I was nervous when we arrived at the ‘border’ of the Egipto neighbourhood. I was accompanied by a guide, Andres, with long dreads from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who has worked on various social projects, including the Egipto area of Bogota. He said that there are four rival gangs in the area, and if tourists enter by accident they will get robbed, ‘but don’t worry – if you are with the locals you are safe’. The gang leader, called calabaza or pumpkin, then arrived to take us in. Very friendly but clear you would not want to mess with him! He only spoke Spanish, so Andres was translating.
He was telling me all about the area; how they used to put branches down on the road to obstruct police vans and how the kids used to signal to the gang if the police, their rivals or tourists were incoming. They had different hand signals depending on who it was. He also showed me bullet marks on the walls and photos of their handmade guns. Apparently, guns were easy to get hold of, it’s the bullets that were tricky to find, so they had to have a good aim. Andres also showed me these little mirrors on the upper floors next to the windows, so they can see who’s coming. I felt a little nervous when he said they know you’re here!
All the buildings are pretty basic concrete structures, yet covered in amazing colourful graffiti, each with a meaning or telling a story of the area. Pumpkin was explaining how in the past, the children of the neighbourhood have always looked up to the gang members with their money, good clothes and nice trainers – wanting to be like them. As we stood on a street corner, Pumpkin was casually telling me how his father was head of the gang before him, and that he was shot on this very spot when he was 10…..my mind flashed to my 10-year-old son back in the UK, and I silently planned my escape route out of there.
Various people walked past us, all looking reassuringly normal. Everyone seemed to know Pumpkin and stopped to speak. We paused briefly at a shop, the only place that sells anything in the neighbourhood. It seems to be a one stop place for everything – groceries, pharmacy, coffee shop, clothes. Pumpkin proudly handed me a copy of his dictionary, produced in conjunction with the social studies team at the University of Colombia, with whom he has been working to set up the Breaking Borders project. “You can now learn to speak like a gangster”, he told me with a cheeky grin.
The top of the hill was as far as we could safely go, where Pumpkin’s territory ended, and the rival gang’s turf began. We stopped by a makeshift memorial to all those that had been murdered in the neighbourhood and he pointed to another area that “you definitely wouldn’t go into alone”. We headed that way, past the motorcycle helmet hanging in the trees to signal where you can hire a hitman. There are no roads in this part, no solid buildings, just narrow pathways and houses cobbled together with wood and corrugated iron.
Entering Pumpkins house, a world away from my Cotswold life, I felt sad being in his home. He literally has nothing. It’s hard to comprehend that he lived here with his wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I’d seen similar things on TV but standing there made it so real. He seemed happy though, everyone I saw did. He walked me past his shelf of football trophies, the only shelf in the house, and out onto the balcony with incredible views of the city. I had to smile at the irony of his million-dollar view.
I felt a little uncomfortable at times, being a middle-class western person, just coming to look at how the ‘poor people’ live. I did say this and asked how they felt about tourists coming. He said he liked it, good to break down borders and stereotypes on both sides. It was an incredible experience: interesting and like nothing I’d experienced before.
At the bottom of the street where we left the neighbourhood is a dual carriageway. Pumpkin just walked out, put his hand up and stopped the traffic so we could cross. Can’t imagine many people who can stop four lanes of traffic!!
I can’t lie, my heart did beat a little slower when back in the car out of Egipto.