Monday, 31 December 2012

Six of the best in 2012 (well kind of)

Despite the irrational and subsequently unfounded fear in some quarters that the world would end on December 21st just gone (remember all the hullabaloo?) because of a Mayan ‘prediction’, we’re still here, same as always, more or less. Of course ‘officially’ the Mayans weren’t predicting the end of the world at all; it was just the end of their 12th calendar and the beginning of number 13.

In any case, a large number of us use the Gregorian calendar these days, which sees us entering a new year. So, in keeping with our exceptional originality here, we’re going to look back at some of the things that we’ve derived most pleasure from in 2012. Well, at least we’re being outwardly positive for a change. And as you’ll see – in no particular order and far from exhaustive by the way – there have been plenty of things that brought a smile to our face in the past year:

A shot from the Miraflores Locks at The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal

Seeing more of the world
Considering it’s travelling that has us in Colombia in the first place, we’ll start off on this one. 2012 saw us add four more countries to our imaginary ‘visited list’ – but far from ‘done list’ (don’t get us started on that one. A very irritating turn of phrase used by far too many backpackers). Firstly there were the ‘delights’ of Venezuela – it’s true, time is a great healer (for what we thought of the country at the time, see*

Then there was the very beautiful – if a little bit pricey for our modest and declining earnings – Barbados. That necessary trip to see a very good friend get married included a brief stop in Trinidad, enough though to take in a bit of Port-of-Spain, with its almost unbearable heat and quite friendly locals from what we encountered. We finished off our brief little Caribbean adventure with a longer return to Panama – we had actually walked into that country earlier in the year from bordering Capurganá in Colombia. This time around we actually got to stay a few nights; and it was well worth it.

On top of all this, we did take in more of the wonderful country that is Colombia itself, but there is still plenty more we want to see here. Time to get moving again pretty soon we reckon.

‘La Grande’ arrives
This may shock some of you, but we like a beer every now and again – the bigger (and cheaper) the better. For some unknown reason though, since we first visited Colombia in 2009, all you could purchase in the majority of bars/tiendas were the small 330ml bottles. In most of the other South American countries 750ml or litre bottles are the norm.

Thankfully this year saw Colombia get up to standard with both ‘Aguila’ and ‘Poker’ introducing the 750ml bottles. Linked to this is the ‘discovery’ of cheap and cheerful tiendas with appreciative staff (are you listening Doña Ceci et al?) to consume said bottles. We thought we were doing well with $3,000COP a bottle (roughly €1.20), but that’s been trumped by a lovely little place in Bogotá’s Belén district for $2,500COP a bottle. It’s the ‘little big’ things in life that count. For a related article, which also details our perhaps dangerously addictive liking for value-for-money coffee and biscuits, see “Bogotá’s simple pleasures”
A 'grande' poker - why would you go for the smaller one?

‘A star’ is born
OK, not quite. But we did get a glimpse inside the ‘Telenovela’ (that’s utterly cheesy Latino soap operas) world with our work as an extra from time-to-time. Heck, we’re even due to appear ‘prominently’ in some made-for-TV US movie, ‘Left to Die’, which is already out apparently. Although we can’t help but think that we’ve already had our, precisely speaking, ’30 seconds’ of fame from this type of work. That came during our appearance in ‘Colombia Tiene Talento’ (Colombia’s Got Talent), where we had to wave a flag all dressed in white for one of the acts. Such was the 'quality' of our performance it made ‘waves’ across the globe, with ‘The Irish Daily Star’ giving us a spread in its pages. Alas, we failed to get the expected flag bearer gig at the Olympics for either Team Ireland or Team Colombia. There’s always Rio in 2016... For more on this see “Giving just a little bit ‘extra’” and for our flag waving extraordinaire see, from 2’ 30’’
'Wrong Way' in the Irish Daily Star
'Flagtastic' - indeed
Teaching English
There are times when we wouldn’t feel like putting this down as a positive, but on the whole we’ve found it quite enjoyable. It’s helped us meet some very interesting, decent people, both in terms of the companies we’ve worked for (firstly InstitoNordico, now BSR Idiomas and indeed our private classes) and the students we’ve taught. We’ve even managed to make a little bit of money out of the whole gig – just a little mind you. For a more thorough look at this world, see our earlier piece, “The ‘Money’ Tongue” 

Best Man for an old-time friend
As mentioned above, the reason we went to Barbados. It was a privilege and an honour to be at the side of one of our oldest (in length of time we’re mates that is, not age, lest we insult anyone) and best friends. Second time to be a best man, the chances of our own ‘tying of the knot’ are a long, long way off however. We’re happy to watch from the sidelines at this moment in time; horses for courses and all that.
A shot of the 'altar' for our friend's wedding in Barbados
Street arepas
OK, we knew about these round corn-based delights before the start of 2012, but it was in this year that we really got to enjoy them; simple yet wonderful pleasures. The perfect hunger-buster on a chilly Bogotá evening, our preference has been the ‘carne con queso’ (that’s meat with cheese with a bit of BBQ sauce to boot) for a very agreeable $2,200COP (roughly €1). For those of you that know the Colombian capital, our favourite place to consume these is from the vendor that operates outside the Colombo-Americano, Calle 19 with Carrera 3. We’ve missed them over the Christmas break – come back soon.
Street arepas - quite delicious
Quality grub
So they are some of our highlights from 2012. All that's left for us to say for now is, 'Happy New Year' to all; onwards and upwards in 2013.

*Please note, for an updated, more positive piece on Venezuela, see (for starters) see Venezuela: A necessary reappraisal.

Monday, 24 December 2012

'Dar papaya' - letting the guard down

A common occurrence for immigrants after spending some time in their adopted place is that they begin to feel more comfortable, at ease with their new surroundings. Not a bad thing in most scenarios that. Indeed it’s what most of us want to happen when we decide to rock up in a location that may be ‘outside of our comfort zone’ in some respects.
'Wrong Way' masquerading as a Miami cop
It's best to take all necessary precautions on a night out in Bogotá

However – and this tends to be place dependent – there are times when you can get to a level of comfort that slips into complacency. This is when things can get dangerous, something we’ve found out to our cost on a number of occasions here in Bogotá. Before we look at those incidents, it must be stated that even taking the best precautions out there is not going to guarantee your safety. That’s something that in reality can never be met, anywhere. Yes, some places are worse than others, but nowhere is completely trouble-free.

No matter where you are though, there are certain things you can do to at least lessen the chances of, what Colombians call, ‘dar papaya’. This phrase basically means leaving yourself exposed – not just physically, but mentally too – to be taken advantage of. Letting the guard down so to speak.

Our cautionary, ‘lesson must be learned’ experiences involve two of the things that we like to do best – socialising and the feeling that we’re getting value for money. The two stories we’re going to recount here were, as most of these sorts of incidents tend to be, completely avoidable. But when you can walk away from such events relatively unharmed, you should be all the stronger and wiser for them – that’s the theory anyway.

The first ‘eye-opener’ (or ‘skin-opener’ to be more precise considering what happened) occurred in the flashy ‘Zona T’ area of Bogotá – a place we usually feel ill-at-ease in any case but that’s usually to do with the arrogant types that frequent it, not for feelings of insecurity. As you tend to pay ridiculous prices around this part of the city for anything, we took it upon ourselves to purchase a bottle of aguardiente (Colombia’s ‘famed’ spirit) and knock it back in a quiet, dimly lit public park – we were unsure about the legalities of drinking on the street – before meeting another friend in an upmarket (and therefore outlandishly expensive) club.
The papaya fruit; lends its name to the Colombian warning phrase 'dar papaya'
Nice fruit, but keep it to yourself

While ‘warming ourselves up’ in this park, three lads walked past us – something our more shrewd German companion apparently noticed, not liking their vibe, but he decided to hold his counsel. He should have trusted his instincts; for back came our ‘friends’, replete with knives and intent to harm. Two of them managed to pin down our German mate, not before managing to inflict a minor stab wound on our little finger. Seeing red, quite literally, and a little bit unsure as to what was happening, we confronted the third member of the group. Within seconds though the low-lives fled, once they had taken a little bit of a bounty from our friend – but in relative terms not that much. They took nothing material from us, but they did of course manage to split open our finger.

The lesson learned from this – don’t nonchalantly go drinking in quiet parks at night time in Bogotá. OK, a no-brainer perhaps, but complacency very much set-in for us on this occasion.

Which brings us on to the next ‘what were you thinking (or not as the case may be)’ cautionary tale. The context here is our dislike for taking taxis, especially when we know there’s a cheaper alternative. And with buses running more or less through the night in Bogotá, we generally find this a much more agreeable option to get home. Many locals though tend not to speak too highly of these late night/early morning buses. We’ve never had a problem with them though – that is when we take them when we’re ‘with it’ or at least close to being ‘with it’.

This night however, we don’t even remember getting on the bus to get home – in fact, we’re only guessing that this is what we did, but we can’t be fully sure. It seems however the most logical course of events to explain how we ended up in very dodgy territory in the ‘not very safe’ south of the city, miles from where we were meant to be. Due to a significant black-out, our memory of events goes from being in a pub in the north of the city with friends and colleagues to lying on the ground in this inhospitable location in the far south with two men standing over us, emptying our pockets. Keys to the house, cash, mobile phone, ID – everything material they could take, they duly did. To paraphrase Ann Robinson from the BBC’s ‘Weakest Link’, ‘we were left with nothing’.

Christmas lights on Carrera Septima in Bogotá - a bit blurry like our memory
Exact details of our second 'incident' are a little blurry
Thankfully and most importantly though, no physical injuries were inflicted. Considering how exposed we left ourselves, we were lucky on that front. Once we ‘came round’, we managed to bum a third of a bus fare from a guy on the street, with the bus driver seemingly taking pity on us, allowing us to board. Needless to say, we couldn't get out of the place quick enough.

As mentioned earlier, when you can walk away from such incidents pretty much in one piece, you have to be grateful. The most important thing is to learn from them and amend your practices accordingly. Not to do so is just plain stupid. For if you ‘dar papaya’ around these parts, there are plenty of people willing to feed off you.

*For related stories on Colombia's 'dangers' (or not!) see: 'Dangerous' Colombia Part III and associated posts.

**All the 'team' here at 'Wrong Way' would like to wish all our loyal readers a Happy Christmas/Feliz Navidad! No, we're not using the 'PC' 'Happy Holidays' - here's why

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Small steps to a cleaner, greener Bogotá?

OK, credit where credit is – perhaps – due. If we came across as being a little harsh on Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro in our last post (see ‘Petrograd – Colombia’s new capital?’ we must compliment him and his administration this time around. Cautiously that is, as it is early days and this is Colombia.

A standard household bin in a Bogotá house - everything lumped in together
No more mixing & matching of waste - in theory anyway
However with the scene now seemingly set for the introduction of a new ‘unified’ waste collection service in Bogotá in a matter of days, more details have – not before time you might say – emerged as to what it will entail.

One of the more stand-out, welcome measures as far as we are concerned is in the introduction of two separate household bins, a black one for organic matter and a white one for inorganic/recyclable material. For if there’s one thing we’ve missed in our time here it’s a systematic approach to recycling domestic waste. It heretofore just hasn’t existed.

To say Bogotanos – or most Colombians for that matter – lack such a culture of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is to put it mildly. Of course this is a trend across ‘developing world’ (we reluctantly use that description) countries – thinking ‘green’ often tends to be the last part of a state’s development plan. It just doesn’t seem as attractive – hedonistic if you will – as the more planetary harmful, wasteful ways of doing business. Or at least it hasn’t up until very recently.

A popular homeless people's haunt near the railway line in Bogotá. Not the most pleasing place on the eye
We're not sure if the locals here will be separating their rubbish
Now nobody, not even Mayor Petro, is expecting overnight success with the new waste measures. Considering the fact that there will be no punishment – financial or otherwise – for domestic users that don’t ‘play by the rules’, it’s therefore a safe bet to assume that getting the city’s residents to change their habits is not going to be easy.

Indeed having two bins for different types of rubbish might be a tad mind-blowing for some, especially those who find it difficult to move away from the doors of the Transmilenio transport system, both at the station and on board, when they are either not getting on or not getting off (for more on this see ‘Bogotá’s transport truths’ Sometimes it appears people here just don’t know what might be good, not just for others, but themselves too. When you don’t see an obvious ‘carrot’, a ‘stick’ is often needed to lead you down the correct path.

Let’s not be overly pessimistic though – it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction to get the city’s inhabitants to think smarter about how they dispose of their waste and in the process it should help give the place a badly needed ‘freshening-up’.

Sticking with the ‘green’ theme, it has also been announced that in the next few months Bogotá’s streets will become home to fifty electricity-powered taxis. A tiny number this may be compared to the thousands of gas-guzzling cars on the capital’s streets, but, as above, it’s a small sign that the city’s authorities are finally trying to clean the place up.

A typically dirty Bogotá street near the tourist hotspot of La Candelaría in the old centre
Is a bright, cleaner future ahead for Bogotá?
Plans are also afoot – again though don’t hold your breath as to when these will be realised – to pedestrianise a large part of the ‘Las Aguas’ area of the city near the historic centre. Coupled with the already partial pedestrianisation of Carrera Septima (Seventh Street – something we touched on in ‘Dulling down Bogotá’, downtown Bogotá could become a much more pleasant place to amble about in the next few years.

Of course as is the case with many environmentally ‘friendly’ measures, the argument can be made that the energy expended to introduce and maintain such methods can be just as much as the old ‘harmful’ ways of doing business. For example, in the case of electricity-powered cars, often the electricity used to run them is produced from highly pollutant power plants. In one sense, it could be said that the point of pollution is just being moved to a more concentrated location – out of sight, out of mind so to speak.

This shouldn’t though be used as an excuse not to at least attempt to clean up our act. Yes, all countries must try harder to produce less planetary harmful core energy on a large scale, but we should all try to do our bit at a micro level too.

In this regard, these may be small steps being taken in Bogotá, but it’s better than nothing. And for that, we must be thankful.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Petrograd - Colombia's new capital?

There is a joke going around Bogotá – although for many it has a modicum of truth to it – that the Colombian capital is going to be renamed ‘Petrograd’. It’s all to do with the city’s mayor, Gustavo Petro and is a reference to the many Russian cities that were renamed after political leaders during the USSR communist era.
Mayor of Bogotá wearing his trademark Cuban style flat-cap
Mayor Gustavo Petro with trademark flat-cap (Pic. from Mayor's website)

For those of you in the dark, Petro is a former member of the far-left guerrilla group M-19. Indeed he did time in the mid 1980s for the illegal procession of arms. Now while those more radical days may be well behind him, his election as mayor perhaps a sign of that, it could be said that ‘you can take the man out of the leftish guerrillas, but you can’t take the leftish guerrilla out of the man.’ Or, the other way to look at it as we'll see is that he’s an opportunist, plain and simple - a wise way to be, perhaps.

You see while his overall plan for the city, ‘Bogotá Humana’ (Humane Bogotá), may be full of merit, how he’s beginning to go about implementing it is a little bit more questionable. No doubt, especially considering his background, he is a visionary – or at least he has an idea of the type of Bogotá/Colombia he’d like to see emerge in the coming years. However, it would appear, as is the case with so many elected officials (see ‘Time for change’ for more on that point), that he’s now beginning to play the populist card as he positions himself to run, as he unsuccessfully did in 2010, for the country’s presidency in 2014.

Two typically empty SITP buses
Nice buses - but where are all the passengers?
Let’s take the recent roll-out of the integrated public transport system, the SITP. Despite our well documented ‘love’ for the more chaotic older system of buses currently doing the rounds (see ‘Dulling down Bogotá’, there’s no doubt that in theory the integrated system, given proper support, should make travelling around Bogotá far more comfortable for everybody. On top of that, the introduction of a modern fleet of, hopefully, cleaner, greener buses coupled with the phasing-out of the big old gas guzzlers should do the air quality (well lack of at this moment in time) in the metropolis no end of good.

Now while it is relatively early days in its introduction – and this is of course Colombia/Latin America – all the SITP seems to have achieved thus far is the addition of a few more buses to the already chock-a-block Bogotá streets. With those buses carrying very few passengers at that. You see it appears that the Petro administration is too fearful to take on the very many private buseta/colectivo operators in the city. They make up a powerful group with many of their employees the type of people the current mayor will be relying on for support in his very likely second presidential assault in less than two years.

For if the powers-that-be in the city want its inhabitants to start using the new blue/red buses of the currently loss-making SITP, the quickest way to achieve this is to make it the only game in town. So that means taking the busetas/colectivos off the road. The political will to do this seems to be sorely lacking. The talk from officialdom is that Bogotanos must adapt and change their habits. But when you have an old system where the buses pick you up and drop you off wherever you want along the route – i.e. there are no set stops – and you don’t always have to pay the full-fare, then getting people to opt-out of that without much of a carrot or stick is wishful thinking.

As much of a socialist that Petro may claim to be, the lack of meaningful support he has shown to a publicly run transport system because of a reluctance to upset private operators is a bit of a contradiction to state the least.

Out with the old, in with the new. An Acueducto leaflet looking for workers sits on top of a rubbish bag from one of the current providers
Looking for work in Bogotá - check out the bins
He is perhaps, however, staying closer to his ‘roots’ on the waste collection issue – though the reasons for this may be far from ideological. Here the four current private operators are facing the axe with the service due to be passed on to one publicly ran company, Acueducto, which is responsible for water in the city. For many locals, this is a ‘jobs-for-the-boys’ style move from the Petro administration. The whole plan seems ill-thought-out and highly questionable. To this end it has more than raised eyebrows at national level, with President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration at loggerheads with Petro over the issue. Indeed the national government may yet pull the plug on the scheme, which is due to get up-and-running on December 18th. Such a public bloody-nose for Mayor Petro could have its benefits though, selling it to the masses as national interference in his goal to clean-up Bogotá – a rallying cry to bolster support.

The new water charges are not without controversy either. Whatever about making those who earn more, pay more, to let a large, densely-populated area of the city off without any charges at all could be seen as populist. The richest three strata in the city will have to pay for water usage once it goes over a certain prescribed amount. For the remaining three strata, there will be no water consumption charges at all. The thought of having to fork out for excessive water use though can be an important motivation to conserve. Education can go so far, but people tend to learn quicker when it hits them in the pocket.

In Petrograd however, it’s best to keep the masses on-side. Perhaps that’s the best way to play it, for now.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Colombia and Ireland - a tale of two old Catholic countries

One of the connections that can be made between Colombia and Ireland is the significant influence the Catholic Church has had on the two countries. Now while this can be seen as a similarity, how that ‘Roman’ authority manifested itself in both states has been quite different.

It’s true to say that these days the Church’s power is very much on the wane in the two republics, perhaps much more so in Ireland than Colombia based on what we’ve seen and who we’ve spoken to here in the latter location. However, after dominating for so long, the residue of its long reign remains pretty strong in the minds of those brought up with its teachings.
Bogotanos 'enjoying' Easter celebrations in the Colombian capital
Sure just showing-up for religious events is all that's needed, right?
In terms of how ‘Catholic’ each state has been, it could be said that in the last 20 years or so, in an Irish context anyway, we’ve been outwardly very much drifting away from Rome yet inwardly staying quite close to the Church’s beliefs and morals. From our experiences here in Colombia, the opposite appears to be the case. Outwardly, many profess to be ‘strong Catholics’, yet in reality, their day-to-day practices betray this.

What we’re really getting at here are attitudes to relationships and perhaps more appropriately in this regard, sex. It has been well documented – mocked even – the traditional Irish reluctance to just talk about sex let alone see it as something enjoyable/recreational. Sex-before-marriage, in line with Catholic thinking, was a big no, no. It should be used as a means to procreate, no more, no less, within a secure family unit. You don’t have to go back too long ago in Ireland’s past to find a time when the local priest – and by extension, the Catholic Church – was one of the most respected individuals in the community. His line on a host of issues, including sex, took precedence over many others.

In this context, considering most ‘Fathers’ lack of practical knowledge in the whole sex area (let’s leave all the abuse scandals out of this for now) an awkwardness, embarrassment even, on the subject permeated through Irish society. The effects of this may be losing significance in 21st century Ireland but it’s true to state that for some the old uneasiness about ‘love-making’ remains.

Contrast this with Colombia. As alluded to above, numerous people here – and we’re talking specifically about those in their early 20s up to their late 30s – speak and superficially act a good ‘Catholic’ game, something you’re less inclined to find among those in the same age-bracket in Ireland. Basically, that is they are regular churchgoers and bless themselves all the time with that double or treble sign of the cross manoeuvre followed by kissing their thumb or something like that. It certainly looks the part, as if they mean it.
The Brady Bunch - the quintessential 'mine' and 'yours' family
Just missing the 'ours' Mr & Mrs Brady.
Yet their attitudes to pre-marital sex – thankfully many might say – are far more liberal, free-spirited if you will. No doubt they are aware of Rome’s line on the subject but because, perhaps, it just doesn’t seem to make natural sense to them, they overlook it. It could be seen as one good instance where the Colombian tendency not to stick to the ‘rules’ is beneficial.

Expanding into relationships in general, the number of ‘mine, yours and ours’ Catholic/Christian families here in Colombia seems to be, anecdotally speaking, practically the norm. That is a family where the mother has a child/children from a different relationship (the mine), as does her husband (yours) while they also have offspring that they created together (ours). Then, of course, you still have plenty of single-mother families where the father provides support – if he does at all – from a distance while he also caters for the other children he has with other women. You can be hard-pressed to find a family where both parents are in their first marriage and any children they have are ‘products’ of both.

Now we’re not saying that the ‘traditional’ family unit is all that exists in Ireland – of course not. But in general, an Irish husband and wife do appear to be more reluctant to go their separate ways, especially when there are children involved, compared to Colombians – in a number of cases that’s often to the detriment of all involved. Sometimes it’s better for mind and body to realise the game is up.
A statue of a priest giving a 'comforting' arm (and no more we hope) to a young boy
"Father knows best, my child."
So two old ‘Catholic’ countries they may be, but how that association has shaped their social development has been quite different. It could be argued that the Irish tendency to maintain the ‘traditional’ family unit is better for society in general.

However, our ‘traditional awkwardness’, if you will, of the whole sex area has had mixed results. In one, perhaps positive, sense, it may have seen us take a more considered approach on those we jumped into bed with – it may have that is. In another way, for some, the art was practically demonised – very much not healthy for mind and body that.

Issues and problems are bound to arise when you take counsel from those that know relatively very little about the subject area in question. As many Colombians have learned, sometimes it’s best to go with your natural instincts.

*For related articles, see: "'Mi Amor' - or perhaps not?" & 'Strength in Belief'

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Tribal warfare

Most of us identify ourselves with somewhere, a place we call home. And while we tend to have a strong sentimental attachment to where we were born as well as the family we belong to, we of course had no say in either case.

However, whether we like it or not, our place of birth is an important decoder for many people as to what we’re about, our view of the world and such like. Moreover, because we tend to be only ever seen as being from one place regardless of how well travelled we are, if we settle in another location for a time our views and opinions on certain things are often not considered as important compared to those of the ‘natives’.

One of the more innocent ways this can manifest itself is in the ‘what would you know, you’re not from here’ jibe from locals. In a Colombian context, normally that statement of fact doesn’t bug us – appearances apart, our general honesty tends to mark us out as different. But if it’s said in a ‘mind your own business’ context when the discussion is centred on areas where perhaps this country could do better – environmental, social and other such ‘borderless’ issues in a sense – then we can get quite animated.
Colombian soccer tribes go to 'war' - in a positive way that is
Not much time left to save ourselves. Or is the game already up?

You see, despite how ‘small’ the world may have become thanks to advancements in technology as well as travel, us human beings are still quite tribal.

In some ways, this ‘tribalism’ can be positive and even enjoyable. Sport, for one, in its truest form – a bit of healthy competition where clubs or regions or nations or whatever go head-to-head to see who is the best within a certain sphere. Heck, we could even put the Eurovision Song Contest into this positive (although perhaps not enjoyable) tribalism.

But even within the sport bubble, the more insidious elements of this particular ‘ism’ frequently surface. Hatred of the ‘others’, racism, violence – the world’s soccer terraces and indeed playing fields are particularly adept at fostering such feelings and subsequent actions.

It is within the fields of both nationalism – or ‘land ownership’ in its earlier form – and religion though where tribalism has been at its most brutal and deadly. From man’s earliest battles to the world’s current conflicts these two afflictions have been to the forefront. Considering the origins of the human race, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Middle East continues to be the global epicentre of these wars. We may live in a more ‘advanced’ age than ever before, dealing on a daily basis with people who are not of ‘our’ tribe, but old habits die hard.
Orange Men setting out to march in Belfast
'Thou shalt not cross' - Orange Men about to march in Belfast

To deal with the problems we face – be they economic, environmental, health, etc – most of us now realise that cooperation and close partnership on a global scale is what is needed. What’s more, as a species we have done more to damage our natural environment than any other, something again the majority of us are finally aware of. Yet despite a lot of talk in trying to limit our destructive ways, progress on this front appears to be painstakingly slow.

In times of uncertainty or danger, we tend to retract into the ‘comfort’ of our tribe. Again, we may outwardly know that we’re all interconnected but a lot of the time our actions betray that.

Take the current EU economic crisis. Now while many wrongs have been made by many parties across the currency ‘union’ – in both the Euro’s formation and its operation – the best, indeed only, way to solve the problems is through greater alliances and collaboration. The desire in a number of quarters, however, is to go on solo runs, to withdraw to the national boundaries that we know and love so well. Europe doesn’t need reminding of the problems that can emerge when jingoistic tendencies spring up.

From time immemorial, powerful political and religious leaders have been able to mobilise the masses under their control to fight for a relatively abstract state or belief in order to butcher their fellow man. For in individual terms, a few psychopaths aside, most human beings do not have an inherent desire to kill. However throw in a perceived dehumanised, monstrous enemy, with associated misplaced fear and ignorance and it’s surprising how that can change.

Modern warfare, where thousands of people can be killed at the touch of a button in an off-hand way, has balanced out any developments we may have made in the last few hundred years to be a more enlightened, peace-seeking species. The lives lost don’t seem real, the damage and pain is very often removed from the ‘doers’ sight.
'Wrong Way' seeing the world from a different angle
Time for us to change our view of the world

Two, perhaps seemingly contradictory but not, mindset changes are needed. One is to step outside our small tribal base and think of the global, inter-dependent, inter-connected tribe as well as this planet being our shared home. The second is to think of those ‘others’, fellow people that is, as individuals – living, breathing beings with similar worries, concerns and aspirations as ourselves.

The usual argument against all this is that it’s wishy-washy, idealistic, utopian rubbish. Yes, it is idealistic, but what's wrong with having lofty aspirations? The easiest option is to just accept things as they are. Make no attempt and, of course, nothing will change. For some, that is perhaps the way they want it.

But for the human race to truly evolve it demands more. As does the quest to protect our shared global home.

* For related articles see: 'Phantom freedom' and 'Whose land is it anyway?'

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The ayahuasca 'trip'

As the saying goes, ‘All “good” things come to those who wait.’ It is over four years ago now since we first heard of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca (or yagé as it is also known), a drink taken by many Amazonian tribes for its believed healing and spiritual properties. That introduction came via a BBC documentary with Bruce Parry – his experiences with the vine based concoction resonating deeply with us at the time (for more on that see Not deep enough though to make us go in pursuit of having our own ‘enlightening’ experience with the plant during our first trip to South America a few years back.
A large pot of dark brown gold - the ayahuasca/yagé in the brewing stage.
'Kids, come & get your yagé before it gets cold...'

In one sense the opportunity never really presented itself throughout that initial jaunt here. This time around though, it did. Firstly through a weekly private student of ours who is a frequent taker of the brew, a fully signed-up member to its supposed powerful, positive, life-enhancing properties. Our second avenue to it came from a network of Dutch friends (who else would you bank-on to lead you to a hallucinogenic substance?), with one of these deciding to get away from the ‘big smoke’ of Bogotá and move to a forested commune a few hours south-west of the Colombian capital. Here they take ayahuasca on at least a weekly basis, frequently joined by guests wanting to sample the sacred drink themselves in relatively easy-to-reach yet idyllic surrounds.

It might not be as ‘authentic’ as getting down and dirty with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon heartland but it beats taking it in an urban setting. We were after all out in the ‘wilds’ of nature together with getting all the ‘old native’ ceremony trappings from our Taita, or Shaman if you will.

So it was to this remote commune in the hills outside the town of Apulo that we were to have our own ‘Bruce Parry’ moment – he was our most visual reference point anyway on what this plant drink might do to us.

A ‘special guest’ curtain-raising performance from a number of Krishna worshippers (a Hindu deity) was as unexpected as we felt it was unwarranted. At least it killed an hour or so while we waited for the main event. And sure aren’t we all one and the same in any case – Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Indigenous tribes and what have you. If only the majority of subscribers to these different sects thought the same. We live in hope on that front.

Once we got that opening gig out of the way, the stage was set to commence ‘operation fulfilment’. After some form of prayers and blessings headed by our Taita – a prerequisite for all spiritual ceremonies regardless of creed – we finally got to take something. We had after all been fasting since breakfast at 8am and the time was now 10 pm (the more stringent ayahuasca takers recommend not eating at least 24 hours before consumption).
The ritual gets underway.
'Taita Nelson' gets the night's main proceedings underway.

The first part of the process was to have powdered tobacco blown up our nostrils. Now we’re not accustomed to taking substances via our nose (honestly, we’re not) so just the thought of having this done to us was a little off-putting. The reason for the tobacco is to apparently clear-out the air passages of your body – the ayahuasca clears out the rest. It certainly didn’t disappoint on this front. Next time our nasal passages are stuffed we know what to reach for. And despite our pre-uneasiness, we actually found it reasonably satisfying. It left a pleasantly surprising dark-chocolaty taste in our throat. ‘Seconds’ might have been pushing it but we did take the option of sampling the tobacco paste afterwards along with puffing on a big cigar. All things tobacco compliment the ayahuasca – or so we were told.

Now we must warn that the tobacco powder may not be to everyone’s taste. It does pack-a-punch as a friend of ours discovered to his, literally speaking, downfall. He panned-out after taking it – receiving a nasty bang on the head in the process. Not before though he got to down the drink we had all come for.

It certainly doesn’t help when you see previous takers of ayahuasca turning their eyes away in discomfort as people start to consume it. You’d think the more you take it, the more accustomed to its taste you’d become. Not so it seems. So we were preparing ourselves for something practically unpalatable. We were given the standard cupful, a nice amount to put-back. Sticking with the chocolate theme, it resembled the delicacy in its melted form. Alas, the taste was nothing like that but in the same token, it wasn’t unbearable. One way to describe it would be like a thick, stale Guinness.

Once downed, it was a case of playing the waiting game. Some people vomited straight away and thereby requiring another shot as the initial one wouldn’t have ‘kicked-in’ before it was ejected by the body. We were told to try and keep it in for at least an hour so that the ‘spiritual’/psychedelic properties could ‘show their face’.

That proved, surprisingly, not to be a problem. Normally if we see or hear other people getting sick that makes us very queasy even if we’re feeling in the best of health. So considering you’d dozens of people all spewing their guts and we were less than fighting fit we figured we’d be joining them in no time. But no, nothing of note happened early on.

Now the more experienced, fully believing (yes, perhaps we have some ‘hidden’ doubts to all this) members say you have to let the ayahuasca/yagé take over your body, control you. There are a couple of things then on this front we must mention that may have worked ‘against’ us. Firstly, we have always associated vomiting as a negative practice, a sign of weakness. However, in this process, it’s a fundamental part of the experience. Subconsciously then, maybe we were putting up too much of a fight? It is though quite difficult for us to do otherwise.
The picturesque setting where the commune is located.
Always reliable - the spectacular Colombian landscape.

Another thing which was slightly off-putting was the fact that it was far from an intimate experience on the night in question. There were at least twenty people there, the majority of whom were complete strangers. Contrast this with Bruce Parry where he was getting personal assistance from his Taita throughout the process. If you equate it to losing your sexual virginity, it was like we lost ours in a group orgy – not the most comfortable experience we think.

Plus, the sight of a 12-year-old girl going through what must have been a horrific ‘trip’ also surely played its part in us not having the experience we were looking for. You can dress ayahuasca up whichever way you want but allowing somebody so young take a hallucinogenic is questionable, to say the least.

Despite all this, we did eventually get something out of it, however slight. We saw some interesting colours and shapes for a time and just before we did eventually vomit, the ground became luminous green, with vine/snake shapes present – one of the apparent ‘standard’ visions. You could say we did go on a small ‘trip’ after we purged ourselves – our mind certainly wandered anyway having passed out on our vomit. Lovely.

The best vote of confidence we can give to the whole experience at this stage is that we are willing to do it again. As the song goes, ‘things can only get better’. Well, here’s hoping.

* If you're interested in experiencing this for yourself, you can leave a comment after this piece and we can give you further details on the commune and who to get in contact with.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Bogotá's simple pleasures

It should come as no surprise to you that we’re far from high maintenance here at ‘Wrong Way’. It’s the simple, small things in life that we tend to derive most pleasure from.

That’s why, for example, we like to do our grocery shopping here in Bogotá at ‘La 14’ – the supermarket that feeds you for ‘free’ while you stock-up. ‘They’ do say that you should never shop on an empty stomach but having something to eat before you hit for ‘La 14’ (on weekend afternoons anyway) will only spoil your experience. Between the various complimentary servings on offer – meat, pasta, biscuits, cereal, fruit, ice-cream, you name it – you generally leave there quite satisfied. We’d nearly (nearly that is) pay a little bit more for such customer service. But get this, it’s about the best value supermarket around – as close to a win-win scenario you’ll get in these parts.
Service with a smile. Our local barman dishing out the booze
'Me regalas 'una grande' Servio, por favor.' Quality service with a smile

When it comes to our favourite ‘vice’ of alcohol we’re more than happy-out knocking down a few 750ml bottles of the national brews Aguila or Poker in a local ‘tienda’ (‘old man’s bar’ as we’d refer to them in Ireland) for the very agreeable price of 2300pesos (about €1 or so). Go to the more upmarket Bogotá Beer Company (BBC) chains or the ‘Irish’ Pubs and you’ll pay at least four times more for just three-quarters the amount of booze. Plus in those places you tend to be just another number. In our local tiendas we’re greeted with a hand-shake and a smile each time we visit – it’s nice to feel welcomed (the fact we tend to polish off a nice few bottles plays its part in us being gleefully greeted. We do after all have to play-up to the Irish stereotype).

The same goes for our regular café visits – we find the simple, ‘rough and ready’ local ones far more agreeable in price, atmosphere and customer service (the latter we refer to in Latin American terms – the standards are pretty low on that front. See ‘Doing Business in SA for more). What’s more, we don’t tend to see a major difference in the quality compared to a 'fancy' Juan Valdez or an Oma coffee house.
Our bog standard local café - basic yet brilliant
Simple, cheap & very satisfying - the local café

For many Bogotanos though it’s not ‘hip’ to be seen in your bog standard café – the same goes for drinking in the tiendas. It’s usually fine for the women because they don’t expect to pay anyway. You think then they’d allow the men choose the location, but no. We however are quite principled on this one, usually. Forking out greater than European prices to drink in places where firstly you're treated no better than dirt and secondly the clientèle and environment are generally very fake is not our thing. We can happily live without the people that frequent such places.

The above ‘simple pleasures’ are ones we now know and expect. They still of course do the trick but it’s always nice to get ‘treated’ from an unexpected source every now and again. However such unplanned random experiences can be hard to come by in this city. We had one though on a recent buseta/colectivo journey.

OK, we have expressed before (see ‘Bogotá’s Transport Truths and ‘Dulling Down Bogotá our preference for these old-school city transport buses but that was more because we felt they were the least worst option, not because we found taking them overly pleasurable.

What made this particular commute to one of our classes a ‘stand-out’ experience was the conduct of our 'conductor' or bus driver if you will. As it was initially unclear from the colourful but confusing route display (nothing unusual there) if this bus we’d flagged down was going in the direction we needed, we had to ask the driver to make sure. Once ‘Senor Conductor’ realised we were native English speakers, he immediately ushered us into his screened-off zone – a place usually reserved for family members or very, very good friends. This is the business class/VIP section of Bogotá public transport. A front row seat right next to the driver, out of view from the ‘commoners’ in the back. How privileged we felt.
The Colectivo VIP treatment - we were privileged to be invited to sit next to the driver
The 'special' bus seat next to the driver - usually only reserved for family

The reason he invited us in to his ‘sanctuary’ was because he has a desire to learn English (although our conversation was all in Spanish). We’ll let the fact slide that he has so far failed to follow up on his offer of inviting us to dinner – sure you can’t win them all. In any case, the 'special' bus journey was enough to put is in a positive mood for the rest of the morning.

So as you can see we tend to be easily pleased here - very much subscribers to the 'keep it simple, stupid' principle. Alas it can be hard to get the ladies to sign up to the same programme. We'll keep trying though.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

'Por qué Colombia?'

One of the most popular questions we get thrown at us here by some of the locals when they realise we’ve been in the country for a bit is ‘Por qué Colombia?’, ‘Why Colombia?’ Many are quick to suggest an answer themselves with ‘a girlfriend’. But no, that’s not the reason for us. In this land of ‘beautiful and plenty’ on the ladies front – granted that many of them fall firmly into the crazy category even more so than the average woman (see ‘Colombia’s Locas’ amongst others) – we’ve yet to be overly enthused to commit to just one. A lot of that is really down to our honesty – and frugality – to be honest. For if we were to play it the Colombian men’s way we’d commit to a number of women at the same time – indeed most of the girls here expect as much (you could, in a sense, equate this kind of behaviour as taking the ‘best bits’ out of the Muslim and Christian religions). However we’re just not in the ‘commitment’ mood at this moment in time, full stop.
A dull, overcast day in Bogotá
Bogotá has its charms. The weather though usually isn't one of them!

So then, why indeed Colombia? Well sticking with the reasons that we didn’t come here for, making sack loads of money is one of them. There are plenty of other countries across the globe we could hit for – well we think anyway – we’re we could make and save much more money doing more-or-less the same thing. In terms of Bogotá specifically, our home for the best part of a year, we’re not here for the glorious weather and/or laid-back coastal lifestyle. The fact that we’re in a gas-guzzling construction site of a city, with a population of about 8million, perched well inland at an altitude of over 2,600metres accounts for that.

It would certainly be untrue to say though that we’re here against our will or wholly by accident. What is a fact though is what we’ve termed our ‘second coming’ to South America, in June 2011, was aimed more at Chile than here. That was because we wanted to give ourselves a more concrete reason to return to this continent than just willy-nilly travelling and we found the grounds for that in signing-up as a volunteer for an English media group in Santiago. Tellingly enough perhaps though, we firstly spent two weeks in Bogotá and its surrounds before hitting overland for Chile. Now that wasn’t just because it was far cheaper to fly into here compared to Santiago – the chance to catch up with some friends from our first visit to Colombia (February 2009) being a much greater reason.

Cheap flights back to Ireland were though the biggest factor in our brief return here in October last year – a visit that was a more sobering experience of the country than previous ones, a few days in the company of a good friend in Cartagena excepted. That ‘sobering experience’ being our first taste of how crazy Colombian women can turn for no apparent reason – what we thought was a good friend aggressively blanking us from her life.
A quite stunning view from 'The Rock' Guatapé, a couple of hours drive from Colombia's second city, Medellín
Landscape-wise, Colombia is up there with the best of them

However, after a necessary four week stop in the home country, back we came, like suckers for punishment in a ‘see what happens’ style approach. An initial spell of wandering around to less-visited spots in this physically stunning country with its amazing and diverse wildlife helped us get over that aforementioned ‘defriending’ by someone who had been a strong initial reason in tempting us back in the first place (she is part of our life once more however – we can be quite forgiving and lenient at times).

It was always likely that we’d return to Bogotá – Colombia’s ‘city of opportunity’, the best place for a local or expat to find work. It wasn’t that we were really stuck and needed money but we figured we’d give living here a go for a bit. So after a slow, admittedly reluctant start, we did manage to find ourselves some steady, semi-profitable English teaching work (for more on this see ‘The Money Tongue’ Not forgetting the odd bit of relatively enjoyable TV extras work – something different anyway (see ‘Giving just a little bit ‘Extra’’ – a change being as good as a break.

After a while though, like any place, city living can become quite stale – even here in Bogotá. A lot of this is probably more to do with our own ‘itchy-feet’ nature, especially when we have very few serious ties to a place and are relatively free. The return of a very good local friend to this city after a 12 month absence coupled with our already existing good friends here is making it harder for us to ‘take flight’ once more. The Colombian authorities have also played their part – they make it pretty easy to stay on a mid to long-term basis. If we had to put more effort and cost into staying here we might reconsider.
Sunset in the city of Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast
Is the sun-setting on our time in Colombia?

There is of course much more to Colombia than Bogotá and while we have seen a fair bit of the country there are still many other places worth discovering. With the seasonal slow-down in teaching work upcoming that may give us the opportunity to get moving.

After that, perhaps, our subconscious reasons for staying will abate somewhat and we’ll have less of a reluctance to leave? One thing is for sure, at this remove anyway, the Colombian tourist board's slogan of ‘the only risk is wanting to stay’ – be that subconsciously or not – is certainly ringing true. We just don’t really know why that is.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Computer says "no"

There have been numerous movies in recent years – too many to mention – that depict scenarios where computers/technology take over the human race. Most people put such stories very much in the realm of science fiction – how could the creators of these machines be mastered by them?

The 'Computer says no' lady from 'Little Britain'
"Eh OK, but what do you say?"
Well you don’t have to go too far out of your way to see that this process has already begun. Something you can call the traffic light approach to life. That is, an inability to do anything unless a ‘system’ gives you permission to do so. It’s a phenomenon that was brilliantly parodied by the ‘computer says no’ lady from the British comedy sketch show Little Britain.

Now while it might be humorous to mock, being on the receiving end of such behaviour is generally quite the opposite. As a rule, those who live their lives this way tend to ignore the physical realities staring them in the face if they don’t ‘match-up’ to what their piece of machinery tells them. Of course it’s always good to have a scapegoat or to relinquish all responsibility whatsoever and in this technology age many people shove all the blame and accountability on to the computer screen sitting in front of them should there be any problems.

Take the following example: Having commenced a new twice-weekly class for a client here in Bogotá, we had been entering the industrial estate where the company is located trouble free for weeks, registering with security staff at the main reception each time, as is required. Then one day one of the security staff who had been dealing with us regularly tells us that we can’t enter. “Why so?” “Well I’m sorry but the system doesn’t recognise your document number” (well it was said in the gruff Spanish equivalent of the same). “But it’s us, standout extranjeros/foreigners (and thereby infinitely more trustworthy than locals) and we’ve been coming here for weeks – we teach a class for 90 minutes and then we’re out again. Surely you can let us in?” “Nope, you’re not on the system and therefore you cannot enter.”

'Thinking outside the box'
Queue a few choice expletives from ‘Team Wrong Way’ aimed at the ‘controlled by technology’ security ‘man’ (perhaps that should be ‘robot’?) and that was that. The students didn’t get a class that morning although thankfully we still got our payment. Cheers to BSR Idiomas for that – the best English language institute in Colombia bar none (we’re still good for that 20K Colombian pesos ‘plug’ deal Robert, right?).

The above instance is just one of a number of similar experiences we’ve had in the last few months since we started work here in Bogotá. That’s not to say it’s solely a Bogotano or Colombian occurrence – although it does seem quite endemic here. It’s just that due to the nature of our work (see The money tongue for more) we’ve been unlucky enough in having to face it in these parts more regularly than in any other location. However more or less by definition many in the ‘developed’ world are much more ‘corrupted’ by computers.

That ambiguous phrase ‘to think outside the box’ may be doing the rounds for some time but thanks to the rise of technology, it has taken on a whole new, clearer, meaning. That is, try and use your own brain from time-to-time rather than letting a square lump of wires and chips sitting in front of you dictate your actions. Perhaps, though, judging by the way some people behave it’s best that a computer makes the decisions for them.
Frankenstein's Monster from the 1930's movie
The monster cometh - beware

In our Unsocial media post a few weeks back (see, we wrote how people’s overuse of social networking sites may see them living like hermits but with technology. At least in this regard they may still be able to use their own initiative. With the ‘computer says no’ mentality however, we run the risk of severely hampering people’s innovative skills.

So while technology – arguably perhaps – has vastly improved the way we live our lives and has put previously difficult to obtain information at the fingertips of billions of people, there are obvious drawbacks.

It has been argued before that laziness, not necessity, is the real mother of invention. So is the human race on the cusp of being consumed by what can only be described as true, suicidal laziness? That is, to submit the use of our brains to technology.

‘Frankenstein's monster’ walks menacingly amongst us.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Time for change

These are heady times in international politics. Top billing is of course the race for the White House, where it’s difficult even for those with a limited interest in it not to get caught up in the whole fanfare. Pretty much all media outlets across the globe are following the unfolding story. Meanwhile, closer to us here in Colombia, you’ve got the Venezuelan presidential election – perhaps as equally important, if not more so, for this region than the USA one.
Current Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles
Will Venezuelans go left again or take a slight move to the right?

The fact that both countries are having leadership contests within a few weeks of each other is about as far as you can go with the comparisons between them. For one, Venezuela’s incumbent, Hugo Chávez appears to be in a more comfortable position as regards his re-election compared to Barack Obama – although the challenger, Henrique Capriles, is putting up a pretty impressive fight against the 14 year-long rule of the current administration. Part of Chávez’s appeal is that rather than just talk about it and despite his many detractors and questionable methods, he has arguably done more for the poor and vulnerable in his jurisdiction than Obama has in the ‘land of the free’. Of course, the Venezuelan leader has had much more time and less interference in implementing his vision – ‘socialism for the 21st century’ – than the under-fire United States chief-of-staff.

The word vision here is key. Barack Obama entered the Oval Office just under four years ago promising much and offering a different path – remember, ‘change we can believe in’. For many US citizens though, it has been far from the fairytale term they were hoping for. Once the bounce of having a novel, ‘coloured’ president that was anything but George W. Bush wore-off, things began to get a bit more serious for Obama. As many democratically bound and elected politicians discover, implementing change can be slow, mightily slow. Throw in the fact that no sooner is a new government sworn in then it begins thinking of its re-election, usually four to five years down the line. So even if you have a visionary leader or administration, the ‘must not harm my chances of getting back in’ mindset takes hold early on.

This sort of thinking is usually to the detriment of a leader’s or administration’s vision, assuming, that is of course, one exists. Ideally elected governments should make decisions based on a clear plan that they have for the area they govern – regardless if this means they might alienate or upset some potential voters. This is what doing things in the ‘national interest’ or, perhaps of greater consequence is these times, the ‘global interest’ should be about. Alas, what we regularly see nowadays are electorally-charged policies and decisions, ones aimed at garnering the most votes. Or worse still, we get no clear policies or decisions at all.
Mitt Romney & President Barack Obama after their first Presidential debate
The first debate went to Romney (L). Can he deny Obama four more years?

Take the first of the Presidential debates between Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The Obama strategy – we’ll assume he had one – appeared to be about talking specifics, giving hard facts and figures where he could. Romney on the other hand went down the catchy, well delivered but rehearsed, sound-bite route – attacking the President on borrowing billions from China was certainly playing to the gallery. The actual amount of real substance and truth there was to all Romney’s utterances is questionable. He stuck to the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ mantra and it worked for him. The masses seemed to love it.

The ‘masses’ though are not always right. As Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Collectively we don’t always make the best decisions on far-reaching issues. On occasions, consensus is a luxury we should avoid. Put it this way, a global survey of popular restaurants would put McDonald’s high-up on the list, but is it the best food for us to be eating regularly?

Furthermore, when it comes to elections, many democratic nations implore us to vote – ‘it doesn’t matter how you vote, just make sure you do’ is regularly trumpeted. So going by that advice, even if you know absolutely nothing about what you’re doing, just go and do it anyway. That’s not a very smart way of going about things, is it? If you really don’t have an opinion or an interest or knowledge on the vote at hand then it’s best to stay at home on polling day. Just because you are entitled to have your say doesn’t mean you must.

That aside, time will tell if the undecided US electorate has been swung by Romney’s smooth talking in the first debate. He may have what it takes to be a good president but relinquishing Obama of his duties right now would seem to be a little premature. Legally freed of the ‘four more years’ syndrome we might get a better idea of Obama’s vision – he can go gung-ho in implementing policies without the worry of re-election hanging over him. At least that should be the case.
A border crossing from Colombia into Venezuela. Is the political landscape about to change in the 'Socialist Republic'
Will it be exit stage left for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez?

So while the current White House administration is looking for more time to implement its changes, in Venezuela, as far as most outside observers are concerned, it appears well and truly time for change. Even if you agree with Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, one man at the top for 14 years is long enough. What he should have done is stepped aside and appointed a ‘mouthpiece’ successor, Vladimir Putin style. That way the revolution could continue and he could still call the shots. It’s obviously hard though to walk away from the ‘power drug’. And, for better or worse, the Venezuelan electorate look set to continue to feed his habit.

*For an earlier take on our thoughts about Venezuela, see:

Monday, 1 October 2012

'Dulling down' Bogotá

Outside of its natural beauty, another thing that attracts many Westerners or those from the ‘developed world’ (whatever that means) to Latin America is the difference of the place compared to home. The not very organised confusion if you will. It can be refreshingly chaotic, at least for a time.

One of Bogotá's antique public transport vehicles in 'full-flow'
Die-hards - Bogotá's old-school, diesel guzzling buses
In a more specific sense, we highlighted previously (see ‘Bogotá’s Transport Truths’) this kind of chaos in terms of transport here in Bogotá, our home, on-and-off, for the best part of a year. We mentioned then that, despite its many flaws, we preferred the colourful colectivo/buseta public transport system over the more modern Transmilenio (the city’s ‘far from efficient but getting there’ tram service on wheels). This attraction however with the old school buses, their colourful handcrafted route displays and devil-may-care way of operating may, sadly in some respects, be coming to an enforced end. 

It’s all to do with the rolling-out of the city’s SITP or integrated public transport system.* In a bid to ‘modernise’ the metropolis, the old way of doing things is being phased out. So over the next few months and years residents of Bogotá must learn to catch a bus at an actual bus stop, which means the bus drivers will have to get out of the habit of aggressively braking to pick up passengers at random locations. With the introduction of a cashless, card system the days of waving a 1,000 peso note at the driver – the accepted sign that you are only willing/able to pay two-thirds of the fare – will be numbered. If your card isn't charged with the sufficient amount, you won’t be able to board. Well that’s the theory anyway, no doubt a few crafty Bogotanos will find a way around this. Besides, what about the steam of individuals boarding the current buses, without paying, selling things such as DVDs and pens to books and chocolate and everything else in between? Surely they're not just going to disappear.

The soon to be illegal ass-and-cart struggles for position on a Bogotá street
Facing the axe - the ass-&-cart is fighting for its future

The travel-card system will also mean that the bus drivers will only have to concentrate on actual driving – the admirable skills they have required of managing to, more-or-less, keep the bus on the road while dishing out the correct change to an endless string of passengers will become defunct. Getting around Bogotá will no doubt be a far duller experience for all these changes.

However for those of you with a soft-spot, like us, for the simple, more rustic way of doing things you’ll be glad to know that old habits and buses die hard around these parts. You just need to take a look north to the more ‘cosmopolitan’ Panama City to see how the old-school system refuses to go away despite the city’s rush towards ‘modernisation’. Although Panamanians have got used to using assigned bus stops.  

Now of course there are obvious positives in this attempt to ‘clean-up’ Bogotá’s transport system. A new, modern fleet of buses should mean that they are cleaner and more fuel efficient than most of the ‘old-guard’ monsters currently on the prowl. In fairness, that’s not stating a lot considering the choking emissions from the archaic buses resemble those of a decent-sized factory. Anything that might do even the slightest bit to ‘freshen-up’ the city’s light, oxygen deprived air has to be welcomed.

But while it might be one step forward for the seemingly progressive Mayor Gustavo Petro in the above regard on reducing carbon emissions from transport, it’s at least a sixth of a step back in another way. That is the banning of the ass-and-cart from the city’s thoroughfares in the coming months. Come on, the emissions from the humble ass (that’s the animal we’re referring to here) are nothing compared to those gas guzzling vehicles, the old or new ones.  

The newly pedestrianised Carrera Septima (7th Street) in down-town Bogotá
The changing face of Carrera Septima

Perhaps, though, they’ll still be allowed to mosey on down Carrera Septima (Seventh Street), now that its partial pedestrianisation is up-and-running. As one of Bogotá’s most iconic and important arteries, leading right into the main square, Plaza Bolivar, this move is welcome, despite the opposition by some local traders. Indeed in the long-run it’s these very same local traders that may benefit the most from taking the traffic off this street.

All these new developments are an attempt to bring Bogotá in line with the very best cities, not just in South America, but across the globe. And as the chief urban centre in a country that is changing – ever so slowly, but changing nonetheless – its negative, dangerous image to the outside world all the above can be seen, in general, as positive. For those of you that fear the city and its inhabitants may lose a little bit of their ‘uniqueness’, there’s much more to this place and its people than how they commute.  

However, on a broader scale, modernisation does not always mean ‘cleaner and greener’ – on the contrary, in some cases it can mean quite the opposite. So as many ‘developing countries’ try to play catch-up with the ‘developed’ ones, it’s worth bearing in mind the following stat we came across recently: If the world’s poorest four-fifths were to live like the richest one-fifth, at current consumption levels, we would need four planet earths to sustain us.

Some food for thought that.

*SITP stands for Sistema Integrado de Transporte Público de Bogotá, or Bogotá's Integrated Public Transport System.