Wednesday, 23 April 2014

All you need is Ecuador (for a caffeine detox)

They say that it's the small things in life that make a difference. The everyday occurrences, or non-occurrences as it may be, that matter most. To be honest, most of us don't think about them that often – life could become a little overbearing if we did. It's only when you step outside of your routine, encounter differences, that they may become apparent.
The picturesque Ibarra, Ecuador.
Ibarra: The lack of coffee is not a deal-breaker.
There's also the chance that it might come as a surprise how attached you've become to such 'small things' – a case of 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone'.

On a recent, necessary trip to Ecuador – a country I've visited on two previous occasions – some of those, what are best described as 'home from home comforts' considering it's in comparison with Colombia, were noticeable by their absence.

Now such comforts must fall into the bracket of things I've just got used to over the last 36 months or so. For when I was in Ecuador in both 2009 and 2011 their non-existence didn't bother me. Moreover, my own rural, west of Ireland background ensures I wasn't born accustomed to them – well at least one of them anyway.

That 'one' being my penchant for daily coffees with a drop of milk – café con leche, cortado, perico or pintado as you'll find them called in these parts – in value-for-money panaderías (bakeries/bread shops). You see in Colombia (or Bogotá in any case) all panaderías sell coffee, all through the day. Usually it's nothing glamorous but when you get it at a price that's easy on the pocket, it makes it all the tastier.

In Ecuador, in the places I visited on this latest trip that is, while almost every second shop is a panadería, that's just it: they are panaderías/bread shops and no more. They don't sell coffee. Indeed when you ask the staff in them for one, it's like going into a police station asking for a burger and chips (watch from 3' 20'' on the link for the reference). And informing them that selling coffees in a panadería is the norm in neighbouring Colombia generally doesn't go down too well.

One panadería in the coastal city of Atacames did at least make some effort to compensate. There, the wily owners had instant coffee on each table, a hot water dispenser and even made milk available for those partial to a dash of it. Perhaps the idea might take off. It's not brewed coffee, but it's a start.

The other things conspicuous by their absence were tienda bars. I've documented on umpteen occasions my liking for such places in Bogotá. Yet in Ecuador – well Tulcán, Ibarra and to a lesser extent Atacames – they don't seem to be the norm. What would be a tienda bar in Colombia, in Ecuador it's just a shop where you can buy beer for takeaway only. Drinking it on the premise isn't really an option as there are no tables and few chairs available. Of course they do have bars – pool halls, karaoke joints and the like – but the rough-and-ready, basic tienda one isn't in the mix.

It's important to state that I'm not pointing these out as negatives. They're not deal-breakers; as alluded to, there are alternatives. What's more, a little less coffee (and alcohol) isn't a bad thing every now and again.
Tulcán's somewhat different cemetery.
Tulcán's rather arty cemetery: Everybody's dying to get in.

Plus, one of the reasons tienda bars and panaderías-cum-cafés are popular in Colombia is because they are much cheaper than many 'proper' bars/pubs and cafés. In Ecuador, from what I could see and also sounding out the locals, the big price swings between different neighbourhoods in one city doesn't really exist. You can treat yourself in a 'fancy' location there for much less than it would cost here in Colombia. That is to say there appears to be more equality in Ecuador. Colombia, take note.

It is, nonetheless, interesting to notice the differences, subtle as they may be, a border can make. For landscape-wise, there's not much to choose between the two countries; both are equally impressive in similar ways. You might go as far to say that if you were led blindfolded into one or the other, you'd do well to say with certainty which country it is.

Make a quick visit to a panadería though, and you should get your answer. On that front, the famed Thai-English phrase springs to mind: 'Same same, but different.' Not in a bad way of course.

NOTE: If you're making the overland crossing into Ecuador at Rumichaca, seek out an old man wearing a hat called Moses if you want to change Colombian pesos into dollars. From my experience, he gives the best rate.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Colombia's good cops

OK, credit where credit is due. We can all be quick to criticise but slow to give praise where it is warranted. In this regard, since this writer first uncovered the simple delights of Bogotá's less than secure (to say the least) barrio of La Perseverancia, the lack of a regular police presence for a such a notorious spot has been frequently mooted on these pages and elsewhere.*
The new CAI on the La Perseverancia/La Macerena border.
It might look like something from Fr. Ted, but this CAI unit does make a difference.

So the recent arrival of a new mobile CAI (Centro de Atención Inmediata or Immediate Attention Centre – basically a small, 24-hour police station) is something to be applauded. For sure, I'd like to take credit that my constant reminders to the Colombian police force via Twitter and other sources was a factor in this. Somewhat unlikely that though. A recent protest march by the residents of the adjoining, more affluent – and thus more influential – La Macarena neighbourhood to do something about the poor security in the area was a more forceful message you'd have to think.

Those of a more cynical nature about this, such as a somewhat left-leaning friend, says it's quite telling that as soon as ex-mayor Gustavo Petro was finally disposed of, more police were put on the beat. Surely coincidental, right? It couldn't be a case of a political game being played with such an important issue?

On another point, while the extra police presence about that side of town generally gives a safer feel to the place, it hasn't come without some drawbacks for the local revellers. The biggest one of those being that officers are quick to stop people from drinking on the street outside the little tienda bars. On a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon that's a bit of a pity for the likes of Don Fernandos (aka 'La Panella'). But we can't have it all our own way.

Of course there are those who say that a more visual police presence, especially in Latin American countries, doesn't mean much. That is, you can't trust many of the 'upholders' of law and order in these parts.

Personally, however, I have always found the Colombian police to be decent – perhaps overly so on occasions considering what their duties are – and trustworthy. Indeed there have been times when officers here have taken a much lighter approach to some late night antics compared to what my native Irish police would have done faced with the same scenario.

In fact a lot of the time Colombian police behaviour mirrors that of the local population here at large: They are much kinder and more helpful towards foreigners than they are towards their own. One just needs to pop over the border to Venezuela for an opposite example; there, a foreign face generally guarantees extra heat from state authorities.

Venezuelan police: Don't mess with them.
Venezuelan cops: A little harsher on foreigners? (Pic from Facebook.)
So it is quite off-putting to see what basically amounts to giving Colombian cops the middle finger by outsiders who have benefited from their leniency. When you've just been let off the hook for not only driving without a licence but also driving under the influence of illegal drugs and breaking red lights while at it, you might think the least you could be is quietly thankful you weren't charged or deported. Moreover, you should be grateful that nobody was killed because of your stupidity.

But no. For one particular Nordic expatriate here, he found it appropriate to publicly post on Facebook the above misdemeanours. In an arrogant and rather condescending, yet at the same time childish comment, he wrote how the police were happy to send him and his accomplices away with a 'hope you've learnt your lesson' telling off. This he clearly hasn't, considering the style in which the post was written.

Hence, while the 'light touch' approach taken by many Colombian cops towards some foreigners may be welcome, there are times when you wish the letter of the law was applied in full.

Lessons might be learnt then.

And the police would be deserving of a bit more hard to come by credit.

*A good place to start on the La Perseverancia front is In defence of hoping (and fighting) for, at least, a 'Freer Bogotá'.

Of course there's always work to be done in keeping things safe, as stated in Bogotá's 'dark side' rises.