Sunday, 27 January 2013

Buenaventura's dirty delights

It shouldn’t come as a major surprise to regular readers that we’re not averse to squalid settings every now and again. It’s just as well of course, for as beautiful as Colombia is in a natural sense, many – but not all it must be said – of its urban dwellings make European rubbish tips seem idyllic. Last year we had the pleasure of checking out two such ‘dirty towns’, Turbo (see 'Turbo Living' and Maicao (see 'Dirty Old Town' You could also throw a large portion of Bogotá – our home, on-and-off, for the last 15 months – onto this list.*
Sea, sun and rubbish - a typical Buenaventura scene
Adding a bit of colour to the natural environment

It’s not that we enjoy the dirt or take some sort of perverted satisfaction from seeing it strewn about the place, far from it. But scrape back a bit of the material waste and in most of these places – less so perhaps the sprawling metropolis of Bogotá – you’ll find extremely friendly, laid-back people (laid-back to the point that collecting rubbish is seen as a waste of time – ‘Sure won’t Mother Nature break it down after a while?’) with what appears to be a generally healthy attitude to life.

So sticking to type, this is pretty much what we found in Colombia’s Pacific coast city of Buenaventura. Now it was for reasons of transport that we had to pass through the place, our final destination being Bahía Solano, a tranquil little coastal town further north, reachable only, unless that is you fancy a wild trek through inhospitable jungle (next time), by boat or plane (we took the former option, hence the stop in Buenaventura).

In fairness, and as is the case with Turbo and Maicao, the fact that most of the ‘respected’ travel books on Colombia suggest giving the city a wide berth or if you have to stay for some reason then just make it brief, we were always tempted to check it out on its own merits. Not just using it as a transport hub that is.

Indeed it does still see a fair amount of visitors and mirroring Colombia as a whole this number is increasing all the time, although many of these are just passing through, visiting some of the beaches that are short speed-boat rides away (our destination of Bahía Solano, on the other hand, is a much longer trip – more on that in the coming weeks). The fact that it is also the most important port city on the country’s Pacific coast means that it also gets plenty of sailors coming and going. So foreign faces are not uncommon.
A not very accurate message about Buenaventura
Well at least there's a positive outlook as regards the rubbish

It is though home to a large number of Afro-Colombians, so the whiter your skin, the more you stand out. This can be both a good and bad thing. Good in so far as people like to talk with you, from a single male perspective that can be very positive. Bad in the sense that, as happens in many places across the globe, some people here equate white skin with lots of money. If only they knew. Thankfully such negative attention wasn’t very prevalent during our short stay there. In fact, our previous view that Afro-Colombians are the least friendly of the ethnic groups that live in the country was pleasantly altered. They can still, however, be a little disobliging when it comes to bus journeys. We all have our flaws.

It has been said that the city is the capital of arguably one of Colombia’s strongest underground exports – prostitutes.** From what we witnessed, it’s hard to disagree (wait a second, is that why the women were so friendly?). There were plenty of them ‘playing the game’ in any case. Throw in the fact that one of the semi-respectable hotels we stayed in seemed to double up as a brothel and you begin to see the importance of the industry to the place. Mentioning hotels, we must give a plug to ‘Hospedaje Bahia Mar’. At the equivalent of about $8US a night, it’s one of the best value-for-money spots we’ve stayed at in Colombia. And sticking with the sex tourism theme, it’s the only hotel/hostel we’ve been in that has a porn channel free to watch on your bedroom TV. How thoughtful.

What’s more, the first guy we befriended, a very helpful, nice lad at that, seemed to be some sort of a pimp. Each to their own and all that. On a broader scale, this is the place where many of these ‘ladies of the night’ learn their trade before hitting for the traditionally, economically stronger Latin American countries. Chances are if you meet a Colombian prostitute in the likes of Brazil or Chile, she more than likely hails from Buenaventura or its surrounds.
A view of the little port from next to the seaside park
The seaside park is relatively nice

Outside of all that, in terms of what to do in the city itself, well there’s not an awful lot. Granted our stay was limited to the centre, the part nearest the sea/port (the city is divided into two parts, joined by a bridge). But from what we saw in passing of the outer part of the city, much of it resembles a shanty town and didn’t look that appealing. At least in the centre there’s a seaside park and accompanying views of the ocean. If you can find a half-clean park bench to sit on it’s a relatively nice place to read a book and watch boats sail in and out in the muggy afternoon heat. There’s also ‘Zona Franca’, the city’s duty-free zone in a sense, where you can do some bargain hunting for all sorts of goods if that’s your thing. For us, the cheap eats and drinks that can be found in the place were very satisfying, along of course with the aforementioned friendly locals.

As for the dirt, sure no place is perfect.

* For more on Bogotá's rubbish, see 'Petrograd - Colombia's new capital?' & 'Small steps to a cleaner, greener Bogotá?'

** For related articles on prostitutes in Colombia, see "Bienvenidos a Medellin - 'Bangkok Light'" & 'What a mother hooker!'

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A qualified, uneducated elite?

OK, perhaps we’re guilty of being a little naive. Maybe this happens all over the place, not just here in Colombia. But we weren’t aware of it. Well we never really asked questions about it to be honest.

One of the Los Andes university buildings in Bogotá
'How much is a master's?' 'How much have you got?'
Apparently though a host of the country’s brightest and best obtain degrees and masters in a less than equitable way – or at least in a way that just doesn’t seem proper. It’s not a case of ‘what you know’ or even ‘who you know’; it’s more to do with ‘who you are and where you come from’.

You see we have it on good authority that a number of students in Colombia’s highest rated university – Los Andes – are ‘too big to fail’ in a sense. That is, if their exam performances would see them fall short going by the standard marking procedure, that ‘procedure’ is adjusted to see them ‘right’.

We’ve been told by a very trusted professional source inside the college that if he was to grade his students by the international norm – and this is in a subject area where there should be very little room for divergence – he’d be hard pressed to pass any of them. Indeed, it’s got to the point now where our insider doesn’t mark the exams he sets – they’re passed on to a third party that is more willing to mark in a ‘superficial and positive way’ as it was explained to us.

This sort of practice isn’t just limited to Los Andes. In another of Bogotá’s ‘reputable’ universities, we heard a more personal case which gives an idea of the questionable standards of grading that are practised in the capital, if not Colombia in general.

A famous Einstein quote
A female student who had barely attended any of her lectures all semester turned up to sit her final exam. When handing it in at the end, she also presented a doctor’s cert saying she had been ill for the last week – just a week now, not the whole semester. She demanded to her expat professor that she be graded leniently because of this. When she was told her week of sickness was no grounds for preferential marking – especially considering she barely turned up all term – she went berserk.

The professor though didn’t shirk – not until that is he was told by his department head that the girl should be marked favourably i.e. that she shouldn’t fail even though she should have. Lunacy – yet such occurrences here are not as unusual as you would like to see according to those we’ve spoken to who work closely in this area.

It certainly lends more credence to one of our favourite sayings, ‘Qualification is a result, education a process’. These people – and considering their backgrounds and ‘schooling’ many of them will be Colombia’s future ‘leading lights’ – can rather easily get their ‘qualification’, their little piece of paper saying that they are ‘knowledgeable’ in a certain field, yet many perhaps are far from properly educated. Now that’s not to say that their professors or lecturers are not ‘fit-for-purpose’ – on the contrary you can find some of the finest educators around working here. It’s more about some of these students’ – and their parents’ – demands on the system coupled with the significant influence they have.

Degree results
Important but worthless?
Of course even without the shocking practices highlighted above, the previous paragraph could be aimed at many people who have degrees or masters. In one way getting your qualification is a bit like a placebo effect – it can make you feel that bit better about yourself but does it really ‘better’ you? It can make some people more arrogant anyway.

Yes, a degree or a master’s is needed to open many doors or even just to be considered for numerous positions – a necessary evil in many ways. But like most things, practice makes perfect – it’s usually the case that you learn much more by getting down-and-dirty in whatever area you have your qualification in – if you have one – than what you learned in schooling.

Bearing all that in mind, it would seem prudent for many companies, as some of the more progressive are now doing, to review what sort of ‘qualifications’ they look for when hiring. Ruling out somebody straight away just because he/she doesn’t have a degree or a master’s could be foolish, as it may be to include people just because they are well ‘qualified’ in terms of letters after their name and pieces of paper on their walls.

After all, in the long-run, it may be better to be mastered by a fool than to be fooled by an apparent master.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Forever friends

‘Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.’ When it comes to women, perhaps the majority of the time it’s better no devil at all. But we all have needs to satisfy – can’t live with them, can’t live without them and all that. We have though become a little bit tired of meeting new women and ‘building from scratch’ in terms of friendships and/or relationships. Perhaps the country we’re in with its blasé attitude in a number of quarters towards those ‘lesser-spotted’ friendships/relationships is playing its part in our less than enthusiastic desire to go in search of new ones (see ‘Colombia’s False Friends’ Also, while being close to your family is generally something to be encouraged, sometimes in these parts that ‘proximity’ can be a little bit claustrophobic in a sense, making it difficult to build ‘outside’ friendships.
Michael and Fredo Corleone - not the best of buddies
Family as friends - not always a good mix

In terms of both sexes, we do of course have some very good Colombian friends here to bolster our expat buddies but our policy now resembles at times a ‘what we have, we hold’ strategy. That may seem like quite an unsociable approach but as a rule it takes us time to build good, trustworthy friendships. We have a lot of acquaintances and people whose company we enjoy from time-to-time – but those that make it onto the ‘true friends list’ are few. Now there’s nothing startling in this, it’s human nature really. What’s more, generally speaking men tend to be able to build a larger base of ‘loose’ friends compared to women but can very often be quite solitary when it comes to having tighter bonds.

Building genuine, trusting friendships of course can last a lifetime. Therefore as a race we tend to gravitate towards familiar, similar characters – people we feel we can relate to better. This is not to say that these kinds of individuals will become true friends but there is perhaps a higher chance that they will.
A portrait of the writer - Oscar Wilde
Wilde knows best

This brings us on to what exactly the definition of a ‘true friend’ is. For us it’s somebody who is honest and trustworthy, somebody who you can confide in and vice versa. Obviously it has to be somebody whose company you enjoy, but this does not mean that you have to be in agreement with him/her all the time. Indeed, as the Greek writer Plutarch put it, ‘I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.’ Sometimes a person being honest with you is not always nice but in the majority of occasions it’s usually for the better. To further hammer home the point, ‘true friends stab you in the front’ as Oscar Wilde mused. They shouldn’t always be ‘attacking’ you though, needless to state.

Friendships should also be able to survive over distance and time. A good sign of being a true friend with someone is when you don’t see them for an extended period yet when you do eventually meet it’s like you’d never been apart.
A couple of dead and gutted birds
A similar fate awaits some false friends

Now it shouldn’t have to be said that being a true friend with somebody must be reciprocal in order for it to really work. It’s a two-way street where there is giving and taking throughout.

In a similar way, if a business person has a loyal customer, he/she should show signs of appreciating that loyalty in a tangible way. Alas, this doesn’t always happen (see ‘Doing Business in SA’ and ‘Bogotá’s simple pleasures’ for more).

In our lives we inevitably encounter characters that we wish we didn’t have to – be it at work, social events or whatever. You need to be able to ‘park’ those kinds of people though – to leave them in your mental outhouse so to speak. Don’t dwell on them or let them occupy you – this is easier written than realised of course but it can be done. Cut the deadwood and the negative influences from your life.

So as 2013 gets up-and-running, we’re going to continue to strive to surround ourselves with people we can trust. Of course, we are aware that not everybody who is willing to stab us in the front is a true friend. It’s good to keep that in mind.