Tuesday, 28 October 2014

'You've been had, Bogotá style'

There’s that old story about a man in a restaurant who begins friendly banter with an adjacent table. He gets on so well with his new acquaintances that he offers to pay their bill. So up he gets, goes to the till operator and points down to where his ‘friends’ are sitting. They wave back, acknowledging that it’s them who are to be the recipients of the man’s generous offer.

Dodgy tienda bar: You'd do well to avoid this place on Carrera 10 #18-30 in Bogotá.
False friend: This tienda owner (man in the yellow T-shirt) appeared all friendly, however he was anything but.
Yet, the snag is, the man has actually told the restaurant employee that it’s the guys at the table who are going to pay his bill. And off he goes, before anyone realises what’s happened, never to be seen again.

It’s an interesting yarn, but one that you’d have to think falls into the ‘urban myth’ category; you couldn’t get away with it in this day and age, surely? Alas, not so. There are a few crafty operators in Bogotá not only willing to give it a go but, aided by incompetent, indifferent employees and owners, manage to get away with it.

In fact, the Bogotá version doesn’t require any acknowledgement from those being duped, as happens in the account above. No, the ‘trickster’ just leaves, apparently giving a knowing nod to the owner and his bill is placed on the tab of those he had been casually talking to, uninvited at that.

Of course, the till operators know full well that it isn’t the intention of those remaining to fork out for the man who just left. Nothing, though, is said until it comes to payment time. Then, it’s expected that the extranjeros (foreigners) will nonchalantly pay everything; sure it’s what we’re here for, to treat the locals.

Unfortunately I was the victim of such an incident in downtown Bogotá. Now my approach would be, and was, to refuse to pay, but the company I was with pulled rank and handed over the cash to avoid any hassle. It was probably the safer move for where we were (which was a tienda bar on Carrera 10 with 18; see photos).

Wrong Way won't shed a tear if this establishment is wiped off Bogotá's map ...
'Relax, the foreigners will pay for everything.'
In one regard, hats off to the guy who had his tab transferred on to ours. If there’s a chance he can get away with it, why not? My anger is directed more at the establishment’s owner. That he could just cheekily expect that we’d pay for things we didn’t ask for nor want is infuriating to say the least. ‘A plague on his house’ is the best I can wish for him.

The lesson to be learnt from this: If there’s a tab system in operation in a place that you’re not too familiar with, it’s best not to go with the norm, but ‘pay as you go’ instead. Messy episodes as the one mentioned can thus be avoided.

Plus, it underscores again the fact that you can never drop your guard in these parts. It also, sadly, betrays the mantra of many Colombians that they are amongst the friendliest in the world.

On a slightly more positive note, I can rest assured that this wouldn’t happen to me in my local watering holes in the barrios of La Perseverancia or Egipto; at least there they’d ask for a drink if they were stuck.

You see there’s still hope for Colombia, just about.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Colombia's best bank: And our winner is ...

Sometimes you have to accept that certain things are the way they are – at least for a specific moment in time. So while the Colombian banking system frustrates more than what I had been used to, you just have to deal with it.

However, depending on your circumstances and requirements, it is worth shopping around if you're looking for a ‘safe’ place for your money here.

Banco Caja Social: Colombia's best bank?
Banco Caja Social: Wrong Way's kind of bank. (Image from Facebook.)

What’s more, reflecting the general lack of customer service in this country, banks don’t seem to care one iota if you decide to ‘take your money and run’, closing an existing account. A great business sense that, leaking clients at will. My ‘millions’ are better off in Ireland and the UK for now.

If you do, though, require a Colombian bank account, from my investigations, coming at it as an independent visa holder, without having to go to extraordinary lengths to prove your ‘importance’,* here’s the low-down on the lukewarm to the damn right cold:

Banking is Caring and Sharing: First place goes to Banco Caja Social or in its initialism form, BCS (hence the introduction, geddit?). They offer a standard savings account without any management fee, or so they say. 5,000 COP (Colombian pesos, roughly €1.90) is held in ‘bolsillo’ (‘pocket’) and taken from your account each month. However, it’s your money, not theirs; you can access it whenever you want, apparently. You’re allowed up to five free ATM withdrawals per month – in BCS’s own cash machines that is of course (there is a fee to use those of other banks, the standard practice in Colombia).
Banco Caja Social: The best bank for independent workers in Colombia.
Best bank in town? It appears so ...

Moreover, all you need is your Colombian immigration card (Cédula de Extranjería), and cash obviously, to open an account. That is to say you don’t need to show a certified proof of income, a requirement in many of the other banks and something that can be a bit of a hassle to get as an independent, non-contracted worker.

On top of all this, in a case of what’s seldom is wonderful for this country, the guy I dealt with in the bank’s 19th Avenue, Fourth Street (Calle 19 with Carrera 4) branch was extremely friendly and helpful and seemed genuinely interested in having me as a customer (cheers Oscar!).

Worthy of mention: A much smaller bank than Caja Social, Bancoomeva’s standard savings account comes free of charges for the first six months. Thereafter, there is no standard monthly fee, but you pay for every transaction. At their own ATMs the fee is minimal; 1,300 COP for each of your first four monthly withdrawals, however it’s more than double that if you withdraw from other banks. This could prove costly considering the current small size of their network nationwide.

A newcomer to the market, the Ecuadorian Banco Pichincha, has a monthly management fee of a not-too-excessive 6,900 COP. Like Caja Social, it’s simple to open an account, with no proof of income required. On the downside, like Bancoomeva, the network is small.

Banco de Bogotá’s monthly fee is 6,500 COP, which allows up to five cost-free ATM transactions per month. However, the paperwork required to open an account there is somewhat off-putting.

It’s relatively straightforward to open an account with Davivienda but the monthly fee of 9,500 COP is at the higher end of the scale. Plus, in one of its branches at least, employees could do with some intensive customer-service training.

Best to be avoided: With a total monthly fee of a whopping 18,000 COP, broken down as 10,000 COP for management plus an 8,000 COP administration charge for good measure, Banco Popular is certainly not popular with Wrong Way anyway.

Three of the less favourable banks operating in Colombia, side-by-side.
Three of a kind: Disinterested, costly banks ...
Bancolombia charges 9,700 COP per month and requires proof of income. The Spanish bank BBVA is also one of the more expensive to do business with.

I have it on good authority that Citibank’s priority in Colombia is at the upper end of the market; fee-wise it’s at the upper end of things in any case.

It must be said that some banks such as Banco Av Villas, Banco Occidente and Banco Agrario failed to provide me with information as requested (and promised in a couple of cases). Also, if anyone knows of any other bank operating in Colombia that can trump Banco Caja Social – bearing in mind this little study is based on an independent visa holder or somebody without contracted employment – please do tell.

For now though, it’s off to Caja Social I go.
*By ‘extraordinary lengths’ I mean having to write, in a strong manner, to branch managers and indeed company directors to get any sort of positive attention. Even that doesn’t guarantee any improvement in conditions. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

End of the Strata Republic?

Colombia’s unique strata system has been under the spotlight of late. To the uninitiated, this basically divides the population into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ according to the area they live in, not by the actual living standards of each individual or family.

Enjoying the sun and beer at Don Fernando's, La Perseverancia, Bogotá, Colombia.
One of La Perseverancia's, nay Bogotá's, finest establishments, Don Fernando's.
The system ranges from one, the poorest, to six, the richest. The overall idea is that people living in the lower strata pay less for everyday utilities such as water and electricity, subsidised in part by the higher service charges paid by the other strata.

Areas are judged and numbered according to general housing characteristics such as a garage, a front yard and the quality of the neighbourhood. So, as you’d expect, on the whole the wealthier, that is to say the minority of Colombians, live in the upper strata, with the working- and lower-class majority living in strata one, two and three.

Thus, you could say, the system is fit for purpose: Those who can pay more in terms of services, do.

However, there are obvious flaws; hence the calls to do away with it are growing stronger.

For one, you can find relatively wealthy people living in the lower strata, while it’s not always a given that those based in the more affluent parts are ‘flush’.

Also, many rural areas have a low ranking, presumably because of distance from everyday services, yet you can find pockets of wealthy inhabitants in the Colombian countryside, especially on the outskirts of cities.

Then you have the social stigma that comes with being from strata one and two, or even three, depending on your outlook. While outwardly some universities and employers may say it’s not an issue, in a country that pays too much attention to status and background, the reality is different.

Taking the above into account, a more personalised approach into how people are socially assessed – that is to say the international standard – would seem a fairer way of doing things.

Of course assessing the needs of the population is one thing; actually providing aid and support where it’s required most is another matter altogether.

What’s more, getting rid of stratification won’t, obviously, see the lot improve automatically for poorer areas. The rough-and-ready, simple-and-satisfying qualities of my beloved La Perseverancia (La Perse for short), a stratum two in Bogotá, won’t go away in a hurry. In any case, from a personal point of view, I don’t want to see too much change there.

Yet those living in La Perseverancia and its ilk practically operate in a different world compared to the wealthier parts.

The 'not very Irish pub' in Bogotá's Zona T.
The 'not very Irish pub' in Bogotá's 'exclusive' Zona T. (Photo from Facebook.)
Yes, there are clearly demarcated rich and poor areas across the globe, there’s nothing surprising in that. However, the difference between the haves and the have nots in Colombia seems particularly pronounced.

For example, looking at socialising in Bogotá, the kind of prices you pay for a night out in the fancier barrios are multiples of those in the ‘majority’ (as in where most of the city’s inhabitants live and operate) neighbourhoods. And you’re paying for basically the same products, but with – a lot of the time – a less personal, poorer service. Plus the richer parts are not always safer or more aesthetically pleasing, as they claim to be.

These huge price differences are something that could, potentially, be reined in with an end to stratification. Now that would, or should, be more a case of pruning the excesses at the top rather than cutting from the bottom.

In the meantime, I’ll continue the ‘keeping up with La Perse’ strategy, dabbling only very occasionally into the world of the ‘other’ five per cent.

For a somewhat related piece, see In defence of hoping (and fighting) for, at least, a 'Freer Bogotá' and Budget Bogotá.