Why I admire bus vendors

That’s people who sell things on buses, not people who sell buses (who may be admirable, too, for all I know).

People who sell things on buses in Medellín are incredibly agile, cheerful and stoic in the face of much rejection.

First, they clamber over the turnstile because the driver is letting them ride for free. Then they deliver their sales pitch in a singsong chant (singsong from repeating it 100 times a day, I guess).

The content of the chant is common to ALL vendors and goes something like this:

First of all ladies and gentlemen, I wish you a pleasant morning/afternoon/evening. As you can observe, I am coming past each of your seats, offering you a delicious [type of product] called [name of product]. This product has the very economic cost of [price], and to save you money two [or three or four] for [discounted price]. Thank you and God bless you.

They then hand their product to everybody, receive payment from anybody who wants to buy, and collect what isn’t bought, all the time balancing precariously as the bus careers along.

Then they leap off the sometimes moving bus, and do it all again on the next one.

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I started work!


Now for something relatively mundane… I started work in my new project today. It’s called Vive Kids and its aim is to train churches in the poorest areas of Colombia to care for children in their communities.

My role is to manage the curriculum development for all the areas of the project. The most exciting thing about it is that I have little garden at the office which is mine to tend, so today I bought a trowel and a watering can.

Tomorrow I plan to plant nasturtiums and deadhead the roses.

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What aid workers do

I am not an aid worker, but my experience on the Health Brigade got me thinking about what aid workers do.

(This is not a criticism of their wonderful workjust a reflection on some of the tensions they face.)

We take photos of poor people with expensive cameras because our donors need pictures, and the more dramatic the better.

We eat better and more food in front of the hungry because there are lots of them, and not so many of us, and we need to be able to do our work.

We pour out our love to people displaced by the flooding, but next year, when the same people give up the struggle to live near their land, and arrive in the city to beg and to hustle for a living, it’s possible that we will ignore them.

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What does hunger look like?

Thin pigs. Thin dogs.

I throw a dog some gristle, and a fleet-footed chicken snatches it from its mouth.

Fat chidden, with round, deceptive tummies, and blond hair, blond, through lack of protein.

And dull eyes.

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Flood, pestilence and famine

Not only did I get to know the wonderful people of El Salado on last month’s trip to the Coast, but I got the chance to visit another part of Colombia, a part that was badly affected by flooding last year, and which is still under water.

I helped on a three-day Health Brigade, (where my previous entries were overheard). I swept up hair and treated children for lice, and thought about hunger.

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Conversation in a bookshop

Me: Excuse me, I’m looking for the book about the massacre in El Salado.

Shop assistant: Let me go and see…

Two minutes later:

Shop assistant: I’m sorry, I have the book about the massacre in Trujillo and La Rochela but not El Salado.

An organisation that counts these things reports provisionally that there were two thousand and five massacres in Colombia between 1982 and 2007.

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I am in Medellín’s latest temple to consumerisn, a glitzy mall called Santa Fe.

I am eating mango ice-cream, and rejoicing in the fact that a Clarks shoe shop is going to open there soon.

I am also on the phone to a friend on the Coast.

She tells me that her children don´t have shoes or school uniforms, and that life is hard just now.

Colombia is the country with the greatest gap between the rich and poor in South America, and at this moment, I feel this truth acutely.

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Urban prophets

Thousands of people make their living working on the buses here in Medellín, but there is one group that stands out for me.

They are young men that board the buses in the posher parts of town, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs. They hold a little boom box under their arms to provide the rhythm, and they rap for a few minutes.

They rap about the social problems of the country, about injustice and violence, about corruption and inequality. I notice that people give generously to them, and I think it’s because they are telling the truth, and because they have chosen a legitimate option to make money, out of the many darker avenues available to them.

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Reasons I love Colombia (3)

When a child gets on to a bus, everyone takes responsibility for his or her well-being.

Hands reach out to pass him or her safely up the aisle to a seat; nobody would dream of taking offense, at all these strangers touching their child.

Here, it does take a village (or a city) to raise a child.

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