Monday, 28 May 2012

'Dangerous' Colombia Part III

We witnessed a rare occurrence here in Bogotá the other day. It was certainly something far from uncommon for us but for this city, indeed Colombia in general, it was an event you we don’t see everyday. 
Knocking back a few beers with some of the locals in Maicao, Colombia. All good, honest, safe fun!
Drunken Colombian fun without the fights - well until the Irish lad arrived that is.
No, don’t be silly now, it wasn’t one of the locals admitting they were at fault or being totally honest about something. We don’t expect to see such happenings anytime soon. 

What did catch our eye though was a good old-fashioned bar brawl amongst a number of natives. Somebody said something they shouldn’t have – or at least that’s what some of the people that heard it thought – and next we had about half a dozen lads exchanging blows. Fair enough, what transpired wasn’t of the highest calibre, but it was sufficient enough to make memories of home come flooding back. 

We have to admit, we got a strange warm feeling from being a live spectator. Growing up or more pertinently socialising in Ireland has seen us become accustomed to regular, drunken punch-ups. Instead of some salted peanuts or a similar style snack accompanying your beverage, as is the case in many countries, back in the ‘homeland’ you get free, front-row seats to bare knuckle boxing. Indeed, if you’re lucky enough, you might even get to take part. Alas, here in ‘Dangerous Colombia’, you’ll be hard pressed to find such riveting entertainment on a night-out. 

'Wrong Way' learning to dance with the help of a Playstation. You just can't teach an old dog new tricks!
Why fight when you can, er, 'dance' instead?
You see unlike the Irish, as well as the Brits and the Aussies (we can throw in a few more nations there too, such as Poland and some other eastern European countries) the addition of alcohol into most Colombians systems – and Latinos in general – doesn’t usually result in an overly aggressive streak developing. It’s not that they don’t get drunk, they certainly do, but alcohol tends to transform them less into ‘Incredible Hulks’ and more into ‘Snow Whites’. It’s probably because they’re too caught-up in dancing than to think about engaging in a scuffle with the other half-wit at the next table.

The bottom line here is that you are more likely to find yourself in an A&E department with a brawl-related injury after a night out in Britain or Ireland than you are in these parts. But which place is seen as the least safe? 

Of course people will point to muggings and other such ‘petty’ crime as being far more prevalent in Colombia compared to most ‘Western world’ countries. Yes, they happen. In fact we were unlucky enough to be the victims of a knife ‘attack’ in Bogotá recently – our first such experience in South America it must be added. Such things though come with the territory in most big cities across the globe, wherever they’re located. What’s more, a lot of the time here in Colombia, these unsavoury incidents are utter opportunism by the perpetrators, pure and simple. 

From our experiences, there lacks an in-built thuggish nature that you find in many of the lowlifes from the countries we were brought-up in and know best. 

As a good Italian friend mused about his experiences living in Manchester, many of the locals there just seemed to have a desire to fight all the time. No matter how much you keep ‘yourself-to-yourself’, you’ll invariably find trouble in such places – or vice versa to be more accurate. 

For many of the ‘boys’ from these more ‘developed’ locations, a night out just wouldn’t be complete without a bit of a fisticuff. A lot of the time it’s a mentality that exists in sobriety, so throw in a cocktail of drink and drugs and you could be, quite literally, on a ‘hiding to nothing’. 

A shot of the border between Colombia & Venezuela, just outside Maicao. A passage from relative friendliness to none at all
Oh Venezuela, how we miss you & your quirky ways
Thankfully, we haven’t really encountered this kind of a threatening environment in these parts. Now maybe that’s just down to the fact that we’re usually slightly inebriated on our way home after a night out – you can’t beat a bit of Dutch courage, eh?

In any case as our ‘Dangerous Colombia’ series has hopefully shown, how dodgy a place is depends very much on how you look at it. 

As with everything, it’s relative. Colombia’s negative reputation certainly precedes it, but there are worse places you could be. For one, it’s no Venezuela.

For the related articles see: &

Sunday, 20 May 2012

'Dangerous' Colombia Part II

We’re returning to a theme we first touched on a couple of months back (see – happenings here in Bogotá last week being the reason for this. Firstly, for those of you in the ‘English speaking world’, a brief synopsis of these events is probably required considering the lack of coverage this story received there (a point we’ll touch on later). 

We’re referring to the deadly bomb blast of Tuesday May 15th, which left two people dead and injured dozens more. The attack was, it is believed in some quarters, carried out by Colombia’s proscribed left-wing paramilitary group FARC. The apparent intended target was the country’s former Interior Minister Fernando Londoño, an outspoken conservative. He managed to escape with minor injuries; the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of his bodyguards.
Riot police outside an Éxito supermarket in Bogotá during a peaceful rally in the city recently
Police State? Nope, just your regular blockade at the local supermarket

So that’s what happened. For many it just reinforces the preconceptions they have about Colombia. Maybe that’s why, as alluded to above, the ‘western’ media gave this story a wide berth – ‘sure this kind of thing happens all the time there’ type of attitude. But, thankfully we can state, it does not. Indeed it is, we’ve been told, the first bombing like this in three years. That the story did seem to escape international attention could be seen as a good thing in the state’s efforts to project a more positive image abroad.

However judging by the comments of some journalists based here, both foreign and local, that the world wasn’t talking about this was shocking. These will be the first guys, however, to go on the offensive if Colombia’s reputation is tarnished in other areas. There’s just no pleasing some.

In relative terms though, the international English speaking press’ scant coverage of the story was probably justified. The body count was low and, while any loss of life is terrible, the two men that were killed, the bodyguards, did knowingly sign up to work that wasn’t exactly low-risk stuff. For FARC, Londoño, was and still is a ‘legitimate’ target.

Now while we don’t condone any act of terrorism, this wasn’t a random bomb in a busy city centre where hundreds of innocent lives would have been put in jeopardy - á la the IRA in its heyday – or some crazed gunman going on a murderous rampage. OK, it was far from what you might call a clinical assassination attempt, but it seems FARC (or whoever the perpetrators were) did at least think about minimising civilian casualties. There’s a small bit of comfort in that.

What’s more, contrary to what some of our journalist friends here apparently experienced, we didn’t get a sense whatsoever that ‘Bogotanos’ felt ‘under-attack’ after the blast. In fact, it was business as usual from the people we encountered – almost as if nothing untoward had just happened. Some might say that’s a sign that they’re used to this kind of thing but, as we mentioned above, considering the rarity of such incidents these days, that’s not the case. It just seems that the locals’ mindset is not to dwell on these events – worrying about such things, or anything for that matter, doesn’t get you anywhere.

'Wrong Way' in a US Immigration uniform during a recent TV shoot. He certainly looks the part!
At your service - Colombia sends for outside help to deal with FARC
For those few that think this might be the start of a renewed FARC campaign in Colombia’s major cities, such a nightmare scenario seems highly unlikely. For one, its strength has been on the wane for some time now. Moreover, the organisation is positioning itself for ‘peace’ talks with the government – its recent release of long-held hostages and a pledge to end kidnappings, signs that it is, perhaps finally, changing course. The Bogotá bomb was possibly just a little reminder to the country’s administration that, to use an old IRA line, “we haven’t gone away” and that, if not taken seriously, it can still cause bloodshed.

It must also be pointed out, again, that it's not certain that it was in fact FARC that carried out this attack. That's something we'll address at a later stage.

It’s certainly not time though for the US State Department to start warning its citizens against travelling to Colombia (although, on second thoughts, we could always do with less Yanks visiting). In fact we wager you are more likely to get attacked in any of the USA’s big cities than you are here – that is of course if they let you into the country in the first place. 

But that might not be a concern for Colombians in the near future – the way things are going, it may be just a matter of time before the country officially becomes the ‘51st State’. The perfect cure that for Hugo Chávez’s cancer.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Giving just a little bit 'extra'

Colombia. For those unfamiliar with the place, the country conjures up images of cocaine, violent crime, prostitution and other such ‘ghastly’ affairs. For others, especially those who have spent some time here, they generally come away with a far more positive image of the land – relatively friendly, helpful people, fantastic scenery together with a wonderfully diverse natural environment. One thing though that the average person would not instantly think of when they hear the word ‘Colombia’ is the ‘glamorous’ world of TV extras work. It’s not something that sprang to our mind anyway. Yet, as we’ve slowly been discovering, if you’re an ‘extranjero’/foreigner here, there seems to be a strange demand for your acting ‘talents’ – or at least your ability to stand around as an additional body while there’s a camera rolling.

Make-up time. Getting dolled up with some powder for our 'star' appearance on 'Colombia Tiene Talento'
In-demand - getting 'made-up' for 'Colombia Tiene Talento'
Of course this strong demand for non-natives may just simply be seasonal – so in one sense we should ride the wave while it’s in full flow. We are after all getting a chance to see inside a quite surreal world that in our home country getting access to might not be as easy. In theory it’s a great gig. Getting paid – eventually that is – reasonably well for doing very little. Getting fed – eventually that is – for free while ‘on-set’. For some the chance to rub shoulders with semi-famous actors/actresses is also appealing. Plus there’s the chance that you might ‘get lucky’ and land a brief speaking part – an opportunity that presented itself to us here recently. There’s much more to ‘Wrong Way’s’ acting talents then being just a silent body you know – or a flag waver (see from 2’30’’ onwards). We won’t let the fact that the speaking role is in one of the numerous, remarkably cheesy dramas – or ‘telenovelas’ to give them their proper title – that somehow are quite popular here. These ‘gems’ make Ireland’s Fair City look half decent.

So in this Colombian extras world, if your face fits the bill – or the powers-that-be feel you might be able to fill a gap for them – you become very important. In the back of almost every extras mind, especially those that are relying on the work to survive, is the hope that they’ll become an indispensable part of a production, thereby guaranteeing somewhat steady employment for a time – evolving into a ‘super extra’ if you will. It could be said they’re looking for their Bart Simpson ‘I didn’t do it’ moment, in a sense (see The Simpsons episode 512 – ‘Bart Gets Famous’).
Wrong Way kitted-out as a US Immigration Official for a recent shoot
Super Extra - 'Your papers please'

Now as exciting as all this may sound, once the novelty factor wanes, as it undoubtedly does, prostituting yourself out to various productions becomes tiring to say the least. At the same speed you can be picked from obscurity to become a ‘super extra’, you are just as rapidly cast aside when you’re not wanted anymore. If that happens to be your fate, when you’re quite literally just making up the numbers, then that apparently gives the production team the right to treat you like a dog. Well actually a little bit worse. At a recent shooting, where dogs were required, we discovered that the canine thespians were getting paid more than the average extra. What’s more, they didn’t have to hang around all day like council workers – once their scene was shot, off they went, with their tales very firmly wagging in the air.

Then there’s the food – or the waiting for it to be more specific. They do say that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. We tend to go along with that here. So if you make us wait unnecessarily long for some grub, then you can expect a backlash. OK, fair enough, they feed you – I suppose they don’t have to. But it’s the blatant inequality of it all that irks us. On one side you have the ‘important’ people, dining in comfort and at will. Then you have the extras. As soon as the break for lunch is called the rush of these ‘nobodies’ to the dining area is like a herd of buffalo on the charge. Lord help you if you’re one of the last to the queue – a long, long wait is in store while you watch the ‘stars’ and production team dine in relative splendour. There’s also the strong possibility that by the time you do get served, the food is either cold or there’s hardly any left.

The sizable queue for food on-set. You don't want to be at the back of this!
'Save some for me, por favor!'
So then, you may ask, if your lot is just a run-of-the-mill extra, why continue with it all? Well, as ever, money talks, so if you happen to be free when you get ‘that’ call from an agency saying your services are required, it can be hard to turn down. The aggravating, depressing aspects from the last time usually subside. There’s also that dream, that hope, that you may just get your big-break this time around– your Bart Simpson ‘I didn’t do it’ moment in the spotlight. If you’re not in, you can’t win and all that. But like most things around these parts, as regular readers will be aware by now, the best advice is as follows: Don’t whatsoever rely on it but if you have to, then do not, in any case, take it seriously.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

'Wrong Way' begins

We’re taking a bit of a step-back in time this week. Below is a reproduction of an article we put together after returning from our first bout of travelling in 2009, when we were a little less cynical compared to now. And while much has happened since it was penned, both personally and universally, you should find that the majority of what is expressed still holds true today. You could, in a sense, call it 'The Making of Wrong Way'.

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we often might win, by fearing to attempt.”
While I can't take credit for the above quotation, the plaudits there must go to the late American Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Jane Addams, they are words however that have a deep resonance with me.
It was just over a year ago when I plucked up the courage and finally decided to 'take flight', leaving what was my comfort zone of this island. It wasn't a decision that I took lightly, indeed I was procrastination personified before I eventually called ‘trailfinders’ and got the ball rolling so to speak. But once that was done, I purposely gave myself as little time as possible before 'R'-Day (that’s 'Rio de Janeiro' day, in case you're wondering, my first port-of-call), so there could be little room for u-turns. Three weeks in fact was the time between booking my flights and hitting off. 

An aerial shot of Rio de Janeiro
Rio from a high - not a bad town!
It was enough time nonetheless to read a very apt article in The Sunday Times Magazine which opined that the hardest part about heading off on ones 'long-term' travels - to clarify 'long-term', what I mean here is an unspecified/indefinite period of travelling, as mine was - is closing the front door of your own house and hitting for that first airport. Never truer words written, although I must admit it was my mother that closed the front door because it's not really my house, though it is home. Anyway, looking back at it now, I was a very nervous individual the morning I was escorted to Dublin airport. The fear of the unknown I suppose. 

It was a deliberate choice though to go to a continent where I don't speak the language - well not when I first arrived anyway. The destination of choice for most Irish people around my age is Australia, or at least it has been, but despite my fears about leaving Ireland on my own I was looking for somewhere slightly different for the first stage of my global 'adventure' - although I must qualify this and say that if you're looking for a place free of fellow Irish people, from my experience, your best bet is the moon or Mars because we certainly get around. Plans for 'Murphy's authentic Irish lunar pub experience' have hit a stumbling block for now, thankfully. Where's developer Sean Dunne when you need him? What, bankrupt? 

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, the trepidation of the 'unknown'. Another part of the fear of leaving is, paradoxically, the fear of coming back – this oddity being, it appears, a particularly male phenomenon. It's that bravado thing, when you tell your mates in the pub that "I'm sick of this feckin' country of ours and I'm off, possibly never to return and ye're all stupid for staying around", while in the back of your mind you're wondering what are you doing leaving and how stupid you'll look when you return home after three weeks, if you last that long. I did temper the possibility of that happening to me by telling friends and family that I could be back in three weeks, three months or three years - I didn't put any minimum count on how long I'd be gone for. Doing so could have come back to haunt me on my return to ‘the local’. Anyway, I'm above such trivial stuff, am I not? That's why I only devoted a few lines to it, see. 
An aerial shot of Peru's Machu Picchu
Picture Perfect - Machu Picchu

That leaving fear, to move on, did just that, leaving me almost the minute I said goodbye to my sister and was left in Dublin airport to fend for myself. Although I must admit I do have a fetish for the whole airport rough-and-tumble; I've just always liked the buzz of the place for some reason. I mean even by the time I reached Heathrow to get my flight to Rio, I was already walking with a swagger, enjoying my new found freedom. 

And while I say now, after the event, that had Baghdad been the first stop I would have loved it because anywhere was going to seem better than Ireland in November in a recession, the setting and the amazing people - both locals and 'not-so' locals - that I met in Rio where I spent my first ten days set the tone for what was - with no exaggeration - a life-changing experience. We won't go into details here, but suffice to say that what was initially meant to be a ten week sojourn in South America before departing for New Zealand and Australia turned into over four months and would have been more if it hadn't kept on costing me to put back my flights. From the scantily-clad ladies on the Copacabana in Rio, the amazing Igauzu Falls and magnificent Machu Picchu to the warmth and beauty of both the people and land of Colombia and the breathtaking sights of Chile, South America has a lot going for it. I suppose the mark of a place is your willingness to return to it, and in that respect since I left 'América del Sur', I've been planning my return (it only took about 18 months to get back)

A small section of the stunning Iguazo Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border. No visit to South America is complete without seeing these natural wonders.
The Iguazu Falls - simply stunning
That's not to say that the remainder of my travels in New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia were not as noteworthy. On the contrary, all those places are amazing in their own right and I have much good to say about all of them, some more so than others naturally. However, it was South America that laid down the marker and gave me that first glimpse of the world 'out there' for an extended period of time, and for that I am entirely grateful. 

So as the Irish economy gets worse by the day, with the relatively young – well those remaining – asking the question “should I stay or should I go”, we can take comfort in the following. Even with just a few euro in the back-pocket, there are numerous countries on this planet where we can make that last much longer than it would at home - that's the benefit of being, ahem (no sniggering down the back there), a first-world country. Also, there are flights leaving this country every day to far flung places and what's more there are always ones coming back. So, if you're thinking of your next move, my advice, for what it is worth, is to go and discover the world and in the process yourself. As for everything in this life, don't let the doubts hold you to ransom. Don't fear to attempt.