New Internationalist

Words on the street from a globetrotters’ phrasebook

Issue 386

From the favelas of São Paulo to the mudukku of Colombo, those without property or income survive by building a home wherever they can – often defying the law in the process. Maybe it’s in a vacant lot, the yard of an abandoned factory or on top of the house that a cousin put up in the summer. Or maybe it’s on a spare piece of sidewalk, under a bridge or beside a railway track. Beside these makeshift dwellings, a culture springs up with its own rules and values: its own vocabulary and humour. Here are some examples:

Flying toilets: Used in parts of the mud-hut squatter towns of Nairobi, Kenya, where venturing outdoors at night can be life-threatening. If you have to ‘go’ then do it in a plastic bag. Then in the morning fling it as far from your hut as you possibly can.

Asfalto: The outside world surrounding Brazil’s favelas to which shantytown dwellers have extreme ambivalence. This means that if you’re in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, choose to patronize a local business over an asfalto one.

Bedspacer: Describes bunk-bedding rental in Manila (the capital of the Philippines). Taking budget accommodation to new levels of efficiency, four to six sleep in a small room, often in shifts.

Chor Gaadi: The “thieves’ van” – the grey demolition van driven by the municipal authorities who break down ‘illegal’ structures in Mumbai, India. Often the municipal workers take away people’s goods and belongings after tearing down their homes and shops.

Estoy con la bicicleta: Literally: ‘I am with the bicycle’, which in the slums of Lima, Peru, can mean: ‘I have bad diarrhoea.’ Warning: only to be used in a very informal setting – physicians may not understand.

Gecekondu: A Turkish word combining ‘night’ (gece) with ‘to happen or appear’ (kondurmak). It signifies a Turkish law that gives you protection if you can put up a dwelling in a single night, by prohibiting police from tearing your dwelling down without going through court processes. Many of the squatters around Istanbul and Ankara have established their dwelling rights in this way. The word for a similar practice in Calcutta – of building overnight to evade detection – is jabardakhal.

Kasippu: Alcohol illegally brewed in Colombo’s shanties (or jungles in rural areas). Watch out: kasippu manufacturers sometimes add poisonous substances to their brews. While this gives added kick, it can be lethal.

Cartoneros: Those who collect cardboard and other recyclables on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. They usually collect at night, then lug their carts to designated selling points. They recently won from the Government a special train – El Tren Blanco – to carry them nightly into the city centre from their homes on the outskirts.

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