Monday, 30 April 2012

On the road again, naturally

Ireland’s been on our minds here recently. Not in a fond way, but in that typical lamentable style that as a tribe we seem to have perfected. Distance and personal distractions had kept the homeland’s myriad of problems more-or-less out of our immediate thoughts. That changed though after a Skype-chat with an old friend – another of the many Irish abroad – who informed us of an excellent article, Off to New York with the iPaddies on the Irish Times ‘Generation Emigration’ blog. 

Wrong Way, the Irish flag & 'Nick the Abo' on Australia's Frasier Island
'Taking flight' - The Irish on the move 'en masse' once more
Of course the picture painted in that particular piece isn’t something that will shock many Irish people – considering what’s happened in the last few years, we’re pretty much shock-proof these days. What is worrying though, particularly for us, the younger generation, is the way that people who experienced the pre-Celtic Tiger lean years, see the current situation as much, much worse. 

When you look at the context, though, the widely accepted fact that things will be as bad as ever for the ‘Free State’ is pretty logical really. Before we look at that ‘context’, it must be said that politicians and others who were quick to take credit for our economic expansion cannot simply shun culpability for their part in aiding our dramatic collapse. In any case, their role in both events was superficial.

In simplified summation, the Republic’s ‘rise’ was an inevitable consequence of its largely unavoidable decision to open its doors to the free market. Had the state not done so, we risked becoming the Western equivalent of North Korea. So after years of economic isolation, we went from a subsistence existence to a country that could, relatively speaking, compete on the world stage. And we were, up until the late 1990s, an attractive place to do business for money-spinning multi-nationals. 

Wage demands were relatively low compared to other Western countries. We had agreeable tax rates and a laissez-faire political attitude to big business. Coupled with this, the availability of cheap money (at the time) from our European neighbours – a result of our decision to join the EU and later the European Monetary Union – meant we could push ahead with much needed infrastructural development which thus provided massive employment in the construction sector, a natural phase for an emerging country to go through. Inevitably, though, with so much money flying about the country, everybody wanted a greater slice of the cake. So wage and welfare demands increased and we gradually became a less attractive place for outsiders to do business in.

Now if you happen to be a country with vast natural resources that can survive without huge outside investment in a free-market world, then that’s fine. But we’re not. Thus by becoming a more expensive place to do business, our clients looked elsewhere. And with the massive advancement in technology in the last thirty years, the strategic importance that we once had as a ‘smart economy’, English-speaking nation on the threshold of the European market for US and other multi-national companies became less relevant. Throw into the mix a global recession and the result is what we have today. All unavoidable really.

So what can be done? Well as much as our ‘esteemed’ leaders try to tell us differently, emigration is one solution. It was said, apparently, that in the 1980s Ireland could only sustain one-in-every-two people born on the island. So if things are far worse now than compared to 30 years ago, as most say they are, then the current rapid flow of emigration must continue.

That aside, there are obviously still ‘cosy’ jobs for some people in Ireland. It’s not all doom and gloom for a number who stay put. However, as a country where emigration is in our blood, many compatriots through the ages who had any ‘get up and go’ did just that and left. And for plenty of these they realised potential in another land that they perhaps never would have if they had remained at home. 
A homeless person 'resting' in broad daylight Bogotá's La Candelaria district
While many Irish may be 'struggling', it's all relative
On a slightly less serious note, alongside the suggestions we had in ‘South American Solutions to Irish Problems' another in the same category was given to us by a good friend. His ‘solution’ is to give those that remain in the state about €1million to leave and when they have, plant the whole country. A cheaper option he reckons than trying to pay back our debts. And a ‘greener’ one at that. 

One thing worth remembering, though, is this. No matter how bad we think things are, there are people in other parts of the world that have it far worse. These are people who, if they manage to wake up in the morning, are not sure if they will survive the day. 

For the majority of Irish people, struggling as we may be, such a life-or-death scenario is something we don’t have to face.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

What a mother hooker!

There seems to be a lot of outcry in the United States over this ‘Secret Service Prostitute Scandal’ as it’s being dubbed. On the face of it, you can – kind of – understand why for many this story is so shocking. Undercover agents working to ensure President Barack Obama’s safety during his recent visit to Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, hiring ‘escort girls’ and then not having the ‘decency’ to pay them the allegedly agreed fee. Not the kind of publicity the White House is looking for, is it?

A group of prostitutes at looking for clients in the middle of the day in downtown Bogotá
'Looking for something pretty boy?' Eh, no thanks
We don’t know yet – and we probably never will – what exactly happened on the night/early morning in question. Yes, the 24 year-old mother at the centre of all this has given her account of things. That’s just one side of the story though of course – and a Colombian woman’s one at that. Most of the flak in the media and general public is aimed, rightfully so you might say, at the US agents for a number of reasons. These are namely that they procured the services of prostitutes (albeit in a country where such practices are legal), they were drunk and they showed a complete lack of professional judgement with their actions thus embarrassing their President and their country. On that last point, don’t worry USA, we think as much as you now as we ever did in the past – perhaps even a bit more.

Okay, criticism one, the guys hired hookers. Well we’re not up on the staffing of the men in question, but if they happened to be on ‘free-time’ when all this happened, are they not entitled to do what they want, especially legal activities? 

Here’s another point to consider though. Maybe they didn’t know the girls were ‘escorts’, as they describe themselves – distinct from prostitutes that now, these girls are much classier operators. Colombia is famous – Cartagena and Medellín in particular (see previous posts ‘Bienvenidos a Medellin – Bangkok Light’ & ‘The Wages of Love’ for related stories) – for such ‘gringo hunters’. These are women who come across as normal (is there such a thing?), just out for a night out trying to ‘score’ a man or two, as happens in every place in the world. 

However what these ladies usually won’t tell you is that they want to get directly paid for their services – by whatever means they can get it. They don’t tend to introduce themselves as prostitutes or escorts, giving you their business cards in the process. No, that wouldn’t be the smartest move to ‘pick-up’ now, would it. They’re much sneakier than that. They’ve perfected the art of being ‘genuine’ so skilfully that we’ve witnessed people who are fully sober as well as street-wise Colombian natives getting duped by them. Yes you can say secret service personnel should be a bit savvier, but we have to remember that there were at least two bottles of vodka thrown into the equation.

Getting 'rubbed-up' on a beach on Colombia's Caribbean coast by a 'strong-handed' lady. A much safer pursuit than hiring 'escorts'!
A Caribbean beach rub - far less hassle & cheaper than troublesome 'escorts'
This brings us nicely onto the second major condemnation of the men in question – that they were drunk. This one we find more incriminating than the fact they were, knowingly or unknowingly, sleeping with prostitutes. Why? Well, as the Latin phrase goes, ‘in vino veritas’, ‘in wine there is truth’. 

So regardless of the fact that the guys may have been on a night off, it doesn’t seem very prudent as an undercover agent, whose job it is to look after the President of the USA in what many think is a volatile country (we don’t), to be out knocking down copious amounts of alcohol. James Bond might have had the odd vodka and Martini – shaken, not stirred – but we can’t recall him ever getting too inebriated, while Jason Bourne always kept his wits about him. Alas these real-life professional agents let such standards (and their trousers) slip for a few hours – a faux pas which has already cost a number of them their careers.

On the grand scheme of things, however, do their actions really warrant sacking? It’s safe to say that there are far worse activities being carried out by US secret agents and military personnel across the globe. Heck, the ladies involved in this ‘scandal’ still got paid decent loot for their services – $225US for a few hours work is more than they would make in a normal week or month even. Perhaps we should direct our anger at the greed of the woman who was looking for $800. Bet she didn’t even buy a drink all night. Disgraceful.   

Monday, 16 April 2012

South American solutions to Irish problems

Let’s face it. The Irish Government’s job plan isn’t exactly a roaring success. Well, unless part of this ‘plan’ is to maintain the steady flow of emigration, while at the same time ensuring that those many jobless people that can’t leave the country have no other option but to draw the dole. We’ll give our knowledgeable politicians the benefit of the doubt on that one. 

We can though offer a few suggestions on how they could get the numerous unemployed back to work – or at least feel like they’re working for their social welfare. It’s a back-to-basics formula, loosely based on things we’ve witnessed here in South America and elsewhere.
A Bogotá collectivo driver with his children in-tow. It helps keep child-care costs down anyway.
Why pay for child-care? Just bring the kids with you to work
Firstly, we’ll take a look at public transport. All mechanised methods of paying when you board a city bus should be dismantled and replaced with an actual person to collect the money, distinct from the bus driver. Such a system works swimmingly in many developing countries and is an instant job creator. 

Although we can’t mention the above without saluting the growing number of Colombian city bus drivers who double-job on this one. They somehow manage to keep their vehicle, more-or-less, on the road while at the same time collect and dish out the correct change to the never-ending stream of passengers, as well as looking after their off-spring from time-to-time. It certainly brings into question the widely-held belief that men can’t concentrate on two things at once. 

That aside, for job creation and considering the Irish authorities love of all things health-and-safety related the two-person approach is the way to go.

Sticking with public transport, another potential growth area is the hiring of a number of ‘bus spies’. This is essentially the placing of personnel in various parts of cities and towns to make sure bus drivers are sticking to their allotted route – not spinning off doing a few ‘nixers’. Something Irish bus drivers are renowned for, right?

In terms of traffic control – it used to be a problem in Ireland anyway – we should have either Gardaí or civilians directing flow at every major junction on a constant basis, regardless if there are traffic lights present or not. So instead of many of our police officers being pencil-pushers, they can be out on the streets being ‘whistle-blowers’ instead. Much healthier for them that.

Efficient use of resources - a group of Bogotá's Transport Police manning a junction that already has a barrier erected. It gets them out of the office anyway
Hard at it - Bogotá's Transport Police
Now did you ever think how straightforward it is in Ireland to pop into a pharmacist and buy some toothpaste or deodorant? Almost too easy, isn’t it? We need to follow Chile’s three-pronged approach on this one, creating ‘meaningful’ jobs to boot. Here’s how it works. First, you approach one member of staff and tell them what you want. 

This person will give you an invoice for your product at which point you proceed to the cash register personnel. Here you pay for your goods, after which you’ll be handed two copies of a receipt of payment. Finally, you make your way to another counter where you hand in a store copy of your receipt and promptly collect your purchase. Why do something in one small, swift step when you can prolong the experience? As the saying goes, ‘its not about the product, it’s about the journey getting it’ – or something along those lines.

Another area worth looking at back home is how we operate our pubs/bars. Before we explain, we must concede that we’re not totally behind this measure as it takes away one of our favourite ‘spots’, but if it can create a few extra jobs, then we’ll grudgingly accede for the greater good. So what you do is remove all bar stools and force patrons to sit away from the ‘point-of-sale’. You also prohibit people to purchase drinks directly at the bar, instead you hire ‘runners’ to do all your table service. 

These people have small amounts of cash on hand for minor transactions but are not allowed direct access to the till, this being reserved for the owner or somebody of similar standing. Outside of the additional employment, this would create, you’d also take away potential flashpoints at the bar. Of course one of the many problems with implementing this in Ireland right now is that there’s hardly anyone in the pubs to serve – see our ‘An Irish Lament’ ( post from a few weeks back for more on that.

Vultures tucking into some left-overs in San Gil, Colombia. They shouldn't be confused with members of the Fianna Fáil party
Delegates gathering for the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis
A further measure would be for Irish officials to turn a blind eye to corruption. For example, following Bogotá’s lead, government ministers could award lucrative public contracts to friends as opposed to those who are best equipped to do the job. That way work on essential infrastructure projects will more than likely go on longer than they should, thus prolonging tradesmen’s employment. 

It might cost the state more in the long-term, but considering it’s Europe and the IMF that are actually paying most of our bills right now while our elected administration continues to flog the less well-off, it’s worth a try. Oh wait, what’s that - we’ve been doing the corruption thing for years? Really, Bertie and Fianna Fáil? Heck, maybe we should consider bringing them back so?

Well, whatever the case, these are just a few simple ideas on how we can get Ireland working again. We won’t have it said that we’re just a cynical bunch here, always criticising but never coming up with worthwhile solutions. 

Enda, you know where to find us if you need help getting any of these off the ground. Always here to lend a hand.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Strength in belief

All of us experience times when life gets us a little bit down. When we question what exactly we are doing on this planet, what direction we are going in and what’s the purpose of it all. It’s a process that also tends to be a very personal one. Some find strength from within, such as making a concerted effort to think positive thoughts, not dwelling on events outside of their control. Others struggle in this regard. These people often only see one way out – taking their own lives. 

A statue of a seated 'sacred cow', taken in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysic
Holy cow! Is there nothing sacred any more?
Now while we never truly know why some see suicide as a solution, what tends to be lacking in their lives is a strong belief system. We’re talking about two principle beliefs here – in oneself or in a greater power. Without conviction in at least one of these in your life, there will almost inevitably come a time when you can’t go on any longer.

It would seem safe to assume that we are all born with personal inner belief. However with life’s ups and, more significantly, downs, that internal strength can often be shaken out of us. As alluded to above, for many people it’s just a temporary absence. However, if it goes indefinitely, this is where a ‘back-up’ belief system comes into play. If this is missing, then we’re moving into dangerous, end-game territory. 

The most common ‘back-up’ us human beings have these days is belief in a god. In the distant past it used to be something a little more tangible, such as the sun – indeed that star is still worshipped by what some arrogant types like to call ‘primitive’ peoples. Many of us don’t need this additional ‘faith’; we have enough personal strength to get through life without it. Some buy into it regardless, possibly because it was indoctrinated in them from a young age, while for others it can quite literally be the difference between life and death. For this latter type, the secondary belief is obviously very important.

Over the last few years, we’ve met a number of people that without this strong faith in something outside of themselves, they more than likely would not be with us today – or at least not in their relatively normal current state of mind. To this end, believing in a god, or whatever, can be quite a positive pursuit. 

The problem is, however, that faith in a god is often tied up with an organised religion. Now you might ask what’s wrong with that. Well without going into the multitude of conflicts and wars that have their origin in opposing religions, such organisations have at their core the desire to completely brainwash their followers to the point of removing independent, reasoned thought. And that, we feel – in most cases – is dangerous.

The Archbishop of Bogotá, Jesús Rubén Salazar Gómez, looking all powerful seated on his 'throne' during Good Friday ceremonies at the main Cathedral in the Colombian capital
A picture of humbleness - the 'king' & his subjects
The idea of a group of similar minded people gathering every now and again to ‘worship’ their chosen, peace-loving god is fine in theory. Indeed there are many unanswered questions as to where we come from, how life began, etc. that we can’t really rule out the existence of a ‘god’, depending on your definition of such. But when you throw in completely illogical tales - very powerful in imagery as they may be - that are taken as unquestionable truths and thus frame how the vast majority of us are asked to live our lives by law, then you have problems.

We’re all for believing in what you want to believe in. What we don’t like is when some people think that their ‘belief’ and the associated rules are more important than our convictions. From a Catholic point-of-view, if the Bible happens to be 100% fact (just take a 'leap of faith' for a few moments), then the powers-that-be in Rome must have skipped a few pages when they were coming up with their take on things. 

We won’t go into all the apparent contradictions, but for one did ‘god’ not say at some point that he was against extravagance when it comes to devotion to him/her. Well god, you must be pretty annoyed so with the lavishness of some of the churches built in your name. What’s more, you’ll usually find members of your flock walking over and ignoring the poor and homeless, especially here in South America, to get into ‘your’ luxurious dwelling. They must be the damned, right? Hypocrisy is certainly not in short supply in such surrounds – and a lot of the time it comes from the pulpit.

We could go on, having a go at all religious groups – Buddhism apart perhaps – but we’d be here all day. You get the point. As those good Catholics, Oasis, once sang, “I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I’ll sing the blues if I want.” That’s true, within reason. 

So while some find comfort in a dog, others do so in a god – but just as we’re not big fans of the neighbour’s dog running riot in our house, we don’t want another person imposing their god and its ways on us.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

'Mi amor' - or perhaps not?

There is that old saying that actions speak louder than words. In most cases it holds true. In the game of love, you would think this is especially so. It’s relatively easy to utter the words ‘I love you’, but to actually mean it, backed up by deeds, is a different thing entirely. 

Wrong Way with the gorgeous 'Mishu' (Michelle) - she's actually from Rio de Janeiro, poetic license and all that! If anyone knows where she is, please let us know!
'Mi amor' - but where are you?
In Colombia however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Romantic sound bites are all the rage here. Both sexes roll them off the tongue effortlessly and there are many to choose from - ‘mi amor’ (my love), ‘mi vida’ (my life), ‘mi cielo’ (my sky) to name just some.

Harmless stuff you might say and in essence it is, if you don’t take it seriously – a good rule-of-thumb that for most relationship-related things in this country. But for somebody who likes to live an honest life, the emptiness of such ‘pronouncements’ is a tad nauseating. We can certainly play the game – to ‘pick-up’ there tends to be no alternative option. It doesn’t take away from the fact though that it is all usually meaningless. 

This shouldn’t surprise us however, as a number of Colombian women are about as shallow as the Pacific Ocean is deep. Image and posturing is everything. And when they decide they want to ‘hang with’ a guy for a period of time, they must be fretted over constantly. In fact their actions give a lot of support to the notion that equality between the sexes is a pointless pursuit. Where’s the equality when the man pays for everything?

In our ‘Colombia’s False Friends’ post a couple of weeks back, we spoke about the two extremes you get in women’s behaviour here – the aloof type that you won’t hear from for weeks on end or the ones that expect you to be on-hand 24/7 to cater for their every need. 

It must be pointed out here that these characteristics are not mutually exclusive. Indeed if you find yourself on the receiving end of the ‘cold shoulder’ treatment, it more than likely means that your little ‘chica’ is all over somebody else. Like a good dog though, she’ll come back to you – for a time. 

Until that is another one of her grandmothers is dying yet again. Something that might lead to your removal as a friend on Facebook. It’s an obvious reaction, right? Your grandmother has died so you delete your Irish ‘friend’ from a social networking site – a logical part of the mourning process that.

So little wonder that many Colombian men have a few women on the go at once. Not to do so is just plain unwise. It’s a bit of a vicious - or benign depending on how you look at it - circle in operation. The women have such unrealistic demands and expectations, coupled with acute jealousy and insecurity, that they invariably push ‘their’ man away, thus giving credence to the belief that the men are unfaithful. The lack of trust on all sides is palpable. 

One of the big problems is that relationships tend to start off at an unsustainable breakneck speed, meaning fatal crashes are habitually inevitable. The ‘softly-softly’ approach doesn’t come into it whatsoever.

Now after a time both observing as well as getting our toes wet in a romantic context here in Colombia, the question of incompatibility comes into it. Are we just programmed so differently compared to the ‘Latina locas’ that trying to engage in a meaningful relationship is a senseless practice? Well, that’s certainly one conclusion to be drawn from it all. 

A typical portrait of The 'Virgin' Mary
Mary - green light to infidelity.
However, in all the superficiality and frustrations of the dating game here, a much more honest issue raises its head. That is the belief that it’s just not feasible – or healthy – for human beings to ‘stick’ to one partner for life. It goes against our basic instincts. 

Are we living a lie trying to think differently – that you can be happily faithful to one partner for all your life? The evidence would indicate so. We’re not suggesting breaking up the family unit altogether, but perhaps the stigma attached to extra-marital affairs shouldn’t be as strong as it is in many ‘Western’ societies. A change every now and again is good. 

In fact, being away from someone or something for a while often makes you realise how much you rely on and appreciate that person or thing – true love never dies and all that. Heck, even the ‘Virgin’ Mary got so frustrated with Joseph that she hopped into bed with God at the first opportunity – it seems an honest carpenter is no match for a man that has it all. Considering all the hassle that has followed, she probably wishes she hadn’t ‘transgressed’.

That aside, maybe we should all, quite literally, enjoy our ‘relationship-rides’ while they last. Just don’t get too caught up in it all. And perhaps it’s best to leave the love superlatives out.

For a related piece, see 'The wages of love'.