Navigating Bogotá can be an exasperating business, on several levels. Certain aspects of life in the city are perplexing. The street system – while appearing quite logical on paper – is practically incomprehensible. Yesterday we spent over an hour in a taxi whose good-natured but confused driver was unable to find the address we had been directed to in the elite outreaches of the city. We took so long arriving our hosts had begun to worry we might have been abducted. The city sprawls upward and outward, housing the upper reaches of society in the north, while to the south dismal shanty towns, without fresh water, sanitation or electricity and spewing sewage into the muddy streets, have been occupied over the years by a stream of refugees from the violence and poverty in other parts of the country. This was a violence that claimed so many lives that it makes the losses of other countries on the continent that suffered brutal regimes in the 70s and 80s look almost paltry in comparison: two million certified dead, several million more disappeared or displaced The number of refugees has swollen the population of the city – officially around 8 million, but generally acknowledged to be well in excess of that figure.
Meanwhile, as in so many other cities, the comfort and privilege of the few are considerable. If you walk or drive around these smarter streets, you will, however, come across the most desperate beggars imaginable. I don’t know why that is: the homeless shouldn’t be on a sliding scale of depravity and wretchedness, but somehow the street-dwellers of Bogotá seem more lamentable than anywhere I have been. They are often so moribund that they are too far gone to put out a hand, or mutter a supplication: many of them just sprawl flat out on the pavement, or hang onto a railing, gurning toothlessly as the world passes them by. The victims of poverty, rampant drug abuse and despair, these sorry individuals, caked with grime, shoeless and utterly beyond concern, stagger around the streets as though returning visions from hell. And today, as I pass by a newly opened Dunkin Donuts, one of them stares at me briefly, glazed, uncomprehending, covered in the filth of centuries, clothed in colourless rags, and to my shock I realise that this ancient vision is actually a young man, probably still in his twenties, and I shudder.