Thursday, 30 August 2012

Colombia's path to peace?

We’re not big fans of hyperbole here and, thankfully, most Colombians appear to be that way too. Hence the somewhat indifferent reaction from many locals to the official revelation of what has been one of the worst kept secrets in recent Colombian politics – that President Juan Manuel Santos’s government has had preliminary discussions with the country’s long-standing left-wing guerrillas, FARC.*
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
El Presidente - can he really make peace with FARC?
Depending on who you speak to, this indifference to the news verges on the slightly optimistic to the pessimistic. One thing’s for sure, you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody overjoyed that ‘proper, full-scale’ peace talks are in the offing. It’s all down to ‘reconciliation weariness’ really – Colombia has been here before on many occasions. The fact that the FARC is still involved in bombings and kidnappings tells you just how ‘successful’ those previous attempts at fostering peace went down.

So what, if anything, has changed this time around? Well of course there’s a different administration in place intent on ‘learning from the errors of the past’. It’s the very least President Santos and his team could try. He certainly is saying the right things in this regard. He made it clear in his state broadcast that the country’s military would remain in 'every centimetre of national territory'. That was an obvious reference to the failed strategy of former President Andrés Pastrana who in 1999 demilitarised a vast zone in the south of the country to facilitate peace talks with the rebels. While negotiations did take place, this buffer zone allowed the FARC to rebuild, recruit and reinforce itself in relative comfort – a legacy that is still being felt today as it is in this area that the group remains at its strongest.

Now while FARC may still have strength in its unofficial safe zones, generally speaking it would appear to be at the weakest point in its history. It has suffered key military setbacks against the state’s armed forces in the last few years with the recent upsurge in its attacks seen by some as the desperate last kicks of a cornered beast. Sitting down with the government could be its best option right now. Time will tell how sincere it is about the whole process.

The slippery, winding path to Colombia's 'La Cuidad Perdida' - a good representation of the difficult journey to peace that lies ahead
'The Path to Peace' - far from straightforward
However as in any peace talks one must ask the question can an essential balance be found that would be key to any potential lasting settlement? From this remove it would appear that the government – and by extension the vast majority of the country’s inhabitants – has far more to gain. Obviously if FARC agrees to lay down its weapons and cease attacks that’s good news for all who want peace. 

For Santos, if things go that well so soon, it should do his faltering approval rating no end of good, helping him in his quest for re-election in 2014. Peace negotiations have been part of his manifesto – quite apart from his predecessor, the hard-line right-winger Álvaro Uribe who has been very vociferous in his opposition to talking with ‘terrorists’, attacking the current administration’s policy at every opportunity.

A military defunct FARC is clearly the very least the Colombian government and the majority of the country’s electorate will look for in any agreement. In this scenario, the FARC, in some form, would surely look for political legitimacy and perhaps immunity from prosecution for some or all of its top members. This is looking at it from a ‘political conflict’ point-of-view.

Yet the days of this struggle being purely about political ideology – if they ever were – are long gone. There is a far more powerful agent at play and it is this that is at the crux of the issue here – the control of the drugs trade. For FARC to go ‘legit’ and allow unrestricted official access to its ‘white gold’ territories will be the equivalent of it signing its own death warrant – mainstream political presence or not. While we might know what comes out of the depths of Colombia’s jungles, what actually happens inside them and exactly where remains about as mysterious as the inner workings of a rugby scrum. And for those working in the illegal drugs trade, that’s the way they want it to remain.
A close up of the coca leaf growing in the Colombian jungle - the plant that has so often held the country to ransom
The 'white gold' in its ore form, the coca leaf

It has been mentioned on these pages before that the current strategy by most elected governments, Colombia included, in tackling the narcotics underworld is not working (see ‘Dealing with the Dealers’: The calls for a new front in this ‘war’ however are gathering pace, not least in Latin America (Santos himself has spoken of the need for a new approach), a land that knows more about this issue than most. Take the illegal drugs trade out of subversives’ hands and their power and wealth is greatly reduced. In fact for most underworld operators, their ‘raison d’etre’ practically disappears.

So while there will be much focus on the political manoeuvring in the upcoming dialogue between the Colombian government and FARC (with the ELN, the country’s second largest rebel group, indicating it also wants to be part of this process) the weight afforded to the drugs issue will be interesting to see.**

You can only ignore the white powdered elephant in the room for so long before it starts ‘blowing’ in your face.
* FARC stands for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in English.
** ELN stands for Ejército de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Army in English.

For another article on a related theme, see: ‘Dangerous Colombia Part II’  

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The 'money' tongue

“Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” Needless to say that’s quite an arrogant, dismissive saying for all those honest, hard-working teachers that enter the profession, not as a fall-back, but for a genuine love of teaching. It’s also probably a safe bet that the person who first uttered those words never engaged in teaching himself/herself. Just because you might be skilled at something does not necessarily mean you can pass those same skills on to others. Getting somebody to learn something generally requires completely different attributes than doing it yourself. As we often see, many of the best sports players don’t make good coaches. Roy Keane could tell you all about that, for one.
Roy Keane - great football player but has found it difficult to pass his considerable know-how on to others
'What? You're saying I can't teach?'

This whole teaching world was something that never really interested us to be honest. But needs must and all that, so when you’re in a country – a continent even – where there is a massive, by-and-large misplaced demand for native English speakers to teach the language, it would be foolish not to ‘ride the wave’, for a time at least. Easy money, relatively speaking.
Not only that, but since we’ve got into it, it has been pretty enjoyable. Being a facilitator for those who really want to learn (teaching English to business professionals is our primary work) is much different, we imagine, to teaching school kids, many of whom feel they’re in your company by force. Plus when you get clients that have a fairly high level of English already and are just looking to brush-up or have regular conversation, it almost doesn’t seem like work – bar the early morning starts that is. In fact, with private students it can even become a little uncomfortable – sitting down having a loosely-structured chat for about two hours or whatever and then taking their money at the end. 

So while there’s potentially more loot to be made directly from private tuition, going through a company/institute hides the mercenary element to all of this somewhat.

Wrong Way with a bunch of young Chilenos. Help!
'Help! I said I didn't want to teach kids!'
Other advantages of teaching through a company or a school/university – the latter being even better for stability, pay and regular classes if that’s your want – is that they will usually provide you with the material and obviously source the students/clients for you. Now while having the teaching material provided may not be seen as a major bonus for many (although we do like it), having the students sourced for you can take a lot of hassle and frustration out of your life. 

We have dipped our toes into the world of private lessons, but getting consistent students is a problem. Mention that you teach English to many Colombians and they’ll practically jump all over you wanting to take classes. However as is the case in most areas of life here, promises don’t count for much. So much so that we’re considering charging a ‘consultation fee’ to anyone that even just casually broaches the idea of us teaching them. In this business, we can’t allow talk to be cheap. 

Having said that and at the risk of writing ourselves out of work, we do believe, as mentioned in passing above, that the demand for native English speakers from many Colombians is, at times, misplaced. An unqualified native ‘teacher’ is perhaps – this is of course all case dependent – not the best person to explain all the various rules of the language. For him/her speaking their native tongue comes naturally. So when faced with questions as to why we say things one way over another, the ‘official’ terminology or whatever, a native speaker is often dumbstruck. In such scenarios, a non-native teacher may be better equipped to explain the idiosyncrasies of the tongue in question. 
Streamlined English - cutting out the crap
Essential English - no need or time for 'manure' talk

Put it this way, if you decided to start taking lessons in Mandarin, it might be more prudent to initially have a teacher from your own country that never spoke the language and now speaks it well. He/she is generally best placed to know the potential pitfalls in learning and what the most confusing aspects of the language are – at least in the initial stages.

From our own perspective however, we must be doing something right in this English teaching game – we still seem to be ‘wanted’ anyway. At times though we feel we could – should even – be ‘doing’ more and ‘teaching’ less.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Colombia's locas

Of the many strange and wonderful things visitors and expats discover about Colombia, one of those is the various regional traits – quasi-subcultures if you will – that exist here. It’s not something you have to find out for yourself – although spend enough time here and you undoubtedly will – as the locals are usually quick to fill you in.
A twilight scene of downtown Bogotá
'Rolo land' - twilight in Bogotá.
These ‘subcultures’ are generally city or department confined (for the record, Colombia consists of 32 departments or ‘departamentos’ in Spanish) and, at the risk of over-generalising, we tend to find that the characteristics associated with each region more-or-less hold true. Of course, you will find that the chief traits of one area are in existence in other locations, but perhaps just not to the same degree. 

A Colombian acquaintance summed-up the most common of these regional behaviours thus:
Starting with the capital Bogotá, if you have three Bogotanos or Rolos (Rolas for women) as they are referred to, with you in a room, what happens? Well, they probably won’t talk to you and when you leave their company you’ll discover your mobile phone and other personal belongings have gone ‘missing’. 

As for the people from the country’s second city, Medellín, and its department, Antioquia, find yourself surrounded by three Paisas as they’re known and you’re in good business company. From the female point-of-view they’ll also be fiercely attractive – now that’s saying something considering this is Colombia – but, as we’ve found out to our cost, they might struggle to find their purse (see both ‘The wages of love’ & ‘Bienvenidos a Medellín – Bangkok Light’ for related stories).  You don't get ahead in business by spending lots of money now do you?

Get a trio of inhabitants from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Costeños, together and you’ll be partying and dancing non-stop, with the ladies suggestively rubbing their considerable posteriors in your crotch area. Apparently, even the region’s donkeys get to sample these erotic dances – and even a bit more if they’re ‘lucky’.
A shot of the very scenic San Gil in the Department of Santander
There's much more to Santander than just the 'chicas'.
The city of Cali’s good people (Caleñas) are best known for their sultry salsa skills – well they have to be good at something, right?

Then you have the Santandereanas – that is the women that come from the department of Santander. In the words of our Colombian acquaintance – himself, we must point out a Santandereano – if you’re in the company of three of these ladies then you’ve got problems, big problems. In fairness, it only takes one to give you trouble, three is akin to a death sentence.

These are Colombia’s quintessential crazy ladies, locas. Again, that’s a big statement to make – it’s not like they don’t have much competition in this regard here. Now being fiery and passionate as these Santandereanas are doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing – but these ‘chicas’ have taken it to a degree that would see Jesus Christ himself reach for the shotgun after only a couple of days if he survived that long.

If you’re contemplating dating one get ready for one of the most dramatic emotional roller-coasters you’ll ever experience. OK, you might say that this is the case with women in general, but we’re referring to heretofore unprecedented levels of craziness here.

Personal experience of all this – not even in a dating sense at that – and the streams of anecdotal evidence from both Colombians and foreigners alike cannot be merely brushed aside as coincidence. So it is, Santander – the home of ‘The Black Widows’.
A Black Widow spider - closely related to some Santandereanas
A Santand..., sorry, a Black Widow spider.
Of course as we always like to point out after making sweeping generalisations, there are, fortunately, exceptions. We have a small number of Santandereanas that we rate as good friends – trustworthy even. The fact that most of these spent some time outside of Colombia has obviously played a significant part in ‘normalising’ them – whatever that actually means. You know who you are.

So what about the perfect Colombian woman, based on the above? For us, it would be the Paisa’s looks, the soundness of the Caleñas, a smidgen of the Santandereanas passion and initial friendliness, the Costeñas eroticism and the Rolas, erm, daring.

We can dream, can’t we?

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Punching back

Amid all the justified euphoria of the Irish, at home and abroad, celebrating Katie Taylor punching her way to gold medal success at London 2012, a few less celebratory side-stories were played out in the media. 

The first came when our boxing champ was - in error we’re told although a number of people think differently – called British by a journalist in The Telegraph. Now she may be from the historic ‘Pale’ area of Ireland and have a Liverpool-born father but that does not make her British by definition – despite what some Irish from other parts of the island might have you believe. 

The Australian National flag, replete with Union Jack in the top-left corner
'Is that a Union Jack I see on the Aussie flag?'
Sure if she had been brought up British at 26 years of age she’d probably have at least two children by now and be living in some rough council estate at the state’s mercy. What? This happens nowadays, in good old Catholic Ireland. No way. Nevertheless, colonial tendencies die-hard (hence why so many Colombians love pilfering) so we’ll let our neighbour across the Irish Sea off on this one.

It’s a little bit harder though to be as lenient towards the Australian sports pundit Russell Barwick. Not because we’re offended – we tend not to let a few misinformed utterances upset us – but more because of the pure ignorance of a man in his position. 

For a prisoner – sorry I mean an Aussie – to say Ireland ‘is a joke’ for not joining Team Great Britain at the Olympics is a bit rich to state the least. Without going into our own cultural, geographical or political situation, the very fact that Barwick comes from Australia is more-than-likely because of the British. His country’s flag proudly displays the Union Jack, its currency has the head of the British Queen while, lest we forget, he also happens to be one of her subjects. Surely then his ‘dependency’ has a much stronger argument to join up with the British for sporting and other events than the Irish. Maybe just let the Aborigines go it alone.   

A host of nationalities boozing it up in Laos, with 'Wrong Way' leading by example
A world of drinkers with the Irish man leading them - the 'Wrong Way'
Then we had a couple of episodes bringing us back to the old ‘drunken Irish’ stereotype – the ‘harshest’ if you will (again, not that we get too offended) coming from, once more, an Australian. One, coincidentally enough, with a very Irish sounding surname – Hanlon (Peter). 

What he penned was deemed so offensive in this politically correct world (‘Survival of the Dumbest’ has more on that subject) that the Irish Ambassador to Australia was moved to write a letter of complaint to Fairfax Media, the group which ran with the story. 

Come on, one of the better Irish traits is usually our ability not to take ourselves too seriously. Plus, what he wrote was semi-amusing and semi-accurate in some regards, such as “For centuries, Guinness and whiskey have sent the Irish off their heads. Now all it takes is a petite 26-year old from Wicklow.” In fairness, we probably still need at least a smidgen of Guinness or whiskey to really get us going.

The Yanks too got in on the ‘have a go at the ‘alco’ Irish’ jibe, with USA Today chief sports columnist Jon Saraceno writing, “Back home on the emerald-green isle, pints of Guinness flowed freely, perhaps enough to replenish the Irish Sea.” Fair enough really, it’s just we’re not too sure if the Irish Sea needs replenishing.
A young Peruvian boy familiarises himself with beer
'Get it into you son' - they like beer in Latin America too

One of the biggest problems with this entire ‘drunken Irish’ stereotype is that we’re really not the world ‘masters’ at drinking we – secretly or otherwise – like to think we are. We’ve encountered plenty of non-Irish across the globe who can drink copious amounts of booze yet they fail to get lauded for it. Sticking with the Aussies, sure our friends ‘Down Unda’ habitually have a stubby or whatever they call it for breakfast, followed by another few for lunch before ‘warming up’ with some more in the evening prior to a night on the lash. 

The Colombians too know how to drink, they usually just sweat it off much quicker than us with all that needless salsa dancing (for more on that see ‘Lord of the Dance’ Heck we’ve also witnessed a ‘healthy’ drink culture in South-East Asia – it’s just the poor buggers’ bodies there physically won’t allow them consume as much as us. If they could hold out longer, we’ve no doubt they would.

In truth, we’re happy to keep our world renowned drinking reputation in tact. For one, it helps keep the global Irish pub business thriving – the same cannot be said for the national market.*

Plus, in order to overcome a perceived problem you must first realise you have one. So while we know we like to drink, other nationalities are still deluding themselves that they don’t. 

*Check out our previous ‘An Irish lament’ for a detailed look at that. 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

National interest?

To coincide with the London Olympics, Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper published a list of what it considers to be the 10 worst national anthems in the world. Now amazingly – well, perhaps not given the publication – ‘God Save The Queen’ didn’t make the cut. Come on, of all the people in the world that need saving, old pampered Elizabeth is not top priority. Her British subjects, it seems however, think differently. 

One country’s national song that did make it onto the list – in at number 6 in case you’re wondering – was that of our current home, Colombia. This is something that hasn’t gone down too well with a number of the locals we met in the past week – that is those ones that feel part of this ‘Republic’ (see our ‘Whose Land Is It Anyway?’ at for more on that particular topic).
'Wrong Way' fitting very comfortably in the judge's chair
'Did you just criticise my country?' Sorry I thought you wanted my opinion?

In truth we can, sort of, understand the annoyance of some Colombians at this apparent affront to their national anthem (its name by the way is ‘Oh, Gloria Inmarcesible’, that’s ‘Oh, Unfading Glory’). It’s not that bad. Indeed after you’ve heard it a few hundred times – by law it must be played on all the state’s radio and television channels at 6am and 6pm every day – the tune becomes quite catchy. Maybe, though, that’s just a result of intense exposure to it. We might begin to have similar feelings for the North Korean ‘ditty’ – it topped The Telegraph’s list – if we heard it as often. OK, possibly not.

Outside of all that, this whole story has served to remind us of how passionate many Colombians are about their country. In many respects it can be seen as a good thing, being proud of your nation, defending its ‘honour’. But like everything, it’s best in moderation. In its mildest form, nationalism can be blinkered and biased, in its extremist form it can be crushingly deadly – Nazism is all we need mention here. 

Needless to say Colombian patriotism is thankfully in the former category as is the case in most countries across the globe. But we should be at least open to a bit of constructive criticism from time-to-time. For some Colombians however just the slightest negative remark about their country is taken as a massive insult (for an example of what we mean, see: The same can be said for many US citizens – the existence of this blinkered and biased nationalism.
A rainbow somewhat brightens up a dark Irish sky - we just don't see it
'Never mind the rainbow, just look at that grey sky.'

In contrast, you’ve got the attitude of the majority of us Irish. Speaking positively about our country is practically frowned upon. We love to tell people how much of a mess it’s in – and it’s in a pretty big one. It’s not that we’re not proud of where we are from or don’t like it, it’s just we tend not to do hyperbole as the Yanks have perfected. 

In fact, we’re skilled in the exact opposite, making things seem far worse than they generally are. We talk down achievements rather than talk them up. Indeed to that last sentence our natural cynicism would say ‘what achievements?’ We are our own worse critics. To us, that’s a natural way to be. Anything else just smacks of arrogance – too North American or English. 

In a sporting context, for the fans at least, we believe this pessimism or cynicism or whatever you want to call it works well. Because our expectations are so low, when we do inevitably fail, we don’t get terribly upset. We just drink more and sing. Much better than the standard English reaction of rioting - isn't that right Master Roy Keane?
It all got a bit too much for 'Wrong Way'
Down & out, yet again

Putting on though our ill-fitting ‘positivity hat’, us Irish, you have to say, have done quite well across the board, in relative terms. We just don’t brag about it. While this is a trait we tend to like, at times it can be self-defeating – especially when we go abroad, going up against other nationalities for jobs or whatever. 

Thus – if only for a time and for show – we have to learn to be a bit more boastful as to what we’re about. In fairness, we’ve done that pretty well through the years. Our international sporting excellence remains a work in progress however.