Monday, 30 December 2013

Reasons to be cheerful

It has, by all accounts, been somewhat of an indifferent return to our 'second home' of Colombia. Indeed you might say – but we won't – that it has been bordering on negative. The time of year we returned has played a factor in terms of us getting saddled up again with any significant work – well before December 25th this country goes into holiday mode, with English classes generally being the last thing on most people's minds.
The hopefully prosperous trek on the year 2014 begins
Where does the road lead in 'our' year of 2014? Pic from hdwallpapersinn.com.

Now not racing around Bogotá playing the part of the on-call, 'flying teacher' has left us with time (too much time in some ways) to explore other, more fulfilling, employment options, something that was (and is) one of our chief goals for this latest stint in the country.* Alas, little progress has been made thus far on that front – again, the prevailing ambiance among the masses right now of 'leave it until next year' is, we hope, a big reason for this.

So we will be looking for an upturn in fortunes when things get back into full swing (or the Colombian equivalent of that) in the coming weeks. In this regard – and also in an overall context – we do, we think, have reasons to be cheerful looking forward to 2014 and beyond. Sure 'tis the season to be positive (and in writing, to make barely relevant lists to pass as acceptable articles); and we can do that from time-to-time, contrary to what some believe. Right, here goes:

2014
Let's start with the new year itself. The numbers '2' and '14' resonate deeply with us, for birthday reasons. So having both together in the one year, it's got to be a positive sign, right? A cynic might say that it means nothing at all, '2014' simply representing the amount of years since the birth of a highly contested/controversial saviour. Eternal damnation for such cynics we say. And no, we're not engaging in a process of seeing a straw and clutching desperately. One mustn't ignore the obvious.
On another point, this year sees us enter the last of our 20s. So we're just coming nicely to the boil; or so we'll tell ourselves.

Pieter and his 'wonderful' selfie
Looking, eh, good there Pieter.
Independence
While there were many good reasons to be back home in Ireland earlier in the year, a sense of being slightly trapped and 'dependent' was not one of them.** We feel we have a little more freedom here, whether that's actually real or imagined. It may all just be in the head (and the pocket too; when resources are tight, we can make our money last a little longer here while not severely damaging our 'revered' social life). An important caveat: For the majority of our time since coming back we've had a lovely apartment all to ourselves. That's due to change shortly. Change can be good though.

Goodbye to 'The Year of the Selfie'
Apparently 2013 was 'The Year of the Selfie' – that is, for the uninitiated, a photo taken of yourself, by yourself and subsequently posted to social media (well it's silly keeping it to yourself, right?) The thing is, the looking-in-the-mirror selfie while making a ridiculous pose has been all the rage for Colombian women for the last number of years. Just take a peep at most Colombianas photos on their Facebook page to get an idea of what we're on about. A rare moment where Colombia was, erm, 'ahead' of the posse on the global stage. Here's to 2014 signalling the end of this craze. See, we are being positive.

A star is born
Since returning to Bogotá, we've reacquainted ourselves with some TV extras work.*** Not only that, but we managed to land a brief speaking role, i.e. no mere 'extra', but a 'super extra' with an actual, ahem, meaningful part, on the hit production 'El Capo' (the third series, which is due to be aired from February 2014). Our performance as a San Diego airport control tower guy is sure to make headlines across the Latino world. Hollywood, take note.
'Wrong Way' -- the consummate acting professional hard at work...
The 'pro' at work. Pic credit: Christopher Allbritton.

New York, New York?
Whether Hollywood takes the lead or not, we may in any case find ourselves New York bound in a few months. It's just a case of taking the flight, it's already paid for. We like to explore new places, so the chance to visit 'The Big Apple' and catch up with family would be very much up our street. It all just depends on how our Colombian plans are progressing. Failing that, or maybe in addition, there's always the World Cup in Brazil. Sure it's only a stone's throw away from our current abode – anyone fancy joining us on a boat ride through the Amazon to get there?

6 Nations
Mentioning the World Cup, while it will be a great spectacle and we wish Colombia all the best, that Ireland won't be there means we won't be overly engrossed in it. Rugby's 6 Nations Championship on the other hand always gets our emotions up. We saw glimpses, specifically in the November test match against New Zealand – the one (another one) that got away – that Ireland, under new management, could have a big impact in the 2014 tournament. As we stated from the onset, we're being positive. February and March might put paid to that; here's hoping not though.

So there you have it; our 'Reasons to be cheerful', kind of. It's simply a case now of 'let the good times roll'. Happy New Year to all!

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*For an idea of what our English teaching work in Bogotá has been like, see The 'money' tongue.

**For more see Any which way but lose....

***Oh the 'glamorous' world of TV extras work in Colombia is explored more at http://bit.ly/NrbPc3.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Simply having an indifferent (Colombian) Christmas time

This time of year is of course very family orientated, especially for those from a Christian background. So the fact that we decided, yet again, to leave our clan with the Christmas period within earshot, has left many here in our second home wondering why. And it hasn't just been the Colombians who have asked us this, but even fellow expats: 'Why didn't you wait until after the 'holiday season' to return?'
Some of Bogotá's Christmas lighting -- credit where credit is due
Some of Bogotá's Christmas lights are pretty impressive

It's not that we're anti-Christmas, far from it. Indeed back home we really do enjoy the festive period and we always have. Even when we've had to work through some of it, as was the case in our most recent ones spent in Ireland, we've generally liked the whole atmosphere it generates.

Yet this is perhaps the crux of the matter; Christmas for us is about home and everything that goes with it. Not being in the place where we spent 23 uninterrupted years merrily munching through turkey and ham dinners every December 25th (plus the very satisfying second, third and even fourth servings in the subsequent days) means we have a slight indifference towards it now that we're not there. Here in Bogotá it just doesn't feel the same as we gear up for our third consecutive 'holiday season' (we like to be politically correct every now and again) outside of the homeland.

In one sense it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. That is, while Colombia does obviously 'do Christmas', it's not the Western, winter version we know and love. (Okay credit is forthcoming for trying to replicate the winter scenes. Some of the lighting displays are impressive enough and accompanied with the odd relatively chilly night in Bogotá it can at times seem 'semi-Christmassy', but in the end we just don't buy it. For starters, the daytime temperatures are just too mild.)

A large part of the Christmas ambiance we like are the tried and trusted, cheesy as some may be, tunes; Fairytale of New York being one of our favourites (and we hasten to add it's far from cheesy).* Yes, Colombia has its Yuletide melodies, but again, as we haven't grown up with them, they just don't resonate; although this little radio advertisement for Café Aguila Roja, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egtQozVh50A, akin, perhaps, to the Irish clothing retailer Penneys' “whole lot of things for Christmas” is beginning to grow on us (pickings are slim).** This year, we state without shame, we've found ourselves listening on line to Ireland's Christmas FM just to get us 'in the mood' – we even got ourselves a 'shout out' on it from across the waves.

So with all this, let's call it 'mild yearning' for a traditional home Christmas in mind, why exactly didn't we stay? Well we left just before the season got into full swing, so that helped. Plus, we had to balance any desire to remain with the fact that we had already spent longer in Ireland this year than we had envisaged, especially so when there were, and are, very few decent job opportunities around. We figured the money we'd spend during an Irish Christmas would easily pay, with a bit to spare, for flights back to Colombia, or anywhere for that matter.
Last year's remake of Bethlehem proved a hit with Bogotanos; we got in for free, honestly
Never mind a live crib, how about a live Bethlehem, Bogotá style?

Also, there is the case that we're perhaps being overly nostalgic, looking back on past Christmases a tad too fondly compared to what the reality was. For sure it's better to have happy memories than sad ones. More significantly though, some of those things that signalled Christmas to us have now gone and can't be replaced. This year we said goodbye to an uncle and good friend, somebody who was as much part of our festive memories as those aforementioned turkey and ham dinners, the songs or, in our earliest years, Santa Claus.

Thus, as we all know, things are constantly changing, evolving – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. With time we might come to embrace a Colombian Christmas. Or maybe we've just 'moved on' from getting too engrossed in it, no matter where we are.

One positive thing about being indifferent is that we don't have to face those January blues; there's no big low if you don't have the high. Steady as she goes and all that.

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*Any excuse for a blast of Fairytale of New York: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9jbdgZidu8.

**Not exactly the Penneys ad version we're looking for but it gives an idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP9hgpj0za4.

Finally, and regardless of your thoughts of the shenanigans at this time of year, we'd like to wish everybody a happy and peaceful Christmas/Holiday Season!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

No somos Colombianos, pero ... (We're not Colombian, but ...)

An old Colombian flame of ours used to suggest that we’re just not compatible with her country; with a large proportion of the people that is, not the actual land. In fairness, it didn’t take her to get us thinking that way, whether it’s completely true or not.
A bog-standard, satisfyingly simple Bogotá tienda bar.
Unlike some 'exclusive' spots, locals actually talk to you in tiendas such as this one.

We’ve tinkered around this topic on these pages before.* Plus we tend to be very honest and forthright; no, you’re right, let’s not go down that road just now.

In terms of finding ‘love’ (uh-oh, here we go again), where we do a large part of our socialising – see http://bit.ly/17yN8HH for what we’re on about – are not the type of places you’re likely to find the most ‘sought after’ girls in Colombia. We won’t go into the whole argument that such a search is fanciful in this country; or any for that matter. We’re not complete romantic cynics, just yet.

The fact is that for much of our socialising we gravitate towards modest, value-for-money, friendly, venues. You see, we do like to regularly get out and meet people but this also has to be balanced with living within our means. Thus, when you’re in a city/country with such a disparity in prices between different neighbourhoods, from the relatively cheap to the ridiculously expensive, and your own income is pretty average, visits to the ‘swankier’ ends have to be frequently curtailed.

In contrast, most Colombian women around our age, ones with comparable backgrounds/education to ourselves in any case, tend not to like the satisfying simplicity of the tienda bars we regularly frequent. No, they enjoy more the lavish locations – it helps of course when they don’t expect to put their hands in their oversized handbags for much, if not all, of the night. We however are such fans of equal rights where possible that the idea of paying far more than our fair share is anathema to us (for more see The wages of love).

Yet the question remains, are we incompatible with Colombia? Our Costeña ‘friend’ answered this one in the affirmative.** However, putting aside her Colombian nationality, we may be more ‘acceptable’ to, and compatible with, the masses of her country than she is. Her hangouts of choice align with the ‘elite’ minority of the country. Tienda drinkers are the norm, the majority. All understandable really considering the wage difference and accompanied social scene discrepancy between the top earners and the rest.
The 'delightful' La Perseverancia, our new hangout spot in Bogotá.
Our new home, La Perseverancia; no one even tried to rob our camera.

Change may be brewing on this front. With a rising middle-class, perhaps places that are now seen as upper-class will in time become more accessible to a greater number of citizens and expats alike. Such a change though is unlikely to happen at any discernible rate, not in these parts.

We may be a long way from the day when a Colombian parliamentarian and the local unemployed alcoholic drink in the same bar and share a conversation, something that you’ll often witness in Ireland. Although maybe that’s not the best example; they’re both similar types in many ways. You get the point though.

One other feature that draws us back time and again to our watering holes, outside of the price, is that we tend to find that the locals there get that almost indescribable thing, the ‘craic’ (or ‘crack’, depending on your spelling preference). A word (not a substance) used in Ireland and elsewhere to describe many scenarios.

In this context understanding and being able to engage in various bouts of slagging/pub banter. Lest there’s still any confusion about the word and its meaning, the only drug that is usually consumed in the presence of craic is alcohol, although it’s not a prerequisite. Not only do they get the craic, but we find that they're usually very good at handing out free beers. Oh they know how to 'play' us.

So while you can point to many areas where we don’t ‘fit in’ with Colombia and her people, we’ve found enough comforting similarities to keep us coming back.

You could say, like the country itself, we’re still a work in progress here, without a fixed completion date.
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*For a run through some of the things we've found 'uncomfortable' here, see Lord of the Dance and Colombia’s false friends. The Irish and Colombians do, however, have that strong Catholic background, manifested in different ways albeit.

**'Costeña' ('Costeño' for a man; literally 'coastal' in English) is the term used for woman from Colombia's -- and Venezuela's -- Caribbean coast. It's also the name of a beer in Colombia. (We won't go into the whole 'a beer is better than woman because...' spiel; we could, but we won't.)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fighting for 'Free Bogotá'

We value and like to be able to demonstrate our freedom, as relative and limited as it sometimes feels*. On a daily basis, this manifests itself by us walking to and through public places when we want to do so; that is, not being concerned an individual or individuals may potentially violently interrupt us.
The scene of the 'attack'
Leafy suburbs -- eh, not quite

In many places across the world this tends not to be a concern anyway. However, in some parts, minding your own business does not automatically mean you’ll be left to your own devices. And as much as we have wandered Bogotá’s streets at times when, and places where, most others wouldn’t dare, the fact can’t be hidden that each time we do arrive home safely, specifically at night-time, there is a sense of relief. A victory for the common, law-abiding man you might say.

Considering our mentality in this regard, thankfully, luckily even, we can count on one hand the number of times when ‘dodgy’ incidents happened to us on the streets here (for details of earlier occurrences, see http://bit.ly/XLDyLg). However, it would be remiss of us to use the expression that ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. For in a number of neighbourhoods (barrios) in this city, and the exact locations can be quite fluid, there exist people who will attack you for the simple reasons that they can; you are different; and/or they feel you have something they want – money, a mobile phone or whatever.

It must be said at this point that in certain parts of the last city we lived in for any considerable length of time, namely North Belfast, such perils were also in existence. Again though we often flagrantly tossed those aside whilst making our way home on foot at night.

To make light of these real threats is clearly not a wise thing to do. We don’t; but there is a conflict between us watching out for a safety and our belief in being able to walk the streets without compromise.

The standard defence mechanism we apply whenever we feel threatened is to to play ‘crazy’; in other words just try and blend in or at least look as equally as deranged and/or intimidating as the person/persons who we secretly wish we didn’t have to pass by. However, our most recent Bogotá late night/early morning incident has given us some more food for thought – we’re pretty much at the banquet stage in this regard now.

This time around there was less an element of opportunism and more a statement of intent in the deeds of the three assailants, at least one of whom was armed with a knife. Although our ill-advised decision to cross the street, parting company momentarily with our two companions, was surely a help in pushing our wannabe muggers into action.
Wrong Way's new 'hood'
'Wrong Way' Country

That they left empty handed (we think we just lost our mobile phone in the commotion rather than it being stolen) was down to our fellow Irish friend’s handy work with his extendible metal baton; something he rarely leaves home without and considering he is another man who likes to feel ‘free’ enough to walk home, a smart move. The idea is to give the holder peace-of-mind and most people hope they never have to use it. On this occasion it certainly was needed and it got a good run out, more than making up for its relatively small cost. We’ve taken note.

Nonetheless, we also realise that had we been on our own that night, or at least certainly minus our friend plus baton, the outcome could have been a whole lot different and much nastier. Throw in the fact that all this happened pretty close to our new abode in Bogotá (La Perseverancia, next to La Macarena) and we would be quite stupid not to take evasive action in the future. Okay, the attackers may have become the attacked that night, but there’s a fair chance they’ll remember our ‘foreign’ faces before we recognise theirs.

Continuing to mix, socialise and do business in the less affluent part of our new barrio – that being the infamous La Perseverancia – as is our wont, might help somewhat. We’re beginning to be known and recognised in what we feel is a positive way. Yet the phrase ‘trust no one’ could have been coined for these parts in dealing with the locals; and we do our best to abide by it.

Perhaps that’s another reason we continue to rely on ourselves to get home safely. Something of a victory for ‘freedom’ each time we do. Or is that just plain old foolhardiness?

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*For a related article on 'freedom', see http://bit.ly/SOQUl0.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Love fool

The default mode for most Irish men has traditionally been to show a cold, hard exterior, especially in matters of the heart. Or more specifically, issues surrounding romance.

Misty thoughts...
Things are a little hazy right now
It’s generally something we’ve subscribed to over the years. Now this is not to say that we suppress emotions – not a healthy thing to do that obviously. No, we just tend to deal with them internally. “‘Tis our business and ours only” kind of approach; and the majority of time we feel that’s not a bad way to go. Heck we’ve made it this far, just about.

However, considering we’re in a place that’s a bit more, let’s say, ‘emotionally liberal’, we’re going to deal with some personal romantic issues here.

You could perhaps blame this ‘softened’ approach on the Colombian air we’re once again breathing – well that and the local ‘chicas’, or ladies if you will. That withstanding, this could be seen as an advisory tale and we always like to help where we can; we’re just not sure what the advice actually is.

Now as regular readers will be aware (cue long, awkward silence), we were back in the homeland between August and early November this year. A family wedding drew us back while visa issues coupled with doubts as to our next move kept us there a bit longer than we had initially expected; well that and mammy’s cooking of course.

Before we left, we had met a girl here in Bogotá who seemed to tick a lot of the right boxes for us. Indeed, we thought she was so cool that we were happy not to let her Santander background bias our thoughts; we like to live dangerously from time-to-time.*

While we seemed to be getting on well, we were never anything other than casual partners; the fact that our departure date for Ireland was looming together with uncertainty as to whether we would be returning to Colombia or not played a big part in this.

So when we did leave, it was a case of let’s see what happens. We did keep in regular, practically daily contact via Facebook and the occasional Skype call. Thus, we stayed on each other’s radar in a sense.

A quite significant spanner was thrown into the works at the end of September when our ‘friend’ (we’ll call her Colombiana from here on) told us she had met someone else. On further examination, Colombiana told us that it wasn’t that serious, and we continued to stay in friendly contact.

Once we finally sorted out our next move, that being the default option of a return to Bogotá, we were quick to let Colombiana know our news. This was greeted with the extremely generous offer of picking us up from the airport (we’d never had anyone specifically come to a South American airport to collect us) along with the suggestion that we stay at her apartment for the first few days. Nice.
This left us under the impression that perhaps we could pick things up from where we had left them in August, maybe bring them a bit further.

However, we were left in the dark, until we arrived, of one rather important piece of information. Namely that the relationship with the guy Colombiana had met in September, who for the record is Spanish and not Colombian, had now advanced into a more serious stage. Well, put it this way, when a man decides he’s going to divorce his wife on the strength of meeting another woman, it does take on an element of seriousness, right?

Cherly Cole; not looking too bad if we say so ourselves...
Cheryl -- worth fighting for? Probably
Now contrast that bold statement of intent with our heretofore laissez-faire attitude and you can, maybe, understand why Colombiana went for the, what might be seen as, ‘steadier’ option (we’ll put the divorce issue to one side for now – sure marriage these days isn’t what it used to be).

Needless to say our presence in her apartment for those first few days on our return – as generous as the offer was – wasn’t the most comfortable. Although it must be pointed out that we’re still very much on friendly terms and we have met up since finding alternative accommodation.

So where does this leave us? Any serious analysis can’t ignore the fact that we were quite relaxed about our relationship before leaving. Or at least we thought we were; a first hearing of Passenger’s ‘Let her go’ song on the flight back to Europe did resonate and left us pondering things somewhat.**

There is though the argument that we’re just lusting more for Colombiana now for the simple fact that she’s currently out of reach, in a romantic sense anyway. Verifying that, given the current circumstances, is not easy however.

There are generally two schools of thought as to what to do. Follow the Cheryl Cole (or should that be Tweedy once again?) lead and ‘fight for this love, for if it’s worth having it’s worth fighting for’.** Or we go with our tried, but not altogether trusted, laissez-faire attitude – whatever will be, will be.

The phrase ‘time will tell’ lets you know, perhaps, which one we’re leaning towards. Right, we’ve said enough. We’re reverting to type now and putting those emotions firmly back on the inside.

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*For a, erm, light-hearted look at Colombian women's personality traits broken down by regions, see Colombia's locas http://bit.ly/XzHltA.

**You can check out Let Her Go by Passenger here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBumgq5yVrA; and for Cheryl Cole's Fight For This Love see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4umc87T5UMs.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Globish affair

Many native English speakers, ourselves included, can be accused of laziness and/or indifference when it comes to learning other languages. Fair enough comment, especially when compared to the linguistic exploits of the likes of the Dutch and Germans, to name just two nationalities.

The fact that our language (yes we’re Irish but we won’t pretend to be anything close to fluent Gaelic speakers) is the world’s chief business tongue means we generally more than survive and mingle in foreign countries without having to master – or even come close to mastering – others.
It's the thought/effort that counts, right?
'Is there a refund if we don't make it across the bridge?'

Basically, if English isn't your first language, there’s a high chance it’s your second, or at least you desire it to be. In contrast, for native English speakers, there isn't a common second language we gravitate towards. Looking at our situation here, we have what we’ll describe as an ‘okay’ grasp of Spanish simply because we've spent the last two years plus surrounded by it in Colombia and elsewhere. Had things worked out differently, it could be French or German or Dutch or what have you that we’d have as our ‘second language’ (we’ll use that lightly). In other words, things happened by chance rather than design. For those who have English as their number two tongue, the chances they gained it in such a similar ad hoc manner are pretty slim.

At the risk of making an excuse for many native English speakers’ ‘language laziness’, the words of a good Israeli friend are a nice synopsis of the current state-of-play. As he opined, in a professional context in any case, knowing Spanish is great if you’re in a country where it’s widely spoken (as we have been) or if you need it for work, but outside of that it’s not going to win you much favour. The same can be said for most other languages. (Obviously being able to speak and understand every language on the planet would be great, but let’s stay in the realms of reality for now).

In fact it can be a bit frustrating when we make efforts to speak to somebody in their first language – we’re specifically referring to Spanish here – and they automatically switch to speaking English. Our Spanish isn't that bad, come on! Moreover, in all our travels across the world, we only need one hand to count the number of times English was not the default language when we found ourselves with groups of people from a range of diverse countries.

Taking all this on board, it leads us on to the rapidly growing, evolving and contested area of ‘Globish’ – that is of course ‘Global English’, or as some might see it, ‘dumbed-down English’. To put it simply, it’s the ‘English’ you’re likely to hear if, for example and to give it a truly international or ‘global’ feel considering the point we’re making, a Colombian man strikes up a conversation with a Chinese counterpart at Frankfurt airport. What’s spoken is unlikely to meet the approval of English language ‘guardians’ in Oxford or Cambridge (we'll put aside ‘Irish English’ for the moment), but the people in question will fully understand each other (more or less) in their common tongue.

For us, anything that helps different cultures communicate and comprehend each other is generally a good thing. Thus we do our best not to frown upon what at times seems like the ‘bastardisation’ of English (it must be pointed out though that some non-native English speakers have a better understanding of the language than many native ones).
Some 'minor' spelling mistakes on a Colombian TV production
Even, ahem, 'quality' Colombian TV productions make some mistakes

Now due to its position as the global business language, it’s fair to say that there is a greater tolerance of English not being spoken entirely correctly. We find, and given where we’re coming from there’s perhaps no surprise in this, native English speakers are more inclined to let errors made by others role compared to when an English speaker tries to speak in another language.

Maybe we’re just being a bit paranoid about this; but if we wanted to we could, for example, correct every second word uttered by some of our Colombian acquaintances. In a teaching environment, that’s obviously what we’re paid to do; but outside of that, if we get the sentiment, we’re happy to let things go. We believe it's not as smooth vice versa. Then again, we would, wouldn't we?

With more time, this might not be an issue. Yes, we haven’t really needed excellent Spanish in a professional context here in Colombia. However for matters closer to the heart, it may be prudent to be much sharper than we currently are. Then again, maybe not.

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For more on English in Colombia, check out The 'money' tongue at http://bit.ly/V8ELH4.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Pimp my isle

Us Irish have been, and are, called many things but ostentatious can never really be one of them. In comparison to our brethren across the pond (the bigger pond that is), we tend to be quite a reserved bunch; then again who isn’t when viewed in such a light?

The 'flashier' side to a modern Irish Halloween
Halloween -- less substance, more shabby style?
Even at the height of the Celtic Tiger when many people had more (borrowed) money than sense, we never really became too brash or cocky. Sure we may have built to excess but we tended to stick to the ‘less talk, more action’ mantra. Things were ‘grand’; you’d be hard pressed to find anyone use that flamboyant, quintessentially North American word ‘awesome’.

Perhaps much of this was due to the fact that deep down, even if we didn’t outwardly acknowledge it, we knew our newfound (borrowed) wealth wouldn’t last.

So now that the arse has well and truly fallen out of our ‘mighty little’ economic miracle, you would think being showy is the last thing on our minds – considering that is, that we traditionally don’t do it, it just doesn’t sit well with us at all. Rather than things being awesome, they’re just awkward.

Yet, as the dust settles on our ‘gluttonous’ years, one obvious legacy, very much in evidence over the Halloween period, is the desire for young families to ‘pimp up’ their homes for various events and festivities. Okay, one might have expected a scaling up in this regard when the country was awash with (borrowed – get it?) money, but there appears to be no sign of scaling back now that we’ve returned to our ‘normal’ financial state (hard-pressed that is).

Christmas decorating predates the ‘boom’ years and it’s not something we’ve too many misgivings about, although its arrival seems to get earlier and earlier each year with an accompanied increase in the lavishness of these Yuletide manifestations.

It’s the relatively recent uptake of Halloween folderol that has us scratching our heads. We’ve always recognised the day of course – in fact it’s an Irish festival, its roots going back to pagan times on the island. But the odd costume and trick-or-treater aside, we were never too bothered about jazzing up our houses and streets with a host of Halloween paraphernalia – we left that to the Yanks, in much the same way we ‘let’ them outdo us in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

That all seems to have changed now. Decorations are a prerequisite these days – fake spiders’ webs are hung up (while at the same time frantically sweeping away real ones), figures of witches and skeletons put on display and pumpkins are ‘planted’ in every corner of the house.

An 'explosive' Halloween bounty
Decommissioned 
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with such practices – you could argue that they bring some lesser-spotted cheer to surroundings in these hard-pressed, almost gloomy times (the current state-of-play being far spookier than any contrived Halloween scare). However when you’re preaching poverty to strait-laced neighbours who happen to be paying your way, being a bit flashy doesn’t send out the right signals, does it? It’s a bit like the struggling parents, who apparently never have money for anything, hiring a private photographer when it comes to their little Johnny’s or Mary’s Communion Day. Well come on, they couldn’t be expected to share the one laid on for the group or, whisper it, take their own amateur photos on such a momentous day.

Back to Halloween, how about returning to some of our more, erm, traditional, simpler customs? The ‘innocent’ days of kicking some old man’s hard-saved cabbage, launching fireworks and ‘mild’ explosives at ‘legitimate’ targets and subsequently getting chased by An Garda Síochána (the Irish police) appear lost in the past. Solid substance has been replaced by shallow style.

Come on guys, you know this showiness doesn’t suit us. It’s not always best practice to slavishly follow Mr and Mrs Jones.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Any which way but lose...

We've had a lot of time to think over these last couple of months. Too much time you might say. Indeed, as a good friend tells us, that’s generally the start of our problems – when we begin to think that is.

That ‘advice’ aside, our return to the home soil was always shrouded in doubts and questions as to what we would do once the chief reason we came back for was over. A big factor in this was that we were leaving a place, Colombia, where despite the many virtues it had – and has –  for us (see http://bit.ly/1bJI3eg), from a work point of view it hadn't really got us too excited (that’s not to mention the very modest financial returns that accompanied said employment – we’ll say no more on that for a number of reasons).
Picturesque west of Ireland bog lands
Back to basics, back to the bog. Or should that be Bogotá?

However from early on in our ‘sojourn’ home, we pretty much convinced ourselves that we wouldn't be staying for any considerable length of time. We've been feeling we’re just not ready to relocate to Ireland right now. Much of that may be due to the fact of where we are. Back under the parents’ roof for what is now the longest period of time in over five years, extremely grateful as we are not to be paying rent, in a rural Ireland suffering from a pretty dramatic youth-drain whilst having no gainful employment*. These points conspire to ensure our social life doesn't come close to what it has been like over the last number of years.

The bounce we got from coming home and catching up with family and remaining friends has waned considerably. Rather than feeling re-energised, we’re fast becoming drained. Of course there may be an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy in all of this. We expected Ireland not to deliver for us, so we've done little to counteract that. We envisaged ourselves leaving again, so in one sense not doing so would be a comedown. Basically, we've enjoyed not being in Ireland. We've become comfortable being the emigrant, the ‘outsider’.

There’s even a hint of embarrassment for us now when we meet people, “oh, you’re still here.  We thought you’d be gone by now.” So did we, so did we.

Being in a house where RTÉ Radio One (the Irish state broadcaster) is the station of choice doesn't help things either – if you’re feeling a bit too happy in yourself, an hour’s listening to this will see you ‘right’. Perhaps it's just reflecting the general mood of the nation? In any case, with our political, critical and at times cynical nature, we’re just the type of listener Radio One sucks in. We ignore the health warnings and indulge to dangerous levels. Changing that dial, both physically and mentally, is proving to be quite a difficult task.

In a more benign way our attitude towards Ireland could be compared to a mother who wants her little Johnny to be the best he can be and is at times overly critical and demanding of him. Sometimes though, it’s best to leave Johnny to his own devices.

12th of July 'fun' in Belfast
Belfast's 'exotic' side
We've been here before of course. In 2009 when we returned home after a year of travelling, it wasn't too long before we started looking for the exit doors again. As it turned out, a speculative job application came good and we found ourselves Belfast bound. Considering we’d never been to that city before, it did offer freshness and its own ‘exoticness’ (don’t laugh) for a ‘Free-Stater’**. The small bit of the queen’s pound that came our way was well received too. In any case it staved off the wanderlust for a while.

So, you ask, why are we still here? Well trying to get a work visa for Colombia, the default ‘go-to’ right now, has proved to be a convoluted process; although an end does appear to be in sight. Alongside this, an unsolicited, potential job offer has come our way too. Given the employment plight of many Irish people these days, we feel at the very least that whatever may be on the table merits some serious thought.

Here we go again though – back to ‘thinking’. Was that not our problem in the first place? The tried and trusted coin-toss is beginning to look like the best solution to our predicament.

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*For more on that 'youth-drain', see previous post No country for young men at http://bit.ly/1aV6tn4.

**A 'Free-Stater' is a term of, erm, 'endearment' used by Northern Ireland residents in reference to people from the Republic of Ireland, which was previously known as the Irish Free State.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Colombia, te extrañamos (Colombia, we miss you – in some ways)

To coincide with St. Patrick’s Day earlier this year, we came up with a list highlighting the things we missed from Ireland (see http://bit.ly/Xgz0J6). Now that we’re back on home soil and plotting what’s turning out to be a less than straightforward return to Colombia, in weaker moments we have found ourselves thinking about certain things we long for from our previous home. Okay, it’s not a case where we can’t sleep at night because of this but the following still resonate with us all the same.
A view of the town of Zipaquirá, outside Bogotá
Chilled out times in Colombia
Amigos
Obviously this is not to say we’ve a lack of friends here at home (despite a mass exodus of people in their twenties from the west of Ireland), it’s more a point that some fine additions to our ‘buddies list’ were made in Colombia over the last two years or so. Most of these, but not all, were fellow expats and some of them have also bid adieu to the country in the last while. There are though still a few old dogs remaining – perhaps we’ll be rejoining them shortly.

The expats lapping it up at Gringo Tuesdays in Bogotá's La Villa nightclub
Good, old friends in the big city
Big city living
This may directly contradict with one from our ‘Ireland’s calling’ list, but a lively metropolis, which Bogotá can be at times, is generally a good base for young(ish), single people. Plus, as mentioned above, the lack of younger people where we currently are is a drawback on occasions. Which brings us on to...

...las chicas
Okay, we haven’t always written in a positive light about Colombian women.* However this still doesn’t take away from the fact that they are amongst some of the best looking in the world. And before anyone accuses us of being sexist or a male chauvinist, Colombian women know they are beautiful and like to be told it too. We’re thus doing our duty.

Colombian model Andrea Escobar 'hard at it' on the beach
Not bad... (courtesy of revistadonjuan.com)
A different tongue
No, this has nothing to do with the above point, we’re on about the language here. While we’re not masters of Spanish by any stretch of the imagination, we were slowly (very slowly you might say) getting better through enforced daily usage** – as an old teacher used to say, ‘if you throw enough muck at the wall some of it’s bound to stick.’ However with the lack of regular practice over the last couple of months, bits of that muck are beginning to fall away.

Fun times 'Up the hill'...
Ah, cheap beer, cheap fun
Reasonably priced beer (and other things)
One of the main reasons the Irish pub appears to be in terminal decline is down to price (for more on this read http://bit.ly/MmS5bm). A pint in the pub is at least three times more than the price you can get it for at an off-license. In Colombia however beers in the ubiquitous tienda bars (for our favourites see http://bit.ly/17yN8HH) are very often cheaper than in takeaway locations – encouraging a bit of, ahem, healthy socialising. And we like to socialise.
It’s not all about beer of course; an affordable, refreshing coffee and biscuit in the company of good friends also hits the spot. Again, something we’ve mentioned previously in Bogotá's simple pleasures http://bit.ly/Uzc3lk.

'Wrong Way' fighting with the law; wonders never cease...
Keeping the peace
Street food
Coupled with above are the cheap snacks to be found on the streets – not in the rubbish bins, but for sale from vendors. Our personal favourite is the arepa packed with meat while a stuffed empanada is also agreeable from time-to-time. Outside of these evening time ‘meals’, we’re big fans of buying our fruit from street sellers, especially so considering it generally retails at a fraction of the price compared to the supermarkets. One must be prudent with the pesos.

‘Extra’ demand
Now while we did quickly become bored and frustrated working as an extra for various TV programmes – see http://bit.ly/NrbPc3 for the reasons why – we do miss the odd call from agencies requesting our services. Perhaps it’s an ego thing? Well being egotistical is a prerequisite for those who want to make it in the acting world, right? Plus, the extras work gives us the opportunity to be on the right side of the law for a change.

Overlooking Bogotá's vast expanse
High and mighty
Altitude
As oft-detailed here, we’re fans of the high life; that is living a bit closer to the celestial stars as opposed to living it up with the so-called human versions (yes, we question their humanness). So while it’s not the highest perched capital city in the world, at 2,300 metres-above-sea-level, Bogotá is lofty nonetheless. A close-to-perfect big city in which to be naturally high we feel. Or maybe that’s just all this sea-level air messing with our thoughts? A return journey might see us right. Time to get moving so.

___________________________
*One place to start in relation to our experiences with Colombian women is The Republic of Jealousy at http://bit.ly/ZrSQaN.

**Our Spanish got so good that we were even asked to do some promotional work for the Venezuelan government http://bit.ly/1a1I1er.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Our alcohol problem

A couple of weeks ago we were moved to reply to a letter from a Mr. T Broderick in the sports section of Ireland’s Sunday Independent. First of all, here’s the ‘offending’ letter:
Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal take a stance...
What would Bishop Brennan make of all of this?

“I watched the All Ireland hurling final last weekend and three things have really bothered me since then.
1. Should pundits/commentators be discussing and commenting on gambling during such a game? Michael Duignan got very excited about Liam Sheedy having a great bet for the draw at 14/1.
2. Should Michael Lyster be posing questions regarding players drinking after matches? Was he implying that they could not survive without a drink for another three weeks? Why would he pose such a question?
3. Cyril Farrell's comment about the Clare team "jumping in the Shannon" if they had lost that game. Is hurling that important? Did the Galway minors consider jumping in the Corrib when they got back to Galway after their loss? These words although said in jest are very powerful and could be heard differently by people in difficult situations.
What subliminal messages are said comments sending out to people dealing with gambling or alcohol problems or contemplating suicide? This banter also normalises these behaviours for our teenagers. What are they thinking listening to these comments?
These are serious problems and I know that the above-mentioned commentators did not mean to cause offence but they have a greater responsibility than maybe they realise.
With 1.3 million watching this programme at some stage, surely we should expect a higher standard of broadcasting?
Keep the pub banter for off air in the future.”*


This got our blood up at the time of reading it, so we decided to respond. Our riposte, below, was published the following week:
A pint of 'the black stuff' -- 'sorry, we're out'
Ireland's own

“What a brittle, brainless bunch us Irish ‘commoners’ must be, if the words of Mr. T Broderick are to be taken seriously.
A jovial brief chat by some ‘Sunday Game’
(a programme that covers the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football) analysts about a spot of betting and downing a few pints and this means that we’re all going to gamble away our house (those of us that have one that is) down at the bookies while making our way to the nearest hostelry to get inebriated.
Heck, perhaps we should ban the announcement of stock market news on the airwaves in case it encourages us ‘dumb masses’ to get involved in that dirty business too.
A typical Irish attitude, blame somebody else for any ‘problems’ we may have.
The phrase ‘grow a pair’ springs to mind.
In any case, you need to have a long, hard look at yourself if you heed the word of those working with the state broadcaster.”*


No prizes then for guessing where we’re coming from on all this.

For now, we're just going to focus on the alcohol issue. Irish people’s relationship with it has been quite topical in recent days – to be honest it’s something that’s never too far off the national debating agenda here. The reason though why it’s back on the front pages is to do with ‘Arthur’s Day’. To the uninitiated this now annual event (for the time being anyway) was first introduced in 2009 to celebrate 250 years of the alcoholic beverage Guinness, the brainchild of Arthur Guinness, being brewed in Dublin.

Many see it – and we tend to agree – as purely a marketing ploy by Diageo, the owners of Guinness, to promote the consumption of its leading brand. More stringent critics say it gives an easy excuse for people to ‘go on the lash’ where otherwise they may not have bothered; the fact it is always fixed for a Thursday, traditionally a big student night out in Ireland’s big towns and cities, underscores this ‘excuse’ point for many.

However alongside encouraging people to raise a pint glass ‘to Arthur’, the day (or indeed days as it now is) incorporates a number of music events sponsored by the drinks company. So with the once well-celebrated Irish pub in apparent terminal decline, if these free or cost-price music shows entice a few extra people out isn’t that a good thing?

Out for one or two beers...
Our coffee is blocked out by all the bottles in the front
As we wrote about before in more detail in An Irish lament (see http://bit.ly/MmS5bm), it’s not like Irish people are drinking less with the decline of the pubs; if anything as a nation we’re drinking more than ever. The difference now is that most of it is done at home, away from prying, perhaps judgemental, eyes. Yes, it might be cheaper but it doesn't mean it's any better.

The question the whole Arthur’s Day ‘should we shouldn’t we’ debate brings up is as a country are we not responsible enough and mature enough to have such events, whether you support them or not, without us getting ‘ossified’ (drunk that is)? If you do drink to excess, that’s your issue – don’t be looking for others to blame. Are we meant to ban every occasion we like to celebrate, public or private, just because some people might over-indulge in alcohol?

While the Arthur’s Day experiment may die a quick death (and we won’t shed a tear for it), many other more internationally recognised and celebrated festivals such as St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas won’t be going anywhere soon. Many Irish and a host of other nationalities will drink perhaps a little bit too much in marking these and other such events.

Go ahead we say, just don’t shirk from the personal responsibility you have for your own actions. It’s something we’re slowly trying to learn. Without, that is, blaming the media or some marketing event for any drunken escapades we might get up to.
_________________________

* Both letters can be found in digital form on independent.ie. The first is here http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/have-your-say-29580333.html, while our reply is midway down this: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/have-your-say-29596689.html.

For a previous article on a similar theme of being responsible for our own actions, see Survival of the dumbest http://bit.ly/NNg2E8.

Friday, 13 September 2013

And now for something completely different (well kind of)

We’re stepping out of our comfort zone somewhat this time around – a good thing to do every so often that, right? And with it we’re looking for your help and support (don’t worry, it doesn’t take much effort and won’t financially cost you!).

It’s all to do with the travel website jauntaroo.com’s search for a ‘Chief World Explorer’, or ‘The Best Job Around the World’ as it’s being dubbed. Basically the company is looking for somebody to travel the world for them for one year, where he/she will participate in voluntary projects and write and produce short videos of the places visited for the website and potential customers. And it all comes with a salary of $100,000. Not bad, eh?

Considering we’re ‘between projects’ right now (that’s how we’re putting it anyway) we thought we’d give the application a lash; that being a minute-long video explaining why the job is for us.

So, basic (very basic) equipment in tow, we put something together – perhaps not enough to make Quintin Tarantino feel like he should call it quits, but you’ve got to start somewhere. We are ‘cheese’ masters after all.

Where your help comes in is to give our video as many ‘likes’ as you can. To do that, click on this link http://www.bestjobaroundtheworld.com/submissions/view/12962 and hit the like button. We’re not sure if you actually have to become a member of jauntaroo.com firstly in order to like it (all that requires is an email and password if that is the case), but by clicking on the link you’ll find out!

You can like it every 24 hours up until the October 1st; so set a reminder each day up until then, won't you?!

The video itself is below (you can also watch it on YouTube at http://bit.ly/19OqqII) but remember in order to like it you must do so on the jauntaroo website from this link http://www.bestjobaroundtheworld.com/submissions/view/12962.

Thanks for your help guys!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

No country for young men

As regular readers may have noticed (yes all two of you), our inspiration to write has been a little low since our return home.

Making hay while the sun shines -- well cutting the lawn in any case
Hard at it...
One explanation for this could be due to the very fact that we are back home and with it the associated ‘comforts’. Now we must qualify that these comforts, such as free board and food, are purely because the 'powers-that-be' understand we’re only meant to be here for a short stop; they’re not indefinite nor would we expect them to be. The fact also that it’s our first trip back after our longest stint away – specifically for a family wedding – has meant that it has been hard, in a nice way, to find as much ‘thinking time’ as we tend to do in Colombia. People to catch up with, events to attend, and such like – you know how it is.

It must also be said that we’ve been enjoying the longer daylight hours that you get in Ireland at this time of the year – something we do miss when in Colombia (see previous post http://bit.ly/Xgz0J6). Plus – and we’re not just marketing the homeland here – the weather has actually been relatively good with little rain for the month or so we’ve been about thus far.

Throw in the odd radio interview (we have to market ourselves – listen at http://bit.ly/18CuOco), letters to newspapers* and trying to sort out the ridiculous paper work in a bid to secure a more ‘stable’ return to Colombia while at the same time not really knowing if it’s the ‘right’ move, and it’s pretty understandable that the ‘Wrong Way’ creative juices have dried up somewhat, temporarily as it may be (or maybe not?).

Yet, another factor, perhaps, in all of this is ‘familiarity breeding contempt’. The land we know – and love in many ways – so well rarely changes. From a physical point-of-view this is a good thing; but when it comes to the mindset of some of the people, it can become tiring. This is something that is especially common to rural areas as they have a more elderly population compared to the cities and commuter belts.

However it’s not exclusively rural or elderly – Ireland as a country has often been slow, averse even, to change. We may travel the globe and populate its four corners but back on the island we tend to maintain the status quo, with just some minor, superficial tweaks every now and again.
Back with a vengeance -- the grey skies and rain
Back to normality; the rain has arrived

There’s a bit of an uproar when another scandal is revealed about our politicians or bankers or whoever, but it generally goes away again as quickly as it came on us. And at election time we tend to have the same sorry bunch looking up at us from the ballot paper – in a similar mould to previous candidates if not the same people – and we take pity on them, buying into them once again.

You can only read, listen and write about all this for so long until it just beats you with frustration and bleeds you dry.

So Ireland now (at least the rural areas), as it was before, is no country for young men it would appear.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find something to inspire us in that.

________________
* Surprise, surprise but we like a newspaper rant every now and again, slightly edited from the original as this may be: http://bit.ly/1cRPm3N

For an earlier piece on Ireland and emigration, see On the road again, naturally http://bit.ly/14z2F3e.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Palomino and Cabo de la Vela; the lighter side to Colombia's Caribbean

For self-confessed inlanders, we do manage to spend a relatively nice amount of time on the coast when it comes to getting some rest and relaxation.
A typically impressive sunset in Cabo de la Vela
Sunset in Cabo de la Vela

So after taking in parts of Colombia's secluded Pacific coastal region* for our last 'voluntary' travels i.e. outside of visa renewals or specific events, this time around we headed back to the Caribbean, a part of Colombia we like to think we know very well. That's largely based on the fact that we've been to the 'highlight' city, Cartagena, on three separate occasions; taken in Sapzurro, Capurganá and Turbo (for more on the latter see http://bit.ly/SVtkWW); visited Santa Marta and stayed in Taganga; alongside travelling from Turbo via Cartagena to Maicao (that city's 'delights' are detailed here http://bit.ly/VG94Ho).

This time however we took in what might be described as a more tranquil side to this part of the country (the bustling port city of Santa Marta and the calmer Riohacha apart that is - not that there is anything wrong with both places. They’re just bigger cities but have their own charms too).

A pleasant encounter on the beach in Palomino
Nice surprise
That more tranquil, 'lost' side consisted of, firstly, Palomino and after Cabo de la Vela – where the desert quite spectacularly runs into the ocean. And for some peace and quiet, while at the same time getting that sense of adventure, neither location disappointed.

Palomino is described by many as Taganga of the 1990s; laid-back, reasonably priced and not very crowded with tourists. Of course, there is a risk that this could all change, especially as more people discover its treasures. What might keep some people away though is a constant strong ocean current, meaning a relaxing dip in the sea is not an option. However with two river estuaries a short distance away, there are natural places to have a cooling-off swim, along with gentle tubing on offer down said rivers.

Being able to relax on a beach without a host of people constantly trying to sell you things was enough for us; throw in an unexpected photo shoot of a Colombian model right next to ‘our’ sunbathing spot and we were more than happy with our time there.**

Main street, Cabo de la Vela
Downtown Cabo de la Vela
In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we had two stints in the village, stopping in for a second time on the journey back from Cabo de la Vela. For our first stop there we rented a hammock by the sea for $10,000COP (roughly €4) per night while on the return visit, a chance encounter with a hostel employee saw us spend four nights in a small dorm room in newly opened lodgings about 10 minutes walk from the beach, closer to the actual village. That cost $13,000COP per night, with access to a modern, clean (very important that), well-equipped kitchen. ***

Now while Palomino is certainly a chilled out spot, the fact that it is just off the main road between the cities of Santa Marta and Riohacha ensures that it never feels completely cut off from ‘the real world’. The same cannot be said for Cabo de la Vela. To get here is less straightforward, where asphalt roads give way to desert expanse making everything look pretty much the same. But like many of these secluded locations, the extra bit of effort (not that it’s that difficult) to get there is worth it.
Making friends at Cuatro Vías de Maicao
Amigos

For our own journey, even the required transfer stop at the nondescript Cuatro Vías de Maicao turned out to be an unexpected delight – four free beers (we’ll never say no to that) from the street vendors there while we waited for the next leg of the trip were well received in the hot midday sun.

The town of Cabo de la Vela itself is, unsurprisingly, quite basic with that ‘tumbleweed style’ feel to it. There are, we estimate, a few hundred residents – after a day it feels like you know all of them and they know you – and it gets plenty of tourists passing through, mostly in December and January. However this is still very much Wayuú territory; unlike some other remote Colombian resorts we’ve visited, the indigenous here are the dominant force and haven’t been pushed to the margins. Indeed Spanish plays second fiddle to the Wayuú native tongue in these parts.

En route to Pilón de Azúcar
A desert stroll
On the ‘what to do’ front, relaxing while taking in the scenery and stunning sunsets are pretty much the chief activities. Pilón de Azúcar, a sacred seaside hill overlooking golden sand beaches, is a must to take in. It’s about a 40-minute walk from the town if you fancy stepping it out in the heat, just make sure you take plenty of liquid and cover yourself up well – our nonchalant approach to this was almost our downfall. Alternatively, there are plenty of guys in ‘Cabo’ that will bring you there and back on a motorbike for a small fee.

The sport of kite surfing has found a suitable home here, with a never-ending strong gale blowing. There is also the option of taking a trip to Punta Gallinas, the furthest point north in South America. It’s approximately a two-hour jeep ride to get there and relatively costly; hence, on our tight budget, it was something we passed on this time. We like to give ourselves an excuse or two to return to such places.

The view from the top of Pilón de Azúcar
Atop of Pilón de Azúcar
We found a couple of nights in Cabo sufficient on this occasion – perhaps with a partner in tow it might be worth sticking around a bit longer. Our early morning journey back to the transfer town of Uribia – the nearest urban centre – was memorable for the fact that it seemed to be goat-slaughter day. Thus we were joined in our packed jeep by a few crying goats, all four legs tied together, ready to be dropped (and chopped) off in Uribia. A man’s got to eat we guess.

Returning to our inland abode of Bogotá was nice – we’re not going to disown it just yet – but this latest coastal adventure certainly gave us food for thought. Just more examples of the plethora of treasures Colombia has to offer.

______________________
* See 'Lesser-spotted Colombia: Bahía Solano' at http://bit.ly/X3lWpV.

**For more on that photo shoot, visit http://www.revistadonjuan.com/galerias/andrea-escobar-el-angel-colombiano-de-victorias-secret/12993587/0.

***Hostal Urbe is the name of this place. It's located about three blocks off the main road heading towards the beach, down from the tienda 'Donde Leopoldo'.

Friday, 9 August 2013

San Gil; taming Suárez

Our first visit, over two years ago, to what's seen as Colombia's adventure capital, San Gil, was very much a relaxed affair. On that occasion we had a thoroughly enjoyable time wandering about the rolling Santander countryside, which included taking in the quaint, period village of Barichara.
San Gil from the hilltops
San Gil from the hilltops

This time around, with the help of a good Dutch mate, we cranked up the adrenaline levels a few notches and sampled some of the reasons why the place is renowned for its extreme side. This started with an afternoon of getting a brief taste of varied activities including canopying and rappel, amongst others. For the price we paid (45mil, roughly €20), it wasn't a bad deal.

The main event however was a rafting 'sojourn' down the famed Río Suárez; rated by many as second only in South America to Chile’s Río Futaleufú for its wild rapids. We had been forewarned not to over-estimate our talents mastering this waterway and that perhaps the gentler Río Fonce would be safer, less taxing and thus more enjoyable for all concerned. We’d also been told that those selling the excursion mightn’t be too bothered about our abilities, or lack thereof, in such an activity – Suárez costs more to do, so why scare people off and miss out on more ‘plata’ (cash that is)?

Added to this, the day we tackled Suárez coincided with it being, according to our guides, in one of its roughest moods so to speak.

Now, as oft mentioned here, our ability in deep water is about as good as a handicapped cat. Yet this doesn’t translate into any big fear of doing various aqua sports, especially when we have the safety of a life-jacket tied tightly around us. So we approached this undertaking with relative calm. Throw in the fact that our four on-raft guides and accompanying canoeist where ‘putting their minds/senses at ease’ before we even started – something they also did mid-way through and at the end – made us feel that this wasn’t anything to get too worked up about. Perhaps that was all part of their plan.
Getting ready to tackle Suárez; it looks easy from here
'This will be easy'

We did though do some head-scratching when a luminous wristband containing an emergency services phone number was put around us before the off. We wager this was to be of help to some passer-by in case they found our unconscious, battered body – ‘a one-step guide on what to do if you find human remains’ in a sense. It was, however, valid for just one day; sure you can’t be bothering emergency services with cases more than a day old, can you?

That aside, after a brief dry-run through the various call instructions by our ‘skipper’, the real action got off to a steady start. Although the lads’ persistent criticism of our rowing ability was a little annoying at times – they were lucky they didn’t get an oar in the head at a few stages.

In any case, a little further on we all had greater things to concern us than getting hit in the head by somebody, accidentally or on purpose. That’s because Suárez began to show its teeth. And that meant us taking a ‘dip’ – well it was more like being in a washing machine on its final spin we imagine – on more than one occasion. It certainly got the heart racing – the key being just to go with the flow and hope you don’t smash your body on a rock.

Having ‘gone over’ a number of times, it was with a little trepidation that we approached the infamous ‘La Fantasma’* (The Ghost) section of the river. This is a decent sized stretch with powerful rapids where if you were to fall out early on, you’d be waiting some time and would have encountered a few hefty rocks before you floated to calmer waters.
Working our way through 'La Fantasma'
Steady as she goes...

That our guides stopped to assess it before we went through and had the canoeist do a solo run also got us thinking; should we pass on this one? We’d already had a good thrill, so why quite literally ‘push the boat out’ further for something that looked like it could dangerously get the better of us? Heck though, we’d gone this far, we might as well make the final push – get our money’s worth (you know how important that is to us).

If there was any doubt in our minds about how rough this part was, the sight of one of the guides blessing himself before we got going put it firmly into focus. His plea to the gods worked anyway – well maybe it was more a case of lots of luck mixed in with us working a bit better as a team that saw us through in one, whole piece.

So a few minor bumps and bruises apart and conveniently overlooking our earlier mishaps, we like to think we ‘tamed’ Suárez.

We certainly survived it anyway. Alas there’s a lack of a t-shirt proudly proclaiming so.

_________________
*For a look of us in action on 'La Fantasma', see http://youtu.be/J6T_BDVucJk. And for one of our 'overboard' moments, see http://youtu.be/pTBK0qqCa_g.

**More information on rafting and other activities in San Gil can be found from ‘Adrenalina’ at www.adrenalinasangil.com or by emailing adrenalina.sangil@hotmail.com.

***One pleasant budget accommodation option in San Gil is Hostal Le Papillon, hostallepapillon@hotmail.com. They also organise tours and various adventure sports.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Putting Colombia right, the 'Wrong Way'

As has been well documented, the ‘Wrong Way’ crew is a modest bunch. Sometimes though we have to go against our natural instincts and give ourselves a modicum of praise (it’s unlikely anyone else will). So as we prepare to depart Bogotá for what at this remove is an unspecified period of time, we’re going to take a look at some of, ahem, our ‘achievements'* in the region over the last 20-plus months.
Sunset in Bogotá
The sun is setting on this latest (but perhaps not last) stint in Bogotá

Peace talks
Considering the bridges we built during our time living in ‘divided’ Belfast (a nice little chat with the Reverend Ian Paisley outside City Hall being one of the highlights), it was only a matter of time before President Juan Manuel Santos called on us to set the Colombian peace process in motion. Cynics out there may say that the whole thing is just an expensive talking shop that’s going nowhere – the violence hasn’t stopped for one – but at least they’re talking, right? (For an earlier account of this, see http://bit.ly/13IIUKr).

‘Revitalised’ Bogotá
Where do we start with this? There’s the partially pedestrianised Carrera Septima (7th Street) in the capital’s centre – a rare victory for humans over vehicles (kind of anyway). We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mayor Gustavo Petro during the controversial change in rubbish collection that has ‘revolutionised’ waste collection in the city (well maybe not quite revolutionised, but it sounds good – for background see http://bit.ly/WFOPsW).
What's more we finally initialised the programme to rescue the metropolis’ overworked horses – it’s taking time to get them all off the streets, but we’re getting there (see http://bit.ly/15IZQPz).
It’s not only the equines we’ve saved, but also some human beings. Our cleaning up of Bogotá’s notorious Bronx barrio (and other dangerous barrios in other cities across Colombia) has been a roaring success – we just haven’t been there in a while to check on progress (it’s too dangerous).
A rally for peace in Bogotá City Centre
Carrera Septima –take away the cars & the people will come (and march)

Transport matters
An ever-extending (it goes to the airport now, almost) efficient (at times) Transmilenio service linked up with an integrated public bus system (SITP – okay, hardly anybody uses it yet and its operation is divvied up between nine companies, but change takes time you know) is something we’re pretty proud of. We’re not resting on our laurels though – Metro Bogotá is more than just a pipe dream, it is on the way, trust us. (For more on transport in the city, check out http://bit.ly/N68gKL)

La grande
Las Grandes; The BIG beers
Las grandes in our favourite tienda...
For some reason, the big beer revolution that swept through the rest of South America some time back passed over Colombia. That was until we arrived and got Bavaria – the country’s main beer producer – moving on this front. Since ‘La grande’s’ (750ml bottle) introduction, through hard work, dedication and repetition, we’ve been persuading the locals to take up the ‘big’ habit. Come on guys, above all it makes economical sense.

Vamos a Brazil
There’s no doubt Colombia has produced some exceptional football (soccer if you will) players through the ages, but ‘La Selección’ – the national team – has very often flattered to deceive. Thanks to our, erm, support that has all changed. All they need is a couple of points from their final four games of the South American World Cup qualifiers and the ‘Los Cafeteros’ will be on their way to Brazil next year – their first World Cup finals appearance since 1998. Chévere.

Thespian talent
Before our arrival Colombian ‘telenovelas’ (soap operas) were renowned for their cheesiness, terrible acting, ridiculous storylines and just all round bad quality. Now however, with our help, they are, well, erm... Right, let’s just say we did some interesting extras work from time-to-time. The ‘gory’ details of that can be found here http://bit.ly/NrbPc3.
'Wrong Way' hard at work...
Hard at it; but whose is that banana skin?

Educating excellence
While we may have occasionally showcased our acting ‘skills’ on Colombia’s small screen, the arguably more lasting, beneficial legacy we’ll leave behind has been our ability to pass on the English language – with an Irish twist albeit (more detailed thoughts on our teaching 'talents' can be read here http://bit.ly/V8ELH4). Whether any of our alumni actually learned anything is open to debate. At the very least though, some of them have a better understanding of Irish history and culture, 'Wrong Way' style. We'll miss imparting that knowledge; as well as all the free coffees and the odd free lunch. Heck those latter two 'treats' are enough to entice us back (we're easily pleased here you know). Time will tell on that one.

*Discalimer: We would like to point out that some of these 'achievements' may not be directly attributed to us. But...