Monday, 26 January 2015

Higher education, superior disarray

As a society, we tend to place a lot of value in higher education, especially in relation to the loftier institutions. On the face of it, this isn’t a bad thing. Generally, those who go through universities and the like go on to have much better lives, measured in monetary and influential terms anyway, than those who don’t.
Your standard university lecture hall; the education provided in some places is far from standard however.
Seats of excellence? (Photo from
However, that certain centres of education are seen as centres of ‘excellence’ is often self-fulfilling. This is even more acute in places where wealth and privilege, more than anything else, dictate a person’s chances of accessing third-level education. If you didn’t go to the right university, or worse still none at all, it’s unlikely you’ll be accepted into the movers-and-shakers group.

In many ways Colombia falls into that category.

People are judged, and hired, on where they were schooled more so than any proven ability. (Granted, it can be difficult for most young job seekers, whatever their background, to 'get the start' and prove their worth, but some don't even get a look in. And yes, this is something that happens across the globe.)

Yet, having both seen and heard stories of how some of Colombia's most prized universities conduct business, it would, or at least should, make you less than enamoured of them as leading pedagogical lights.

Take my recent flirtations with the human sciences department of one of these well-respected institutions in relation to teaching a specific course through English there. In not untypical fashion for these parts, it was all done in a rushed, last-minute manner. To make matters worse, it all happened during the annual four-week shutdown over Christmas and New Year.

So the initial talks were in mid-December, where I neither said yea nor nay to the job offer, as payment wasn't discussed and it wasn't even a given if the course was going to be a runner.

The next I hear from them, in the latter half of January less than one week before classes were due to begin, was to be told that my documents required to work for them were ready to be signed.
‘Hold on there now, we haven’t even discussed payment. Plus you’re expecting me to come up with a course plan from scratch in a few days, at my own expense and time?’ ‘Pretty much so, yes.’
Career choices.
Any which way but lose?

One of the many issues at play here seems to be the lack of communication between the departments of human resources and human sciences. The course was the responsibility of the latter; the former – as is standard practice anywhere – was in charge of deciphering pay based on experience as well as providing the associated contract.

It appeared that those at human resources expected me to toddle on down to the office and sign whatever they offered me (which, incidentally, was not very much, especially when you consider the exorbitant student fees the university in question and others here charge.)

It must also be remembered that I didn’t come looking for this job; it came my way via an intermediary and the university contacted me. Therefore, you might think, there would be room for flexibility and negotiation. But no.

Whatever about all of that, the most worrying aspect appears to be the thought, or lack thereof, given to the fee-paying students. You basically had a group of them signing up to a course before, in reality, it actually even existed. What kind of slipshod thing are they attending? Perhaps there were backup plans, but bearing in mind some previous practices by other such Colombian institutions, that’s not a given.

In defence, the fact that the course was, I believe, elective and not obligatory mitigates things somewhat. It must also be said, obviously, that the top universities in Colombia have produced, and continue to do so, some extremely talented professionals in all walks of life. You do want to see some tangible results for the money invested of course.

But that incidents such as the above happen, even if it was a one-off, is disconcerting. A little bit more forethought is all that’s really required.

Though how dare we mere mortals question the methods of these sacred cows? Forgive us, for we are not worthy.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

¡Viva Villeta!

When it comes to the main vacation times in Colombia, there appear to be three chief types of holidaymakers.

Firstly, you have the upper-to-middle classes, that is to say those with lots of spare cash at their disposal, who tend to escape the country and continent in order to rub shoulders with their ‘wealthy idols’ from the Western world.
Refreshing: The 'Seven Waterfalls' ('Siete Cascadas'), Villeta, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
A natural, refreshing shower on the 'Seven Waterfalls' trek in Villeta. (Photo: Pieter Immanuël Hupkes.)
Then you have those with slightly less disposable income, but not in too bad of a way, who stay within the country or at most visit neighbouring countries. The important thing is that they travel a relatively decent distance from their regular abodes.

Lastly, is the most popular group; those hard-pressed working classes whose holiday getaways generally amount to a short break in a nearby department or another town within the same department.

From a Bogotá perspective (and Colombia in general really), thankfully, those who fall into this latter category are pretty much spoilt for choice — the only thing missing is the sea, but there are plenty of inland waterways to partially fill that void.

Waterfall one, down-river, on the 'Seven Waterfalls' trek, Villeta, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
The view atop of the first of the 'Seven Waterfalls'.
One of those places that I had the pleasure of checking out recently, impromptu as it was, is Villeta, an approximate two-hour drive north-west from the capital. Anecdotally speaking, it still lags behind the likes of Girardot and Melgar as a destination hotspot for those looking for a nearby escape from Bogotá.

A big reason for this is that some wealthier types see it, so I’ve been told anyway, as a bit of a ‘ñero’ (Colombian word for, let’s say, not very pleasant types) holiday location.

So just up the Wrong Way street you might say — because, that is of course, this blog doesn't like to prejudge. ‘Altogether now’ and all that.

Anyway, ñeros or no ñeros, the place has enough going for it to entertain most, at least for a time.
At an altitude of about 800 metres, almost 2,000 metres lower than Bogotá, the climate is more than agreeable, unless you’re a polar bear type. You certainly don’t need your woollies at night, as you often do in the capital.

The village itself is quaint enough – Villeta does mean ‘little village’ in English – if not spectacular. It also has a little more of a modern feel to it than some other similar-sized places in Colombia.

Mini-trains: Villeta, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
The 'train' to Villeta's 'Iguazú Falls' ...
There are a host of hotels and mini-resorts equipped with swimming pools, from the elementary to the somewhat more elegant, allowing you the chance to both take in the sun and subsequently cool off in a modicum of tranquillity.

Better still, though, are the natural cooling-off spots. There are the easy-to-reach ‘mini Iguazú Falls’ (well they deceivingly resembled them from an advanced photo viewing), a nice 30-minute walk from the village. Or you can also take micro-train transport if you don’t feel like stepping it out in the heat.

Yet far more rewarding, in terms of sights, nature and exercise, is the ‘Seven Waterfalls’ (‘Siete Cascadas’) trek.

It’s not the most taxing, but if walking in nature is your thing, along with having the chance to bathe in cool freshwater to refresh from the tropical sun, it’s pretty enjoyable. The more adventurous types can also engage in some extreme diving (see video below). (I didn’t want to show up our very helpful accommodation provider-cum-guide Edwin, so I abstained from partaking.)

Outside of that, as you’ll find in most urban locations in Colombia regardless of size, the village itself isn’t short on lively watering holes. The only problem my Dutch companion and I encountered during our nights out was that the place was full of families and teenagers. There seemed to be a dearth of single women in their 20s to ‘converse’ with.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the rising Colombian middle class; these ladies holiday elsewhere. Or at least those who aren’t yet mothers that is.

Oh well, it just leaves more of Villeta (and the odd yummy mummy) for us.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Appreciating the gutter

The first step in solving a problem, so it is said, is realising you have one. It pretty much stands to reason really. You've got to know what you're trying to fix before you begin to fix it.

Yet, for some things, what one person sees as a problem, or at least feels it is an issue that needs modifying, may not be a cause for concern for another.
Don Fernando's, aka Las Panelas, in La Perseverancia, Bogotá D.C.
One of the best 'beer gardens' going in Bogotá: Fernando's, aka Las Panelas.
Take my well documented like for socialising in Bogotá's working-class barrios, or more specifically speaking La Perseverancia, as has predominantly been the case over the last year or so.

For some expats and well-heeled locals, they see such behaviour as somewhat of a problem. And it's not all to do with safety reasons, where they may have valid reasons on occasions (but where is that not a concern in Bogotá or most major cities?). No, it's more to do with the social aspect of it.
That is to say, as a relatively young (I'll still class myself as such), single guy, I am doing myself a disservice by spending time in such places.

The chief reason being, gauged on the advice from other 'classier' men, is that I won't find appropriate women in these locations. The way they see it, I'm wasting valuable time in the 'quest' to find my true love by frequenting Bogotá's 'dives'.
Rana: Instead of a dart board, most working-class bars and tiendas in Colombia have this game to enjoy.
Rana: What you might call a Colombian dart board.

OK, they have a point. It's unlikely I'm going to find 'the woman I've been looking for' (eh, who?) in the likes of La Perse, especially when the chicas who live there don't appear to socialise much. For there are some fine, if a little cold and flaky, ladies in these barrios. Do note that as regards flaky, there isn't really a class divide in these parts for that particular trait.

Yet, trips to the fancier ends of town don't yield greater results or, as far as I'm concerned, a better quality of woman. Indeed, paradoxically in a way, they often throw up types who are more concerned about money and image than those from the poorer neighbourhoods, with a dollop of arrogance thrown in on top.

Notwithstanding that, the chief reason I continue to hang out in working-class barrios more so than others is that, and this surprises some, I actually enjoy it; a feeling that thus far hasn’t shown signs of dissipating.

Salsa dacning in Fernando's, La Perseverancia, Bogotá D.C., Colombia.
Innocent, uncomplicated fun.
This comes down to the fact that I find the people very friendly. From a La Perseverancia perspective – although it’s not exclusive to there – it has a community vibe to it. It’s what you might call ‘el campo en la ciudad’, 'the countryside in the city'. And being a countryman by birth and at heart, I feel at home in such places in the midst of a chaotic city.

In contrast, in La Candelaría/Las Aguas, where I currently live, it’s a little bit more solo in this regard. A big reason for that is because it’s the city’s tourism epicentre and to have a foreign face here makes it more difficult to become part of the place or an ‘accepted’ local.

Many Colombians in La Candelaría see no difference between a flying visitor and somebody here on a longer-term basis. (It must be said that after over three years floating around the historic city centre, this is now less so the case for me. However, the process of assimilation happened much quicker and with more depth in La Perseverancia.)

As for Bogotá’s exclusive locations, well they just tend to leave me cold, and, at times, angry.

‘Romance’ wise? I’m single and enjoying life, things are fine. That ‘single ship’ is rocked on occasions, but there hasn’t been a really strong reason to jump from it just yet.

Now, where’s the problem?