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.