February 11th 2023, Ibague, Colombia.
The square is dirty and black and filthy and it gets to look worse as the dusk turns to night. It’s a square that goes nowhere. That is to say, it leads nowhere. You don’t drive or stroll into this square, marvel at its beauty or conduct some urgent business and pass on out the other side. First off, there is no beauty here, or at least nothing obviously beautiful. It’s a dirty filthy hole of a place and everybody knows it. The square is a sort of after-thought bit of road, a cul-de-sac, the butt end of one of Ibagué’s main shopping streets, that is filled with small shops selling gaudy rubbish and that stay open late, often with loud speakers at their doors blasting noise. The square was created by another road crossing the shopping street and slicing off the bit left over. Buses use it to swing around the traffic island in the middle, so they can retrace their route back to wherever they came from. Other vehicles use it similarly. That’s part of the reason the concrete surface of the road is so very black. It’s from the oil and the rubber and the filth that stick to both. The concrete is also broken; cracked and pockmarked. During the day, it’s home to market stalls but at night, it’s a different place.
One side is filled almost entirely with drinking dens. Pubs would be an exaggeration. There are six or eight of them in a row, each one a single void facing onto the footpath and with very little inside, save for a concrete floor, plastic tables and chairs, a counter by the back wall and a fridge or two stacked with bottles of beer. Each drinking den is full of people, many spilling out onto the pavement and into the square, and each has a loudspeaker pumping out awful sounds — dhun, dhun, dhun, dhun, dhun. But there’s one other drinking den, diagonally across the square and there’s only a few people in it and the sound system is turned down low, relatively speaking.
As I’m walking across to it, I see a man. He has almost no clothes on and those that he has are so filthy and so ripped as to render him virtually naked. He looks like Tom Hanks after a decade on that island. He’s wandering around the road somewhat aimlessly until he comes to a pothole, more of a crack actually, one that has opened up into a long split. From a side street on the other side of the square, there is liquid flowing down the gutter, into the square and into the hole.
The man lowers himself and kneels down on the road. He arches forward, placing both his hands on the ground until his shoulders are almost touching it as well. He bends his head and drinks the liquid — not in a furtive way; it is a long slow, deliberate slurping of the filthy stew.
It is one of the most degrading scenes I have ever witnessed. I feel diminished just watching. That another man could be brought so low as this is shocking to see but what must he have felt at that moment?
I sit at the open front of the quiet bar, order a beer from the woman who runs the place and watch the square. That was when I noticed the pile of rubbish at the end of the traffic island in the middle of it, the one the buses swing around and where the man drank the dirty filthy liquid of unknown provenance. Another man is going through the rubbish. Quite aggressively. There’s a big cardboard box full of stuff that he bends over and empties by pulling everything out and throwing it over his shoulder. What looks like a pizza box has discarded food in it . He eats whatever it is. But otherwise, he just seems to scatter all the rubbish — from the box and from a long white plastic sack, similarly left for the waste collectors — and not find anything of value.
Beside the pub where I am are several closed premises whose raison d’etre is not immediately obvious. But the man wanders over to their doorways and hangs about. I go over to him and give him some money; 5,000 pesos, which is only about a euro. He thanks me profusely and I return to my veranda seat.
The man has an associate, a fellow with a red baseball cap, jeans and a pink highlighter vest. The pair of them talk and wander about the square to no obvious purpose but they hang around. The woman in the pub come over to me and scolds me. She taps into Google translate and out comes: “be very careful they steal it”. I tell her everything’s fine; no worries. Another man appears. He has a red baseball cap on, black jeans, a brown t-shirt and is carrying a puppy under his arm. I don’t know if he expects to sell it but he doesn’t seem to try to. He just wanders about with a puppy under his arm and sometime later, he shouts at an adult dog who follows him away out of the square.
Across the way from where I am, the drinking dens have filled even more. Several police are hanging about on the traffic island, watching and just being there. There’s no aggro; just a lot of noise.
At the pile of rubbish, a new searcher has appeared. He picks up the cardboard box, and other bits of cardboard, and walks off purposefully into an alleyway with a concrete arch over it with a sign that says Centro Commercial and is not seen again.
The first man who rummaged in the rubbish, the one I gave a paltry sum of money — enough to buy breakfast, if he chose that — wanders about with a wooden stick, like a walking staff, and starts to dance and balance it on one finger. I take a few pictures of him and ask him his name. Alejandro, he says. He’s younger than he looks, I reckon. His hair is jet black, his face is weathered and his teeth are all gaps and rotting; he has a boxer’s flattened nose. I thank him for the photos, we shake hands and he wanders off again. Later, for no obvious reason, he places the stick against the kerb and snaps it with his foot. Pink highlighter vest is with him after the dance and asks for money. I give him a few notes, again, a paltry sum.
Bar woman is really anxious now. And one of the regulars, a man with a link and a sort of walking came-cum-swizzle stick tied to his wrist, tries to tell me all sorts of things, one of which appears to be would I like the police to come over. No, I tell him; everything’s fine. Tranquillo, I say — a great word over here which means, essentially, “it’s grand, relax!”
I ask the woman the name of the square. Plaza 15, she says. I ask her the name of her bar. Planchon 15, she says. Then she asks, via Google translate, “do you need them to come?” — meaning the police. No, no, I say. Everything is tranquillo — no problemo, no problemo. A few minutes later, someone — the woman’s husband, I think — hands me a phone. Talk, talk he says.
Hello, I say.
Hello, says the person at the other end in English.
What can I do for you? I say.
My family is very worried about you, says the other person, a woman.
I’m fine, I say. Everything is fine. There is no problem.
Are you sure?
Yes, absolutely. But thank you for asking.
Everyone calms down. More or less. Swizzle stick remains agitated, apparently believing that a mob is about to set upon me. Listen, I tell him, I fine. There is no problem. But I think really that it’s time I went. He wants to walk me back to my hotel, which is about 200 meters away. No thanks, your grand, I tell him as I leave and amble across the square in the direction of the rubbish and the dens, probably giving swizzle stick a heart attack.
I have good look at the dens and take some photos, and some of the cops too. Nobody pays a blind bit of notice of me and I walk to a petrol station opposite the hotel and get a sandwich, which is surprisingly good.
I never see again the man who drank from the hole in the road. . .
First published by Irish Times online on February 20th 2023.
Note: There was quite a lot of reaction to this piece, people expressing sadness at such poverty. A number of people pointed out that Ibagué has suffered economically in recent years and this has made matters much worse. One writer, Santiago López, said: “It’s a real shame and truly unacceptable. Ibagué is a city with humble and good people. The city has suffered high unemployment rate and poverty is a constant. In the López de Galarza Park a group of friends offers “Calditos”. If you can pass on the info – it’s appreciated.” (Calditos is hot soup.) Happy to do that Santiago and good luck with your efforts.