Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Soft touch Colombia

I’ve written before about what could be seen as the absurdity of the ‘free world’ concept.* There are many areas where it just doesn’t hold, but the one I previously focused on was in the global movement of people.

Border hopping. Colombia seems a little more welcoming for some foreigners over others.
'On your return, don't bother with a visa. You'll be grand.'
Basically, anyone who has travelled to another country realises how relative any perceived freedom is. For sure, depending on where you happen to be born, having the liberty to move to wherever you want is easier for some compared to others. Just ask Colombians for a less than positive experience in that regard.

Focusing on this country, perhaps the people’s negative migration dealings have made them somewhat sympathetic to the ‘plight’ of those visiting here, or more pertinently, those who want to stay on a longer-term basis. A case of, ‘if we continue to be welcoming, especially to peoples from the West, in time they will be more welcoming towards us.’ It’s a nice thought, if a little naïve.

Considering, broadly speaking, I am for a freer movement of people across borders with less restrictions and bureaucracy for those who want to settle in their non-birth country – especially if they are not a burden on their new state – the Colombian approach, in general, is quite refreshing.

However, for a state that is trying to be taken seriously among the global powers, having a modicum of sense to the system wouldn’t go astray. For judging by anecdotal evidence, the way Colombian immigration control currently operates encourages illegality.

For example, there are foreigners here who have knowingly overstayed their respective visas for a considerable amount of time, with some of these repeat offenders. When they do finally decide to ‘sort out’ their situation, what tends to happen is that they get a token fine and can get another visa with little difficulty, without a black mark to their name.

The answer is Colombia; & it's easier without a visa. (Image from colombia.co.)
Contrast that with those who erroneously stay a day or two over their visa and once they realise this immediately make efforts to rectify the situation. The fine these people get is practically the same as the knowing, long-term, repeat offenders. Plus, as luck would have it, I know of some people in this latter, ‘law-abiding’ category who have then struggled to get another visa. 

Thus, there appears little incentive to do things by the book. Indeed it appears you’re more likely to spend less money and have less hassle if you just hang around illegally and deal with the problem at a time that suits you, paying little attention to what’s stamped in your passport.

Now to state again, in theory I like the idea of having light-touch regulation as regards immigration. Yet, what I don’t like are double standards. It could be argued that Colombian authorities are supporting lawbreakers over 'law-abiders'. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised about that.

Hats off, though, for doing their bit for a ‘freer world’. They could just try and make it a bit fairer.
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*Check out Phantom freedom for more on that.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Time to SITP; but how?

It’s now almost two years since Bogotá’s SITP (Sistema Integrado de Transporte Público, Integrated Public Transport System) buses started rolling out. Unlike Santiago de Chile, authorities here went for a gradual process of replacing the old private, cash-in-hand system of busetas/colectivos with the new ‘streamlined’, public-private, card-based model.

An empty SITP bus, generally par for the course.
Come on people, don't be shy; jump right on. (Photo from Facebook.)
However, we’re fast approaching SITP domination time; well according to those calling the shots we are. Speaking on the introduction of an exclusive SITP bus corridor on one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, Carrera Septima (7th Avenue), the city’s mobility secretary María Constanza García said that by the first week of September they hoped to have “retired 100 per cent the routes of the old buses that are on the corridor.”

Experience lets us know that such an aspiration might be a just a tad ambitious; especially judging by the first few days of the new ‘exclusive’ lane way. It’s difficult to see the old, fume-spluttering buses meekly retire in the coming weeks when demand for them seems as high as ever.

Despite all the efforts to wean people off their previous way of commuting, it’s still a common sight to see – a few routes aside – a near-empty blue SITP bus crawling alongside an old school one with people hanging out the doors.

This lack of enthusiasm among the city’s inhabitants to change their ways is not surprising when you consider the current state of play. Firstly, the lack of easy to find route information is a major hindrance. OK, there is an app, Moovit, which serves somewhat as an on-line route finder. Yet it nearly tries to be too clever, telling people where to walk, for what distance and what shops you can find along the way (yes, I made that last one up; could be an idea though). Most people just want to know which bus goes where. On that, it scores badly.

Some physical maps at the actual bus shelters and a little more detailed information on the stops for each route would come in handy, rather than some irrelevant bus number with just the final destination.

Regardless of that, there doesn’t seem to be a ready-made replacement for the Calle 19 (19th Street)/Carrera Tercera (3rd Avenue), Septima north-bound route; a popular, busy run that has been generally well served under the old operators.

What’s more, the private system – in typical Colombian contradictory fashion – still seems more user-friendly, even if this ‘user-friendliness’ is often a major inconvenience not only for other road users but fellow passengers also. Indeed, what you might think is good one day about the old buses’ way of doing things can be a source of frustration the next.

An old school colectivo, still hard at it...
Old school: They haven't gone away you know.
For example, that you can flag down or get off one of them from any location is great. However, if you’re on a bus in a rush to get somewhere and it’s stopping every second to pick up and drop off people, breaking like a rally car, it’s damn right annoying.

Then you have what is probably one of the busetas/colectivos biggest pull factors: The fact that you can get on even if you don’t have the full fare. Just wave a 1,000 peso note at the driver to signal your lack of funds and more often than not he (for it’s rarely a she) will let you on. On the downside, in contrast to the more regulated, ‘cold’, SITP, the old system is still awash with the not very washed, usually unwelcome, bus vendors and wannabe rap artists.

So while Bogotá’s bus future may be SITP blue, there’s still a bit of life in the old operators yet. Let’s see how things unfold over the next two years. Sure what’s the rush guys?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

I'm yelling Tinder

As we all know, in this life there are the haves and the have nots, something that has been well documented in various ways on this blog.* In what could be seen as a microcosm of that on some levels, there are those who have a smartphone and those who do not.

Tinder -- the best app in town?
Time to yell 'Tinder'..? (Image from Facebook.)
At the moment I fall into that latter category. The reasons for this are chiefly split between personal choice and to a lesser extent economic circumstances.

The fact that much of my work currently revolves around technology (whose doesn't?) or at least staring at a screen, in my downtime, of which there has been a lot of late, I like to try and remove myself from such things. Hence, heretofore at least, I've been pretty content with my basic phone or flechita (literally, 'little dart') as they call it in Colombia. My thinking has been that with that, people can call and text me if they need to and I can do likewise if I want to. No more, no less. For all other technology and social media related issues, I can use my laptop at specified times of the day. Who needs to have Facebook or Twitter by their side 24/7?
A simple yet effective mobile phone. If only it had Tinder...
The simple life: A 'flechita'. (Photo from Phone Outlet.)

Indeed one of my bugbears when one goes out to socialise in person these days, something I've touched on before, is that you'll find a host of people with their heads stuck in their smartphones, preferring to virtually interact with people rather than engage physically with the person next to them. Perhaps that just happens to me though?

Nonetheless, I'm slowly beginning to think that it may be time to 'take the plunge' and invest in a smartphone. From a work point of view, considering plenty of hours are lost commuting across Bogotá going from one class to the next, having a compact device/phone that would allow me do some additional research and writing while in transit would be handy and probably time-saving. Of course, there is always the dar papaya risk in flashing your smartphone in public,** giving would-be robbers an even greater incentive to have a go at the 'rich' (if only they knew) westerner.

That aside, a more compelling reason to join the smartphone revolution, if some people's experiences are to be believed, is the dating application (or 'app' as they say) Tinder. According to those in the know, it's basically a sure-fire way of at least securing a one-night stand. Not only that but in Bogotá for western men in any case, what's on offer is of pretty decent quality – superficially anyway. I imagine that's replicated throughout Colombia.

So for single and, apparently, not-so-single people, Tinder is proving to be a great place to get that much-coveted hookup. Word on the (virtual) street is that it takes a lot of the tedious small talk out of the equation. Both parties can just cut to the chase.
Beyoncé: Swiping to the left.
Beyoncé: She'd get a swipe. (Photo from Facebook.)

Now if 'the chase' is something you actually enjoy, then Tinder might leave you feeling a little empty – fish in a barrel kind of thing you might say. Yet if you're tired of the games that some potential partners play after you've had an initial rendezvous, Tinder could be just what you need to avoid becoming frustrated.

Thus, maybe it's time for Wrong Way to delve into the smartphone world and see how those swanky 'haves' live. If it saves time and effort across a range of activities it could prove to be a valuable asset.

And as it is with all of these things, there's always an off button. That, however, might not be as easy to find on whoever you happen to pick up on Tinder.
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*See last week's Chasing a star(bucks) for starters on that.

**To get the 'dar papaya' reference and meaning, read 'Dar papaya' - letting the guard down.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Chasing a star(bucks)

Wow! How the lot for some Colombians is improving considerably.

James Rodríguez is ecstatically greeted by Colombians after his unveiling as a Real Madrid player.
'James, you haven't a spare euro or two?' (Photo from Facebook.)
For one, the country's new hero, James Rodríguez, has ensured Real Madrid will have about 40 million new followers thanks to his big money move to the Spanish giants. OK, footballers operate in a completely different galaxy to us mere mortals. Thus that things are looking up for James should be put into its proper, ludicrous context. It's not his fault of course that this is the way the football world is, so we can only wish him well in his new life as an overpaid galáctico.

On a slightly more comprehensible and, going by the reaction, palpable level, Starbucks arrival to the home of coffee has signalled the country's passage into the 'big league'; or so some locals appear to believe. A case of 'Now things will change; we've got Starbucks.' It certainly does gel in nicely with that popular Colombian notion that 'outside (especially North America) is better than home.'*

So having the US coffee label here is another step towards becoming 'US Americanised'; that should fix all the problems. Then again, maybe not.

In a way, the opening of the company's flagship Colombian café in Bogotá is a further sign of the country's growing middle class and, with that, the extra disposable income in a few people's pockets. Plus, it shows in a very visible way that multinational companies no longer see the country as the big risk it once was in which to do business, or indeed most activities.

Yet, the much publicised excitement exuded by a segment of the population on Starbucks' grand opening has only served to demonstrate yet again the huge inequality that exists in this land. On the one hand you had people queueing for up to an hour to get their hands on a cappuccino retailing at 5,500 pesos (almost $3US), while alongside them, as they waited to enter, you had street vendors selling their equivalent for less than ten per cent of that price.

The fancy interior of Starbucks Bogotá. Unlikely that I'll be seeing it for real any time soon...
Starbucks Bogotá: The fancy decor has a price (photo from Facebook).
Yes, those 'in the know' will talk about the quality of the Starbucks fare (alongside the 'local' equivalents such as Juan Valdez and Oma), but at more than ten times the price of a perico (coffee with milk) in my local panadería, it just doesn't make sense to me. And whatever about it not making sense to me, for a large chunk of Colombians, paying 5,500 pesos for a coffee is just not a runner, never.

If you're monthly earnings are about 600,000 pesos ($320US), roughly Colombia's minimum wage, and you're in a six-day week job where you have to commute by public transport, you're not left with much money to play around with. The transport costs alone would be more than 72,000 pesos per month.+ Take food and general living expenses out of the remainder and you can see why 5,500 peso coffees are a pipe dream for many. Throw dependants into the mix and the picture is even grimmer.

Such inequality is not unique to Colombia, although the scale of it here is intense. Like many others before him, re-elected president Juan Manuel Santos has made reducing it one of his priorities.

But while we strive to improve the lot of the poorest in society, we also have to look at the other side of things. That is to say a much more even distribution of the world's current wealth. Many of us could have as equally a fulfilling life – if not more so – minus a lot of the non-essential extras we accumulate.

Something to mull over whilst sipping on your Starbucks cappuccino watching James make his Real Madrid début. Isn't life just bliss?
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*Colombia's police often exhibit this trait that the Western foreigner knows best. For more on that see Colombia's good cops.

+It has been brought to my attention that a travel allowance of 72,000 pesos is available for those earning 1,232,000 or less. While this is no doubt a help, it still won't see the masses flocking to Starbucks.