Bringing Wonder to Bogota's Slums

January 01, 2013





Story by Ryan Bart (’12) / Photos by Carlos Villalon

The bus began to crawl up the hillside that marks the southernmost part of the city. My nostrils took in the stench from a seeping stream below, and my lungs filled with deathly exhaust fumes. I had no idea where to get out. This was my first day teaching the art of magic to the children of Ciudad Bolivar, the poorest and most dangerous barrio in Bogotá.

“Daniel, pay attention!” It is impossible to count how often I have said this during Magic Club lessons. Daniel gasps with joy at each magic trick. Always wearing his Road Runner sweatshirt, he was first to master the showy method that card aficionados use to shuffle a deck of cards. But of all 10 students, he has the most trouble paying attention. He interrupts as a 5-year-old would – “Teacher, watch me!” – but he is 15. Children in the club are 12-15 years old. They gather each Tuesday at the Bella Flor Foundation, which works with disadvantaged youth.

Although magic has ahold of my heart, I am in Colombia with the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program. I teach English at the Universidad Colegio Major de Cundinamarca. I am the first native speaker at this humble institution, and demand is high. Last fall, my supervisor and I originally set a limit of 130 students – that grew to 240. I taught 17 classes per week, with eight lesson plans to prepare. My students are a pleasure and an honor to work with.

The people of Bogotá have been wildly supportive of the Magic Project. Three times, we have been featured on national television, and I have been interviewed on the national radio. Colombia’s two most famous magicians, Gustavo Lorgia and Richard Sarmiento, are important and enthusiastic supporters. I recently attended an auction at Gustavo’s house with all of Bogotá’s magicians. Never have I seen grown men act so much like kids, with bidding wars over plastic chickens, confetti and miniature cards. Last fall, Gustavo invited the Magic Club to his show, Ilusión. And we had a surprise up our sleeves – Daniel and Andres, our other Magic Club star, joined Gustavo on stage to a roar of applause. All attention was on them as they began their routine – the ball and vase trick, making a ball disappear and reappear from inside a small vase. It is a beginner’s trick, but they executed it perfectly. After less than three months, they were performing with internationally famous magicians.

My passion for magic began when I was younger than Daniel. Ever since, I have led parallel lives – one as a pre-med student and the other as a student of magic. Sometimes my two lives meet. During my Gonzaga years, I took my magic every week to Sacred Heart Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital. I began my visits there due to my interest in medicine, but I had no idea what I was in for. The children found real joy in the magic. Yet some days when I packed up my props and returned to my car, I just sat and sobbed at the suffering of those children and their families.

I knew I wanted to make a similar connection in Bogotá. So each week before I climb all the way to the foundation in Ciudad Bolivar, towering over Bogotá, I first stop at the Vista Hermosa Hospital. This is where the people of Ciudad Bolivar who lack insurance or finances come to be treated. On my first visit, the administrators did not understand what I wanted to do. My less-than-perfect Spanish didn’t help, but finally they grew excited. At their insistence, my hospital name is Doctor Ryan. Simply being a gringo in Colombia, I receive credibility that I don’t deserve. For the first month, I went by myself. Then, Juggling Master Joe Willens, a close Fulbright friend, began to accompany me each week. A month later, I met Carlos Lopez, founder of a nonprofit called Connecting Smiles, who now joins us every week. Carlos is well connected with the magic community, and each week he brings another magician. What started as a solo magic gig has turned into a weekly quartet of performers who offer laughter and a sense of awe to suffering – or bored – patients. In two weeks, we will be bringing our magic students from Bella Flor to perform with us at Vista Hermosa. My plan is that in a few years, when they are mature enough, these students will be responsible for managing the performing program at this hospital as it resides in their very own community.

Not only has Carlos agreed to manage the Magic Club when I leave Bogotá this summer, he is also largely responsible for starting a second club with a group of orphan girls from Findesin Orphanage. It is comforting to know that the club will not just last, but the program I began will continue to grow. Another invaluable source of insight has come from Magicians Without Borders, an international non-profit based in Vermont. Tom Verner, the head of Magicians Without Borders, has taught me many lessons.

This spring, the Magic Project continued to evolve. In April, we held our first performance in a new hospital, Fundación Santa Fé. It is the most respected hospital in the city, if not the country. I met the president of the hospital at a party through the U.S. Embassy. She called me, eager to work with Magicians Without Borders. For the rest of my time here, we will perform each week for patients in the oncology and pediatric wards. Although I prefer to work with less privileged populations, I am excited to spend time in such an advanced hospital. We have been performing an average of five or more magic shows each week in hospitals and foundations. For the past few months, I have been dreaming of putting together an afternoon workshop in which we can teach interested doctors and nurses some basic magic tricks that they can do with their patients. I pitched the idea to this hospital, and the administrators are interested.

Finally, as the weeks and months flow by, I have gotten to really know the magic students from Ciudad Bolivar. One boy battles with great insecurity, the aftermath of sexual abuse. A girl deals with severe psychological issues. Gangs are prevalent, and two of the boys appear to be on the edge of delinquency. Daniel’s home is full of neglect. Some weeks, the Magic Club flourishes; other weeks it is a struggle.

But this is what I came here to do: to use the art of magic to inspire hope, teach discipline and instill empowerment in children who lack such opportunities. How could this be a cakewalk? Daniel and others are emerging as leaders and able performers. As the children improve, their confidence grows, and I see their passion and joy emerging. Daniel is even learning to be patient while I explain directions. He recently told me that when he graduates from high school next year, he wants to dedicate his life to studying and performing magic. It is a beautiful thing.

Ryan Bart will spend four months in India next spring, working through Magicians Without Borders.