shift, 10 hours of opening bins and carting scrap but, equally, we had 100m to go and I was finished. The guy was called Elton and, it may just have been me, but he looked sort of chuffed to be asked. It’s not every day you see a 6ft blonde woman pushing a vintage car and yes, we may have been a tiny bit vulnerable but I figured that if someone was going to rob us, they could at least give the car a push first.

But of course Elton didn’t rob us. He laughed, he pushed for a hundred metres and he went back to work. Now I ask you, why did my thoughts turn instinctively to robbery when I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a skinny, filthy guy who goes through people’s bins for a living? Why didn’t the same thought cross my mind when I was shoulder-to-shoulder with that guy in the suit? And which one is more likely to rob society? And which one do you think pushed harder?

The car finally reached somewhere safe and it was 10pm and I could practically see my house, sandwiched between 24-hour supermarkets and 24-hour gyms and there were plenty of people around, so I told my friend I was going to walk home alone. I was tired and I was dusty and I had a lot to think about.

I walked past the fountain on the corner where one of the recyclers was washing his hair. He plunged his head into the cold water, over and over again, and then he shook himself furiously and the security guard, who had seen me coming, walked over with his dog and smiled at me and smiled at the recycler and I thought: “Yes, we are all in this together aren’t we? We all need help and we all need each other, whether we admit it or not.”

I didn’t sleep well that night. I woke up late and, of course, the shower was temperamental, I had no time for breakfast, I couldn’t find my shoes, my doorlady shoved a parcel in my hands even though I was already juggling six bags and I emerged on the street looking wild, unkempt and clearly in a very bad mood.

Two full buses sailed past so I flagged down a little one and shamelessly asked the driver if I could ride in the cab with him. He nodded and opened the door and I flopped into the seat beside him, scattering my bags.

“What happened to you?” he said.

“I am going to be late,” I said, grumbling about the location of the office and the time I was expected.

“You won’t be late,” he chuckled. “I’ll drive the bus faster. But you see what happens? You get up five minutes late and it ruins the whole day. Luckily not today though.”

(And he did keep his word, he drove like a maniac and I got to work with two minutes to spare)

At that moment though, I just looked at him. This guy who was going to drive his bus faster so I could get to work on time.

“I will never understand this city,” I said, feeling my bad mood evaporate.

He shook his head.

“Me neither,” he said.

“The problem with Bogotá is that no-one ever helps anyone.”

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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15 Comments

  1. Harry S.

    I am about to go to work myself but before I do I just want to say you’re awesome. I am in Florida now but I felt like I was right there on septima with you. I understand. It does get confusing sometimes on the streets of Bogota. How many bus drivers in the states would tell you they would go faster for you, FAT CHANCE, lol. Thanks for a nice start to my day and enjoy your walk home.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Thanks for all your support Harry, I am so lucky to get all your feedback. Sometimes I have little melt downs about writing (never about BSFF, but you know…) and I say to friends: “I’ll just write a blog, those guys always set me straight,” lol – the kindness of ‘strangers’. BSFF = living proof.

  2. dvc292

    Lol. I laughed so hard with this story. This made my day. The fact that you had to push his car all over the Septima was funny.
    This is like when you see sometimes on the streets of Bogota a couple of people riding one bycicle but with the difference that the girl is the one who’s driving it and the guy is just chilling on the bycicles tubes. the girl carrying the guy. hahahaha
    sometimes in this city you can get help from the less expected person.

  3. Tigre

    Vicki, you are always inspiring with your brilliant observations.

    Ayuda me! Actually, I never have called for help, but I have been helped and seen all sorts of “lending hands” and caring neighborly actions throughout this crazy city. I was just talking about this to two new Bogota visitors (and aspiring residents). They saw it too at a corientazo restaurant where the server gladly brought soup and juice to a homeless person who had asked respectfully for something to eat. This is a very common action. I have experienced it when a perfect stranger waited on the TransMilenio platform with me, missing her own bus, just to make sure I caught the right one. I also will never forget a day that I was in a particularly blue funk and sat despondently on a park bench, when two young police officers approached me with expressions of concern and care. They asked with sincerity if I was alright and if I needed help. Just that seemingly small act of compassion helped me more than they could ever have imagined. It was just another confirmation that I was in the right space and place. When Blanch Dubois famously declared, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” She would have felt quite at home in Bogota!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Too true Tiger, too true, sometimes all the help is too much and I have been told on more than one occasion: “Let us help you, we like helping,” as I insist that, really, the crazy blonde lady is absolutely fine. It is like living in a city of guardian angels or something!

  4. Teej

    Loved this story! I’m moving from San Francisco to Bogota at the end of 2013. I hope our paths cross you seem awesome! I’d love to share coffee and hear more stories. Hope all is well!

  5. Jonathan

    This is an amazing piece of writing! I love the subtle British sarcasm tinged with the cariño you’ve undoubtedly been infected with during your time in Colombia. It’s a very warm piece that would make event the most cynical person smile.

  6. Ceri

    Loved this so much. If you’re writing a book about Colombia (as you said in the previous post), I can’t wait to read it, Vick. Your writing is just wonderful. You convey such a great sense of place; I felt like I was right there with you, pushing the car.

  7. welcometwoenglish

    I´m an English teacher in Bogotá, I was born in Bogotá and I absolutely love my city.
    Bogotá is not the kindest of the cities, but it’s a city that welcomes all kind of people, some of them come from small cities and towns running away from violence, these people are usually honest, humble and always willing to help you.
    This is the first thing I read from you and I must confess that I started reading hating you for this title and I even felt kind of happy when I pictured you pushing that car. As I kept reading, I was gladly surprised with your findings but not surprised of what you found, because that is what you will find most of the times whenever you ask for help in Colombia (try to avoid the suit & tie ones).
    Unlike some far away “developed” countries (not yours), we Colombians love foreigners, and we Colombian English teachers love you even more. Wouldn’t it be nice to bump into a “6ft blonde woman” in distress and save her day and invite her to have a coffee and practice your English and show her how beautiful your city is?
    Thank you for writing about Bogotá. You have just encouraged me to start writing about the city I know since I was born. If you CAN do it, then I MUST do it.
    If you ever find yourself in trouble, just ask for help, it may be me the one in the kerb. If it isn’t me, you’ll get all the help you need anyway.
    …las caras lindas de mi gente latina…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9gsjztx3f8

  8. colombiadiaries

    I love your comparison between the tipo with the suit and the guy going through the bins. Who was the robber? Who pushed harder? A lot of people who might seem dangerous elsewhere are (sometimes) polite and helpful in Colombia. I was standing on a bus a few months ago (in a different part of Colombia) and glanced down to see the guy sitting next to me fondling a knife – what happened next? He offered me his seat! Having said that, I also saw someone robbed at knife-point in Bogota – but that was a very long time ago…

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