Monday, 26 December 2011

Wrong Way's Year in Review

When it comes to politics, we’re quite an opinionated, argumentative bunch us Irish, eh? Pop into a public house any night of the week and you’re sure to find at least two lads having a heated debate about the latest political crisis afflicting our country - and we’ve had plenty of those to get our teeth into over the last few weeks, never mind months. It could be argued that we’re the most politically astute nation in Europe, if not the globe. Bearing that in mind, together with all the strife we poor citizens have had to take over the last few years, you think we would have taken to the streets ‘en masse’, attacking the very heart of our incompetent political establishment. But no, we haven’t. Apart from a few, by international standards, very tame student protests, oh, and yes the ‘grey vote’ movement a few years back – now it’s not right that a millionaire pensioner should have his/her ‘entitlements’ means tested, is it – we as a nation have been pretty reticent when it comes to ‘rocking’ the system. Now you can cast an eye to Greece and ask do mass protests make any real difference – the evidence would suggest not. So maybe it’s just about letting your frustrations out – good for the body and mind, that. And the Irish have found less taxing ways to do that than violent protests. There’s the aforementioned pub rant, a moan to the sadistic Joe Duffy, emigration and of course the good old letters page of our daily and Sunday newspapers. It’s the latter two that I’ve found solace from over the last few years – the odd printed letter the last resort for a struggling journey-man journalist. So as politics - along with religion - is always a good topic to discuss during the festive period, here’s a selection of some of those published letters for you to mull over. A sort of ‘Reeling in the Year 2011’ in words, if you will.

On the Irish General Election:
“So after all the subterfuge we finally have a date for the long overdue General Election. The attention now turns to every Irish citizen with the right to vote to have their say. With every right though, as we all should know, comes responsibility. This is not, to spell out the obvious, a local council election but a national one. More so now than ever the government returned on March 11th will be our chief negotiators on the international stage, people we must entrust to get the best deals for this beleaguered nation. The candidate who can get your local road tarmacadamed has a forum, this election, however, is not it. It may be the case that our electoral system prevents us from returning true national politicians – that is something that needs to be urgently addressed. For now though, it is incumbent on every franchised Irish citizen to shun parish pump politics. There may be a dearth of candidates with the national interest at heart, but where they exist we need them returned. Not to do so would be criminal.”

On Ireland’s financial woes - they’re considerable, so here are two letters:
“So the Republic of Ireland, given the extraordinary financial crisis it finds itself in, would not exist as a functioning entity if it were not for our European colleagues together with the IMF bailing the state out. One thus has to ask, if the Republic never joined the EMU would the mess be as big? You would have to strongly think not. Yes, the entry into the EU and then the EMU provided us with enormous benefits - financial, infrastructural, and even social. But we are now seeing the true price of joining the EU 'party'. Was the 'high' worth it? If only we had been as wise as some of the Nordic countries or, whisper it, our nearest neighbour to the east.”

“On a recent sojourn to Europe, I had the dubious pleasure of debating about Ireland’s severe financial woes with the numerous Germans I met. After initial coldness to my point that Ireland’s economic problems were not all of the state’s own making – namely that those bond holders who gambled on our prosperity must share the burden – my German friends began to see things differently. There was further convergence of opinion when I compared the Irish Republic’s situation now to that of the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, stressing the point that if outside ‘assistance’ is seen as punitive, who knows what that could lead to. Now maybe these Germans I met were that rare kind – malleable – or maybe they just didn’t care. In any case, is the AWOL Taoiseach or his fiery finance minister stating such facts to their masters in continental Europe? After all, the power rests with the politicians elected by the people of Europe, not with the financial markets, doesn’t it?”

Queen Elizabeth wearing a green outfit. In 2011 she became the first sitting UK monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland.
The Queen goes 'green'
On the Queen’s visit:
“I find it absurd, given the perilous state of our economy, that there should be such vociferous opposition in some quarters to the proposed visit here of one of the richest people in the world. Surely it is in our financial interest to ensure Queen Elizabeth II visits these shores? If we show her a good time maybe she’ll consider popping over on a more regular basis, thus providing a much-needed boost to our economy. And with a number of high profile royal weddings on the horizon, we should be pitching ourselves as the ‘ideal’ honeymoon destination for the newly weds. Considering that most of those opposed to the royal visit vigorously support British soccer teams, it is only fair that the Queen is seen to acknowledge such support by calling in person to see her loyal subjects. In any case, the British Royals regularly visit the north-east of this island with very little opposition from those that supposedly don’t recognize the border. So whether ‘Lizzie’ visits subordinate administrations in Belfast or Dublin, does it really make any difference?”

On the aftermath of President Obama’s visit:
“After the impressive, yet intangible, rhetoric of President Obama it seems our Taoiseach is keen to continue the ‘more talk, less action’ road to recovery. As a recently departed resident of the United Kingdom and now briefly back in my native west of Ireland before I leave for South America in the coming days, I found Enda Kenny’s pep talk to Ireland’s Ambassadors laughable. While I would love to be able to spread a positive message about the Republic on my travels, reality on the ground unfortunately dictates otherwise. For instance, we continue to have a bloated, overpaid public sector - including politicians -, a social welfare system that promotes unemployment, a ridiculously high-cost of living and a seemingly spineless Government unable to stand up to the Unions, the EU and other numerous groups that continue to cripple the country. I could go on, but you get the point. South America is rife with examples of men of Irish decent that played a part in over-throwing Spanish rule. Maybe I can draw inspiration and bring back that revolutionary zeal to these shores.” (I’m failing on that front thus far!)

On the Presidential Election result:
“So finally, it seems, the Irish electorate has made a wise decision. Not only was Michael D Higgins the least worst option of the seven candidates, he should also prove to be the least financial burden on the state as President in the years to come. Considering the exorbitant pensions our head-of-states are entitled to on retirement, at 70 years-of-age, President Elect Higgins should not cost us too much whenever he calls it a day. And when that time comes, maybe we will finally get rid of this surplus-to-requirements office.”

And finally, on overhauling the Junior Cert:
“Further to the Government’s plans to ‘improve’ the education system by abolishing the junior cert, a far more practical move would be the introduction of compulsory French and German in our primary schools. That way our future generations should be better placed to converse with and understand those now running our occupied little state.”

So there you have it. Just to note that while all opinions expressed are ‘Wrong Way’s’, they are time/context dependent and therefore are subject to constant review and possible change!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Survival of the dumbest

You may have seen the following ‘Christmas’ message doing the rounds on e-mail. It’s lengthy, but it needs to be considering what it’s trying to achieve. Anyway, here it is, in its unedited glory: 

"Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practised within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all. 

Additionally, a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions have helped make our society great, without regard to the race, creed, colour, religious or sexual preferences of the wishes. 
(Disclaimer: This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for herself/himself (sic) or others and no responsibility for any unintended emotional stress these greetings may bring to those not caught up in the holiday spirit.)"

An example of how ridiculous the health and safety approach has become!
Careful now!
Ah yes, the politically correct Christmas, oh I mean holiday, message. Just another one of the many examples we have of society gone ‘politically correct’ mad. And, in the ‘western’ world, it feels like we’re just at the beginning of this craze – much worse is to come you fear.

The Australian comedian Steve Hughes does a great job in highlighting how ridiculous this whole ‘must not offend anyone, anywhere’ culture has become.

Bringing us back to our primary school days in one of his sketches, he reminds us of the old tried and trusted rhyme of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. You know the one - blasted out with confidence when verbally assaulted by the school-yard bully. How teak-tough, mentally if not physically, we were back then.

We wouldn’t let a few hurtful remarks uttered by some ape offend us. We could rise above it. And even if we were offended, so what? Nothing happens. Just don’t dwell on it. Sadly though, this is not the case any more. Somewhere along the line in our advance towards ‘maturity’, we started letting a few words or actions upset us, really upset us. But not only do we take offence; we harbour it and expect retribution to be had on the offender.

And so it should be, you might say. We can’t have a world where offensive, hurtful remarks are flying about the place unrestrained, right? But think about the opposite scenario. A situation where everything that one says and does is carefully choreographed so as not to upset anyone, anywhere. From this remove, it appears that the drift towards total political correctness is a slide to a more dishonest, untruthful society. Is it not better to know somebody’s true feelings on a topic than to be a given a more ‘accepted’ public version while the reality couldn’t be more different?

To add to this, without getting too political here, most western democracies, the United States excepted, tend to over-compensate to the ‘left’ in the quest for a discrimination-free society. Much of the reason for this is because of the horrible legacy of the extreme right in these parts of the world – we won’t go into that here. The result though of all this is that we get a very slanted take on things through the media, politics and other public bodies that doesn’t always reflect reality.

Here’s a very benign example of how crazy things are becoming. In a previous radio job, I used to have a weekly slot with a PR man from a well-known bookmaker firm on in Ireland. We’d talk about upcoming sporting events, the likely winners, where you’d find the best betting value and all that kind of innocent stuff. I say ‘innocent’ because that’s what you’d think, right? Wrong. After a few weeks doing this, the powers-that-be at the station brought it to my attention that I was in ‘very dangerous’ territory talking about the odds of certain teams/horses. Why? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? This would encourage gambling, break-up heretofore happy families and cause general mayhem on the streets. No word of a lie – well maybe the bit about chaos on the streets, but you get the sentiment! That’s how ridiculous things are becoming.

You see there’s a school of thought out there - which goes hand-in-hand with the nanny state ethos - that the ordinary man (or woman, just in case anyone takes offence) is incapable of independent thought and accepts as truth everything he/she sees or hears. Now I don’t know about you, but I find that very condescending. Shock, horror, we do have our own minds and we can make our own decisions. Sure, we can be influenced by things in both good and bad ways. That’s life, it’s inevitable. From the moment you are born, you are influenced by things – the people around you, your environment, the weather. It’s a natural process of being alive. So, what we all knew anyway, we’re all under the ‘influence’ – some more so than others.

Now hand-in-hand with the madness of political correctness goes – I’m sure you’ll agree – the ridiculously bureaucratic health and safety laws. We have a culprit here, ‘compo culture’ or ‘claims culture’ if you will. If you play the system you can get a nice little windfall after suffering at the hands of your own stupidity. Now, I don’t want to offend anyone, but if you injure yourself after falling down a hole in a place where you shouldn’t have been, well tough break. It’ll teach you not to go there again. But oh no, now everybody has to be responsible and plan ‘appropriately’ for the idiocy of others.

This goes against millions of years of evolution – survival of the fittest and all that. Now we are all being asked to dumb down. Not that you need proof of this, but for amusement, here goes. The following was spotted recently on a sign: ‘Caution – This sign has sharp edges. Do not touch the edges of this sign.’ No further questions your honour.

Unfortunately, considering the state of the global economy, you wouldn’t hold out much hope for our political leaders steering us clear of what seems an inevitable slide to a ‘post-common sense’ society. So it looks like it’s going to be left to us, on the ground, to stem the tide of madness.

On that note, considering it’s the time of year we celebrate virgins giving birth, I’ll leave you with the following: ‘A middle-aged man and woman fall in love, and decide to get married. On their wedding night they settle into the bridal suite and the bride says to her new groom, "Please be gentle... I am still a virgin." The startled groom says "How can that be? You've been married twice..." The bride responds... "Well you see it was this way: My first husband, he was a psychiatrist and all he ever wanted to do was talk about sex. Catching her breath, she says "My second husband was a stamp collector, and all he ever wanted to do was... ... ... ... Oh God, I miss him!" 
Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Doing business in SA

‘South America – a great place to visit, just don’t do business with its inhabitants.’ That’s the common refrain you are likely to hear from ‘western world’ expats settled in Latin America. 

Considering the genuine friendliness of the majority of its people coupled with the unforgettable delights of the land mass itself, such a statement may come as a surprise for those just passing through the Spanish-speaking countries here. But putting emotional ties aside and taking a deeper, colder look, perhaps we shouldn’t be too taken aback. 

Spending a little more time here than the average visitor and engaging in daily activities outside of the main tourist drag, you begin to see just why the majority of countries in South America have so far failed to realise their potential in an economic sense. Now before you say this might be a bit rich coming from an Irish man given the perilous state of our own economy at present, it must be said that the resources – natural and otherwise – available to most of the Spanish-speaking nations here more than dwarf those at Ireland’s disposal. 

A colourful, local dance watched by an enthusiastic crowd on a sunny day in central Quito, Ecuador
South America - a colourful place but tread carefully
Part of the problem is the Spanish legacy. When you’re descendent – as most of the power brokers in Latin America are – from a colonising race that put short-term gain over long-term sustainability, you’re coming from a shaky foundation. While the Spanish were not famed for leaving much behind in the lands they fleeced, one thing they did instil in South America is a greed mentality that blinkers foresight. Take what you can now, deal with the consequences later. Trouble is, because you plundered all you could from the get-go, you have nothing left to deal with those future problems.

Here’s a contemporary example of this sort of thinking in action. On a night out in Bogotá’s ‘hip’ Chapinero district with three fellow Europeans – two Dutch guys and a German – we wandered into one of the many bars/clubs in the area, looking for a few beers. Nothing out of the ordinary there, eh? Now considering the night was young, it was beers we wanted at this stage – nothing stronger, just yet. And given that almost everybody in the place was doing just that – drinking beers – we didn’t expect any problems. 

How silly of us. With no other explanation other than the fact that we were ‘different’ i.e. not South American, never mind Colombian, we were told that the only alcohol we could purchase was bottles of spirits – the cheapest of those being rum at $50,000 Colombian Pesos (roughly €20). Now while between four lads that price, relatively speaking, isn’t that much, the fact that practically all the other clientèle in the establishment were drinking beer, why discriminate against us? I mean the bar staff was dishing out beer right in front of our eyes – it’s not like the place had run out of it or anything. 

You see this is where this skewed, suicidal business sense comes into play. The staff saw four ‘westerners’ and thought ‘lets get what we can from them straight away’. Now maybe some other ‘extranjeros’ – foreigners if you will – would have caved in and bought the more ‘costly’ spirits, but we are quite a principled bunch. So instead of them serving us four beers at $4,000 Colombian Pesos (COP) a pop, with the likelihood that we would have had at least another four and, heck knows, considering the group of us in it, we would have ended up getting the rum too after the beers, the staff tried to pin us for the $50,000 COP straight-up. 

Alas for them, they got nothing. A complete lack of vision – their colonising forefathers would have been proud. By-the-way, this episode was replicated in a number of other venues that night. At least Bogotá’s Institute of Harebrained Business Solutions is thriving.

Alongside the above practise is the Latino apparent incapability to say they don’t know something. In all fairness, there is nothing sinister at work here. It’s just that they seem so anxious to help that they feel compelled to say something other than ‘I don’t know’ – and what they say more-often-than-not ends up leading you astray. As an English friend mused, if you need to ask South American’s for directions, it’s best to ask at least four people and from that you might just be able to piece together the correct location - if you’re lucky.

Coupled with this inability to say ‘I don’t know’, is the rather more sinister trait of never admitting to be wrong. Even with video evidence showing culpability, you’ll rarely hear a South American admitting he/she was at fault. A Bart Simpson style ‘I didn’t do it’ – except without the follow-up hit record and TV appearances (apologies non-Simpsons fans – a quick Youtube search will put you in the picture). Considering their questionable business tactics, it should not surprise us too much that many here feel the best way to get out of a hole is to keep digging, at speed.

Hence, you ask, why would anyone want to relocate here on a long-term basis, with the idea of doing business?  Well, we are generalising here – there are, thankfully, some notable exceptions to the above. On the whole however, where money-making opportunities arise are in areas where the locals don’t have a decent grasp – many of these happen to be in the tourism sector – along with areas where outside influence is practically unavoidable, such as teaching English. 

So there are openings in South America for outsiders. It might be best though just not to tell the locals.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The wages of love

"There are two chief ways a man can have sex - pay for it or get it for free. I've come to the conclusion that it's cheaper in the long-term - and indeed short-term - to pay for it."

Now I won’t take credit for that quotation – nor indeed do I want to – but I have to say it’s beginning to make a lot of sense for me of late. Who actually first said it, of that I’m not sure, but it was relayed to me by a close friend some years back. And while I always thought it was an amusing quote, I never really appreciated its true value. Until now that is.

Up until a few weeks ago I thought the days of men paying for everything on dates with the ‘fairer’ (or should that be ‘not very fair’) sex had long gone. Even here, in South America, my experiences heretofore had been pretty balanced when it came to picking up the tab on nights out with women – indeed on many occasions, as a frugal backpacker, the ‘settled’ locals wouldn’t let me pay for anything. Great work if you can get it, eh? I’m seeing the other side of things now though. And that ‘side’ comes in the form of an extremely attractive, 21 year-old Medellín-born Bogotá resident.

A picturesque view of the sea and the modern part of Cartagena, Colombian - Boca Grande
Nice view, but where is the love?
It’s at that early stage where I’m still wondering is she just using me to have free nights out – you know the rich (if only she knew), white western guy – or does she genuinely have feelings for me. Two dates down and about $120,000 Colombian pesos less well-off (roughly €45, but put into context six nights accommodation in a Bogotá hostel – cheers to the Cranky Croc there) and the doubts are beginning to creep in. Yes, it’s early days. But no we haven’t slept together yet – the lack of private accommodation on my part and a strict Christian grandmother on hers have put paid to that. Well, at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Now from what I know of her so far, she seems pretty cool and she’s somebody I’m willing to give it a go with – my pretty average Spanish makes up somewhat for her poor English. Indeed for once I feel I’ve the slight upper hand on the language barrier front. It’s the fact that when it comes to paying the bills, my money’s the only one that talks in this budding relationship – I’m finding that a bit unsettling, especially considering I’ve yet to get a job here, if indeed I will at all. 

Yes it’s the culture here and if I genuinely like the girl I should have no qualms about it – but for how long will it go on this way? Is it worth, quite literally, going for broke in a country where gorgeous women rival in number the millions of dollars Pablo Escobar amounted in his prime – well maybe not as much as that, but there are plenty of beautiful ladies here all the same.
You see, I have it on good authority that for the same $120,000 pesos that I have thus far ‘invested’ in my little beauty, you can call into the many strip clubs here and take your pick. OK, it’s a one-night stand (well a whole night might be pushing it at that price); however, unlike a relationship that you invest time and effort in but might ultimately end in failure, you’ll have no baggage.

Of course the strip club way is easy. For many the ‘thrill’ of the pick-up is what counts – spotting the girl you want, the initial flirting, the apprehension as to whether or not you’ll get your ‘prize’, the satisfaction when it works out, the disappointment when it doesn’t.

But it can’t disguise the fact that you pay for it either way. One way by stealth – ‘dating’ being the official term I believe – the other being a more open, transparent way where the rules are a bit more clear-cut.

I suppose it comes down to what you want from it all. If it’s only about satisfying your short-term needs, the ‘clear-cut’ way should suffice. However, if you’re at that stage where you feel it’s time to give a relationship a blast – warts and all – the roller-coaster lifestyle of the dating game awaits, if you’re lucky. Or is that unlucky? Of course you can always dabble in both.

Time and - more pertinently perhaps - money permitting that is.