The streets of Santa Marta

It is a fact of life here that some days when I leave the hostel to go anywhere, I pass kids on the streets who are smoking crack or ice. A local tells me that it is something a little different el ninos take, but just as potent and addictive. These kids are around ten years old – smokin’ the pipe. Then they scurry wide eyed and manic, hustling and begging, snatching and selling around the dark, dodgy streets. There is a red light district here too. We live right beside it. Some of them have been earmarked for it. Some have already been there.

I almost had an argument with my wife about it. Almost. Sure I was out dabbling in narcotics as a teenager and I turned out ok, I thought to myself. There’s hope for these kids yet. I checked myself though. A few 16 year old mates sharing a few spliffs and bowls in a shed, is a far cry from pre-teen crack pipe, in full frontal of all and sundry.

It is a bit sickening.

You have got to wonder how these kids can even make it to adulthood. Child prostitution is rife I am told. I see young looking hookers on the streets but don’t stare too long. The drugs are rampant in the slums. Cocaine cares not for your colour, age or wealth status. It treats us all the same.

I have been giving a few hours of my time in the slums. I am volunteering and teaching young kids how to sit still for a few minutes while they mimic what I say. They are from the poorest of the poor areas. Some taxis won’t go here out of basic and simple fear. A group of us go in with open hearts and no locals bat any lids.

These kids are bundles of beautiful energy. They are smart and playful but by the age of 10 and 11 have nothing to hope for. Most parents don’t worry about their schooling. There is no public transport to this slum and no schools nearby. They call it El Oasis. I wonder who came up with that?

I have a blast with them. And I get to thinking that there is some hope. One man has given up most of his free time and life to help them and school them. He uses volunteers to teach and positively influence. But as we left the school today we passed a group of men sitting drinking hard liquer on the streets. They called over one of the youngest kids and made him drink some. The kid gasped and the men laughed and sort of slapped him away.

This is life.

What can you do in one of the most dangerous barrios in this city?

Walk over all indignant?

“How dare you do that to this young boy?”

“He is not even 11 years old, give him a chance”

“You should be ashamed of yourself for doing that to this kid”

It doesn’t work like that in my planet. I just looked over and shook my head and motioned the kid to follow. The men all sort of stared over. It is not the kind of place you can easily be Alpha male….what with the underbelly of drugs and machetes and violence rife.

There is a smell in the air. It is not just the open sewerage that seeps around. It is the scent of predators in the fold. It is the sight of a pregnant 13 year old who comes into school, stumbles nervously through a class and then dissapears again for a few days. It is the smell of innocence being carved away on streets by menacing drunken bums. It is the sight of a 1 year old baby wandering naked through muddy paths with no one who cares.

The kids tell me in Spanish that I have big muscles becasue I drink beer. Don’t you know who I am I ask them? I am El Sober Paddio.

Drinking’s for mugs!

But they just think I’m joking.

But there’s more to it than that for them. They live in a world where their peers abuse them, neglect them and abandon them. They live in a place so far below the poverty line that you get compression sickness just thinking about being there.

But there is hope. There are people who give up their lives for these kids. There are people who take time to volunteer and help and donate and build. It is the first time in my life where I have thought deeply about how lucky I am to have been born where and when I was – A white male from a strong European country in the 20th century.

These people have nothing so the great thing is that even the smallest amount makes a huge difference.

Funny that on the coast some twenty miles south I saw 15 oil tankards pull into an off shore rig and fill up before onward sailing. It was astounding to see such behemoths of modern civilisation in full flow. Crude oil is the biggest export in Colombia. There is an abundance of wealth here. It is a massive country full of industry and natural wealth which should filter down to the masses.

But that just isn’t the case.

Like the rest of planet mutant capitalism, the cream is kept for the top few percent and the general population are left to fend. And here they don’t care too much for the slums. This is not middle class or even lower class. This is bottom of the crude oil barrel here.

While I am no tree hugging hippy, I am making it clear that I am one of the lucky ones and others need help.

Now is such a time of change in the world.

Is it time you tapped into this new energy too?


13 thoughts on “The streets of Santa Marta”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story and for sharing your compassion with those within your reach. That is what we are called to do. Not save the world – but to make a difference with a smile, a touch, or spending time just being together. You’ve done it all and I can assure you – the light you shared is not wasted. May your travels continue to be blessed. Because of you – I may adopt Santa Marta and start a school. Thank you!

    • I think the famous Ghandi quote “be the changes you want to see” about sums it up – I used to get quite angry at how much injustice there is in the world, but all you can do is change your own domain little by little. If you seriously want to adopt a school in Santa Marta then there are possibilities which we could discuss. They need $7,000 at the moment to finish one of their schools.

  2. Such an honest post John. There’s so much insight here.

    Sometimes, I feel like it’s all too much. There is too much need. Too many road blocks. What difference can I really make? But there is hope. And we can help, can’t we? Even if it feel oh-so-very small.

    • Glad you enjoy my honesty’s all I have! I feel your frustration and how difficult it can all seem. All we can do is all we can do! We cannot change everything, just keep on positively influencing and helping all those in our sphere. If everyone adopts how you as a loving, caring person thinks, then the human world will fix itself. This is all I know.

  3. Hi John, you are right that something has to change. I am all for it. Many of us live comfortably but in the majority of the world, poverty still exists…and it doesn’t need to. The trickle down theory does not work; there are decades and centuries full of context as to why the poorest are poor. I think it comes back to …judging our societies on how the poor, ill, young and old are treated (no new theories here). It is great that you are sharing your experiences and learnings. And everything you do while you are away is making a difference 🙂 Andrea

    • Thanks Andrea…the disparity in trickle down is so negligible it could drive one crazy. For eg, the ECB this year released ONE TRILLION euro into banks in Europe which have already crippled the majority of Eurpean citizens by having to be bailed out for billions. Meanwhile in slums around the world, BLLIONS live in squalour with little food, no education and one set of tattered clothes. I think we all need to keep in mind that we have to try and influence as many people as we can to make change a reality, not just a dream. Baby steps though, baby steps 🙂

  4. Hi John, I got transported back to South America with your post today. Thank you?? I say this with a question mark because I’m not sure if I wish to be reminded about how heart wrenching the reality is. Poverty (and all that goes with it) is certainly confronting.

    I wish I had a blog back in 2000 when I lived in South America so I could process my experiences out loud (and educate others in the process). It was particularly eye-opening volunteering in a drug rehab centre for impoverished teenagers.

    (Un)fortunately, the shock wears off over time. The irony is that by immersing yourself in the experience, you can feel empowered in such a disempowering situation (as long as you feel you can make a micro-difference). I look forward to your next update.

    • Hey Erin,
      I am glad it takes you back a little to where you were immersed in this world. It is a different sphere completely and once you understand how much help these kids need, you can become a little overwhelmed. Serena broke down about the dire straits of their plights tonight.

      But this idea that immersion empowers once you feel as tough you can make some difference is the key. If you think anything is hopeless then it invariably is. Belief and persistence are all you can have sometimes. I believe we can make a fundamental difference to these kids in more ways than one and that is what keeps me smiling, with my head up.

  5. oh gosh I cant even imagine seeing a young boy drinking, a 13 year old girl pregnant and kids smoking stuff on the streets. It just doesnt seem right – its almost like a cruel sick movie, where there is an ending of “But dont worry, it was only a dream” but in this case it would seem like a night mare.
    What is amazing is that there is hope. People (like you and your wife) making a difference, one day, one small step at a time. Wonder what these streets will do to impact you both from years to come?
    I so loved reading about how you played with the young kids. That there is gold.

    • I watched a video of Anthony Robbins talking about how a guy coming to his house and donating goods and clothes on Christmas Eve, caused two reactions – the first was that his father with pride smashed, left his family. The second was that young Anthony, the following year, went out and randomly donated to a couple of families. The following year he donated some more and so on and so on until the current foundation which helps millions became a reality.
      The smallest things can create the biggest impacts. I hope the impact these kids have will create a beautiful mo nster who helps and grows and grows.

  6. I was in Santa Martha for 36 years ago and I saw the problems the rich do not care about the poor.
    It was frustratning to see.


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