February, BOGOTÁ – My driver suddenly lurched and made a hard right off the Caracas and into the heart of the Zona Tolerancia, into the streets of the whores. Into the crumbling concrete towering around us. Over cracked pavement and rubble. Past fat ones and black ones. Past fat black ones and sad fat ones. The saddest part is when their tits just hang out and stare blankly at you. And some whores – they don’t stand. They just sit. They sit in broken chairs and watch out from the door-less doorways. Are they really hoping you’ll stop for a visit? Probably. I mean, probably, right?
“Señor… We’re going to the Ministry, right?” I asked, leaning forward, doubting his turn into Bogotá’s Zona Tolerancia, the zone where drug use is rampant and prostitution is legal and regulated, where the sadness and desperation of the whores and the blank men who roam the streets peeking at them is painfully visible, where I didn’t want to be.
“This is the way to the Ministry,” he said plainly. He didn’t even looked at me through his rear-view mirror.
Maybe my driver just wants this to be the way to the Ministry, I thought to myself.
I tightened my tie, tried to feel formal, and reviewed the address again.
When I got to the Ministry buildings, there were soldiers with automatic rifles stationed on the corners. I walked down a cobblestone street. The Presidential office Casa Nariño spread out in front of me. More soldiers, this time with bayonets pointing up into the sky at a sharp angle, marched in formation about the green on the other side of a tall gate. At the Ministry of Finance, I registered. They took a photograph of me. And then the elevator took me up.
It is easy to draw conclusions. It is easy to see tired old whores and say that they are sad. It is easy to see men roam and say that they are desperate. And it is easy to see heavy black sub-machine gun rifles and conjure up opinions about security and how much money is spent and it shouldn’t be spent and how safe you really are in the middle of all of this. But these are just symbols. Not truths. And symbols should be the fount of questions. Not close-ended conclusions. Concluding, not asking, is a mistake that is dangerous and so easy to make.
It takes discipline to ask.
The elevator lets me out. There is no sound. It is as if suddenly the noise of the street of the whores might be totally forgotten in a place like this. I wonder if it really is? Sometimes I really feel like asking questions like these.
Inside a plain, white-walled office there are three desks and three people waiting for me. They make up a perfect formation. The man stands. The women sit. They are all staring at me. Their faces are stone, but their words are cordial.
I introduce myself, we chat, we trade contacts, and then I thank the older lady. I use the usted form. Formality. This is the Ministry of Finance, after all. My assumption is that formality comes first.
“Ximena, please,” she says to me in return, killing my usted. Our hands are clasped in a shake when she says it. She gives me a thin smile.
“Ok, Ximena,” I say.
And then I leave, out the way I came. And the elevator has its way with me again. And I descend, out through the doors, and finally I’m back on the streets and the cobblestones make noise as I trod across the government grounds. A homeless man catches my stare and reaches out his hand. I hurry past. My face tightens, like always, when that pleading, desperate, filthy hand reaches out and begs me for coins. Just a few coins. Please, Señor! But who knows what he’ll do with my money? Right? I mean, right? It’s impossible to assume he’ll use them to eat. This is a hard thing to do. Sometimes it hurts. But it’s better: make no assumptions.