Monday, 31 December 2012

Six of the best in 2012 (well kind of)

Despite the irrational and subsequently unfounded fear in some quarters that the world would end on December 21st just gone (remember all the hullabaloo?) because of a Mayan ‘prediction’, we’re still here, same as always, more or less. Of course ‘officially’ the Mayans weren’t predicting the end of the world at all; it was just the end of their 12th calendar and the beginning of number 13.

In any case, a large number of us use the Gregorian calendar these days, which sees us entering a new year. So, in keeping with our exceptional originality here, we’re going to look back at some of the things that we’ve derived most pleasure from in 2012. Well, at least we’re being outwardly positive for a change. And as you’ll see – in no particular order and far from exhaustive by the way – there have been plenty of things that brought a smile to our face in the past year:

A shot from the Miraflores Locks at The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal

Seeing more of the world
Considering it’s travelling that has us in Colombia in the first place, we’ll start off on this one. 2012 saw us add four more countries to our imaginary ‘visited list’ – but far from ‘done list’ (don’t get us started on that one. A very irritating turn of phrase used by far too many backpackers). Firstly there were the ‘delights’ of Venezuela – it’s true, time is a great healer (for what we thought of the country at the time, see*

Then there was the very beautiful – if a little bit pricey for our modest and declining earnings – Barbados. That necessary trip to see a very good friend get married included a brief stop in Trinidad, enough though to take in a bit of Port-of-Spain, with its almost unbearable heat and quite friendly locals from what we encountered. We finished off our brief little Caribbean adventure with a longer return to Panama – we had actually walked into that country earlier in the year from bordering Capurganá in Colombia. This time around we actually got to stay a few nights; and it was well worth it.

On top of all this, we did take in more of the wonderful country that is Colombia itself, but there is still plenty more we want to see here. Time to get moving again pretty soon we reckon.

‘La Grande’ arrives
This may shock some of you, but we like a beer every now and again – the bigger (and cheaper) the better. For some unknown reason though, since we first visited Colombia in 2009, all you could purchase in the majority of bars/tiendas were the small 330ml bottles. In most of the other South American countries 750ml or litre bottles are the norm.

Thankfully this year saw Colombia get up to standard with both ‘Aguila’ and ‘Poker’ introducing the 750ml bottles. Linked to this is the ‘discovery’ of cheap and cheerful tiendas with appreciative staff (are you listening Doña Ceci et al?) to consume said bottles. We thought we were doing well with $3,000COP a bottle (roughly €1.20), but that’s been trumped by a lovely little place in Bogotá’s Belén district for $2,500COP a bottle. It’s the ‘little big’ things in life that count. For a related article, which also details our perhaps dangerously addictive liking for value-for-money coffee and biscuits, see “Bogotá’s simple pleasures”
A 'grande' poker - why would you go for the smaller one?

‘A star’ is born
OK, not quite. But we did get a glimpse inside the ‘Telenovela’ (that’s utterly cheesy Latino soap operas) world with our work as an extra from time-to-time. Heck, we’re even due to appear ‘prominently’ in some made-for-TV US movie, ‘Left to Die’, which is already out apparently. Although we can’t help but think that we’ve already had our, precisely speaking, ’30 seconds’ of fame from this type of work. That came during our appearance in ‘Colombia Tiene Talento’ (Colombia’s Got Talent), where we had to wave a flag all dressed in white for one of the acts. Such was the 'quality' of our performance it made ‘waves’ across the globe, with ‘The Irish Daily Star’ giving us a spread in its pages. Alas, we failed to get the expected flag bearer gig at the Olympics for either Team Ireland or Team Colombia. There’s always Rio in 2016... For more on this see “Giving just a little bit ‘extra’” and for our flag waving extraordinaire see, from 2’ 30’’
'Wrong Way' in the Irish Daily Star
'Flagtastic' - indeed
Teaching English
There are times when we wouldn’t feel like putting this down as a positive, but on the whole we’ve found it quite enjoyable. It’s helped us meet some very interesting, decent people, both in terms of the companies we’ve worked for (firstly InstitoNordico, now BSR Idiomas and indeed our private classes) and the students we’ve taught. We’ve even managed to make a little bit of money out of the whole gig – just a little mind you. For a more thorough look at this world, see our earlier piece, “The ‘Money’ Tongue” 

Best Man for an old-time friend
As mentioned above, the reason we went to Barbados. It was a privilege and an honour to be at the side of one of our oldest (in length of time we’re mates that is, not age, lest we insult anyone) and best friends. Second time to be a best man, the chances of our own ‘tying of the knot’ are a long, long way off however. We’re happy to watch from the sidelines at this moment in time; horses for courses and all that.
A shot of the 'altar' for our friend's wedding in Barbados
Street arepas
OK, we knew about these round corn-based delights before the start of 2012, but it was in this year that we really got to enjoy them; simple yet wonderful pleasures. The perfect hunger-buster on a chilly Bogotá evening, our preference has been the ‘carne con queso’ (that’s meat with cheese with a bit of BBQ sauce to boot) for a very agreeable $2,200COP (roughly €1). For those of you that know the Colombian capital, our favourite place to consume these is from the vendor that operates outside the Colombo-Americano, Calle 19 with Carrera 3. We’ve missed them over the Christmas break – come back soon.
Street arepas - quite delicious
Quality grub
So they are some of our highlights from 2012. All that's left for us to say for now is, 'Happy New Year' to all; onwards and upwards in 2013.

*Please note, for an updated, more positive piece on Venezuela, see (for starters) see Venezuela: A necessary reappraisal.

Monday, 24 December 2012

'Dar papaya' - letting the guard down

A common occurrence for immigrants after spending some time in their adopted place is that they begin to feel more comfortable, at ease with their new surroundings. Not a bad thing in most scenarios that. Indeed it’s what most of us want to happen when we decide to rock up in a location that may be ‘outside of our comfort zone’ in some respects.
'Wrong Way' masquerading as a Miami cop
It's best to take all necessary precautions on a night out in Bogotá

However – and this tends to be place dependent – there are times when you can get to a level of comfort that slips into complacency. This is when things can get dangerous, something we’ve found out to our cost on a number of occasions here in Bogotá. Before we look at those incidents, it must be stated that even taking the best precautions out there is not going to guarantee your safety. That’s something that in reality can never be met, anywhere. Yes, some places are worse than others, but nowhere is completely trouble-free.

No matter where you are though, there are certain things you can do to at least lessen the chances of, what Colombians call, ‘dar papaya’. This phrase basically means leaving yourself exposed – not just physically, but mentally too – to be taken advantage of. Letting the guard down so to speak.

Our cautionary, ‘lesson must be learned’ experiences involve two of the things that we like to do best – socialising and the feeling that we’re getting value for money. The two stories we’re going to recount here were, as most of these sorts of incidents tend to be, completely avoidable. But when you can walk away from such events relatively unharmed, you should be all the stronger and wiser for them – that’s the theory anyway.

The first ‘eye-opener’ (or ‘skin-opener’ to be more precise considering what happened) occurred in the flashy ‘Zona T’ area of Bogotá – a place we usually feel ill-at-ease in any case but that’s usually to do with the arrogant types that frequent it, not for feelings of insecurity. As you tend to pay ridiculous prices around this part of the city for anything, we took it upon ourselves to purchase a bottle of aguardiente (Colombia’s ‘famed’ spirit) and knock it back in a quiet, dimly lit public park – we were unsure about the legalities of drinking on the street – before meeting another friend in an upmarket (and therefore outlandishly expensive) club.
The papaya fruit; lends its name to the Colombian warning phrase 'dar papaya'
Nice fruit, but keep it to yourself

While ‘warming ourselves up’ in this park, three lads walked past us – something our more shrewd German companion apparently noticed, not liking their vibe, but he decided to hold his counsel. He should have trusted his instincts; for back came our ‘friends’, replete with knives and intent to harm. Two of them managed to pin down our German mate, not before managing to inflict a minor stab wound on our little finger. Seeing red, quite literally, and a little bit unsure as to what was happening, we confronted the third member of the group. Within seconds though the low-lives fled, once they had taken a little bit of a bounty from our friend – but in relative terms not that much. They took nothing material from us, but they did of course manage to split open our finger.

The lesson learned from this – don’t nonchalantly go drinking in quiet parks at night time in Bogotá. OK, a no-brainer perhaps, but complacency very much set-in for us on this occasion.

Which brings us on to the next ‘what were you thinking (or not as the case may be)’ cautionary tale. The context here is our dislike for taking taxis, especially when we know there’s a cheaper alternative. And with buses running more or less through the night in Bogotá, we generally find this a much more agreeable option to get home. Many locals though tend not to speak too highly of these late night/early morning buses. We’ve never had a problem with them though – that is when we take them when we’re ‘with it’ or at least close to being ‘with it’.

This night however, we don’t even remember getting on the bus to get home – in fact, we’re only guessing that this is what we did, but we can’t be fully sure. It seems however the most logical course of events to explain how we ended up in very dodgy territory in the ‘not very safe’ south of the city, miles from where we were meant to be. Due to a significant black-out, our memory of events goes from being in a pub in the north of the city with friends and colleagues to lying on the ground in this inhospitable location in the far south with two men standing over us, emptying our pockets. Keys to the house, cash, mobile phone, ID – everything material they could take, they duly did. To paraphrase Ann Robinson from the BBC’s ‘Weakest Link’, ‘we were left with nothing’.

Christmas lights on Carrera Septima in Bogotá - a bit blurry like our memory
Exact details of our second 'incident' are a little blurry
Thankfully and most importantly though, no physical injuries were inflicted. Considering how exposed we left ourselves, we were lucky on that front. Once we ‘came round’, we managed to bum a third of a bus fare from a guy on the street, with the bus driver seemingly taking pity on us, allowing us to board. Needless to say, we couldn't get out of the place quick enough.

As mentioned earlier, when you can walk away from such incidents pretty much in one piece, you have to be grateful. The most important thing is to learn from them and amend your practices accordingly. Not to do so is just plain stupid. For if you ‘dar papaya’ around these parts, there are plenty of people willing to feed off you.

*For related stories on Colombia's 'dangers' (or not!) see: 'Dangerous' Colombia Part III and associated posts.

**All the 'team' here at 'Wrong Way' would like to wish all our loyal readers a Happy Christmas/Feliz Navidad! No, we're not using the 'PC' 'Happy Holidays' - here's why

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Small steps to a cleaner, greener Bogotá?

OK, credit where credit is – perhaps – due. If we came across as being a little harsh on Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro in our last post (see ‘Petrograd – Colombia’s new capital?’ we must compliment him and his administration this time around. Cautiously that is, as it is early days and this is Colombia.

A standard household bin in a Bogotá house - everything lumped in together
No more mixing & matching of waste - in theory anyway
However with the scene now seemingly set for the introduction of a new ‘unified’ waste collection service in Bogotá in a matter of days, more details have – not before time you might say – emerged as to what it will entail.

One of the more stand-out, welcome measures as far as we are concerned is in the introduction of two separate household bins, a black one for organic matter and a white one for inorganic/recyclable material. For if there’s one thing we’ve missed in our time here it’s a systematic approach to recycling domestic waste. It heretofore just hasn’t existed.

To say Bogotanos – or most Colombians for that matter – lack such a culture of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is to put it mildly. Of course this is a trend across ‘developing world’ (we reluctantly use that description) countries – thinking ‘green’ often tends to be the last part of a state’s development plan. It just doesn’t seem as attractive – hedonistic if you will – as the more planetary harmful, wasteful ways of doing business. Or at least it hasn’t up until very recently.

A popular homeless people's haunt near the railway line in Bogotá. Not the most pleasing place on the eye
We're not sure if the locals here will be separating their rubbish
Now nobody, not even Mayor Petro, is expecting overnight success with the new waste measures. Considering the fact that there will be no punishment – financial or otherwise – for domestic users that don’t ‘play by the rules’, it’s therefore a safe bet to assume that getting the city’s residents to change their habits is not going to be easy.

Indeed having two bins for different types of rubbish might be a tad mind-blowing for some, especially those who find it difficult to move away from the doors of the Transmilenio transport system, both at the station and on board, when they are either not getting on or not getting off (for more on this see ‘Bogotá’s transport truths’ Sometimes it appears people here just don’t know what might be good, not just for others, but themselves too. When you don’t see an obvious ‘carrot’, a ‘stick’ is often needed to lead you down the correct path.

Let’s not be overly pessimistic though – it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction to get the city’s inhabitants to think smarter about how they dispose of their waste and in the process it should help give the place a badly needed ‘freshening-up’.

Sticking with the ‘green’ theme, it has also been announced that in the next few months Bogotá’s streets will become home to fifty electricity-powered taxis. A tiny number this may be compared to the thousands of gas-guzzling cars on the capital’s streets, but, as above, it’s a small sign that the city’s authorities are finally trying to clean the place up.

A typically dirty Bogotá street near the tourist hotspot of La Candelaría in the old centre
Is a bright, cleaner future ahead for Bogotá?
Plans are also afoot – again though don’t hold your breath as to when these will be realised – to pedestrianise a large part of the ‘Las Aguas’ area of the city near the historic centre. Coupled with the already partial pedestrianisation of Carrera Septima (Seventh Street – something we touched on in ‘Dulling down Bogotá’, downtown Bogotá could become a much more pleasant place to amble about in the next few years.

Of course as is the case with many environmentally ‘friendly’ measures, the argument can be made that the energy expended to introduce and maintain such methods can be just as much as the old ‘harmful’ ways of doing business. For example, in the case of electricity-powered cars, often the electricity used to run them is produced from highly pollutant power plants. In one sense, it could be said that the point of pollution is just being moved to a more concentrated location – out of sight, out of mind so to speak.

This shouldn’t though be used as an excuse not to at least attempt to clean up our act. Yes, all countries must try harder to produce less planetary harmful core energy on a large scale, but we should all try to do our bit at a micro level too.

In this regard, these may be small steps being taken in Bogotá, but it’s better than nothing. And for that, we must be thankful.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Petrograd - Colombia's new capital?

There is a joke going around Bogotá – although for many it has a modicum of truth to it – that the Colombian capital is going to be renamed ‘Petrograd’. It’s all to do with the city’s mayor, Gustavo Petro and is a reference to the many Russian cities that were renamed after political leaders during the USSR communist era.
Mayor of Bogotá wearing his trademark Cuban style flat-cap
Mayor Gustavo Petro with trademark flat-cap (Pic. from Mayor's website)

For those of you in the dark, Petro is a former member of the far-left guerrilla group M-19. Indeed he did time in the mid 1980s for the illegal procession of arms. Now while those more radical days may be well behind him, his election as mayor perhaps a sign of that, it could be said that ‘you can take the man out of the leftish guerrillas, but you can’t take the leftish guerrilla out of the man.’ Or, the other way to look at it as we'll see is that he’s an opportunist, plain and simple - a wise way to be, perhaps.

You see while his overall plan for the city, ‘Bogotá Humana’ (Humane Bogotá), may be full of merit, how he’s beginning to go about implementing it is a little bit more questionable. No doubt, especially considering his background, he is a visionary – or at least he has an idea of the type of Bogotá/Colombia he’d like to see emerge in the coming years. However, it would appear, as is the case with so many elected officials (see ‘Time for change’ for more on that point), that he’s now beginning to play the populist card as he positions himself to run, as he unsuccessfully did in 2010, for the country’s presidency in 2014.

Two typically empty SITP buses
Nice buses - but where are all the passengers?
Let’s take the recent roll-out of the integrated public transport system, the SITP. Despite our well documented ‘love’ for the more chaotic older system of buses currently doing the rounds (see ‘Dulling down Bogotá’, there’s no doubt that in theory the integrated system, given proper support, should make travelling around Bogotá far more comfortable for everybody. On top of that, the introduction of a modern fleet of, hopefully, cleaner, greener buses coupled with the phasing-out of the big old gas guzzlers should do the air quality (well lack of at this moment in time) in the metropolis no end of good.

Now while it is relatively early days in its introduction – and this is of course Colombia/Latin America – all the SITP seems to have achieved thus far is the addition of a few more buses to the already chock-a-block Bogotá streets. With those buses carrying very few passengers at that. You see it appears that the Petro administration is too fearful to take on the very many private buseta/colectivo operators in the city. They make up a powerful group with many of their employees the type of people the current mayor will be relying on for support in his very likely second presidential assault in less than two years.

For if the powers-that-be in the city want its inhabitants to start using the new blue/red buses of the currently loss-making SITP, the quickest way to achieve this is to make it the only game in town. So that means taking the busetas/colectivos off the road. The political will to do this seems to be sorely lacking. The talk from officialdom is that Bogotanos must adapt and change their habits. But when you have an old system where the buses pick you up and drop you off wherever you want along the route – i.e. there are no set stops – and you don’t always have to pay the full-fare, then getting people to opt-out of that without much of a carrot or stick is wishful thinking.

As much of a socialist that Petro may claim to be, the lack of meaningful support he has shown to a publicly run transport system because of a reluctance to upset private operators is a bit of a contradiction to state the least.

Out with the old, in with the new. An Acueducto leaflet looking for workers sits on top of a rubbish bag from one of the current providers
Looking for work in Bogotá - check out the bins
He is perhaps, however, staying closer to his ‘roots’ on the waste collection issue – though the reasons for this may be far from ideological. Here the four current private operators are facing the axe with the service due to be passed on to one publicly ran company, Acueducto, which is responsible for water in the city. For many locals, this is a ‘jobs-for-the-boys’ style move from the Petro administration. The whole plan seems ill-thought-out and highly questionable. To this end it has more than raised eyebrows at national level, with President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration at loggerheads with Petro over the issue. Indeed the national government may yet pull the plug on the scheme, which is due to get up-and-running on December 18th. Such a public bloody-nose for Mayor Petro could have its benefits though, selling it to the masses as national interference in his goal to clean-up Bogotá – a rallying cry to bolster support.

The new water charges are not without controversy either. Whatever about making those who earn more, pay more, to let a large, densely-populated area of the city off without any charges at all could be seen as populist. The richest three strata in the city will have to pay for water usage once it goes over a certain prescribed amount. For the remaining three strata, there will be no water consumption charges at all. The thought of having to fork out for excessive water use though can be an important motivation to conserve. Education can go so far, but people tend to learn quicker when it hits them in the pocket.

In Petrograd however, it’s best to keep the masses on-side. Perhaps that’s the best way to play it, for now.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Colombia and Ireland - a tale of two old Catholic countries

One of the connections that can be made between Colombia and Ireland is the significant influence the Catholic Church has had on the two countries. Now while this can be seen as a similarity, how that ‘Roman’ authority manifested itself in both states has been quite different.

It’s true to say that these days the Church’s power is very much on the wane in the two republics, perhaps much more so in Ireland than Colombia based on what we’ve seen and who we’ve spoken to here in the latter location. However, after dominating for so long, the residue of its long reign remains pretty strong in the minds of those brought up with its teachings.
Bogotanos 'enjoying' Easter celebrations in the Colombian capital
Sure just showing-up for religious events is all that's needed, right?
In terms of how ‘Catholic’ each state has been, it could be said that in the last 20 years or so, in an Irish context anyway, we’ve been outwardly very much drifting away from Rome yet inwardly staying quite close to the Church’s beliefs and morals. From our experiences here in Colombia, the opposite appears to be the case. Outwardly, many profess to be ‘strong Catholics’, yet in reality, their day-to-day practices betray this.

What we’re really getting at here are attitudes to relationships and perhaps more appropriately in this regard, sex. It has been well documented – mocked even – the traditional Irish reluctance to just talk about sex let alone see it as something enjoyable/recreational. Sex-before-marriage, in line with Catholic thinking, was a big no, no. It should be used as a means to procreate, no more, no less, within a secure family unit. You don’t have to go back too long ago in Ireland’s past to find a time when the local priest – and by extension, the Catholic Church – was one of the most respected individuals in the community. His line on a host of issues, including sex, took precedence over many others.

In this context, considering most ‘Fathers’ lack of practical knowledge in the whole sex area (let’s leave all the abuse scandals out of this for now) an awkwardness, embarrassment even, on the subject permeated through Irish society. The effects of this may be losing significance in 21st century Ireland but it’s true to state that for some the old uneasiness about ‘love-making’ remains.

Contrast this with Colombia. As alluded to above, numerous people here – and we’re talking specifically about those in their early 20s up to their late 30s – speak and superficially act a good ‘Catholic’ game, something you’re less inclined to find among those in the same age-bracket in Ireland. Basically, that is they are regular churchgoers and bless themselves all the time with that double or treble sign of the cross manoeuvre followed by kissing their thumb or something like that. It certainly looks the part, as if they mean it.
The Brady Bunch - the quintessential 'mine' and 'yours' family
Just missing the 'ours' Mr & Mrs Brady.
Yet their attitudes to pre-marital sex – thankfully many might say – are far more liberal, free-spirited if you will. No doubt they are aware of Rome’s line on the subject but because, perhaps, it just doesn’t seem to make natural sense to them, they overlook it. It could be seen as one good instance where the Colombian tendency not to stick to the ‘rules’ is beneficial.

Expanding into relationships in general, the number of ‘mine, yours and ours’ Catholic/Christian families here in Colombia seems to be, anecdotally speaking, practically the norm. That is a family where the mother has a child/children from a different relationship (the mine), as does her husband (yours) while they also have offspring that they created together (ours). Then, of course, you still have plenty of single-mother families where the father provides support – if he does at all – from a distance while he also caters for the other children he has with other women. You can be hard-pressed to find a family where both parents are in their first marriage and any children they have are ‘products’ of both.

Now we’re not saying that the ‘traditional’ family unit is all that exists in Ireland – of course not. But in general, an Irish husband and wife do appear to be more reluctant to go their separate ways, especially when there are children involved, compared to Colombians – in a number of cases that’s often to the detriment of all involved. Sometimes it’s better for mind and body to realise the game is up.
A statue of a priest giving a 'comforting' arm (and no more we hope) to a young boy
"Father knows best, my child."
So two old ‘Catholic’ countries they may be, but how that association has shaped their social development has been quite different. It could be argued that the Irish tendency to maintain the ‘traditional’ family unit is better for society in general.

However, our ‘traditional awkwardness’, if you will, of the whole sex area has had mixed results. In one, perhaps positive, sense, it may have seen us take a more considered approach on those we jumped into bed with – it may have that is. In another way, for some, the art was practically demonised – very much not healthy for mind and body that.

Issues and problems are bound to arise when you take counsel from those that know relatively very little about the subject area in question. As many Colombians have learned, sometimes it’s best to go with your natural instincts.

*For related articles, see: "'Mi Amor' - or perhaps not?" & 'Strength in Belief'