Sunday, 25 March 2012

'Dangerous' Colombia

There are two basic ways you can gather information about a place. One option is to speak to the people who have been there to get their thoughts on the location or else you can go and discover it for yourself. Obviously, where possible, the latter option is far more beneficial. Reality, after all, is what you perceive it to be. 

A mock photo of our blogger being held at gunpoint by a willing Colombian soldier at La Ciudad Perdida
Typical Colombian scene, so some think
Therefore your perceptions of anything should be greatly increased by witnessing it. Of course in a world where we can be ‘virtually’ transplanted to any part of the globe in seconds, many people like to think they’ve a decent idea of ‘far-flung’ places without actually having been there. But knowledge gained in this fashion is very much dependent on the source.

Specifically speaking, here at ‘Wrong Way’ we were given a reminder of the ‘outside’ perception of Colombia this week, particular that of the ‘western world’. It’s a view that, thankfully, we had almost forgotten about after being based here for some time. 

What we’re referring to is, in short, the thinking that Colombia is a relatively backward, extremely unsafe and unstable country where locals and ex-pats alike live in constant fear for their lives. It’s an image that the state is desperately, but seemingly with little success, trying to shake-off – the national tourist board’s slogan of ‘the only danger is wanting to stay’ being one semi-humorous attempt to portray a more positive global impression.

What got us thinking of this largely misplaced negative global opinion about Colombia were a couple of e-mails we received from home expressing concern for our safety in Bogotá. What’s more, the reason why there was worry from the ‘motherland’ wasn’t even based on first-hand information. 

An elderly uncle living in Chicago saw on the news there that, we can only assume, it had all ‘kicked-off’ in Colombia. This, again we have to suppose, all spiralled from a US news report on the killing of 11 Colombian soldiers by FARC rebels, in the department of Arauca, 250 miles south-east of Bogotá. Now terrible as that is, it does not mean the whole country is under siege. But for many people, including some foreign journalists who live in environments here which are quite removed from the daily lives of the vast majority of locals, such an incident fits perfectly into their image of a volatile country. Therefore, any killing here is a sign of Colombia’s endemic insecurity.

Just to contrast, at the same time of the murders of the Colombian soldiers, you had a Muslim radical killing an innocent group of Jews in Toulouse, France. Again, an awful tragedy and considering the victims were civilians you could make a case that it was a greater act of evil than the events in Arauca. Yet nobody – as far as we are aware – took this as a sign that France is on the brink, a place where bloodshed and general mayhem are rife. Such thinking would be just silly, right?
A small group of students in a peaceful dance protest in Bogotá, Colombia
'Dangerous' Bogotá - a harmless student protest dance
From our experiences, daily life in Colombia and Bogotá specifically, in terms of the feeling of security, is on a par with what you get in France or other similar countries. Yes, there are dangerous people and areas best to be avoided, but these exist in every city or country, especially heavily populated ones. 

Now it must be pointed out at this stage that ignorance can be just as dangerous as it is sometimes bliss. On that front, we might be guilty of not being fully aware of all the risks that potentially exist here – our first-hand knowledge of the country after all is just over three years old and hap-hazard at that. 

Many of the locals, especially those from the upper-classes, tend to perpetuate the belief that the place is very dangerous – who are we to disagree with those who were actually born and bred here. These people however are inclined to stay in their ‘safe-zones’, rarely venturing outside of them into what they perceive as ‘no-go’ areas. Such practices are based on decades of fierce instability, something which understandably takes time to move on from. 

Nevertheless, going by what we have personally seen and encountered, as well as what other foreigners tell us, we happily must state Colombia seems a reasonably safe place. For the rest of our time in the country, here’s hoping we can continue to spread such a message.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Colombia's false friends

One of the initial things that first-time visitors to Colombia pleasantly encounter is the instant friendliness of the locals. In fact it can almost be a little unsettling. They seem to go so much out of their way to help you that you feel they must be trying to get something in return - too good to be true and all that. For those streetwise travellers, your instincts tell you as much, right? However it tends to be the case that passing through this extremely diverse land, on the whole, what you see is what you get. Colombians are just genuinely friendly to you – first up.

A few Colombian 'friends' with 'Wrong Way'. It turned out at least one of them was anything but...
Best friends? Don't count on it
That’s the thing though – from what we’re discovering, for a number of the natives, that initial friendliness is just temporary. Now we realise we’re tackling a big sacred cow here. The ‘maxim’ that has been perpetuated for some time is that Colombia is one of the friendliest nations on the planet. However stay a little bit longer than the average tourist here and you begin to see how myopic a view that is. 

Overtime, it appears that for some Colombians – both men and women – friendship is a one-way street. In the mid-to-long-term, they expect to be ‘up’ in the deal. If they’re not, your companionship will be quickly discarded. The term ‘false friends’ – used to describe words in two languages that are similar in appearance and/or pronunciation but have different meanings – is very appropriate to describe some new Colombian acquaintances.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. You’ll meet somebody who will come across – as is the initial Colombian standard – very affable and genuine. Indeed they might be so nice as to buy you a drink or invite you for a meal and if you happen to be looking for work or accommodation, or both, they’ll have plenty of contacts to help you out. Promises certainly won’t be in short supply. This warmth will continue for some time and you may feel that you’ve got to a stage where you can trust this person, someone you might call a friend. 

Then there will come a time, almost inevitably, where your new ‘friend’ will either directly ask you for money or you’ll be on a night out and your ‘amigo/a’ won’t have cash for some odd reason. So you lend some money or pay for the night, with the ‘promise’ that you’ll get it back the next day. The thing is, tomorrow never comes with these kind of people. You more than likely won’t be able to make contact with them for some time. 

The lines of communication may open again after a while where amazingly your old friend will see nothing wrong with breaking your trust. There may be some fabricated story to ‘account’ for his/her ‘disappearance’ – usually to do with a sick or dying grandmother. Whatever the case, they certainly won’t be in a position to repay you just yet. But they’ll have the money for you tomorrow. No worries. Sure aren’t you friends?

Two typically exceptionally hot Colombian chicas. They might be dangerous, but they're worth the hassle!
Gorgeous but dangerous - but worth it!
Now you might say this kind of thing happens all over the world and of course it does. But from anecdotal evidence and experience, it seems to be especially prevalent in Colombia. Ask the majority of ex-pats living here how many locals they rate as good, trustworthy friends and you’ll see plenty of heads being scratched. You can find them of course, thankfully, but alas they are few and far between. 

In defence of this Colombian behaviour, it can be said that many of them are not as wealthy as Europeans or North Americans so trying to extract something monetary from people from these parts isn’t that bad. However there are far poorer places in the world – Thailand or India for example – where the people are genuinely friendly for friendliness’ sake, no other reason. 

Or even take a look at countries closer to here. The locals in Chile – and also Peru – are sometimes described as being a little emotionally colder than Colombians. On first impressions that may hold true. However, from what we’ve encountered, you can build up lasting, trustworthy friendships with the locals there – no strings attached.

On the relationship front, ‘getting into bed’, literally speaking, with Colombian women can be some experience too. Things tend to go one of two ways. They will either be aloof with you for weeks on end, only contacting you as it suits them, as explained above, or else they’ll be all over you from the get-go, intensely so. That you are unable to devote every minute of your day to them is something they seemingly can’t understand. Whatever the case, it will be an emotional roller-coaster – that’s if you take it seriously. Best practice however is usually not to.

Of course, as we always like to point out here, there are some fine exceptions to all this that we have fortunately encountered – enough to allow Colombians to see themselves as a relatively friendly nation. But the friendliest? In classic school-report style, we have to say ‘could do better’. 

Then again, perhaps we all could.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Irish lament

One of the most common of the many Irish laments of the last few years has been the steady decline of the pub. From being at the very heart of the social fabric in its heyday, many of the once vibrant ‘tithe tábhairne’ now resemble funeral parlours before the evening rush – and that’s on a supposedly ‘busy’ Saturday night. 

So how did it come to this? Well the worst recession the country has ever experienced has certainly played its part. As a BBC Radio 4 reporter smugly put it – as only the British can – when the true extent of the Republic of Ireland’s financial woes were coming to light, “even the pubs in city centre Dublin are suffering. Now for the Irish that’s really saying something”. Indeed. Some people say the seeds of the public house recession were sown well before the economic downturn – they point to the arrival of the smoking ban as the beginning of the end. It’s an easy scapegoat but similar restrictions in other countries have not lead to a massive slump in the number of people heading out socialising.

A few Irish lads having some drinks at home - it's now a far cheaper option than going to the pub.
Bringing the pub home
Of course the fact that the most ‘hedonistic’ age group – those in their late teens and 20s – are departing the forlorn state in search of much greener pastures is also a big contributing factor to the Irish pub’s sad and painful death. But what of those that remain, are they drinking less? Well the short answer is no. Most studies into alcohol consumption in the Republic find that we’re drinking as much as ever. The crucial difference is that the venue has changed. The reclining sofa in front of the flat screen TV has replaced the high stool at the bar. For a nation renowned for its affability, that’s quite a sad turn of events. Instead of hitting for the ‘local’, having a few drinks and a chat in the company of others, a huge number of Irish are deciding to stay in and crack open a few cans in front of a rectangular box in their living room – where there is absolutely no monitoring of alcohol intake. 

So, it appears, the main reason why the humble Irish pub has witnessed a mass exodus in recent years is a matter of cost, pure and simple. At the very least, the price of a regular pint at a bar is three-times more expensive compared to what you will pay at a supermarket or off-licence. In such straitened financial times, people feel that there is no longer value in going to a pub anymore, whatever the negative social consequences. In fairness, you can’t really blame them. Why there is such a mark-up between what you pay in a shop and the price for the same product – more or less – at your local hostelry is a mystery, especially when you see how things are done in other countries.

Take Colombia for example. It’s possible to head out to a little bar here – or ‘tienda’ as the locals call them – and pay less (and that price is very small too) to consume a beer on the premises than you would if you wanted to bring it home. So, unsurprisingly, these places get hefty crowds daily – a sociable environment where you are drinking and chatting with others, with at least a modicum of supervision to boot. This is much better than drinking at home in front of the kids, right? Irish law-makers, backed up by the anti-drink, anti-pub campaigners think not it seems. ‘Let’s make socialising in a pub so expensive that nobody can afford to go anymore’ is their mantra. The ‘suck the life out of the country’ policy has fully taken root.
Drinking 'out' in Colombia is just as cheap, at times even cheaper, than buying drink in a supermarket and drinking at home. It's far more sociable too as this picture shows.
Thumbs up to cheap beer in a sociable environment

Now from a rural Ireland point-of-view we can’t write about the decline of the pub without referring to the far stricter drink-driving laws that have been introduced in recent years. It’s a difficult, emotive subject that will rumble on. There is still an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach taken by some country Gardaí to breaches of the law, especially towards older citizens. It might not be right, but it works most of the time. One thing though our Government could do, if it truly cares about rural Ireland, is put some decent thought into providing proper public transport outside of the bigger urban areas. However the chances of that happening are about as high as Brian Cowen becoming the next President or a Colombian sticking to his word. 

So is the Irish pub as we once knew it, particularly the rural one, now just a blurry distant memory, never to be revived? Well if the powers-that-be continue to pursue their current line of attack, then the answer is yes. Plus, with very few people left to stand up for life in the Irish countryside, who’s going to stop the rout? 

The sad thing right now is that it’s all happening under the watchful but seemingly indifferent eye of a west of Ireland Prime Minister. The west – along with other rural parts of the country – is falling asleep once more. 

This time though, it might not wake up again.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Dealing with the dealers

It was Albert Einstein who mused that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It seems pretty obvious, right? If your approach didn’t work the first or second time, there is a very high chance it won’t the next either.  

However for something so cast-iron clear, many people fail to avoid it. Take the ‘war’ on illegal drugs for example. The strategy used here, which is virtually universal, is to tackle consumption and production to the point of elimination. After decades of employing such tactics, the results are paltry to say the least. Yet the fight goes on – and at quite a cost, not just financially speaking but also in terms of personnel. So is a new line-of-attack not long overdue? Or at the very least shouldn’t we start trialling one. 
A shot of Pablo Escobar's prized Harley Davidson, taken during the 'official' tour of his residence in Medellin. In the background is a picture of the man himself alighting from his private jet. The trappings of drug dealing.
'Crime doesn't pay.' But drug dealing..? Ask the Escobars
The most obvious fresh approach is to begin a process of legalising heretofore banned drugs. By taking control of production and supply, individual nations will be in a much more powerful position to monitor and manage consumption. 

Not only that, but with such a move you would practically wipe-out one of the main revenue sources for vicious criminal gangs across the globe. And what you take away from the underworld you can add to the state’s coffers (although considering how some countries are being governed at the moment, we’re not too sure how positive a move that is). Outside of the actual direct revenues that would be garnered from legalisation other savings would include the freeing up of prison spaces and the removal of a major burden on court time, to name just two. 

Now while there is nothing new in such thinking, it does seem to be gathering – if only very slowly – more ‘mainstream’ attention. Quite pertinently, a former drugs minister in the UK, the Labour party’s Bob Ainsworth, recently voiced such opinions. 

More significantly though – surprisingly so perhaps – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has also come out in support of the legalisation route in the effort to ‘win’ the war on drugs. Now we say surprisingly here because, despite most ‘westerners’ preconceptions about Colombia, the vast majority of locals are completely against illegal narcotics. The fact that the country has bloodily suffered more than most in the drugs war is one of the main reasons for this. 

Bearing that in mind, the thoughts on this matter of the pro-United States President Santos carry more weight than many others. He is seeing first-hand the futility of the ‘old-school’ approach and has realised it’s time to change tack. He also knows that for such a policy to succeed, it has to be adopted across the world. It’s all or nothing.

A street shot of the hippy town of Nimbin in Queensland, Australia.
Australia's Nimbin - leading the way?
In one sense it’s a case of ‘what have we got to lose’. There are those who argue that if we go down the legalisation route substance abuse will increase significantly. Such a stance seems to ignore personal choice. Just because something becomes available to all, does not mean all will take it. Indeed for some, in such a case, the product loses a certain appeal. 

It also has to be said that right now, those who want illegal drugs, can get them relatively easy. The trouble is, as alluded to above, is that they must deal with dangerous characters in dangerous places in order to get them, keeping alive these murderous underworld empires. Indeed one thing that the anti-drugs lobby and the dealers they so despise have in common is a desire to, more-or-less, maintain the status quo.

So after years of fighting an endless, winless war is the smart move not now to change the focus of attack - to take away one of the main ‘raisons d’etre’ of the vast majority of criminal gangs. 

As Hollywood might put it, ‘it’s time to clean out the dealers’.