Doña Rosa has sold vegetables in the Egipto neighborhood's fruit market for about 45 years - long enough to see its location changed twice. The market is rarely busy, and Rosa's stall is hidden in back, where she offers her potatoes, tomatoes, radishes and garlic. On many days, she says, she takes in 10,000 pesos, of which 3,000 go to pay the stall rental. Near mid-day today when I visited, Rosa said she hadn't yet made a sale.
|The Egipto market - quiet, like most days.|
Like many poorer Colombians struggling to get by, Rosa's family hasn't found much opportunity for advancement. She lives with her husband and three children in Lourdes, a poor, sometimes violent neighborhood above downtown. Her children drive taxis, just as her husband does, so the family's situation appears stagnant.
Colombia is progressing towards fulfilling the World Bank's Millenium Development Goals in areas such as school enrollment, gender equity and health.
But Colombia has lagged in reducing poverty. Poverty levels have dropped, but nearly half of Colombians still live under the poverty line, and more than 16% of Colombians survive on less than $1.25 per day (a little more than 2,000 pesos). Those of us from wealthy nations would find it inconceivable to earn $1.25 per hour - much less per day.
Surviving all day for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper is only possible in the countryside, where living costs are much lower and some things, such as food, can be produced for free. But even for city dwellers who earn much more than that, life is still a struggle. In this city, scrambling to survive is called el rebusque: 'the search for a way'.
I talked to some poor Bogotanos about how much they earn, and how they survive:
|Selling flowers by the Central Cemetery|
|Say thanks to those Policia Bachilleres - they stand out in the rain all day for about 11,000 pesos - from which they have to pay their bus fares and other expenses. (They're fulfilling their obligatory military duty.)|
|Selling grain for pigeons on San Victorino Plaza|
What's it say about Colombians' love for animals which other people call 'flying rats' that a legion of people can support themselves by feeding the birds?
|Hector, shoeshine man.|
"Then I tell the owner, 'I'll pay what I can,' and give him 4,000 pesos, 5,000 pesos," Hector said. "I've lived there a long time, and he understands."
Hector spent a dozen years in prison, for crimes he didn't describe. Five years ago he got an early release thanks to good behavior and his work shoeshining behind bars. But he shows me his bad knee and crippled right wrist from prison, where he explains that "there was lots of regionalism" - and evidently violence. A small, mild-mannered man, Hector clearly got the worse part of it.
A few months ago he was diagnosed with kidney stones, but a Catholic church helped pay for his surgery, thanks to his certification of indigencia. He displays his indigencia card. He also has a pair of eyeglasses which evangelicals gave him while in prison. And a university student who interviewed Hector for a school project gave him a box which he uses to sell his cigarettes.
"I'm lucky," Hector tells me. "I believe in God."
|Hector with the cigarete box which helps him pay the rent.|
It's evening now and getting dark, and the plaza's other shoeshiners, who have larger more impressive stands, are starting to pack up their things.
"Now that they're leaving I'll get a few more shoeshines," Hector predicts hopefully.
|Henrique pushing a load of trash in Las Nieves market.|
|Eriberto and his bike.|
|Eriberto's head scar.|
This is a relatively stable life for Eriberto. When he was six, his mother sent him and some of his siblings - they were nine children altogether - to an orphanage. He escaped and lived the next dozen years on the street, addicted to alcohol, glue and bazuco, a cheap form of cocaine, and suffering lots of violence. He displays a scar on his head and another on his back, which damaged his spinal column.
Eriberto has since put his life on track, but hasn't been able to land a steady, formal job, in part because he never did military service. When he was younger, the military didn't want him due to his drug troubles. Later on, when he was cleaned up and tried to join, they said he was too old. Buying the libreta is legal and done routinely by wealthy Colombians. However, the several-hundred-thousand peso cost is a lot for Eriberto.
We're eating in a low-life Chinese restaurant in downtown Bogotá. When I pay, the owner, a young Chinese man, has trouble pronouncing the numbers in Spanish. I ask Eriberto why it is that immigrants who don't even speak Spanish well make it into the middle class, while many Colombian-born people stay mired in poverty.
"The Chinese know how to make these dishes," Eriberto says, pointing to the photos of Chinese food on the walls. "Colombians don't."
|Henry, right, selling minutes.|
He prefers the cellphone business: there, half of his revenue is profit, whereas only 40% of his candy and cigarette sales are.
With this work, Henry has supported his wife and three children, who live near the La Perseverancia neighborhood. Nowadays, his two older children both study and work, helping to support the family. Both are studying accounting.
If Henry's family's story can be generalized, then education's the way out of poverty.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours