A Conversation with the Chatarrero

We stopped him in his van, walking as we were down to the neighbourhood bakery. Can you be at our address in 40 minutes? What have you got to sell? Plenty, I said, and a heavy iron object too. He seemed interested and promised to stop by. The Chatarrero would arrive an hour late, all the while I was chatting to the Sentry. It made me reflect on the Chaterrero and his fundamental place in the economic food chain of Bogotá. I suppose the Chatarrero would be what we called a rag-and-bone man in London back in the day.

A Chatarrero in Bogotá

A Chatarrero in Bogotá

Somewhere deep in a closet at home, I have a photograph of me riding on the horse-drawn cart with the local rag-and-bone man in London. If I remember rightly, we are talking about a bygone era in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I am probably five years of age and I know the image so well, that I can share with you that I am wearing a cowboy hat in it.

A rag-and-bone man, courtesy: https://martyedward.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/rag-and-bone1.jpg

A rag-and-bone in London man, courtesy: https://martyedward.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/rag-and-bone1.jpg

I think that the rag-and-bone trade has probably disappeared in London, but here in Bogotá it’s very much alive. Edwin and his wife Monica finally arrive. Edwin peruses the detritus of our left over building materials currently piled up in our spare parking space. He can take the cardboard for 200 pesos a bag, the empty paint cans for slightly more and so on it goes. I am delighted. I help him carry the 20-odd sacks up to street level.

I want to negotiate prices and direct my questions to Monica. Edwin asks me why I am negotiating with Monica. Easy, I say, she’s in charge. Edwin smiles, it’s true.

Where are you from in the United States they ask me? No, I’m from England? Monica gives me a puzzled look and Edwin chimes in. Ah, the land of Harry Potter. Yes, I say. They ask after my son, he’s 15 months now. They have a son too, Emmanuel, he’s six months old and with the grandparents in the barrio of San Cristobal Sur while they work.

The Bogotá Chatarrero is the equivalent of the rag-and-bone man

The Bogotá Chatarrero is the equivalent of the rag-and-bone man

This is your van I ask? Yes, Mayor Petro helped them and many others upgrade from horse-drawn carts or Zorreros to being able to buy this van on favourable terms. Mayor Petro cared about the lives and well-being of the poor they tell me. They offer me no further political opinions, I get the feeling that my questions and this conversation are a drain on their time. They want to hurry on to Paloquemao where they will sell these goods.

I know of San Cristobal Sur, I say. I have never been there but my brother-in-law was interviewed at the military base/ the Escuela de Logistica there for a job. Yes, we live very close, they tell me. It is very safe there.

They know I am happy to get rid of some of the mountains of bags in my car park. My neighbours have already complained. I settle for what they are prepared to pay. They will make a healthy profit on what I was able to provide.

The Chatarrero and his wife leave me with their phone number on a corner of paper in case I have more cast off materials to offer them. I will call Monica and Edwin should the need arrive.

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