Tag Archives: Homeless

Venice story

6 Jan

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It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money.  He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.

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The Two Worlds of Bogotá

8 Sep

 

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Photo by Juan Arredono

 

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.