Seeing Like a Cat Burglar

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A pair of cat burglars are living in the neighbourhood of my office. When the sun goes down, the  lights go out, and everyone has gone home for the day, they emerge to clamber over the roofs and into backyards, making their surefooted way across shingles, over coils of barbed wire and shards of broken glass to take what they can grab.

Almost every morning, we hear the news of another building that has been broken into and cash, computers, cameras, and even coffee makers gone. (Because every building on the block has been attacked, we do not think it is politically motivated, but the way our roofs are connected creates easy targets for desperate men.) As the result of an incident last year, when a police officer fell through a roof in the area, fracturing his leg in multiple places, and was trapped for over three hours, the police are refusing to chase the burglars, forcing the block to organize itself and think up new security strategies.

Amidst all the feelings of helplessness, anger and unease, I cannot help feel a tiny smidge of admiration for these two men, although  it would be a different story if they had taken something of mine or managed to get into our office. Previously, when I thought about our backyard, the only things that crossed my mind was longing for a laptop so I could work outside in the sun instead of at my cubicle and the search to opportunities to make a cellphone call so I could go outside for “privacy”.

Lunch in the backyard
Lunch in the backyard

We were all sitting in the backyard on Monday eating lunch, discussing why people use plastic gloves to eat fried chicken and not fish, when our security consultant arrived. Within about five minutes, he had pointed out all of the multiple places where someone could easily climb in from another roof. For safety reasons, I will not be posting them on the internet (sorry). Conclusion: my vision of our patio is now completely altered.

I often think of my time in Colombia as a privileged chance to see the world through variety of perspectives and practices. I began by learning that it was possible to read the soil, that campesinos can glance at a hillside and intimately recognize each class of plant growing, instead of simply the variants of green I saw. Through friendships with Evangelical pentecostals in Mampujan, I learnt how every event, no matter how random, was for them evidence of friendship with the Divine, and therefore, ultimately, a blessing. Life lived with people without much showed me how to see a pile of almost spoilt vegetables as the perfect finishing touch for a salad to accompany a plate of rice and a single glass of water as sufficient to wash a mountain of dishes. In Bogota, my coworkers are able to take in cues like clothing, table manners, accents and greetings and instantly categorize each person they meet as to their standing on the city’s complicated social ladder.When I observe someone selling candy at a traffic light, I filter their life through theories of informal employment, economic realities, and displacement because of armed conflict.

kittens!

Yet, scanning a space and quickly observing the pipes and jutting bricks needed to create access routes is a whole other way of seeing the world that lies completely outside of my range of vision. Our burglars know the neighbourhood and its routines so well, they even relaxed enough to cook and eat a breakfast of eggs and coffee at the church last week, before taking the coffee pot, along with the offering. What forces have shaped their lives so that a steep descent down a sloped roof is seen as opportunity, not obstacle?

Ways of seeing the world are based on practices and habits that have made certain things appear glaringly obvious. With every blatant “fact”, however, comes a corresponding blindspot. I don’t see our roof as a stepping point to other offices, because I have never needed that skill. Privilege blinds me to circumstances and situations of inequality and oppression, where maybe selling stolen goods is as much a representation of structural injustices as it is of individual choices. Seeing how to move undetected through the dark, however, perhaps masks our thieves from glimpsing the reality of those of us left behind, feeling violated and forced to spend nonexistent budget on improved alarms and replacing computer equipment.

Gold cat
Gold cat

I try to hold perspectives loosely and to remember that there are different ways of seeing the world; these views, and understanding where they come from, create a brighter vision for all of us. When I first told my friend in El Carmen about that we had cat burglars, she assumed that people were jumping around on our roof stealing cats. While it would probably be preferable to our current situation, her interpretation still seemed bizarre, until she told me that she had spent the better part of an afternoon catching feral kittens in her backyard. Now everytime I think of our ladrones, I feel better as I imagine them battling actual cats for rooftop control.

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