Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.

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