A Gringo Stops in Order to Move Forward

On a revolution, being spit on, robbery and Beethoven's 9th

Joshua Collins
Nov 28 · 7 min read
ESMAD, Colombian Riot Police near Centro in Bogota, Colombia (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Bogota- “What the hell? Did someone just spit on me?” I ask myself, wiping saliva from the side of my head and face as I look around.

It’s day six of an ongoing national strike in Colombia and I am in the city center, surrounded by tens of thousands of anti-government protesters. Riot police aren’t far off and someone is calling them names not fit for print — maybe not the best of ideas considering that they have been gassing crowds pretty much at random all week. Not to mention they managed to kill someone with one of those teargas canisters, but I get it. People are furious.

Why would someone spit on me? And who?

I decide to move on and forget it, there’s a lot of work to do today. Speaking of, I wonder what time it is.

“Son of a bitch!” I swear aloud in English, stopping in the middle of the street.

The saliva attack was a distraction. I’ve been pick-pocketed for my phone. I have a grudging respect for the variation on a classic pickpocket move: usually one person bumps into you while their partner snatches the phone.

Protesters in Bogota, Colombia (Photo: Joshua Collins)

That’s happened to me twice. This was a nice improvisation on the maneuver. I’m impressed with the thieves’ ability to change the script from a distance. It was well executed. I’m sure they thought it was really funny. Maybe tomorrow I will think it’s funny too.

Not right now though.

The other two times I was robbed for my phone here was with knives. I prefer the pickpockets. Well…tomorrow I will have to buy my sixth phone in two years. Not the easiest thing to do on a freelance journalist salary but so it goes…

At least I won’t be able to check my hate mail. I get a lot of that wherever I go while reporting on civil unrest — usually from both sides.

This really sweet girl I know says that means I’m doing a good job.

I think it just means people like to yell at you if they don’t like what you write.

Reporting on Venezuela made me a gusano, but now apparently I’ve transformed into a dirty commie. I still feel the same though — I’m just trying to tell the story.

Strike Two at the Strike

I continue into the crowded square. A group of youths has blocked one of the side roads.

“You can’t pass if you don’t dance!” they shout at me, banging pots in what has become a symbol of the uprising.

I explain to them that no one wants to see me dance and that I have already had a tough day, but before I finish explaining they cut me off.

“BOO!” they shout, jeering and blocking my path.

In my mind I imagine turning the tables on the situation: breaking out such impeccable and amazing dance moves that the surprised crowd cheers with shocked amazement for the gringo as he dances past triumphant.

That isn’t the reaction my dance moves elicit, but the kids let me pass after laughing at me. At least this time I’m laughing too.

I want to get some photos before I go home and change all my passwords to the accounts the thieves now have access to; for the fifth time.

I swear I’m gonna get to the journalism part of the story soon.

The long walk home

There is a lot of competition for cabs at the moment and there aren’t as many operating as usual, due to previously mentioned strike, so I decide to walk the 60 or so blocks to my apartment.

Jesus Christ, there are a lot of people out. Most of “septima”, the street to my house, is blocked off by protesters. A particularly loud group is gathered in Parque Nacional shouting.

A parar pa’ avanzar! Vivo Paro Nacional!” they scream, banging pots and dancing in the street. The slogan has become a theme of the protests. “We stop in order to move forward, long live the strike!” would be the English translation. It doesn’t rhyme in English though.

They shake a giant foam shark at me, I don’t have time to explain right now why that’s a symbol of the protest but it is. There are a lot of symbols, but the most common and certainly most powerful is Dilan Cruz, 17, who died at the hands of riot police after he was shot in the face with a riot shotgun.

I see a lot of placards and shrines to him. He has become a symbol of harsh crackdowns by riot police here, called ESMAD.

ESMAD is not very popular right now. That’s why that guy was yelling obscenities at them in Centro.

They have had a tendency to gas people for looking at them sideways, and sometimes they have a tendency to gas people merely for looking at them.

They also look a lot like storm-troopers.

ESMAD deploying in Central Bogota. People get out of their way (Photo: Joshua Collins)

I don’t yell obscenities at ESMAD. My face may not exactly open doors for me, but I prefer it not to look like someone slammed one on it.

Home to Ludwig’s Glorious 9th

I live across the street from a park that has been a gathering point since protests began. It’s called Parque de los Hippies. As I approached the park, thousands are gathered to listen to an orchestra.

I am a little stressed. Every journalist in the world seems to have descended upon Bogota, and with the all competition I am having problems getting my pitches accepted. Add to that the expense of a new phone and well…I am in a foul mood — and mad at myself for being so careless.

I should know better by now.

I walk past the gathering, snapping a few photos. I am in a hurry to get home. I want to change all my passwords and wash the thief spit from my hair. The orchestra is playing a tune I don’t recognize and protests are flaring up all across the city.

This seems like a relatively small one. I don’t have time for this.

I shower, do the routine of losing my phone; changing all the passwords to anything important just in case, signing out the device, checking sent records from all my communication apps — I know it pretty well by now. Then I decide I to head out to see what’s going on.

An orchestra performs in Parque de los Hippies in Bogota (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Leaving my building I walk into a park jam-packed full of people all listening in silence to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I stop, paralyzed.

The divine sounds of a symphony written by a deaf man 300 years ago wash over me cleansing away all the negativity I carry- a sonic bath of sublime beauty.

Ever since I was a kid, the song has hypnotized me and it seems to have done the same to the thousands in the park. They are just about to start the final movement, which is the really rocking part with full chorus and double orchestra.

I don’t take photos. I don’t record video. I just listen. smiling like some poor idiot who drank too much drank too much weitbier.

There has always been a link between music and protest here in Colombia, the residents gather in pot-banging dance parties nightly to show support for the strike.

“The people use music to protect themselves. If we are dancing, the police can’t say it’s a riot.” says says Paula Fajardo, 36.

Sure the music is fun, but it’s also a shield against oppression. Listening to this performance in the park however, I realize it’s something more. It’s a salve; an armor to deal with living in country that was unofficially at war with itself for 100 years.

It’s the magic that makes the realism bearable.

I shrug, and the stress falls away. I’m in a city where the poorest have risen up against the elite in a desperate plea, no rather a demand, that they not be ignored.

I don’t have any real problems.

I pass the night dancing and taking photos in what quickly becomes a massive drum circle of thousands of people.

I still can’t dance.

But I understand the protests a bit better than before.

Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter

Colombian storm-troopers, I mean ESMAD (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Joshua Collins

Written by

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

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