Monday, 28 December 2015

2015: finding the positives from a difficult year

2015. Best summed up as a year I'd largely like to scrap from the memory bank. Any time you lose a loved one is never easy; this is made even more difficult when it's someone who left this earth way before her time, someone who had so much more to give.

Yet in some small tribute to my sister Lynda, a person who could find the good in the bad and who displayed great mental strength and positivity where others would have wilted, here I'll go through the personal and not-so-personal plus points of the year as we prepare to bring it to a close:

The gang, Creevy, Lisacul, Co. Roscommon.
Happier times ...
Family first
We weren't to know the hammer blow that was coming, but a family reunion in February to celebrate our parents 40th wedding anniversary provided the opportunity to get all of us together.
It also coincided with a belated 30th birthday for yours truly. Considering what transpired a few months later, this happy get together has taken on an even greater significance. We'll always have the memories.
The final winners in 2015 of IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz" ...
IQuiz holders going into 2016 ...

IQuiz Bogotá is born
The seeds of the idea to get this going actually came from the February trip home. A night at a pub quiz during my two weeks in Ireland reminded me of how much I enjoy them — even if I seldom win. So on return to Bogotá, in partnership with my Dutch mate Pieter, we set about creating our own quiz night in the Colombian capital. So far it's been eight down and not out.
OK, Pieter may have departed the Bogotá scene, but the hopes are that IQuiz will return in 2016 in some shape or form — minus the promotional videos that is.

Extending the extended 'family', Venezuelan style
It was with much curiosity and a touch of apprehension that I took up a friend's invite to visit her and her family in Caracas. Yes, I've been to Venezuela before, but not to the 'bloody' and 'dangerous' capital city with a heated election taking place.
What I found there was what pretty much felt like a home from home. My hosts were extremely accommodating and great fun, representing in a way all that's good about Venezuela and its people.
The country may be in a bad state politically and economically — the latter making it cheap to visit when entering with foreign currency — but if you're willing to take the security risks there are decent rewards.

Enjoying election day (December 6th, 2015) in Caracas ...
The Venezuelan family!
 Come on you boys in green
Europe's big international summer football (soccer) fest returns next year and Ireland, for the first time ever, will be represented on the double. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic, in varying degrees of impressiveness, booked their places at Euro 2016, so what could be seen as a D-Day-esque invasion of green-clad supporters awaits France in June. Now while the Republic really only made up the numbers at the previous renewal in 2012, and did so very badly at that, it's nice to have the chance to mix it with the 'big boys', times two as it is, all the same. Just ask the Dutch (or Scottish).

There you go. There's not much else to do with 2015 now but to move on from it. Of all the uncertainties there are, what we do know is that time will continue to tick on, however we measure it. Happy New Year to all.
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Thursday, 17 December 2015

Venezuela: Killing with kindness

If you're to take your lead from most Western — as well as Colombian — media, going to Venezuela these days without solid reasons is a very risky undertaking. Throw in a hotly contested and potentially era-ending national election, as we just had, and the advice is to give the place a wide, wide berth.
Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar on the Colombian-Venezuelan border is a much quieter border crossing these days compared to just a few months ago ...
This used to be packed with cars on a daily basis ...
Yet having had a pleasurable experience visiting the country in 2013, the constant invites to return from a Caracas-based friend mixed with a curiosity to see if the current situation was as bad as some would have you think, led me to return. Well that and the desire to spice things up a little by venturing, for the first time, into 'dangerous' Caracas with that aforementioned election looming.

It might sound a little devil-may-care, but the fact that my friend would be hosting me in the Venezuelan capital reduced, I figured, the risk factor considerably.

The first major difference from 30 months ago was encountered before actually entering Venezuela. From previous experience, to get the best price for my Colombian pesos to bolivares (or so it used to go anyway), I changed the best part of my cash in Cúcuta.* The amount of notes I got this time for a similar exchange as before was at least 10 times more. Hyperinflation placed right before your eyes. I felt, uneasy to say the least, like a walking cash machine.
With 100 bolivares the biggest note denomination, you need plenty of them for cash transactions in Venezuela right now ...
You need big pockets in Venezuela these days ...

Then at the border itself, the hustle and bustle of what had been the busiest frontier crossing between Colombia and Venezuela has been replaced, for now anyway, by an almost eerie silence. (Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, as it's known, has been closed to vehicular traffic for months following this year's border dispute.)

For any tourists making the journey either way this is great; it must rate as the least time consuming nation-state crossing in Latin America. In fact, the most inconvenient thing is trying to find the office to get your entry stamp in San Antonio, Venezuela; it's not done right on the border as it is in Colombia.

The lack of human traffic might be good from a personal viewpoint, but for merchants on either side of the divide it's having an adverse effect.**

With the inflation I expected my big bundles of notes to disappear quite quickly. In reality, while everything appears to have an extra zero added to it compared to 2013, the converted pesos seemed to last longer, a good bit longer. In fact, with the almost unfathomable black market exchange rates it turns out I could have got even more bolivares for my pesos. I'll get it right yet.

I'd also prepared myself for the usual heat foreign visitors to Venezuela can expect from the military and police, especially at checkpoints. This time around only once did I have to step off a bus, along with all the other passengers, and have my stuff searched, half-heartedly as it was.

In one lapse, what you might call a testament to the regard I hold Colombian police in, I asked state police in San Cristóbal for directions. Not the best idea. I was escorted to the nearest station where officers went through everything I was carrying. Pleasantly surprising they didn't take any of the wads of cash stashed in my bag.
Some of the views from up in Parque Nacional Warairarepano in Caracas ...
Impressive sights abound around Caracas ...

It does, however, seem a little ironic that the police tell me to be careful after it was them who, without wanting to sensationalise this, semi-interrogated me whilst making jokes about robbing me and calling me rich. They generally made me feel uncomfortable and more at risk — with a smile albeit — when all I'd done was ask for directions. And you couldn't but be bemused by some of the things they asked: 'What's this?' 'Um, bread.' 'What do you have a camera for?' 'Eh, you're asking what now?' It's a case of, as many of the locals will tell you, trusting more those not associated with the upkeep of law and order. Playing the innocent gringo/foreigner doesn't get you far.

To add to this further, a friend of the family I stayed with told me of an incident that happened in a downtown shopping centre the week I was there where two police officers robbed a couple of foreigners of all their belongings in the middle of the day.

No doubt there are decent, trustworthy police and military, but in general it seems the nation's 'protectors' could learn a thing or two from the civilians. The friendliness of the ordinary Venezuelans I dealt with was up there with the best of them. Little things like the bus company employee in San Cristóbal phoning my friend in Caracas to tell her what bus I was on and what station I'd be arriving at. Then when I got to Caracas a stranger lending me his phone to call my friend to say I'd arrived. In some other Latin American countries even friends are reluctant to hand over their phone for a quick call.

My hosts, who live in a part of Caracas where a Western face is seldom seen, were, to say the least, hugely accommodating. It very much felt like a home from home.

The measures you've to take to get around election-day Ley Seca (alcohol prohibition) in Caracas!
Getting round election-day prohibition, Caracas style ...
Yet even though I was staying in a potentially dangerous barrio (you might ask, with reason, where isn't in Caracas), with locals by my side I pretty much felt oblivious to any dangers, dangers that my friends were quick to tell me do exist — gun shot fire was a regular enough sound. Even on election day, passing by fanatical Chavistas (supporters of the current 'socialist revolution'; my host family are not), it felt more like a carnival than a country experiencing political polarisation that is crippling it in many ways.

Tellingly though, I went nowhere without one of my Caraqueño (Caracas natives) friends by my side. For the nine days I was in the city that was fine, but I generally like to wander about places on my own. With my foreign face, I was told that's not the wisest move to make in Caracas. In any case, the tienda-drinking culture you get in Colombia that I enjoy is largely lacking in Caracas' barrios. It's more a style of home drinking or on the street outside your house or nearest tienda.

With political change potentially in the air following the opposition's victory in the parliamentary elections, Venezuela's officialdom might start becoming a little less insecure and seemingly suspicious of all outsiders.

There's a lot of work to be done on that front. For the time being, there's always the friendliness of the locals to fall back on for those willing to visit this beautiful country.

*To get a fair idea of what your pesos are worth against the bolivar on 'street' exchange bureaus, a good web site to check is bolivarcucuta.com. For the street price of dollars and euros versus bolivares, see dollartoday.com.

**Alas, it was far from an efficient border crossing on the Venezuelan side on the return journey; the Christmas rush had begun.

To listen to a radio interview I did on the situation in Venezuela, check out this link: http://bit.ly/22iwq97 (the interview starts about 10 minutes into the play back service, a couple of minutes after the news and sport).
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