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  • The man next in line is about 65 years old. The gray stubs on his face stand out against his dark skin. He steps forward and looks up at me.

    "Ah," he says, meeting my eyes, suddenly agitated. "I have seen you on television!"

    I hand him a piece of bread and smile.

    "Thank you." He takes the bread but stops.

    "But tell me, you work in television, don't you?" he asks, examining my face.

    I laugh and say "No, not on television." He joins into my laughter and steps aside.

    It is 10pm at night on a dark street in Bogota's city center. The Torre Colpatria building flashes its 36 Xenon color lights into the night. The tallest building in the country (and second-tallest in all of South America), it can be seen from every corner of central Bogota. Ironically, even here, between rugged homeless men and short-skirted prostitutes. Pink. Green. Red. Over and over again.

    A friend had told me about Chocopan por una Sonrisa (Chocolate-bread for a smile) and with a vague idea of what to expect, I agreed to come along.

    It is alarming how strikingly similar urban challenges in completely different contexts can be. Chocopan turned out to be something like a dessert-variation of Paballo Ya Batho, a mobile soup kitchen I volunteered for during my time in Johannesburg, South Africa.

    Paballo Ya Batho, "Caring for the People" in Tsutu, provides approximately 500 homeless people with food and drink every Wednesday night; Chocopan serves hot chocolate and a piece of bread every Thursday night to about the same number of people. Both collect and prepare the drink and food before-hand and take it to several stops on some of the unsafer areas in inner-city neighborhoods; both rely entirely on the help of volunteers; and both strive to engage with those they serve. Both leave you with the same slight dread at a dawning understanding of the city.

    But the main difference between these two unconventional "soup kitchens" is the association: church versus--believe it or not--rappers.

    Paballo operates out of the Central Methodist Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and is therefore somewhat of a religious service (this, however, is not to say that everybody participating is indeed religious). When a Catholic priest called for the ministry of Johannesburg to address and befriend Joburg's homeless in the late 1980s, the Central Methodist Mission responded with the foundation of Paballo Ya Batho. It has since evolved into welcoming everyone who wants to help, see for themselves and experience a part of the inner city that might be inaccessible otherwise.

    Chocopan had an entirely different beginning. Four, five years ago, a group of rappers, who also happen to be motorcycle-enthusiasts, from the neighborhood got together and decided to give. Although I do not know how they came up with chocolate and bread, I like imaging them sitting in a circle in one of the motorcycle garages, brainstorming. After weighing food preferences against financial feasibility, they must have settled on a safe combination, popular with the old, the young, the strong, the weak: hot chocolate and bread.

    Ever since, they have been going about town once a week with a blue barrel of steaming hot chocolate and huge black plastic bags filled with croissants and the like. Starting out from a garage, the rappers and their friends bare-handedly push the barrel on a cart, while others shoulder the bread bags. For hours, a caravan of children, youngsters, men and women slowly migrate from one street to the next. They halt at run-down buildings filled with children whose sticky hands carefully balance the filled cups of precious hot chocolate back to their rooms. They halt at street corners where junkies organize for their weekly treat, their faces twitching in suspense. They halt for hungry passers-by, the shoe-shiners, the grandmothers, the forgotten and the lost ones. And they halt to try the hot chocolate themselves.

    As I hand out bread to others in line, the elderly man continues to examine my face, trying to understand why it seems to familiar. Finally, as the line is shortening, he gives up, smiles at me once more, lifting his cup of hot chocolate, and walks away.
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