Thursday, 5 July 2018

Refocusing the energy

Sorry, sorry. I know the, um, legions of Wrong Way readers have been wondering where I've got to the last while.

The recent presidential election and Colombia's World Cup exploits, nay the tournament in general, have been distractions for sure. "Yet", I hear you ask, "haven't they also been great things to write about?" Of course.

More pertinently and personally, ongoing visa complications have been occupying my mind. A right saga indeed. Akin to an existential crisis really — well in terms of my permanence in Colombia anyway. A visa-run to Ecuador is now firmly back on the cards.

Time to refocus ... (Photo from the mountains around Bogotá, Colombia)
Focusing on a new path ...
Again, a good blog topic that, you might say. However, sitting down to upload new posts hasn't seemed the most important of exercises of late. (Having my laptop stolen has also played its part; you can just never switch off in these parts.)

No more Mr Blog guy?
Now, truth be told, this lack of enthusiasm to write isn't just because of the aforementioned.
No. The thing is, there's been a slight refocusing of energies.

Basically, the blog posting has always been a labour of love. Well, the Google blog initially had a small chance of becoming profitable, but, as detailed at the time, that 'lucrative' avenue was closed off years back.

This blog, launched back in late 2011, and the El Tiempo space which began at the beginning of 2014, were started with a view to being springboards to something greater. For the record, there has never been any hope of getting financial reward for the El Tiempo blog.

In some ways, they have served this 'route to reward' purpose. They've maintained my hand in journalism of sorts as well as, so I like to think anyway, developing my writing skills (I class myself a broadcaster first and foremost, the only full-time, professional job I've had in my life to date). It's unlikely I would have been used for reports from here for Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ if I hadn't the blogs to 'prove' my credentials.

The El Tiempo blog also played an important part in getting an independent visa as a journalist, something I've had for the last four years and hoping to get again if and when I get the new paperwork requirement sorted out. Let's just say La Cancillería hasn't made the visa process any easier.

Pet projects
These blog benefits now, however, appear to be on the wane. Other things have become more worthy of devotion, at least for the time being.

In a previous post this year I alluded to writing a book on my experiences here in Colombia. That's still a work in progress, slow progress. Indeed, while I will finish it, it may never see the light of day in terms of getting it published, be that self-published or otherwise. Whatever the case, trying to put it together is proving to be an interesting, worthwhile experience.

On top of this, the prospect of working on a long-yearned-for project with other Colombian media groups is back on the table. Or at least it seems that way. More meat should be put on the bones of that in the next few weeks and months.

If not, it will more than likely signal the time to hit for the exit door — I can't keep ignoring these signs. It would have been nice to try this project with El Tiempo considering I've been writing on this website the last four-and-a-half years, but that hasn't been possible. It's been a closed shop.

Thus, while I don't intend to scrap the blog writing completely — it can be a bit of an addiction — the frequency of posts will drop considerably.

The barrio panadería lifestyle isn't that excessive, but one still needs to earn a bit to put that bread on the table.
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Friday, 8 June 2018

Colombia: The risk is seeing your paradise go up in flames

We don't have to go too far back to find a time when Colombia was pretty much considered a no-go area.

At the turn of the millennium, only the true adventurous, nay mad in the head, would consider visiting the country as a tourist, let alone actually settle down and invest decent time and money in it.

For the last number of years, as most readers of this blog will know, this negative reputation has been rapidly changing.

Uribe's utopia
The peace agreement signed with the Farc guerrillas in 2016, officially ending over half-a-century of internal conflict between that group and government forces, was a significant moment in this regard.

The arson attack at 'Finca Entre Ríos, Paso del Mango, Santa Marta, Colombia.
Up in smoke: The damage caused to 'Finca Entre Ríos'.
Yet, as important as that has been at an official level, the truth is this viewing of Colombia in a much more positive light internationally had begun years before. Unpalatable as this may be to many Colombians today, especially younger generations, between 2002 and 2010, under the hawkish presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the general security situation improved considerably.

Whether the ends justified the heavy-handed means — heavier on some violent types more so than others it could be said — is something still being discussed today.

A home from home
Nonetheless, from a tourism perspective, visiting the many natural gems the country has to offer became much less risky, for locals and foreigners alike.

This trend, some hotspots notwithstanding, has been continuing.

Alongside increasing tourist numbers, a not insignificant number of foreigners have made Colombia their home. They've voted with their feet in a positive way, demonstrating to those who care to listen that this place is not the violent backwater some in the more 'developed' world still think it is.

At times, however, the country gives us all a little reminder that it has a bit to go before we can compare it favourably with other, more established spots when it comes to investing in it. Quite a bit to go.

Para-dise's price
One of these more sinister sides is extortion, which reared its ugly head for fellow Irishman Patrick Fleming who has called Santa Marta his home since 2001. While we've heard stories of police being directly and unashamedly involved in this practice, this particular example is to do with suspected paramilitaries.

In some ways, that Patrick managed to avoid trouble for so long could be seen as good fortune. Paramilitaries did operate in the area in question when he first arrived, but nothing untoward had ever happened.

That aside, when your little piece of paradise on the Caribbean, a magical place visited by this blog last year, gets deliberately burnt to the ground at any stage, it's difficult to view it in a positive light.

In fact, after years developing his 'Finca Entre Ríos' at Paso del Mango on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where he provided employment for a young family, this arson attack now has the generally easygoing Patrick and his Colombian wife contemplating their future in the region.

The reason it happened is quite simple.

Pay or go?
Earlier in the year Paso del Mango's small community experienced a number of petty robberies. Shortly afterwards a hotel in the area was approached and asked to pay the dreaded 'vacuna', the word for protection money in these parts.

The community got together and decided they wouldn't fork out the cash to the extortionists. Extra police protection was asked for, which duly came. It didn't last, though.

As a further buffer, the community also managed to get additional army patrols, but again, the frequency of these soon decreased.

Thus, with little sustained help from state authorities, be it by accident or design, the rather secluded community was ripe for the picking. Cue the arson attack.

Now it must be said that one man was arrested and charged in connection with the incident. Authorities seem content, by all accounts, that they've done their bit.

Yet, for Patrick and the Paso del Mango community in general it's a question of 'What next?'

Mob rule appears to have taken hold, where the only options seem to be 'pay up' or 'leave'. The hope is that this retrograde step is just temporary.
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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Up your Paipa

Since we first came to know a few years back of the various Irishmen who played significant roles in modern Colombia's history, the town of Paipa came into our sights.

That's because the main park/square of the somewhat popular tourist spot is named after Dublin-born James Rooke — well they've Hispanicised the name to Jaime Rook, but we won't castigate them for that. The park is also home to a bust in his honour, in need of a power wash and lick of paint as it is.
The bust of James Rooke in Parque Jaime Rook, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia.
The bust of James Rooke, aka Jaime Rook; we think!
Irish, English or Colombian?
Coronel Rooke fought and died here in the wars of independence against the Spanish.

How 'Irish' he felt is open to debate. As the story goes, when he lost his arm in battle he shouted "Viva la patria" ("Live the homeland"). When asked if that was Ireland or England, he is alleged to have responded, "The country that will bury me." Now as far as we are aware, although we've been unable to get it confirmed, he's buried in Colombia.

That aside, considering Paipa is less than a three-hour drive from the north of Bogotá, it falls inside our 'short escape from the madness of the metropolis' category.

It's not quite the 'pueblito' we were expecting — it's a decent enough sized town. Yet it's still far more chilled-out than midweek Bogotá (OK, that's not too hard to achieve, in fairness).

Lake placid
Like other lake-side towns we've visited through the years — Queenstown in New Zealand and Chile's Pucón spring to mind — it seems to have a very pleasant vibe to it. The man-made Lake Sochagota's tranquility appears to exert a calming influence on the locals. (It might be slightly different at the weekend when more visitors are about, but the locals say it doesn't change that much.)
A view of Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia from the hills to its north.
Paipa from ahigh.
For those, like ourselves, who like to do their own thing, a stroll around the lake, with a 1.6 kilometre surface area, is a nice way to take it in and get some light exercise in the process.

If you're up for something a little more taxing, great views of the town, lake and surrounding countryside can be got by trekking up the hills to the north, behind the church on the main square.

Kayaking and other activities on the lake are also an option, but for our short stay on a tight budget we gave them a miss.

Hot springs are another popular attraction that we left out — we've experienced our fair share of them.

Cheesy cazuela
From a culinary perspective, Paipa is known for its dairy-related products, particularly cheese.

In this regard, the cazuela Paipana is worth a try to kick-start your day. It's basically a super-charged changua, packed with almojábanas (a rather delicious-when-just-baked type of cheesy bread made from corn flour, another favourite in these parts) and decent offerings of quality cheese.
Cazuela Paipa, a popular dish in these parts. Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia
Hearty & wholesome-ish! Cazuela Paipa.
Speaking to some other Colombians, Paipa has a bit of a reputation for being costly in terms of accommodation. For sure, there are a number of relatively expensive, 'fancy' hotels overlooking the lake, but budget lodgings can be found as well.

The respectable Canada Hotel has single rooms from 20.000 pesos per night. It's not gold standard, but it more than adequately does the job.

All told, and not that we're making any connection with James Rooke, but if Paipa was to be our last Bogotá escape before we potentially have to leave the country (very much alive, though, we hope), it's not a bad one to go out on.

**Canada Hotel is on Carrera 20 #23-61, just a few blocks away from Parque Jaime Rook. The friendly owner Adelaida can be contacted on +573138314483.

Friday, 18 May 2018

All that you can't leave behind

Many people on the outside looking in think our Colombian life is kind of cool. An exotic existence, away from the dreary 9-5 drag with a nice amount of time to travel.

On that score, it is. Our work life is anything but 9-5, Colombia certainly is exotic and we've been able to explore a fair chunk of it.

What's more, a few somewhat surreal 'acting' gigs have come our way that were enjoyable to be part of.
The end of an era? Wrong Way Corrigan contemplates his Colombian future overlooking Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia.
The end of an era?
Nonetheless, when you do the same, economically unstable thing for a number of years, the gloss does wear off. It's not for nothing there's the saying 'A change is as good as a rest."

Of course making that change is not always easy. Plus it's not always clear when we should make it and what exactly it should be. As we've oft said, that grass over yonder may not be as green as we think.

However, if there's a feeling that progress isn't really being made as regards the current situation, then it's probably a good time to shake things up, even if it is a step into the unknown as such a move often is.

We've become somewhat cosy in our Colombian comfort zone, albeit one that for most other Westerners would be anything but comfortable.

Now it is easier, in theory anyway, to move on when things aren't going to plan (we do have a rough plan, honestly we do).

So the fact that the goalposts to obtain what is a 'key' fifth consecutive independent work visa have moved should make bidding adieu to Colombia a less difficult decision. (For the record, after five year-long visas you are entitled to apply for residency, which itself lasts for five years.)

With official Colombia making it harder for us to stay coupled with our own long-lingering doubts about being here, it could be said it's a no-brainer. Our previous four work visas were obtained with little hassle, thus opting to 'give it a lash' for another year required less soul searching.

This time around the thinking is, 'If you're going to make it more complicated to stay here, no thank you.' It's not like we're looking to stay in everyone's favourite Latino country, Venezuela. (It's a joke, relax. Although it does seem our loyalty to Colombia over the years has counted for nothing!)

Yet, Colombia has been home since late 2011. As frustrating as many things have been during our almost seven years here, there have been plenty of highlights as well. It's proving to be more difficult than we'd thought to just quietly walk away from it all. (Not having something concrete to go to elsewhere is playing a significant part for sure.)

In some ways it's a similar mindset to the one a rather green 'Wrong Way' had back in 2008 before making the decision to leave Ireland and take flight for a period of solo travelling.

Once on the road, the many hiccups aside, it was a case of 'What was all the fuss about?'

With that as a guide, ten years on albeit and slightly more concerned about our financial situation, leaving our Colombian comfort zone is unlikely to prove fatal. Unlikely that is; things could happen outside of our control.

In any case, while losing our work visa status will be a little bit deflating, the option to stay here as a tourist until the year is out is still on the table.

We don't have to drop everything in an instant. Although, at times, that's the best strategy to adopt. When it's done, it's done. Move on, at haste.
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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Colombia's EPS: All in its own good time

After over six years based in Bogotá we've experienced many aspects of Colombian life, from the hugely enjoyable to the utterly frustrating.

However, there's one thing that, thankfully, we've yet to sample (and hopefully never will): The health service (well that and scopolamine).

OK, we've had to get some dental work done, but that was a private affair, not through any health scheme, and not a sickness issue either — having front teeth isn't completely essential, is it? (On that, um, front, it did take some time to find a trustworthy, reasonably-priced dentist. We got there in the end, though.)
Sura EPS: Regarded as one of Colombia's best in this regard.
Sura: Seen as one of the best EPSs out there ... (Image from Facebook.)
That aside, the 'opportunity' hasn't arisen to use an EPS ('Entidad Promotora de Salud', health promoting entity), the somewhat private health service that's the default option for the majority of Colombians.

Basically, for a relatively small monthly fee you get what results in pretty much free health care when the need arises.

For the very poor there are other, government-subsidised options, while private health insurance is a more attractive alternative for wealthier Colombians. Yet going through an EPS is where it's at for most.

There are many of them to choose from, all operating in more or less the same way. Naturally enough, some are rated better than others — the EPS you use determines which clinic or hospital you get sent to for any specialised treatment you may need.

Thus, they function as a sort of middleman between you and the medical specialists. Minor issues are generally dealt with by a GP at an EPS clinic.

For problems of a more serious nature, but not emergency life-or-death ones, your EPS has to grant approval before any treatment is given. It does foot the bill after all — with a little help from your small monthly contribution of course (and the government in some cases).

So that the EPS has to give prior authorisation is fine, in theory. In practice, however, it can lead to a lot of time wasted waiting in line just to get signed off for surgery or whatever.

Take the case of a friend who was in a bicycle accident recently. His EPS sent him to hospital — unnecessarily by ambulance as it was — for an X-ray on his injured arm. The doctor who saw him first up was unsure if surgery was needed or not. Further examinations were required to determine that but they couldn't be done at that specific time.

Our friend got a temporary cast on his arm and was told he'd have to come back to fully ascertain the extent of the damage. But before that could happen, he had to return to his EPS to get the green light.

In short, for practically every additional step in his treatment he had to keep on going back to the EPS for official approval. The result was that a whole three weeks passed from the date of his accident before he was told surgery was necessary. And, before that surgery could actually happen, the EPS had to give the official stamp of approval. All rather convoluted.

Nonetheless there is some method to this medical madness. It helps to ensure that the EPS isn't forking out for unnecessary, costly procedures.

You see, so it goes, some of these institutions have been rather lax, in a beneficial way albeit, about their patients' needs, resulting in their accounts requiring some emergency treatment of their own.

Somebody eventually has to pay for expensive medical operations. And somebody has to, or at least should, pay the professionals carrying them out. That doesn't always happen in the Colombian health service. We've heard stories of doctors waiting months for their remuneration.

Being that as it is, we're happy not to be an extra burden on the system. Long may it stay that way.
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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

'Right you are, Colombia'

There is very often a significant difference between what one might like to see happen and what actually does transpire.

In this regard, in relation to our previous post, lest there be any confusion, we don't expect Humberto de la Calle to be Colombia's next president. As much as we may like what he's about, the majority of the Colombian electorate, those who actually matter in this, don't. Or at least they don't want him as their next president.
Iván Duque: Colombia's president-in-waiting ...
Iván Duque: The 'right' fit for Colombia (photo from Facebook).
In fact, de la Calle himself more than likely realises he won't be taking up residence at Palacio de Nariño.

The man who will be doing that, barring what would amount to a significant sea change in the state of play, is Iván Duque.

It's pretty clear why.

Firstly, in 'normal' circumstances, those who bother to vote in Colombia look to the centre/centre-right when electing their president.

Taking that as a given, there are really only two other 'serious' challengers to Duque: Sergio Fajardo and Germán Vargas Lleras.

Yet, if we are to trust the majority of opinion polls, the country's left, or more socially-democratic minded we could say, are behind Gustavo Petro in significant numbers. For many in this bracket, it's Petro or nothing (or certainly not Álvaro Uribe's protégé Duque). So this large minority, if they get out and vote, should do enough to get their 'messiah' into the decisive second round vote.
The thing is, faced with a split centre-right vote, the Petro ticket does well.

However, in a straight shoot-out against just one, let's say more 'acceptable' candidate for this country, Petro's a losing bet. This is especially so when it's seen as a black-and-white contest, left versus right, as it will be with Duque.

It seems safe to assume that the majority of Vargas Lleras votes would transfer to Duque. Some Fajardo voters might swing to Petro, but certainly not all of them.

Thus, for the many 'Anybody but Duque/Uribe' Petro voters, their best chance of keeping the Centro Democrático out might be to opt for Fajardo in the first round. That is, try and make it a Duque-Fajardo head-to-head. In that scenario, some more centrist-type voters who wouldn't contemplate siding with Petro, might be more inclined to go with Fajardo rather than Duque.

Of course this sort of tactical, second-guessing voting largely based on opinion polls is risky. It could all backfire.

Nonetheless, regardless of how the others line up, this looks to be Duque's contest to lose.

This brings us on to the broader issue of why Colombia tends to shun anybody with a hint of 'left' to him/her when it comes to its president.

The fact that the state has been battling leftist insurgents since the 1950s is a significant factor. For this particular election, the murderous activities of Farc dissidents on the Ecuadorian border, the controversial arrest of a high-up ex Farc guerrilla on drug trafficking charges and the stop-start peace talks with a still active ELN reinforce the commonly-held view that 'left is bad'. The political and social turmoil in neighbouring 'socialist' Venezuela is also playing its part.

Yet other Latin American countries have had to deal with a violent left without this resulting in such political thinking being pretty much dismissed outright.

One of the differences for Colombia is due to the fact that the state, with significant help from right-wing paramilitaries, systematically destroyed the political left, rendering it no more than an irritant. The discourse has been dominated by the victors, the rightist state and its media friends.

Those on the left are subversives, a threat to the Colombian republic. So the narrative goes anyway.
(It is important to note here that the United Nations estimates that the Farc and ELN accounted for 12 per cent of civilian deaths in the conflict up to 2016, with 80 per cent attributed to right-wing paramilitaries. The government was responsible for the remaining eight per cent.)

Thus, with the recent violent events mentioned above, Colombia's rightist guardians look as appealing as ever to urban dwellers across the stratum divide.

Now is not the time to rock the boat. Better the devil you know guys.
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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Colombia, de la Calle

OK, we may need to change our preference. While we still have plenty of respect for V.E. Blanco, the sad reality is, for, um, existential reasons 'he' won't actually physically make it to Palacio de Nariño, Colombia's presidential palace.

That being so, you still have to admire his performance ahead of the presidential first-round vote on May 27. He's doing better than four of the seven actual candidates in the race. Only Iván Duque, Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo (just about) are more popular according to the opinion polls.

Colombian presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle: A good compromise choice?
De la Calle: As his name suggests, he's right at home on the streets ... (Picture from Facebook.)
Yet, taking Dr Blanco out of things, who do we endorse for Colombia's top job? For many locals it's either the rightist Duque, the candidate of former president, the divisive Álvaro Uribe, or former Bogotá mayor and once leftist guerrilla with the defunct M-19, Petro. The never-again-to-be-trusted opinion polls have Duque ahead, a man who has promised to make significant adjustments to the peace agreement outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos signed with the Farc.

In many ways it would be interesting to see how Colombia would operate under a leftist president, something it has never really had. Now how left Petro actually is depends on who you listen to. He talks a somewhat leftist game in any case, yet he certainly doesn't dress like a man at one with the impoverished masses.

For sure, all candidates realise the need to address the vast inequality Colombia has, and have various ideas in this regard. Yet proposals on paper are one thing, putting them into practice quite another. Needless to say there's no simple solution.

Notwithstanding that, considering Duque-Petro is seen as a battle of the extremes — "a hawkish Duque presidency will result in deepening political and social division, a Petro administration will see the country slide towards socialism and potentially cripple the economy" — more moderate Colombians are looking for the centre ground. On this front, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia department governor Fajardo appears to be the preferred candidate.

He's promising to be a "president of reconciliation", playing in a way to that concern that a win for either of the current leading candidates will dangerously divide the country.

Of course, he's not the only 'centrist' candidate. However, the polls have him comfortably ahead of both Germán Vargas Lleras, who had a stint as vice president under Santos, and the Liberal party's Humberto de la Calle, whose last political role was government chief negotiator in the Farc peace talks.

That the two men had important posts in the Santos administration is no doubt working against them. The electorate is looking for change and both Vargas Lleras and de la Calle have been too close to the outgoing crowd.

Yet, the country could do worse than taking stock of things after a few rocky years. For one, there's been that aforementioned controversial peace agreement which ended up being rejected in a referendum yet its implementation went ahead anyway. We've also seemingly never-ending corruption scandals and the delicate issue of streams of Venezuelans continuing to enter the country as they escape the mess they have at home.

In such an environment, an experienced, largely respected pair of hands in the shape of Humberto de la Calle could be seen as a good compromise, interim choice.

At almost 72 years of age and his moderate background, he’s not exactly in the same mould as a Putin or Uribe. A ‘president for life’ by whatever means possible he will not be.

He's unlikely to dramatically change things, for better or for worse. However, at a time where the tendency across the globe seems to be to run to the extremes, de la Calle offers Colombia a little breather from the madness, and maybe even a bit more.

Humberto de la Calle: Steady as she goes for four short years?