I knew it would come, it always does. Although I know it is completely useless, I can’t help feeling that way. For those who haven’t figured out what I am referring to, I am talking about guilt. More specifically, this vaguely uncomfortable feeling that becomes almost inevitable when confronted with inequalities such as the ones I am witnessing every day. It gets even stronger when you start to think seriously about how privileged you are to be able to travel so far from the place you were born, and that you do it as a personal choice, not due to security or economic reasons. In a way, it makes it inappropriate to look at others’ poverty knowing that you are going to go home, have a hot shower, put on clean clothes and go out for a drink with friends. Bogota is an extremely unequal city, with people living in hardly imaginable wealth while others are barely able to eat daily. When going from one neighbourhood to the other, one cannot ignore socio-economic segregation, as differences between areas or barrios are sometimes striking. In Bogota, I could easily spend a Sunday afternoon having a glass of wine in a chic bistro, surrounded by luxurious boutiques, with people driving brand-new cars in green and clean streets. But as I would walk home, trees and nice alleys would slowly be replaced by garbage, seedy shops selling everything from stolen cell phones to recycled baby dolls. Sidewalks would fill with street vendors trying to sell you miscellaneous items such as plastic bags, empanadas of all kinds or a cup of canelazo. Fine food restaurants would give way to cheap lunch places where a family size rice and chicken portion costs less than a cup of tea in the wealthier neighborhoods. Calm and silent parks would be replaced by noisy and crowded streets where it is hard to say if what you smell comes from the amount of garbage cans you accidentally stepped on or from the beef skewers cooking on an improvised grill across the street. Not that street food smells like garbage (in fact, I love street food more than anything) but smells, noises, colors and the buzzing urban activity are so overwhelming that you get the whole sense of it without singling out one sensation from the other. So far, it is a pretty good experience. The worst part comes when you realize that people living in the streets, sitting on the sidewalks and struggling to get a piece of bread or to recover from the coldness of the night they spent on a cardboard box have become part of the usual landscape and that you don’t really notice them anymore. This old man with no legs who stands at the entrance of the church all day long; or that indigenous young mother and her three (sometimes more) kids knitting wool scarves twelve hours a day; you pass by them every morning on your way to work, just like everyone else. Sometimes you even buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich right in front of them without questioning the appropriateness of your action.
My objective here is not to make World Vision-like advocacy and complain about how unfair life is, how sad things are, and how desperate it is to try to change it. Thus don’t expect me to put pictures on this post, as I feel it would be disrespectful to the people I referred to previously. They don’t need us to be sorry for them, and doing it in the cyberspace would be totally pointless. On the contrary, I want to take advantage of this space to make people who have the chance to read this blog (which mean you are lucky enough to have Internet access and to know how to read) aware of how blessed they are, but also to stress what responsibility should come with that privilege. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you that because you were born in a wealthy country or family, you bear the world’s injustices on your shoulders and that you might put your superhero suit on and save the world. Instead, I believe that the simple fact of becoming aware of your privileges is an important step. To realize that what you see on TV or in the newspapers is not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but that real people are behind the scenes. While none of us can solve world inequalities with a snap of the fingers, it is within everyone’s reach to become better informed, to question things, and to appreciate what you have.
As I walk the streets of Bogota, I have to constantly keep that in mind and I have been wondering how to translate this new awareness into actions. I noticed that people here have a social conscience much more developed than what we are used to see in Canada. Although in my first weeks I made a point not to give money to people begging in the streets as I have always been taught that does not help at all, I have seen street vendors, bakery and restaurant waiters and a lot of citizens from all social backgrounds giving food, money or sitting down for a chat with homeless men and women. I can only guess that being born in a country hardly affected by poverty makes you view poverty not as a marginalized phenomenon, but as an integral part of society. And if civil society has most of the time done more to address the issue, it is normal that people expect solutions to come more from smallscale actions then from largescale, state-led initiative. Which could explain (or not, I am not pretending to find an answer to such complex questions) why citizens do not ignore homeless people as we do when walking the streets in Canada.