Thursday, 28 May 2015

Living the 'dream', going through the motions

There are lots of things we could all complain about, and on various occasions this blog has touched on many of them. For sure it can be good to vent every now and again, but you have to find the balance between highlighting malpractices and letting them personally affect you, especially when they don’t have to. There are some things we can change, or at least try to, there are others we cannot.

Bogotá DC, Colombia at dusk.
At times Bogotá (and Colombia in general) feels a little surreal. (Photo: Pieter Hupkes.)
Yet, for all those things that frustrate and even downright anger many, the expatriates who stay in Colombia – and Bogotá specifically – aren't generally doing so out of stubbornness or against their will. No, they're here, or we're here to include myself in that, because we want to be here, more or less.

Every now and again, naturally enough, that stance is brought into question: 'Why am I here?' (Bearing in mind that just over six years ago I knew next to nothing about the place; that’s still the case in some ways.)

Somewhat paradoxically, that came into my mind whilst going through the process of renewing my visa. Buying myself more time in the country; outwardly endorsing the place in effect.

A Colombian friend helped in putting those seeds of doubt into my mind. “I find it bemusing” she said, “when I see westerners making an effort and spending a relatively large amount of money in a bid to stay longer in Colombia.”

A case of 'the grass is always greener' you could say. For many Colombians, almost anywhere (in the West) is better than here when it comes to enjoying a higher standard of living.

On the flip side, those of us who come here, to mention just one reason anyway, are attracted by the sense of adventure in trying to make it in a 'developing' country.

And maybe that's the best reason I can give as to why I'm still here. It has been a place to try new things while pretty much being my own boss. It is not a life on easy street, taking the lazy option and wasting away one’s life as some seem to think.

Nor do many come to this country to get rich quick (if they do, it's generally down to hard work and/or being in the right place at the right time). There are better options in the world in that regard. But personally, on the balance of things, it has been fun, a big learning curve and, I like to think, beneficial, too.

Typecast Wrong Way.
Typecast: Wrong Way has proven himself to be an 'effective' cop in Colombia.
Heck, at times it has even felt like living in a fantasy land, a dreamworld, doing things that perhaps in more 'developed' countries I wouldn't have the opportunity to do, or at least not the same scope.

Each time it seems like endgame has been reached, another ‘card’ comes along to keep me playing at the Colombian table, so to put it.

Be that as it may, it still feels unlikely that this part of the world will be my home indefinitely. That might be due to the fact that the ‘traditional’, ‘settled’ life of buying a house, finding a long-term partner, having children and working in a ‘proper’ job floats around in my thoughts – you know, do what ‘normal’ people do.

In that regard, I don’t envisage Bogotá, this place where life sometimes seems a little surreal, offering that kind of existence – the long-term partner and having children elements are certainly in the realms of fantasy at this remove anyway.

Then again, maybe this Colombian ‘dreamland’ is the real deal. Am I living the dream, yet blissfully unaware of it? If so, let’s hope that it doesn’t turn into a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’
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Saturday, 23 May 2015

Romantic Ireland, rising from the grave

It took a while, but William Butler Yeats you're going to have to eat your penned words now (or
whatever you'll do with them from beyond your grave).

Ireland: Says yes to marriage equality ... 
Indeed! (Image from Facebook.)
Romantic Ireland isn't dead, as you infamously wrote in your poem September 1913. It has just been in a, some way self-induced, other ways imposed, coma. But it might be just about to rise from the flames.

It's not a rebirth, just a reawakening. One, though, that might see the people of the old island of saints and scholars — a land that enlightened a darkened Europe back in the day — rediscover their greatness as movers and shakers; find their daring again.

In fairness, we never really lost it. It's just that due to our self-depreciating nature, we've talked ourselves out of it over the years, even when the facts have shown differently. We've let others make us the butt of jokes with relative tranquillity; perhaps a natural reaction when you're surrounded by arrogance (well to the east, west and south at least).

You see, as Irish people have done before, they've shown themselves to be leaders rather than followers, this time becoming the first country in the world where the electorate, by way of a referendum, have endorsed gay marriage.

Basically, they're allowing official recognition of, and offering parity of esteem to, a practice that has practically been around since time immemorial. For some reason it just rested uncomfortably on a male-dominated church whose word had been sacrosanct for many Irish (and others) for years. Um, why so?

Of course, this isn't really going to change the world and, contrary to what some may think, it isn't going to end it either. There are far greater things that we should be trying to solve and resolve that will put an end to us sooner rather than later if we don’t. But what this does show, is that as a human race, we get our knickers (or Y-fronts if you will) in a twist over rather trivial issues.

'Don't sweat the small stuff' as they say. But we tend to create problems where none need exist. For that, we're all a long, long way from having 'a gay old time'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

¡Feliz cumpleaños (or happy birthday if you like) Gringo Tuesdays!

For some expatriates in Colombia, perhaps after an initial hedonistic phase that many don't escape, the country can become a land of opportunity, of sorts. Or at the very least a place to trial out new things.

Not all will go on to have success, but most have fun trying in any case. One of those foreign experiments that has stood the test of time is Bogotá's Gringo Tuesdays, a language exchange-cum-disco held at La Villa in Zona T that continues to attract the masses, of all creeds and races.

Admittedly, I haven't been going to it as much as I did in my early days in the city (age and work is catching up on me). But let's not let that stop us here from saluting something that in many ways has become an institution as it celebrates its fourth anniversary shortly.

And the simplest, most effective way to do that is to let those at Gringo Tuesdays do it themselves (with a cameo appearance or two from yours truly), via their promotional video (below). Enjoy (and congrats once again Gringos!):

Friday, 8 May 2015

United Kingdom, divided Europe

Well, that was pretty clear cut. Not only did the British Conservative Party get re-elected, they did so in rather impressive fashion, securing an overall majority in the House of Commons. There's no need for a messy coalition with those annoying Liberal Democrats, something the Tories had to endure for the last term.

The UK: Soon to the missing star in the EU?
The UK: Breaking the EU circle? (Image from eucentre.sg/.)
No, this time the party led by David Cameron can govern as it sees fit – well as much as they can inside the realms of a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system of governance. You can't argue too much against the mandate that Cameron and co have received (unless you're from Scotland, where the Scottish National Party secured 56 of the 59 seats up for grabs there).

In one sense, you could argue, the result changes little. The Conservatives are back in, just this time with a little more force. Yet, what's to come could have much greater significance, especially in terms of the UK's political and trade relations with its European neighbours.

This is because of the referendum that will be put – unless the Tories do a dramatic, unexpected U-turn – to its electorate over the country's future in the European Union. And if Cameron sticks to his word, the question will be straightforward, along the lines of: 'Should the UK remain part of the EU; yes or no?' The implications of a 'No' win, however, may not be so straightforward.

Of course, that Britain has been more of a Europhobe than Europhile since joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 won't come as a surprise to most. The legacy of having one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen doesn't go away quickly or quietly. Compromising with former enemies such as France and Germany has never gone down well with the British psyche.

Its decision not to join the euro, while not unique among EU-member states, served to further the belief on the European mainland that the UK was and is just paying lip service to the idea of greater integration of the 'Old Continent'. (That staying out of the European Monetary Union was probably a wise move considering the current state of play is something we won't fully go into right now.)

So with the traditionally Euroscpetic Conservatives in power, the wind in the party's sails thanks to securing an overall majority and with the much-talked-about referendum upcoming, that the UK may finally cut its official ties with Brussels seems almost inevitable.

This could be the opportunity to make 'Great Britain greater', as David Cameron vowed in his victory speech. In any case, a clear decision about British EU membership, one way or the other, could be just what both sides need.

David Cameron: The UK's future in the EU is practically in his hands.
Cameron cool: Is this the man to lead the UK out of Europe? (Photo from FB.)
A strong 'no' win and the UK can leave behind what at times has been a turbulent political union with its European counterparts and go about creating new alliances and arrangements. Sure, things could be awkward for a while as the country re-finds its feet, but it need not be disastrous. Britain only needs to take a glance north to Norway for a template on how a life outside the EU works.
On the other hand, a 'yes' victory, akin, and perhaps ironically so, to Scotland's rejection of independence from the UK last year (Cameron, after all, has work to do to keep his own union together), would (or at least should) mean a shot in the arm for a flailing EU project. The odd couple, the United Kingdom and the European Union, agreeing to give it another go, for old times' sake.

In the backdrop to all this is next year's 100th-anniversary commemoration of the bloodiest confrontation of World War One, the Battle of the Somme. And while Britain emerged victorious from that war, in many ways it marked the beginning of the end of the Empire, as new forces to the east and west began to crank up their vast influence and power.

Is Britain now, however, set to emerge from what could be described as, to borrow from a book title of Colombia's late, great writer Gabriel García Márquez, its own '100 Years of Solitude'?

That might be overstating things, but at the very least the lead up to the referendum and the fallout from it, whichever way it goes, should cause a bit of giddy excitement in Europe and beyond.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Broken Bogotá: Who can fix it?

This is, on the face of it, an important time coming up for Bogotá. In October the city's inhabitants will vote for a new mayor

Lookalikes: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bogotá mayoral candidate Clara López.
A straight swap: Merkel for López. (Image: Pieter Hupkes.)
It's a bit of an understatement to say that the outgoing Gustavo Petro administration endured a turbulent time. And depending on where you're coming from, he either did a good job in the face of 'dark forces' undermining him, or he was the dark force returning Bogotá to uglier times.

The truth, as is generally the case in such matters, more than likely lies somewhere in the middle.

He may have tried to put his personal stamp on some things, the biggest example being the controversial waste collection changes that briefly cost him his job, but the reality is no one person can either fix or break Bogotá, as much as some like to think.

Does he leave the city in a better place, however? In short, no. But it could be argued that he has laid, or at least tried to lay, the foundations for a brighter future. For one, a metro sounds exciting, if the inhabitants here could figure out how to use it in an orderly, respectful fashion.

Also, as regards the rubbish debacle, at least trying to implement a culture change in how Bogotanos deal with their waste was worthy of some merit. Considering the city he has been in charge of, he has just about earned a pass mark.

Queuing up to replace him, you have the typical Colombian mix of right, centre-right and phoney left. The thing is, completely unlike the national presidency, Bogotá has gone 'left' for its mayor with relative regularity in recent times.

However, while they all came in with grand ideals and promised much, the height of what many seemed to achieve was to anger their fellow elites and further disillusion the poor (and enjoy the trappings of power at the same time).

With that in mind, the point could be made that the city should shun the so-called left this time out. Yet last year's presidential candidate from the leftist (and mired in controversy) Polo Democrático, Clara López, is the early leader in the polls. She does talk a good talk for sure; and maybe the city could do with a more permanent woman's touch at the top table. (Women have served in the office, López included, but just in holding roles.)

Plus, if she has the same command and leadership skills as a woman she somewhat resembles — German Chancellor Angela Merkel (sorry Angela) — Bogotá could be on to a winner. It's best not to hold your breath just yet though.

So if the 'left' is to be avoided, who does the city look to?

There is President Santos' cousin, Francisco ‘Pacho’ Santos, himself a former vice president of the country, from the divisive Centro Democrático party. Yet, by all accounts he's like the joke candidate — a rightist, Colombian version of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. (However if he was to adopt the 'Go Pato' song, tweaked to 'Go Pacho', it could work wonders.)

Bogotá mayoral candidate 2015, Rafael Pardo, on a recent visit to Madrid.
Pardo (left): 'If only Bogotá was a bit more like Madrid.' (Photo: Facebook.)
One other man who could fit the bill is the joint Liberal and de la U parties’ selection, former government minister Rafael Pardo. Like López, he already held the office for a brief period; his month in charge came during the Petro ‘in-out’ saga last year. From what this blog can gather, he certainly seems to be popular among young professionals and the middle class in general. Although, if the polls are to be believed, he has a lot of ground to make up on the Polo Democrático candidate.

Also, whether Pardo will even be on the ballot paper is now in doubt with Enrique Peñalosa's introduction to the race. The former mayor and presidential candidate announced his candidature by saying that he wants a centre-right alliance picking the best-placed runner to prevent López taking office.

Really though, considering what has gone before, with the odd exception, it might be time to parachute in an outsider to sort the place out. The aforementioned Merkel would bring some badly-needed German organisation to things. And she'd surely relish the daunting task at hand.
One of the first things she could perhaps weigh up, Berlin-in-reverse style, is constructing a north-south dividing wall.

A two-city solution, at least for a while. I wonder which side of the divide the current mayoral candidates would opt for?
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For an idea of some (just some) of the challenges facing the next Bogotá mayor, this piece from a while back gives an idea: Bogotá's 'broken window'.