Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Clashes in the kitchen

Back in our younger, still-living-at-home days the one thing that we were always encouraged – or forced if you will – to do was to clean up after ourselves. We may not always have been the best at it or terribly enthused to do it on many occasions but over time (a long time some may say) we came to realise that if we made a mess, it was up to us to clean it afterwards. A good rule-of-thumb for most things in life that, don’t you think?
Pots and dishes left in the sink. Sure somebody else will clean them...
Self-cleaning?

There are still certain areas of housecleaning that we don’t get too worked up about – a bit of dust in some non-important corner is not a big deal as far as we’re concerned. Something very personal such as your bed doesn’t always have to be made each day either, although we’re getting into the habit of doing that one. Where we have little-to-no patience though when it comes to ‘cleanliness-slackness’ is in the kitchen.

Specifically we’re referring to people who fail to clean up the utensils they’ve used after cooking some food. It is arguably one of the greatest causes of conflict in shared accommodation. For us, it’s the height of ignorance for people to leave their dirty dishes – ones that are meant to be for everyone’s use that is – in the kitchen sink or on the dining table or even hoard them in their room, where no one else can use them, dirty or not.

Obviously some people were spoiled a little too much by their parents when they were growing up. Of course do what you like if you’re living on your own, but when you’re lodging with others, common courtesy is that you tidy up after yourself in the areas that are shared. For many however, that appears to be a difficult thing to understand, let alone undertake.
Sometimes a cleaner does come - but her job isn't to clean dirty dishes
Mammy's not always around to tidy up

Now we’ve come face-to-face with kitchen pigs all over the world – it’s not something that’s confined to particular regions. But from a Colombian perspective, one potential reason why some people here seem reluctant to clean up their own mess could be to do with the house-cleaner. For many middle and upper class Colombians, having a family cleaner or maid (or slave the way we see some treated and, ahem, ‘paid’) is the norm.

In such an environment (in whatever country), any children in these houses, from an early age, get used to somebody cleaning up after them. What’s more, the employed cleaner generally doesn’t have the power or right to tell these kids to tidy up their own mess in the same way as a parent or sibling does – it’s her (or his perhaps) ‘job’ after all, as well as doing generic cleaning, ironing, cooking and whatever else.

So what can happen is that this leaves a mentality in some that ‘slaving’ in the kitchen is somebody else’s business – and usually a chore for a person who is not that important. Again, that’s fine (in a way) if you’ve a maid following you about for all your life. For many who think like that though, this unfortunately (unfortunate for those that have to live with them that is) tends not to be the case.
Mr. Cockroach - makes a good housemate, at least when it comes to doing his bit in the kitchen
If a cockroach can find the kitchen sink, anyone can, right?

Yes, it is more-or-less true that when we were living at home – there’s a risk of sounding sexist here but this is just how it was at the time – and coming from a farming background, very often cleaning up the dishes after eating was not one of our tasks. The boys did the outside work, the inside toil was the preserve of the girls. Nonetheless, what we’ll put down to good parenting (and aggressive sisterly ‘persuasion’), when we did ‘fly-the-nest’ we knew at least how to use a bit of washing up liquid and a scrubber to keep things in the kitchen clean.

Indeed nowadays our policy is to clean up all the things we’ve used in cooking – save for the plate and cutlery that are going to be used in eating – before we sit down to feast. The meal often tastes more satisfying that way we find.

Trying to inculcate such practices in a number of our various housemates over the years has proven quite difficult if not impossible.

Some day, perhaps, we’ll be able to afford our own place, free from such daily annoyances. We live in hope.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Mérida - almost perfect?

It shouldn’t surprise regular ‘Wrong Way’ readers that we tend to find ourselves more at ease up in the hills as opposed to down by the ocean. That’s not to say we’re averse to sandy beaches, clear water and decent sun when we can get it – indeed every now and again it’s very much called for – but we’re usually more comfortable inland.
On the road to La Culata
Up in the hills.

Another thing we very much like and strive to find no matter where we are is value-for-money. It is always nice after all to get some bang for your hard earned buck.

On both these important points (and more), the Venezuelan city of Mérida did not disappoint during a recent, unplanned visit.

Tucked away at an altitude of 1,600 metres-above-sea-level in the Andes Mountains, it is the highest city in Venezuela. Its setting is pretty impressive, surrounded by a host of higher peaks. As one of the country’s biggest student hubs, it has quite a relaxed vibe where, from what we could gather in the area we stayed, socialising at night is not a cause for much concern – something you can’t say for all parts of the ‘Socialist’ Republic.

Accused of being a CIA spy trying to bring down the current administration by a drunken local – he took all our details and then subsequently tried to sell us DVDs as well as teach us how to speak Spanish without the foreign accent – was as close to disturbing as it got on our nights out. In reality, it was amusing. The US intelligence agency would be pretty stuck if it came looking for us to engage in espionage for it in these parts.
Impressive scenery
Nice - if a little cloudy.

Now while we really enjoyed our brief stop in the city itself and indeed there was plenty that we didn’t get to do or see, most of the more alluring attractions as far as we’re concerned are located on the outskirts.

Again, as our stay was limited, we only got to explore a fraction of what’s to be found. What we did see though did not disappoint.

On our first full day we made the short trip to ‘La Culata’. The main entrance into the national park is at an altitude of about 3000m, with many peaks further in getting as high as 4,800m plus. Alas our time in the region coincided with the rainy season so the panoramic views were frequently blighted by all the dense cloud. That aside, the rugged, rolling landscape is pretty stunning, dotted with the abundant cactus-style plant, the frailejón (or espeletia) – a shrub that is renowned in the area for its medicinal properties.
The land of frailejónes
Lots of frailejónes.

You could walk for hours there, as long as you don’t get lost. Perhaps it was just the time of year, but we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves – a nice spot to get away from it all.

On the second full day, invited by our newly made Venezuelan friends, we hit for Lake Mucubají, nestled at, what was the day we went anyway, a pretty chilly 3,500 metres into the sky, 60 kilometres east of Mérida in the Sierra Nevada National Park.

Again the views here are quite spectacular (words just can’t do it justice – the pictures help to do that somewhat) and there are numerous treks to wander along. For those wanting to spend more than just one day in the area, to be ‘at one with nature’ for a bit longer, you can camp there once you obtain a permit.

Lake Mucubají and surrounds
Lake Mucubají.
Before we returned to Colombia, we wanted to avail of the various bargains to be found in Mérida with our ‘converted on the street’ Colombian pesos (you’ll get an exchange rate to bolívares at least four times better this way than by going to the banks – for more on that see our previous post: http://bit.ly/102xdsi). So our final full day was spent shopping in the city, satisfying our value-for-money fetish.

On the activity and sightseeing front though, we just scratched the surface as regards what this region has to offer. Indeed the posada/hostel we stayed in, Guamanchi,* also doubles up as a tour operator and from what we could see it has plenty of decently priced excursions available (as well as having cheap, quality rooms).

Alas, partially self-imposed work deadlines saw us return to Bogotá a little earlier than we ideally would have liked to.

However – and as we stressed in the last post – this brighter, lighter side to Venezuela has certainly given us some food for thought.

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*For more information on Guamanchi Posada and Adventure Tours check out www.guamanchi.com or email: info@guamanchi.com

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Venezuela: A necessary reappraisal

Back in 2009, in our first visit to the Ecuadorian capital Quito, we heeded the well-intended advice of some fellow travellers and opted to stay in the ‘safer’ north of the city – an area home to many backpacker hostels.
Crossing back (somewhat reluctantly at the exact time of the photo) into Venezuela
"Do you want to go ahead with this?"

What we encountered there however was anything but a feeling of security, reinforced by hostel and restaurant owners’ warnings not to venture out alone, if indeed at all, after dark. The fact that the majority of people we spoke to in the hostel we stayed in had been mugged on the streets right outside our lodgings obviously did nothing to ease concerns.

As a result our stay in the city was short-lived; we were quite happy to leave in all honesty.

Two years later, in a less planned stop in the city being led by an Argentinean bus companion, we found ourselves camped up in a mediocre ‘hospedaje’ (hostel/hotel) in the historic centre of the city – dodgier territory than the north of the metropolis according to many.

This time however, we experienced a completely different, far friendlier side to the place. Within hours after arriving (we got there late in the evening, in darkness, at that) we found ourselves drinking beers in a rough-and-ready house of some locals – in another context, considering the area we were in, these guys would be seen as people to be avoided. That set the tone to what turned out to be a hugely enjoyable, trouble-free few days in Quito.

So while first impressions of a place or a person can at times be a good guide to the whole picture, this isn’t always the case. Very often things are context and time dependent.

Bearing that in mind, we made no secret of our negative introduction to Venezuela last year (see: http://bit.ly/OLR2Ev). In many ways our experiences back then sat nicely with the accepted Western narrative that the place is dangerous, politically insecure and best avoided – even though we did enter the country rather excitedly and with an open mind.

Thus this time it was with a bit of nervousness, tempered by stubbornness and a sense of some adventure, that we hit for Colombia’s eastern neighbour for a visa run. The rough plan on departing Bogotá was to get in and out of the place as quickly as possible.

Our anxiousness increased when, on arrival in the city of Cúcuta on the Colombian side of the border, the guys who exchanged our pesos for Venezuelan bolivares gave us plastic bags and told us to stow our cash in these and put them in our shoe for safety (the biggest problem in the end was that this practice almost rendered the notes unusable from the damage inflicted being wrapped up in our sweaty runners).

Yet practically from the get go, the coldness of the citizens and feelings of insecurity that prevailed during our first visit were replaced by very helpful, friendly people and a relaxed general atmosphere.

The 'Maduro' quarter of San Cristóbal
To the left...
A Henrique Capriles supporter proudly displays his election poster over his little street stall
...and to the right
Yes the physical signs of the recent, highly contentious general election (for a recap, see: http://bit.ly/Yy86zJ) narrowly and controversially won by the late Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, are there to be seen. But it’s not – at least openly and at ground level amongst the populace (at a political level* and below the surface for some citizens we spoke to, deep divisions are apparent however) – a case of a dangerously divided country where opposing sides don’t mix.

What we found in the two places we stayed, firstly San Cristóbal and then Mérida**, were an easy-going people (the small bar brawl we witnessed on our first night aside – sure a beer bottle being hurled at somebody is nothing unusual to us) going about their daily business.

Wherever we stay we like to be able to venture out at night feeling relatively safe, sampling a few beers and chatting to the locals in little ‘tienda’ bars. Thankfully that was no problem this time, unlike Maracaibo last year. Okay, our hotel in San Cristóbal did have a 10.30pm curfew, but that was more an individual choice rather a rule from what we could gather. Plus considering the times we tend to retire at night nowadays, this ‘lights out’ policy wasn’t a big issue.

Of course we did learn from our first experience in the country as regards the currency. So this time we had plenty of cash to convert into bolivares as opposed to going to ATMs where the value is at least four-times less than on the street (Colombian pesos are fine to exchange along the border and that’s where you’ll get the best price). Hence, in most aspects it’s much cheaper to get by compared to Colombia.

On that theme, practically every shop/restaurant displays the prices of its goods – prices that are trustworthy and accepted across the board from our observations. In other words, haggling isn’t really done or needed in the majority of places – the price is the price and it’s usually satisfactory. Now we don’t mind haggling, but in many street stores in Colombia you can’t help but wonder are they charging you a foreigners’ price no matter what you pay. The aversion here to publicly displaying prices always leaves you in a bit of doubt.

A typical day at a Venezuelan supermarket
"Sorry, where would we find some chicken?"
You will still find what seems to be official Venezuelan suspicion towards foreigners – again in sharp contrast to the usual Colombian experience. On the internal bus journeys where the National Guard did ID checks, as foreign passport holders we were the only ones taken off and given a pretty decent interrogation with our bags thoroughly checked. With nothing to hide it wasn’t something that bothered us really.

That was of course taking for granted that the officers were genuine – in this case they seemed to be. Considering though the pronouncements coming from the country’s leader as regards some foreigners’ intentions in Venezuela (mostly aimed at the USA albeit), you can never rule out a bent military official doing something untoward in the name of patriotism.

If, however, at heart they are in the same mould as the vast majority of civilians we met in San Cristóbal and Mérida, such a scenario is unlikely. In any case, going by our adventures this time around, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

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* Some Venezuelan politicians take very seriously the idea of ‘fighting’ for you country, as this video shows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKUVdw9mgeY

**Mérida is something of a hidden gem from what we experienced. We plan to bring you more on that next.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Colombia - a banker's paradise

For the second time in a number of months here in Colombia we found ourselves snookered as to what to do with our cash. Okay, it could be seen as a ‘pleasant headache’ to have – better looking at it than for it in a sense. The issue though on both occasions was, without a bank account, where do we put the cash we’ve (finally) built up over our time freelance English teaching in the country when we go travelling?
The safest bank in the world - under the bed?
Safe haven - cash under the bed

You see, it’s not a problem when we stay in Bogotá – we just keep it tucked away in safekeeping, accessing it when we need to. But going on the road with a relatively nice bit of ‘real money’ – enough in any case that we certainly don’t want to lose – is not the brightest idea around these parts or anywhere for that matter. It would be bringing ‘dar papaya’ to new levels of stupidity (see http://bit.ly/XLDyLg for an explanation of that).

Due to our visa situation and a lack of the foreigners’ version of the national identity card (a ‘cédula de extranjería’ as it’s known – it took Colombia immigration almost six months to get us one of those issued, getting it just six days before it actually expired) we couldn’t open a bank account back in January.

Our three-pronged cash solution for our travels back then was thus: we brought more than maybe advisable with us; we left some behind and; in an extremely generous gesture, a friend of ours gave us her bank card to use for the duration of the trip (cheers Melissa) – so we put the remainder of our cash into that account as cover.

Now all that worked out quite well in the end, but we didn’t feel fully in control of the situation. So for our latest voyage, one where we had to pop into neighbouring Venezuela* for visa purposes, we tried again to open a Colombian bank account. The game-changer this time was that we had our cédula – the lack of it beforehand was the only obstacle preventing us doing business with Davivienda (the other banks, for the record, needed written proof of income, something Davivienda did not).

So cash and national identity card in hand, we go to open what they call a savings account – after all, all we wanted was somewhere to ‘securely’ store our money while also having the ability to access it at some stage if needs be.
The Davivienda building in downtown Bogotá stands tall
Standing tall-'ish' - Davivienda

‘Right, what kind of benefits do we get?’ ‘Benefits? Well you can use the debit card to withdraw your cash at any Davivienda ATM in the country (but use another bank’s machine and you’ll be nicely charged) – get this, free of charge!’ ‘Wow, tell us more.’ ‘You can also make point-of-sale and internet transactions with your card without incurring a charge from us.’ ‘Great. What about the interest rate?’ ‘Well that’s minimal, less than 1%.’ ‘Ah, that’s okay, it’s better than zero – at least our money will make something.’ ‘Well you are of course charged $9,300 Colombian pesos (COP for short – roughly $5US) per month to have this account.’ ‘Hold on, what? We leave our money with you, money you use to invest to make more and you charge us for our ‘generosity’? How can you do that?’ ‘Bienvenidos to the banking world of Colombia.’

Yep, we get charged for letting the bank play around with our money. Indeed if the interest rate was 1% (it’s less) we’d need to leave a minimum of $10millionCOP (about $5,000US) just to break even – that's if the interest was calculated monthly, which it’s not. This isn’t just Davivienda (a company where we incidentally teach many of its high-rolling staff) we must add – it applies to all the banks; Colombian law apparently.

In fact it seems to be a cosy cartel between the banks and the country’s lawmakers – nobody seems willing or, more importantly, legally allowed to break ranks. From what we’ve been told, even the international banks play the same game. The likes of HSBC and Citi must love things here – easy money and all that.

We don’t make any secret of the fact that we’ve never been big fans of banks, wherever in the world, but the above practices are just plain wrong. How the ordinary Colombian can accept it is beyond us. And of course it is the working, lower-middle class Colombians that are most affected by it. The lower classes tend not to have bank accounts – they’ve enough problems without them – while the upper-middle and upper classes either don’t really care about such charges or, perhaps more likely, have their wealth elsewhere.
Another Bogotá protest
A popular protest - just not about the banks though

At least in the other two countries we’ve banked in – namely the Republic of Ireland and the UK – we don’t get charged just for leaving our money with them. The balance we’ve left in our UK bank account – the current account that is – hasn’t budged since we departed, only for the small sums of cash we’ve taken out.

What’s more, our instant access savings account, where we can transfer funds from this to our current account in seconds via the internet, is making money for us – not a lot, but at least it’s moving in a positive direction. It’s more or less the same in the Republic of Ireland.

Yes, ‘proper’ savings accounts do exist in Colombia, but from what we can gather they are highly restrictive and not very practical for the average worker. So with seemingly little or no public or political pressure to change their ways, why would the banks do so?

They are on a nice little winner here – after all, it is a banker's paradise.

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*We’ll have more on what turned out to be a very positive, highly enjoyable trip to Venezuela in the coming days.