Friday, 28 November 2014

'¿Cómo conduzco?' 'Er, not very well'

Sometimes, what is seen as a bad practice in one culture can be seen as a thing to be lauded in another. Or at least no one seems to get too worked up about it, which can be a bit puzzling if it wasn’t what you were brought up on.
Old school buses in downtown Bogotá. Many of their drivers could do with some lessons ...
Is that '¿cómo conduzco?' sticker a cry out for help?
Now while many of the cultural traits in Colombia are not that far removed from what this writer is used to, there are a few head-scratchers all the same.

Enough has been written previously in these quarters about relationships and such like, so let’s stay clear of that area this time around. Plus, considering the topic, it’s best not to be completely, erm, ‘driven round the bend’ by trying to analyse this in too broad a scope.

Thus, the focus this time around is on the style of Colombian driving, especially – but not exclusively – in relation to those who drive for a living.

Basically, the general custom is to drive your vehicle as hard as you can, weaving in and out of whatever traffic gets in your way, then equally brake as hard as you can when you must stop (as inconvenient as stopping is when you’re in ‘full flow’).

In fact, quite paradoxically in a country where not much trust is put in anybody or anything – often with good reason – many Colombians appear to put a huge amount of trust in mechanical brakes.

Indeed, given such behaviour, there’s little wonder why a good number of Colombians, women from this perspective anyway, have firm figures. For when you have to make a move to get off a city bus, or when you’re standing from the moment you get on, you’d have an easier time keeping your balance on a small yacht in the middle of a violent storm on the high seas. A good workout for your body’s core you might say, to go along with the regular squat exercises taken on public transport.

A crowded Bogotá D.C. bus.
It's easier to keep your balance when the bus is crowded.
It’s also a common occurrence to see ‘rival’ bus drivers go to battle with their vehicles – like modern-day lancers – if they’ve been impeded trying to do their route as fast as they can. ‘Passengers. What passengers?’

Of course, from a Bogotá point of view, this rough-and-tumble, aggressive way of driving was due to change with the arrival of, firstly, the Transmilenio and then the SITP. Commuting in the city would be transformed into something resembling an angelic procession. Well, so some people told us.

However, to paraphrase the old saying, ‘You can take the man out of the colectivo, but you can’t take the colectivo (style of driving that is) out of the man.’

The SITP and, to a lesser extent, Transmilenio drivers are cut from the same mould as their predecessors.

Yes, it’s early days for the new system and changing a culture takes time. Plus, drivers in Bogotá, and throughout Colombia, aren’t helped by the appalling state of many of the main highways and byways.

Yet, for the moment, some money could be saved by not bothering to post those ‘¿Cómo conduzco?’ (literally, 'How do I drive?') stickers on the back of most vehicles. That’s because there’s pretty much a universal answer: ‘Not very well.’

Or perhaps we’re looking at the question the wrong way (as is this blog's wont, obviously). It could be a cry for help, as in ‘How do I actually drive this vehicle?’ The evidence certainly supports this.

Driving lessons – another opening in the Colombian market.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Fine and Pandi

You don’t tend to base yourself in Bogotá for its weather. OK, on sunny days it can be pretty nice, but such occasions are balanced out by chilly nights. The great thing, though, is that if you are looking for hotter climes all you have to do is take a short trip in basically any direction out of the metropolis to find them.
Pandi, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Pandi, Cundinamarca: It beats the madness of Bogotá, at least for a time.
However, there’s not much point in having such ‘hotspots’ on your doorstep if you don’t utilise them. That’s how things had been for me lately, cooped up in the city, letting work and Bogotá’s, nay La Perseverancia’s, social life dictate the course of events.

In fact, it got to the stage where I needed a gentle push to break the routine. Somewhat paradoxically, that ‘push’ came in the form of work; well, work of sorts.

What I had to do was be an English speaking guide for a group of students of the language from a university in the south of Bogotá. They were having a day out, via the fledgling tour agency Colombia Limite, and to keep things ‘English’, the lady in charge felt it would be a good idea to have a native speaker on hand.

The fact that the majority of the group were at beginner level and thus couldn’t understand most of what I said (who does?) didn’t matter. It’s the thought of making an effort to have the day educational that counts, right?

Our destination? The unheralded town of Pandi and its surrounds in the Sumapaz province, 103km south of Bogotá.
The rather impressive gualanday tree in full flower ...
Pretty in purple: The gualanday tree. (Photo from clorofilaandcompany.)

Now in a country that has quite spectacular natural beauty around every corner, each little town and village has to fight hard to get a piece of the tourist action. So considering that to reach Pandi requires a 30 minute drive on somewhat of a dirt track road off the main highway about two hours outside of the capital means that it could easily be forgotten by many. The belief may be that other, more accessible places offer pretty much the same.

Yet, that it is a bit ‘off the beaten track’ can be a pull factor – such secluded places generally do it for me, at least for a time.

Plus, it does have its own treats. As the welcome sign to the town proudly boasts (positioned miles outside at that), it’s the home of cambulo and gualanday. What, you haven’t heard of them? They’re trees of course, special trees, apparently.

Unfortunately, on the day I visited nobody was able to tell me which one was which – a reason to go back I guess. While both are pretty spectacular when in flower, from what I was told gualandays seem the most helpful for humans. A secretion their leaves produce is good for relieving sore throats and aching bones; better than a hot whiskey you might say.

El Puente Natural (The Natural Bridge), Pandi, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
'Devil Construction Ltd.'
The trees aside, another little ‘gem’ is The Natural Bridge, El Puente Natural, a gentle 20-minute downhill stroll from the village. Legend has it that the devil created it after losing a bet for the soul of an indigenous mortal. In frustration he kicked out at the narrow gorge walls, the force of his actions forming a natural arch over the river, which lies over 100 metres below.

Whatever about that story, the bridge has a much more haunting recent past, being the alleged dumping ground for dead and dying bodies throughout Colombia’s internal conflict of the last 60 plus years. The ‘devil’ did not go quietly into the night after his 'construction project', so it appears.

Thankfully, a sense of tranquillity in the quite stunning scenery is the main vibe you get about the place today.

So you could do worse than go along with that feeling and take advantage of the serenity. In that regard, further on from the bridge is a residence that offers accommodation/camping facilities for those looking to overnight it in the wilderness.*

The chilly nights and madness of the metropolis can wait.
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*Colombia Limite looks after the accommodation and can also arrange activities such as rappelling and treks. You can contact the company via Facebook.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

'Make mine a shot (rather than pot)'

Colombia’s Minister for Health and Social Protection, Alejandro Gaviria, created a mini-stir recently by claiming that alcohol consumption was more harmful than smoking marijuana.

His remarks come amidst moves in congress here to legalise the use of the drug for medical purposes.
Marijuana -- it's just a plant after all ...
Well they do say we should get more 'greens' into us ...
In one sense it’s a bit puzzling to understand why what he said caused consternation in some circles; in reality, it was far from shocking. For from a societal point of view, he’s probably not far off the mark. Excessive alcohol consumption is very often at the heart of violence both here in Colombia and across the globe. It can destroy families and friendships.

In contrast, you’d do well to find an aggressive person high on pot; rather, such people are generally very placid.

So looking at it that way, if we are going to indulge in some sort of drug, perhaps we’d all be better off smoking marijuana instead of gulping down bottles of beer. ‘Make peace, not war’ and all that jazz.

However, at the individual level, anecdotally anyway, regular pot smokers tend to be quite lazy and lack motivation to do even the simplest of things. Maybe that’s just my bad luck and experience? There are, though, at least some supporting studies.*

On the contrary, and again this is a personal observation, consistent drinkers – not out-and-out alcoholics that is to say – seem more proactive when it comes to work and day-to-day activities. (They might just be a little crankier than non-drinkers, at times.) It could be argued that this is down to many societies’ long association with alcohol. Our bodies have learnt to cope better with it than other drugs.**

What’s more, the idea of consciously inhaling damaging fumes into your body isn’t exactly the most natural nor life-prolonging thing to do. (Although in a city such as Bogotá, puffing on a joint mightn't do you much more harm than breathing in the urban air.) On the other hand, we all must ingest water to survive, the chief component of most alcoholic products. Plus, in the right amounts – as can be said for marijuana, too, of course – the likes of beer and wine can be beneficial for your health.

Wrong Way at the home of Colombia's chief brewing company, Bavaria.
Bavaria, the home of beer in Colombia. Sure when it's free ...
That’s pretty much the case for most things in life: Whatever you’re having, have it in moderation; 'less is more’. Knowing your limits is the key.

Bearing all that in mind, if I was pushed to choose either alcohol or marijuana as my regular ‘vice’, I’d be firmly siding with the former.

It's 'horses for courses' I guess.

The bottom line with all these things should be that if there are harmful effects, it's the individual user who bears them. Alas, that's not always the case.

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*For example, see Regular pot smokers have shrunken brains, study says.

**The Koreans obviously don’t believe this though: ‘Irish alcoholism nature’ reason for job rejection for Irish teacher in South Korea.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Colombia: The only risk is becoming too relaxed

As mentioned in our previous post, you can never drop your guard in Colombia. It’s up to you, naturally enough really, to be responsible for yourself and your belongings. Be that as it may, it still doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, make it more acceptable if you do happen to have something stolen while having ‘a moment of weakness’.
Oma café, Torre Bicentenario, Bogotá: Not only does the price of a coffee seem like robbery, but you might also actually get robbed at the same time ...
Scene of the crime: Oma may be upmarket, but that doesn't mean it's safer.
That such things happen, as they do across the globe, doesn’t mean that we should just shrug and accept them. Disappointingly, this is often the reaction of many people in these parts.

It’s the whole ‘dar papaya’ mentality, that it’s the victims' fault for allowing themselves to be robbed. ‘Silly you.’ This is linked in with the ‘que pena con usted’ expression, ‘isn’t that awful for you, but I don’t really care.’ ‘Eh, thanks guys.’ 

Personally, having been based in Bogotá for three years now, I feel relatively comfortable in my environs and I am usually clued-in to any potential threats. Yet there is always the risk that you can become too relaxed. My excuse for the latest incident where I let the city’s ladrones (thieves) get one over me was that I’d just donated blood (for the first time in my life it must be said) and perhaps I wasn’t my usual shrewd self (don’t laugh).

Now this time around the scene wasn’t your typical Wrong Way working-class venue, but rather a much more upmarket Oma café (the newly opened one in Torre Bicentenario on Carrera 4 with Avenida Jiménez), equipped with a security guard and cameras.

However, therein lies the danger; the feeling that you and your possessions are a little safer in such a place. In fact, it could be argued that due to the sheer volume of security guards employed in this country, it dilutes each individual one’s impact. I certainly wouldn’t be relying on many of them to have my back in a tight corner.

The ‘fatal’ errors on my part were not having my bag in eyeshot nor tied around something secure and not taking notice of the movements around me; the intense conversation I was having with an old friend was occupying my mind.

Whatever the case, the relatively well-dressed ladrones saw their opportunity and seized it.

'The Lone Security Guard' in downtown Bogotá. He might as well be at home to be hinest.
'On the ball' security. Well, not quite ...
Thankfully, it was far from spectacular the booty they got. Basically there was the bag itself, a few USB sticks, an old jacket (of sentimental value albeit) and a pocket-book of Spanish grammar along with an English-Spanish dictionary – at least those latter items might help our pilferers overcome their illiteracy problems.

Predictably, when we reported the robbery to the building’s administrator, her initial reaction fell firmly into the ‘dar papaya’ mindset. To her credit, though, she eventually showed some morsels of taking affirmative action, agreeing to set in train the process of reviewing the premise’s security cameras.* Perhaps next time she'll realise that this should be her first response.

You see, as ‘official’ Colombia grapples with a potential peace agreement with the Farc guerrillas, real peace and security must come from the people, ‘el pueblo Colombiano’, each and every part of it. Taking a strong stand against all who jeopardise this is what’s needed.

There are positive signs in this regard, but by its very nature it’s a never-ending process, consisting of many different, overlapping strands. This country, however, has too many decent people to let a thuggish minority dominate the landscape.

Yet, turn a blind eye to that minority’s behaviour and the vicious cycle will continue.
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*That process is still ongoing. Hopefully, if and when the cameras are reviewed, we’ll have a good picture of the thieves, something that we can publish.