Wednesday, 29 January 2014

'Que pena con usted; but at least I got my way'

It's not always best practice to take sayings/phrases from a non-native language, translate them into our own, and then take them literally. There are many examples in English where taking a word-for-word translation of certain expressions just doesn't make sense in other languages; 'the hair of the dog', 'beat about the bush', and so forth.
The vulture -- does it show a little more respect towards others than some Colombians?
'Que pena Mr Cayman, but at least I'd the decency to wait until you died.'
Yet the Colombian-Spanish saying of 'que pena con usted' doesn't fall into this bracket – not as far as we're concerned anyway, owing to our experiences of its use. The literal translation is 'what pain/embarrassment for (with) you'. This tends to be used in many scenarios in Colombia when, in the English speaking world, in any case, the more appropriate response would be 'Sorry' or 'Is there anything I can do to help?'

Now you might say that 'que pena' for Colombians is their 'sorry' and that's what they mean when they utter it (leaving aside the fact that there is in existence a perfect Spanish equivalent of 'sorry', namely 'lo siento', – literally 'I feel it' – which many other Spanish-speaking countries have no problem using). However, as is so often the case, actions speak much louder than words.

For example, an all-too-often 'que pena' usage is when you're in the middle of asking for something at a bar or café or the like and somebody else comes along and starts barking out his (or her – and perhaps it's more likely to be a woman) order ahead of you. You politely inform him that you were there first and in the middle of ordering; cue the 'que pena' (without making eye contact) and the 'out of order' order continues without a second thought for the 'displaced'. In other words, to fit the translation, “what a pain for you indeed. But I'm happy, I've got what I want, that's the most important thing.”

You could argue that there is a freshness and even honesty in this compared to much of the English-speaking world where people sometimes use 'sorry' when they don't really mean it. However, it's fair to say, in comparison with the example above for one, our behaviour in queues is generally a little more courteous and, dare we say, correct.

Moreover, an indifferent 'que pena' is used in so many contexts where for us 'lo siento' should be the more appropriate reply backed up by a genuine acceptance of an error or misjudgement. In its absence, it really only leaves one conclusion; they don't care that their actions have impeded you.
It does seem like a case of 'sorry being the hardest word'; or just not in the vernacular, full stop.
Bart Simpson -- the 'I didn't do it kid'. He has plenty of followers in Colombia.
The 'Bible' for some Colombians?
We can't highlight all this without touching on another, what appears to be from our experiences and those of others we've met in any case, national trait. That is an inherent inability to admit culpability to anything, even if there is irrefutable damning evidence to the contrary.

In some places, putting your hand up to say you were at fault is seen as a brave, courageous step in many incidences, a display of honesty. Not so, for the most part, in Colombia. There's always some sort of excuse available, even if it happens to be about as watertight as a teabag.

Yet this doesn't mean that you can't be at fault (well somebody has to be, right?). If something unfortunate happens to you, a typical question here is 'what did you do wrong?' for it to have occurred. For example, 'it's your fault that the 'ladrones' (thieves) robbed you, you allowed them to.' No 'dar papaya' and all that (and we hasten to add, the few 'run-ins' we've had have generally been down to our own stupidity – it's not the case for everybody though). This perhaps gives some explanation as to why there appears to be at times a laissez-faire attitude towards petty crime among the locals. It happens, and if you're the victim you probably did something to allow it to happen.

'Que pena con usted' indeed. Continue to throw it our way, however, and the bigger 'pena' might be with you. We're too nice for that though. Plus, as we learned some time back, it's best not to take such things too seriously in these parts; nobody else appears to.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Born to run (or at least wander)?

Most of us, those who have the 'luxury' to do so that is, experience times when we question the direction our life is going in. Are we doing the right thing? In the right place? With the right people?

The majestic Andes -- they would make any person want to travel.
Always out of reach?
These have been things very much on our mind of late. Much of this is down to the fact that we have that aforementioned 'luxury' to ponder about them. In other words, owing to our rather simple, independent lifestyle over the last number of years, we've managed to live relatively cheap and keep a little balance of cash in reserve. Enough that is to make us feel like we can take the time to discover something in life that we find truly enjoyable/fulfilling, yet not enough, contradictory as it may seem, to allow us take some risks that may provide the key to the former.

One of the things we've discovered we like doing, at this stage of our life in any case, is moving; seeing new places, exploring, observing how people live in different locations. The reality is that since 2008 this is how, more or less, our life has been.

We even put the 20 months we spent working full-time in Belfast into this category. This was because the city was new to us, somewhat different from the places in Ireland we were used to, with that novelty taking some time to wear off. Also, as our job was poorly paid, trying to put money aside was a challenge, something that we took on with gusto in many ways (well we had no other choice). Despite that, and another reason our Belfast period can go onto the 'adventure' list, we went overseas for holidays on a number of occasions during our stint there – as many times (and for longer) than our 23 years pre-2008.

So it seems our first global adventure between 2008 and 2009 released the wanderer in us. Before then, an easy-ish life in an Ireland that appeared awash with opportunities (or so we were told) coupled with decent enough full-time employment at a young age in a professional field that we generally liked, had kept this wanderlust at bay. Oh how things change. Now, especially in the absence of a fulfilling, full-time, well-paid job (if there is such a thing for us), there exists an insatiable desire to move after a time in one place.

Yes, it is true we willingly returned to Bogotá, a place we had already lived in on-and-off for over 18 months, after a three month spell back in Ireland last year. Yet, at a loose end in our birthplace*, Bogotá still seemed an adventure and, paradoxically in a way, a place where we had built up a good number of professional contacts, somewhere we knew we could find some work, sporadic as it may be. And we were (are) slightly concerned about money – who isn't?
The outskirts of the the Sahara desert -- where we belong?
The world is our oyster

Now however, not even three months back, those wanderlust feelings have returned. Yet they are tempered by concerns for the future; our professional progression, our financial well-being. You might call it adventurism constrained my conservatism, an old head on young(ish) shoulders.

Our background has a lot to do with that; the old 'settling down' mentality and way-of-life of which most of us are products. Find a partner, build a house, start a family, and, hopefully, have a steady job. The last (and for us, the first also) of those being quite difficult to pin down these days, which makes the others more difficult to achieve (especially so here in Colombia where the conversation between money and women is very 'deep'**). That is, of course, if we wanted to 'settle' at this moment in time.

In any case, history is full of explorers and adventurers, those who shunned that 'settling down' life. It's because of such men (and the odd few women) that the world is how we know it today – for good and bad. OK, there aren't too many places left to be 'newly' discovered on this planet, in a land context anyway, but that doesn't stop the personal human desire to explore and to see new things.

So if we could just make a living out of a nomadic lifestyle that should assuage our conservative side and allow us wander (and wonder) 'worry-free'. At least for a time anyway; this might be just a phase we're going through. That fanciful million dollar contract might make us stop and think.

*For more on that somewhat 'restless' state back home see both Any which way but lose... and No country for young men.

**Our début post, Wages of love, touched on this.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

In defence of hoping (and fighting) for, at least, a 'Freer Bogotá'

We came in for a bit of criticism in the wake of our Fighting for 'Free Bogotá' piece a few weeks back. Now this didn't come from Colombians but from fellow expatriates. The main grievance was that we were painting a stereotypical negative, dangerous picture of Bogotá and Colombia in general. The fact that we were writing about particular incidents in one notorious barrio of the country's capital seemed to go over our critics heads.
Entering one of Bogotá's 'darker sides', La Perseverancia
The darker side -- entering La Perseverancia

We did of course point them in the direction of previous posts we've written, detailing how we find the external perception of Colombia and how 'dangerous' it is a little frustrating and very often inaccurate to say the least.* Also the amount of solo travelling we've done around this physically stunning country, most of it detailed on this blog, is, we hope, sending out a positive message that this country is very much 'open for tourism' (and, for some, business) and generally safe.

However, as pointed out in Fighting for 'Free Bogotá', it would be remiss of us to write that there is nothing dangerous at all about this country. A message some of our detractors seemingly wish we would portray. There are though plenty of other English language web sites and blogs about Colombia that set out from the onset not to include one negative word about the place, even if that means bending reality at times.

In any case, what we wrote wasn't inherently negative about Bogotá. In every big (and small) city in the world there are dangerous neighbourhoods where, as a taxi driver once told us about a particular part of Dublin, 'even the dogs hang around in packs and watch each others backs.' Also, we tend to, especially owing to the types of places we like to drink in, take more risks than most other visitors/foreign residents who come to this city.**

We are where we are, we do what we do, and we have our beliefs, likes and dislikes. Right now, for convenience, price but above all, the friendliness of the locals (part of that being the free beers we often get) we find ourselves socialising regularly in La Perseverancia. As stated in previous posts, this area is at this moment in time, as the locals put it, 'muy caliente' (literally 'very hot' i.e. dangerous).

In the last number of weeks this view has only been further reinforced in our minds. For if we're being honest, we put the 'little' early morning incident mentioned in Fighting for 'Free Bogotá' down to stupidity on our part. Plus, very often when Colombians tell us certain areas are dangerous our first reaction is to shrug it off, believing that they're still thinking of rougher times in the not-to-distant (but distant all the same) past.

However the kind of things we've encountered over the last few weeks give an idea of this 'darker side': There was the pretty lame attempt – but an attempt all the same – by two young thugs to rob us in broad daylight in the area; the friendly locals insisting they escort us home for our own safety at night; police officers standing guard outside a tienda we were drinking in, in the afternoon, because we were foreigners and 'at risk' (we find this a little hard to believe, but it's what we were told); plus being witnesses to two local women getting mugged, again in the middle of the day. All these have firmly illustrated the real dangers existent in this part of the city, day and night.

Officer 'Wrong Way'. Any takers?
Officer 'Wrong Way'
That latter incident was particularly annoying, angering even. We figured had we been a little closer and quick-thinking that we may have been able to intervene in some way; then again, perhaps it was better we didn't? There were people closer to it than us who seemed content enough to let the damn delinquents get their booty; a 'thank god it's them instead of us' kind of thinking and certainly not unique to Colombia.

Yet this could be one area to, literally speaking, start a 'fightback'. If enough people, particularly the locals, those who might be seen as community leaders (it's debatable if such figures exist in certain lower-class barrios, or if they do, to what extent they encourage a law-abiding lifestyle), confronted such scum rather than turn a blind eye, it might evoke some sort of change of behaviour, for the better.

From what we've witnessed and anecdotally, few assailants, especially in these daytime 'raids', are carrying firearms; usually, if anything, they just have knives. And usually you don't have to look too far on Bogotá's streets to find some sort of a stick that could be used to confront anyone carrying a blade; something to put more than an arm's length between you and the would-be attacker.
More police on the beat is another deterrent and at times they can be hard to come by in La Perseverancia, but it's not a panacea.

Of course there are a range of social issues that must be tackled as to why some people get involved in criminality and, for one, with such a huge disparity in incomes in this city and questionable priorities by the ruling classes, Bogotá and Colombia in general has a long way to go in addressing those.**

We're not looking for an unattainable utopia (although it's not a bad goal to aspire to), we just want things to improve; and there's certainly scope for that.

Those who would like us to believe that Bogotá/Colombia is a peaceful paradise are plain delusional; nowhere is. They're also helping nobody by peddling such a notion.

*For a start see Dangerous Colombia Part III.

**On both fronts i.e. an idea of the places we like to socialise in and the inequality issues, check out No somos Colombianos, pero... (We're not Colombian, but...).

For some other issues that need addressing in Bogotá read Bogotá's 'broken windows'.