Saturday, 17 December 2016

Cracking the (Colombian) Spanish code

'When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.' It's very difficult to argue against that one. As a species, we're good at talking a good talk, but we don't always follow it up with the appropriate action if and when required.

EEUU; a bit over the top lads, no?
You could just leave it at EU lads ... (Image from
Alongside 'said' in the opening saying, we can add 'written' (yes, this coming from a blogger and all). The legal world is quite adept at that. The old adage of 'less is more' seems anathema to it. It likes to make things that should be pretty straightforward to comprehend – and act upon – come across as if they were written by somebody not of this world.

Yet some languages – specifically Spanish (Colombian Spanish anyway) in this case – are more culpable than others in this regard; and it's not exclusive to the legal sphere.

A common observation among those who translate Spanish to English here in Colombia is that the former is overly and unnecessarily wordy. Indeed it can be quite the head-scratcher to figure out what's being said. This tends to be worse if someone has made a literal translation of their Spanish into English and asks you to proofread.

Of course it's not always best practice to directly translate from one language to another, each one has its peculiarities, but what we're getting at here is what seems to be the same thing said a number of times, just in different ways. Plus, a lot of the time it's written in ridiculously long sentences devoid of punctuation.

In reference to the revised peace agreement between the Colombian government and Farc guerrillas, Britain's Guardian newspaper, inadvertently perhaps, touched on this: "Although the text of the new agreement was not immediately published, the president, Juan Manuel Santos, laid out certain changes in a televised speech. Some are little more than clarifications of the often-vague language of the text. Other modifications are more substantial."

For those who have had to work with Spanish texts before, that 'often-vague language' is something that will resonate. In legal and political contexts, as happens with other languages, it might be deliberate: leave things open to as many interpretations as possible. A reason, perhaps, why the Colombian constitution is quite lengthy. However, Spanish seems to bring this verbose approach to every sphere.

On a more trivial note, take abbreviations, where there is a doubling up on letters in some cases. For example, the United States (US), ' Estados Unidos' in Spanish, is written 'EEUU' in the abbreviated form. 'Fuerzas Militares' (literally 'Military Forces') abbreviates as 'FFMM'. (It's to do with plural terms, although it's not done in all cases.) Think about ink costs when printing these things out guys.

Going slightly off topic, football commentators in these parts are masters at making an uneventful football match seem as if it's the most exciting thing ever, spluttering out a thousand words a minute. The Simpsons did a good take on this years ago (back when The Simpsons was enjoyable).

There are a lot of things to like about the (Colombian) Spanish language and culture. It just seems that at times it could do with a bit of streamlining. There might be more than one way to write the same thing, but you don't need to put them all down at the same time.
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Monday, 5 December 2016

A criminal's perfect drug?

Picture the scenario. You meet a stranger on the street, have a brief, perhaps cordial exchange, and moments later you're handing over practically everything you have in your possession. If you've your bank cards on you, you might even go the nearest ATM, withdraw your limit and give it to your recently met acquaintance.
Most scopolamine attacks happen during or after a night out. Taking public transport home alone can be risky ...
Scopolamine: Bringing people in Bogotá on a 'trip' they don't want to go on?
Nice, if you're on the receiving end of such 'generosity' that is. If only, eh? Yet, here in Bogotá, these kinds of things do happen. No, it's not a case of there being more giving types here compared to other places – it's more likely the opposite on that score.

It's all to do with what you could describe as a type of hypnotising drug, sourced from plants found in these parts. For those unaware of scopolamine/hyoscine, or Devil's Breath as it's also called, how it allegedly affects individuals under its influence reads like some sort of horror/science fiction movie.

Basically, if you're unlucky enough to be exposed to it, so it goes, you'll become completely subservient to whoever happens to be around you; you'll pretty much do whatever they ask you to do. You can still function, superficially and physically in any case, more or less as normal. The problem is that you lose your will power. Pretty much whatever is asked of you, you'll do, no questions asked.

Now some pharmacological experts are unwilling to give scopolamine, or whatever similar version of it is used, such lofty 'credit' as a drug that takes away your will power with just the slightest sniff of it. They dispute the commonly held belief that inhaling a small dose in powder form – one of the ways Devil's Breath dispensers drug their victims is by blowing it in their faces – would instantly send somebody into a puppet-like stupor.

Nonetheless, you'll find plenty of people who were robbed or taken advantage of in Bogotá who swear that they were maliciously administered something that dramatically altered their behaviour, something other than the usual alcohol and whatever else they might be having.
Brugmansia, the innocent source of something much more sinister ...
The Brugmansia plant, source of scopolamine. (Photo from web.) 
So for those who have had nights where they've found themselves acting completely out of character in the company of strangers – and normally robbed to boot – they're convinced that if it's not exactly scopolamine that's to blame, some sort of nasty concoction is.

Despite all the anecdotes of such freaky episodes, in a lot the cases there's a lack of hard evidence available to say whether it was actually Devil's Breath at play or not – that is to say, no toxicology tests were taken.

For this reason, it continues to remain in some sort of limbo: an urban myth or a dangerous criminal reality? Whatever the case, for some victims of crime in Bogotá, something sinister has been, and continues to be, lurking in the air. More reasons to always have the guard up around here.
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Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Not so price-smart Bogotá

For the last 20 months Bogotá's only regular quiz (trivia) night, IQuiz, has been on the go. It's still quite a niche event, a nature of the 'beast' that it is perhaps. Nonetheless, as a labour of love, it's been relatively successful and, going by the reaction of those who participate, an enjoyable, fun and lively event, which is what we want it to be.

Pub House, Bogotá, Colombia.
Nice place, but overpriced for what you get ...
From an organisational and venue-sourcing point of view, it's been quite an experience. You see, for us, IQuiz is not meant to be exclusive, set aside for just a certain sector of Bogotá's inhabitants. Yet, in such a disparate, economically unequal city, balancing the needs of IQuiz with the desire to make it accessible to as many as possible has been tricky.

Generally speaking, the spacious, bar-style venues IQuiz requires are only to be found in the more affluent parts of the city, and that means paying multiples of what you'd pay in a more bog-standard setting (Colombia's strata system, where certain parts of the city pay much more for services, plays a part in this). Or if they're not in exclusive areas, such places usually sell their refreshments far pricier than the establishments around them. A case of 'give it a Western tinge, increase the price'.

More than just giving a place a Western flair (in music and style), the more Westerners or foreigners with money who frequent it, the greater justification for price hiking. Fair enough, if the clientele are happy to pay, repeatedly, your prices with business going well, why would you consider lowering them?

Indeed, in many of the pubs we're referring to, those clientele are people earning salaries that would be considered decent in more 'developed' countries, with some being paid in dollars or euros. Also, there's the strategy, so it goes, that maintaining higher-than-average prices helps to keep undesirables away. Yet, for the likes of Bogotá's Zona T and Parque 93, it's unlikely that the ñero types will flock there to socialise, whatever the price. They might come, as some already do, for less innocent reasons. (In any case, gomelos — Bogotá's 'posh' — can be just as unbearable as their opposites, the ñeros.)

Obviously it's a numbers game on two fronts: if people are still coming and you're in the black financially wise, then great. However, from what we've witnessed, it appears that some of these 'finer' watering holes aren't exactly fulfilling their potential. It's actually difficult to see how they are making money at all. It's either a case of the owners having deep pockets or the business is being used for more sinister reasons.

Not only are the places that fall into this underperforming category overpriced and generally underwhelming, they charge for service to boot. Now tipping for a job well done is one thing, but almost forcing people to pay extra for being served when, more often than not, the ones doing the serving behave as if they'd prefer to be doing anything but, that's just a deal-breaker. We'll take the personal touch of the local tienda over such coldness any day.

It would be interesting to see some of these stale Western-style pubs adopt a sort of Ryanair approach: Cut back the prices substantially to get customer numbers up. The arrival over the last couple of years of the Bogotá Beer Company (BBC) bodega franchise in the city was a half-turn in that direction. However, considering these bodegas only sell the 'fancy' BBC beers, they're still somewhat exclusive.

A lack of start-up capital is why the Wrong Way Pub hasn't opened its doors yet. Of course, were that to happen, we might just find that running a bar à la Ryanair wouldn't be viable. B that as it may, for the moment, we'll try to keep bringing IQuiz and its associated discounts to a venue near you!
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Monday, 21 November 2016

The Aroca case: An early test for post-conflict Colombia?

Stop the presses! 'Colombian politician in corruption scandal!' In a country that does corruption as regularly and spectacularly as the 'best' of them, it's not a very exciting announcement, is it? It's even less so when the story comes from the country's backwater department of Putumayo. 'Move on, nothing to see here.'

Sorrel Aroca is facing the prospect of an 11-year ban from public office for what seems a minor offence ...
Governor Aroca: Her political career is on the line. (Photo from Facebook.)
Yet, digging a bit deeper into this distant affair, it appears there's something a little sinister going on. The politician accused of the wrongdoing may actually be the victim. Dark forces with the state's legal apparatus behind them conspiring to remove a governor from office as she doesn't quite fit their agenda. That's the thinking in some quarters anyway.

Here's the low-down: Putumayo's first female governor, Sorrel Aroca Rodríguez of the Allianza Verde (Green Alliance), was found to have committed irregularities in the signing of life insurance contracts for 11 deputies during her time as president of the department's assembly in 2014. The investigating authority, La Procuraduría (Inspector General), has ordered that she be dismissed as governor and banned from serving public office for 11 years.

The amount of money in question here is 20 million Colombian pesos, about €6,000, so not exactly astronomical. Plus, it appears that there was no personal financial gain for Aroca out of this episode.

What she has been blamed of is running up additional, unnecessary costs, as well as not being transparent in her actions. Whatever the case, it certainly seems the punishment far outweighs whatever crime she may have been guilty of. Of all the corrupt things that happen here, this seems pretty mediocre.

For Aroca's supporters, there's more than a whiff of something underhand at work here. Her young, female face doesn't quite fit the bill for the traditionalists, thus they want her out.

Questions have been raised over the way the case seemed to be fast-tracked through the Procuraduría's office, in what is seen as a final hit from the old Alejandro Ordóñez regime. (Ordóñez has previous form in trying to take out those not of his own creed.)

As somebody who describes herself as a governor for a post-conflict Colombia, if it is a case of conservative forces moving against the 39-year-old, it highlights the kind of problems the country faces in trying to put a bloody past behind it.

Aroca is appealing the decision and for the many Putumayans who want her to stay on as governor, the hope is that her case will be viewed in a more favourable light under the new Fernando Carrillo-led Procuraduría.

However, should the Procuraduría's original finding hold and Aroca is removed from office, it won't cause too much of a stir in Bogotá's corridors of power. Therein might lie one of the bigger problems for this new Colombia being constructed, continuing to ignore the fringes. We'll watch this space with interest.
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Sunday, 13 November 2016

Who needs Ebenezer Scrooge when there's Adidas ...

The world, it's true to say, has never been as interconnected, and not just in a virtual way. We can move around the globe like no other time in our history, finding ourselves immersed in cultures quite distinct from our own, yet at the same time be close to home comforts  in some shape or form anyway  should we feel the need seek them.

In many ways and for many people, this interconnectedness is a good thing. It can help, especially when it happens in a physical, real way, to break down boundaries among peoples, to make us question any prejudices we may have, to remove the 'fear of the others' mentality.
A Christmas-less Adidas store in Bogotá, Colombia.
Adidas: Bigger than Christmas ...
However, in the same way that no two individuals are the same, cultural differences exist across the world. While it can be argued that an 'Americanisation' has swept superficially over the Western world and countries closely linked to it, differences remain at a deeper level. The former foreign minister of the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov, was only partially right in his prediction in this regard back in 1946.

Thus, it tends not to be best practice to lump everybody together in whatever you happen to be at. Yet this is exactly what sportswear giant Adidas seems to be doing with regards its marketing strategy; a kind of 'one size fits all' approach if you will.

It all comes down to, we have it on good authority, a strategic change made a few years back, where it moved from a commercial focus to a brand one. Basically, this appears to mean that Adidas must be marketed pretty much the same across the world, whether that's in Beijing or Bogotá. Cultural differences aren't considered  or at least they are deemed not important enough as to warrant a country or regional alteration in approach.

How that has played out at this time of year is a lack of direct and obvious recognition of the Christmas season. This is to say that in Adidas stores you won't find a festive flavour to them; a good thing for some people that, but Colombia 'does Christmas' with as much gusto as the best of them. The 'bland' Adidas stores will stand out, and the risk is this won't be viewed in a good light.

Adidas Colombia did suggest a marketing campaign that had a bit of a seasonal swing to it, but not ostentatiously so. Personally, I thought it was much better than the nondescript global one (which, incidentally, originally focused on basketball, a sport that doesn't register much of a beat in these parts). However, the company's chiefs said 'nay' to the Colombian creation; but who are we to question global Adidas? It is a German company after all.

In one sense, it might be a thinking, and perhaps with reason, that Adidas is a sort of culture in itself and thus doesn't need to be concerned with others or with seasons. It's bigger than Christmas and all such malarkey. Plus, as noted above, the main focus for the company has shifted to its brand over the commercial side of things. (Obviously there's a delicate balance there; the principal focus would soon switch back if sales declined. You don't get to Adidas' position, though, without having your homework well done.)

So while the Adidas approach may frustrate its employees on the ground in Colombia, it might just be reflecting a world that is more homogeneous than ever before. We may have our cultural differences, but for some things they matter little.
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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A brief history of reading

One measure of the positive development of a country is its literacy rate. The more people who are competent in reading, writing and arithmetic, the greater chance of a better quality of life is the general belief.

In the not-too-distant past, such abilities were the preserve of a select, influential elite. The invention of the printing press gradually began to change this as the written word became available to a greater number of people. The more rapid diffusion of texts coupled with an increase in the audience for such works saw this medium rise to a position of prominence, arguably greater than that of the spoken word and images.
The tendency for us to carry around electronic devices rather than books these days isn't necessarily a bad thing ...
You still have to be able to read a bit to play Mario. (Image from web.)
Over the last century and a half or so, a host of interlinked technological developments and a greater access to education have seen a dramatic upturn in global literacy levels, further enhancing the importance of the written word.

Yet, what we have seen of late is not a 'triumph of text' but rather a return to what could be viewed as more ancient times where the 'image is king' for the masses, in a very different format albeit.

For some this is portrayed as a 'dumbing down' of society. Examples given to support this viewpoint are YouTube videos of very little, if any, educational or social value that go viral, 'silly' TV soap operas and even computer games. In this sphere, it's very much a case of following the money trail.

Nonetheless, however dismissive we may be of the above, it can't be said that they represent a return to some sort of Dark Ages. They are part of an age where people have access to a vast array of information at the touch of a button  empowering or otherwise as this may be.

Indeed, thanks to the internet, self-learning capabilities have increased exponentially, be that with videos and commentary via YouTube or simply having access to an enormous amount of written sources in seconds. Of course, there's no guarantee that such learning will be completely balanced and impartial, especially considering that we tend to find material that compliments our own biases. Then again, the same can be said for more traditional educational outlets.

What's more, given the changed landscape as regards where and how people source information, even if people are reading less books (a US study this year suggests a slight fall in the last number of years), this doesn't mean they're becoming 'less enlightened/intelligent'. For one, in the majority of the world literacy rates have never been higher.

So while not all of us are reading voluminous tomes, our understanding of issues is, or at least should be, better than in previous times. In this regard, at least the foundations for a questioning, more forward thinking human race are there, however individuals and distinct societies might actually turn out given whatever other conditions are at play at the time.

That last point still carries much weight. We'd like to think that with high literacy rates alongside the ability to self-teach and question long-held yet flawed beliefs, the acceptance to wage war along religious and ethnic lines would be on the wane significantly. Alas, despite the world being as interconnected as it ever has been, this isn't quite the case.

Perhaps that simply comes down to an innate human trait: we'll always find a reason to go to war, no matter how educated, enlightened or well-read we may be. And there'll always be people ready to fight those wars.

So while the power of the book is perhaps waning, the return with a vengeance of images/pictures as master of the masses is not necessarily a backward step. They are being presented to a more knowledgeable population in what are obviously much changed times. What haven’t changed that much are our debilitating animal instincts.
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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

We are what we tweet

In these social media times we live in, it seems that virtual reality has become reality. Or at least our smartphone updates have allowed those who read/view them to believe they know us and make judgements about us, even if they've only briefly met us or indeed never have at all.

Your social media profile: Is it a true reflection of yourself?
'I tweet, therefore I am.'
Of course, social media profiling is not just a lonely layperson's pastime. Companies often check out the Facebook pages, tweets, Instagram photos and what have you of prospective employees to 'get a feel' for the person in question before saying 'yea' or 'nay'. In some cases, that may be pre-interview selection, thus a decision is taken on your personality or suitability before they've actually met you. At times that might be a good thing, on other occasions not so.

It does, nonetheless, beg the question: Does how we portray ourselves on social media reflect accurately how our real lives actually are?

We may post fairly honestly, but for the majority of us these are just snapshots in time, brief moments detailing some particular aspect of our life that we feel is worthy of sharing. (Whether we should bother to share these things at all is a valid consideration; maybe those of us who do it will get over this phase as we come to terms with the continuously evolving social media landscape.)

The more mundane, everyday aspects of our lives usually aren't publicised — at least that's how it is for most people. It's a highlights package of sorts, and often a very skewed one.

Moreover, what is 'put out there' is open to falsities and manipulation. Just as someone can lie to you about themselves in person, it can be done, but with greater ease, virtually.

In terms of on-line discussions — Facebook debates for example — there's the issue of tone and sentiment perhaps not coming across as intended by the writer. Linked to that, some people can write in a rather aggressive, argumentative manner when in reality they're big 'softies' so to put it. 'Virtual warriors, real-life sheep' you could say.

As has been posted on this blog before, all these social media outlets are just tools, and like any tool they can be used in a productive way or improperly. A lot of the time 'user restraint' is advised. Completely switching off from them may be almost impossible for some people in certain lines of work, but letting them dominate your life doesn't seem the best idea.

There is a real world out there, distinct from the social media one. It's not always the case that 'we are what we tweet', despite what some people may think.
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Sunday, 16 October 2016

Colombia's gringo tax

One of the most frustrating things non-natives, especially Westerners, in Colombia (and other similar countries) have to put up with is the arbitrary 'foreigner tax'. This is basically the additional cost put on to a host of goods and services simply because we're outsiders. The mentality behind it is that we can afford it and/or won't know that we're being charged extra than those in the know.
Yet another place that makes a distinction between Colombians & foreigners ...
Rip off Colombia (if you're a foreigner) ...
For many tourists, short-term visitors and some long-termers here, both of those beliefs hold true. If you think the price you have to pay is reasonable, cheap even, fair enough; ignorance being bliss and all that. Although, it must be said that this 'clandestine overcharging' is a betrayal to the oft-heard line that 'Colombians are the friendliest in the world.' When it comes to money, some — but not all thankfully — are a little two-faced.

Now after five years of having Colombia as my base — and earning a modest amount of Colombian pesos I hasten to add — I've learnt, slowly, to always ask the price of something before committing to buy. Yet, at times the guard is dropped.

One of the most frequent of times this erratic pricing happens is when you enter a bakery, or panadería as it's called in these parts, for the first time. In your bog-standard panadería, the price of a perico — a small coffee with milk — generally ranges from $700 to $1,200 COP. So there have been occasions, even to this day, where I've not bothered to ask the price before ordering. This opens the door for a little inflation and very often the person at the till isn't shy about seizing that opportunity.

Even worse, in recent weeks I started checking out panaderías in the barrios close to my new abode. For the four or five I 'inspected', I was charged a standard price on my first solo visit. In the following days I returned to most of them, this time with a friend, a fellow countryman, and in two of these we were charged more for the same products I'd had on my own.

This isn't exclusive to panaderías; it happens in other restaurants were prices aren't displayed (or at times even if they are), tienda bars and also, unsurprisingly, with taxis; hence my general dislike for most of those yellow parasites. Needless to say it's commonplace with tourism-related things, too.

This short-sightedness is understandable in some ways. For many who do it, they don't see their future being a life on easy street, or 'calle facil' as they might say, so it's 'extract what you can now, to heck with the future.' Yet plenty of places have lost and will continue to lose business and potential loyal customers by engaging in such a strategy. 'Short-term gain, long-term loss.' (It's worth noting here that in the much frowned upon, 'disorganised', neighbouring Venezuela, prices seem to be displayed in almost every café and restaurant, so you can make an informed decision before you commit.)

In further mitigation, Colombia's working classes are more screwed against than screwing (um, in some contexts anyway). Indeed, in other areas 'el extranjero', the foreigner, is treated much better. Just one example of that is in the world of film/TV extras where a foreigner can up to eight times more for doing the same work.

This horrible inequality, however, is not our fault. What's more, the foreigner who is willing to socialise in popular barrios is giving a greater endorsement of a now somewhat safer, less divided country than most more well-off Colombians.

Thus, to the 'price inflators', you would do well to remember that not all Westerners come heavily laden with euros, dollars, pounds or whatever. We're here to contribute, hopefully in a positive way, so don't push us out.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Trump card

It's been quite a year so far. In the sporting world people have called it the 'year of the underdog'. The biggest representation of that was Leicester City Football Club's remarkable triumph in England's Premier League; from 5000-to-1 outsiders to top dog in the space of nine months. You also had the unheralded Iceland, with a total population of just over 300,000, light up Euro 2016, going all the way to the quarter-finals.

Switching codes to rugby, my own province of Connacht, a region not traditionally seen as a stronghold of the sport with a franchise that was almost disbanded by Irish rugby authorities a few years back, impressively claimed the league title contested by sides from the Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Donal Trump et al. after a campaign rally ...
Will Team Trump be celebrating next month? Unlikely, but ... (Picture from Facebook.)
In the political world it's also been somewhat strange. We've had the much talked about Brexit in the UK, Colombia's 'no' vote to the historic peace deal reached between the government and Farc followed by President Juan Manuel Santos winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts despite this big setback. Even back home in Ireland there was a protest vote of sorts when the electorate returned in numbers to a party that was seen as the chief culprits of everything that went wrong during and after the Celtic Tiger boom years. We're a forgiving bunch it seems.

In such an environment, a Donald Trump US presidential victory would seem to fit the narrative, as unlikely as that now appears this late in the game. Nonetheless, in less unpredictable times, a brash billionaire promising to 'make America great again' (just the United States of America that is, not any other part of it and especially not Mexico) would appeal not just to rednecks but plenty of city dwellers as well.

Thus, with a strong whiff of anti-establishment air whirling around, it's easy to see how the Trump card is attractive to many. He represents the middle finger to the old tried-and-trusted way of doing things. The system needs a little bit of a shake up, a shock, and Trump would deliver that, both at home in the US and abroad. That's the thinking (and the hope for some, the fear for others) anyway. Yet didn't the outgoing Barack Obama offer a sort of new approach as well? (Then again, don't they all?)

Throw in the fact that Trump's main rival, Hillary Clinton, doesn't exactly inspire confidence — even though if she is elected as expected she will become the first woman president of the self-proclaimed greatest country on the planet and therefore a significant new departure in itself — and the ingredients for a Trump triumph are clearly there. The US's Electoral College system could also work in his favour; lose the popular vote but still make it to the White House.

So as much of the rest of the world looks on with trepidation at the chances, decreasing as they are, of Trump becoming the de facto leader of the 'free world', is it really a huge cause for concern?

He does hum to a different beat than most politicians, but were he to take power, how much of what he says he is going to do would he actually carry out? A good bet is not much at all. Indeed, he's more likely to become the best-known figurehead on a stage of other political figureheads who in reality kowtow to the real movers and shakers of this world; the money men, of which Trump is one of course, but only one.

In fact, he might find out that he was able to exert more of an influence behind the scenes than being centre stage.

In the end, by going 'radical' as some see it with Trump, the US might just be opting for the 'same old, same old.' And exactly how the real powers want it to be. Plus cą change. Oh well, there's always sport to provide us with the novelties.
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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Colombia decides: Imperfect peace or perpetual war?

In a country with such vast inequality, along with a significant disconnect between officialdom and the masses, to say Colombia's 'vote for peace' is its moment of truth might be overstretching it a little. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event of the Colombian electorate rejecting the October 2nd plebiscite on the agreement reached between the government and Farc rebels, such an outcome would be met with bewilderment by a watching outside world; a people says no to 'peace'. (Although, as written about here previously, it wouldn't be a complete surprise to those who have been following events closely.) It would also signal the need for a change of administration, one that would have to pursue a far tougher line on leftist guerrillas; not virgin, if largely unsuccessful ground that.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Farc leader Timochenko before signing the peace deal in the city of Cartagena ...
Much more peaceful times ahead for Colombia?  (Photo from Facebook.)
The opinion polls, in any case, tell us that the yes side should comfortably win the day, despite a not insignificant no minority that appears to cross class boundaries. From well-to-do business people and professionals to tienda owners and hard-pressed youths in working-class barrios, in my conversations I've encountered more people who are going to vote 'no' than 'yes'. (Odd enough considering the no side is polling about 30 per cent.) I've also spoken with plenty who just won't bother to cast their ballot; a symbol of that disconnect from 'official' Colombia in what, according to the powers that be, is such a momentous decision for the country.

Leaving aside the argument that the referendum question is of a leading type favouring a 'yes', Colombians must ask themselves the following: Is this an agreement that will be a positive game changer for the country, a step in the right direction? Or is it just a coming together of a few elites, unrepresentative of the reality on the ground, and something that will change very little? A 'television peace' as one Colombian farmer put it.

You won't find many, even the most optimistic of yes voters, expecting instant change. Peace won't come overnight. We've seen that before in the likes of Northern Ireland — not that we can draw too many comparisons between the two conflicts.

One argument coming from the no side is that the agreement is overly lenient towards Farc from a financial and political point of view — guaranteed senate seats for the leftist movement is one bugbear in this regard. For a country that has traditionally steered a centre-right/right path in national politics, there seems to be some fear that this deal might mark the start of a drift towards some sort of socialism, a dirty word in these parts considering the situation in neighbouring Venezuela and Colombia's sour relationship with that republic.

Another source of fuel for the 'no' ire comes from El Presidente himself, Juan Manuel Santos. His approval rating has been at an all-time low and it appears some Colombians just can't bear to endorse anything that he is behind. The wrong occasion for a protest vote it might be, but it carries weight.

Other points being made against the agreement include the belief that there are greater problems in the country that need to be sorted out. This may be so, but the counter-argument is that by at least putting the Farc to bed, the other issues can then be tackled with more vigour. As for former Farc members carrying on their criminal ways under a different banner post peace endorsement, only time will tell on that one.

Should, as expected, the yes side win on Sunday, it's not, at the risk of sounding facetious, going to be a case of peace and love from Monday onwards. However, the hope must be that it marks the start of a move to a more positive era in Colombia's story. As Santos himself said, and here's hoping he and his ilk mean it, 'the hard work starts now.' Creating a more equitable Colombia is something that requires much more than a few handshakes and the signing of an agreement. A sceptical Colombian public needs convincing that the times are indeed a-changin' for the better.
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Friday, 23 September 2016

Go West (if you can afford it)

As a Westerner living and working in a 'developing world' country, earning what is considered locally a decent enough working-class wage, one of the difficulties with this is when you return to your country of origin. The 'living within your means' approach which can successfully be done in the adopted country — in this case Colombia — becomes nigh on impossible.

Creevy, Lisacul, Ireland.
The road back home isn't that straightforward ...
We're talking here about going back for a short-term stay. Obviously if you were returning on a longer-term basis you would have to find employment fairly quickly in order not to either run out of money in no time at all or eat into the 'rainy-day' savings (if you have them that is. Or you might be lucky enough to get the government to 'sponsor' you for a little while in the absence of employment; the joys of welfare states.)

Having just returned from a trip home to Ireland, there appear to be few pull factors to allow for even the consideration of a permanent move back just yet — family and friends excepted of course.

Granted, on this latest return, I didn't stray too much out of the west of Ireland, an important point in this 'state of the nation' revision. This is because, by all accounts, the east-west divide, which has always been a factor in Ireland, is as deep and apparent as it ever has been.

The west of the country might be OK to raise a young family if you're lucky enough to have decent employment in the region. It might also be OK for old-age pensioners to see out their lives in tranquillity, if they have public transport within range (far from a given) and/or if they have helpful family and friends nearby when transport is required.

Yet for young (or relatively young if you like) singletons who may not want to own their own transport, most of the west of Ireland has a low-attraction value. Nice to visit every now and again but not a place to set up shop.

For sure, here in Bogotá it's not quite the pig's back existence (that cameo appearance in Narcos is deceptive*). There are a number of things that need to start showing an improvement for me to start seeing it as a true home for the foreseeable future. However, Bogotá or not, at this remove there are other places on the globe I'd consider before rushing back to Ireland — places that offer better value for money as well. Everything is open to revision, though.

Plus, it all depends on what you're looking for and who you are, of course. If you happen to be a US multinational company looking for a tax haven of sorts and a native government ready to defend vigorously your tax evasion ways (or was it merely tax avoidance?), then Ireland might just be the perfect match. Why help the little people when you can help big business? It's much more glamorous (and profitable).
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Friday, 26 August 2016

Colombia's Chamberlain-esque peace?

On the face of it, it seems like a no-brainer. On October 2nd Colombians are going to be asked to vote either 'yes' or 'no' for peace. That is to say, to give their backing to a deal finally reached between the government and the leftist-styled Farc rebels to end a bloody internal conflict that has troubled the country for over 50 years. Apart from the sadistic amongst us, who wouldn't vote in the affirmative?

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the peace president ...
President Santos' peace, but not for all Colombians?
Of course, it's just not that simple, even if, perhaps, it should be. You see, there is a belief that what has been brokered by the negotiators in Cuba in many ways doesn't reflect the reality on the ground in Colombia. A political agreement that looks fine and dandy on paper and allows the 'warring' leaders come together in brotherly love (it has pretty much been male-dominated), but a deal practically not worth the paper it's written on in 'normal Colombia', the very place it's meant to bring about real, positive change. That's a view you won't have to search hard to find among the masses.

We've written plenty here before about the problems inherent in this process, one of those being the idea that the Farc leaders who negotiated this deal do not speak for the majority under their control (if ‘control’ is the right word to use here at all). Indeed, with political positions in the offing for the few Farc dealmakers of Havana, their lives might just be about to become a whole lot easier. The same cannot be said for the 'foot soldiers'.

This is one source of scepticism towards the whole process for Colombians; it's especially to be found among the lower classes and away from the big cities (as we mentioned in a previous post). The idea is that those who may fly under the Farc banner today will just continue on in criminality post this peace deal being ratified, if that should happen. Plus, you have those who were never Farc members, be they fellow 'leftists' or from the right, who have made a tidy living from both controlling and living in what you could call a separate state from the elected one headed by Juan Manuel Santos. Colombia's black market can be quite profitable.

What's more, there are those, headed vociferously by former president, the hawkish Álvaro Uribe, who view this as Santos' peace, not one that truly represents Colombia at large (el pueblo Colombiano). With Santos' approval rating low, a protest 'no' vote is a distinct possibility to add to the other genuine causes for concern that Colombians have about the process.

Most people know that true peace is not going to come with the simple signing of an agreement and a ceasefire. There are a host of deeper obstacles to arriving at a situation where peace and stability can thrive in Colombia. At the heart of those is the vast inequality that exists in the country, something that, it appears, no government has been willing or able to pay proper attention to.

That aside, that some of Colombia's men of violence have decided to give peace a chance has to be seen as a positive development, better than the status quo. Yes, officialdom was duped before, but a Neville Chamberlain returning from Nazi-run Germany in 1938 with a 'peace for our time' type of agreement this is not. This particular deal has some substance to it. 

For sure, it's far from perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The hope must be that it is a modicum of peace to achieve more peace.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Ignoring is bliss

As the old saying goes, 'Ignorance is bliss.' While there may be times when this is not the case, more often than not it holds true. You can't really get upset, worry, whatever, about something you are completely unaware of.

Yet these days, with information available at the touch of a button or the slide of a screen for many of us, it is difficult, in theory, to be ignorant. Fair enough, the information we get might not be truthful, but the fact remains that it can be rather easily found on pretty much any subject, at any time.
Ignoring some players in the best strategy ...
It's not worth it lad! (Image from
Thus, in this information 'rich' age, the adage could be tweaked a little to, 'Ignoring is bliss.' From a news point of view, what we're getting at here is not complete ignoring per se (although, at times, this could be a good tactic), it's to be more questioning of what you read and hear. Don't take things as 'gospel' just because they come from an approved source. We've plenty of recent examples that underscore the value of such an approach.

In another sphere, ignoring isn't just a good option, it's the only option. What we're referring to here is when you're trying to move on from what has proven to be a failed relationship. In the past, time and/or distance was probably enough for you to more or less permanently close a chapter of your life with someone with whom things just didn't work out. 'Out of sight, out of mind', so to put it.

However, the problem today is, in the absence of taking the step to delete every social media contact you have for the person in question — a measure some of us are too, um, proud to do — putting someone you once had some feelings for completely out of (virtual) sight and, as a result, mind is very difficult to do.

Indeed this becomes nigh on impossible when that other person makes contact every now and again, engages for a while, then disappears. (So even if you have deleted her contacts across all platforms, she can still molest you.) It's similar to, you could say, the old prank of ringing somebody's doorbell and then running away. It's a trait that, from personal experience and anecdotal evidence, a significant number of Colombianas display.

One can only assume they get some sort of odd enjoyment out of it, like the doorbell-ringing young children. Immature it certainly is in any case — and a lot of the time we're talking about university-educated, professionals here (then again, that doesn't necessarily mean much; some behaviours run deep in the blood).

The best, nay only, defence strategy in such a silly game, therefore, is our refusal to engage — regardless of how superficially beautiful the one we're (not) dealing with is. That is to say, 'to ignore'. Not to do so means we're only on to a frustrating loser.

*For a related article, see Defenders of the unfaithful.
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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Lomalinda: Colombia's lost community

Most visitors to Colombia have at least heard of, if not visited, Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. Tucked away high up in the Caribbean coast's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, you could call it the Colombian version of Machu Picchu, one that outdates its more famed Peruvian counterpart albeit.

Lomalinda's old school, now left to the forces of nature ...
While much is unknown about its history and those who inhabited it, it's pretty safe to assume that the cause for the city's abandonment was down to the arrival of those 'civilised' types from across the Atlantic Ocean, namely the Spanish.

That exodus from the Lost City, however it transpired, could be seen as a harbinger for events much later in the land of the country we now call Colombia. For flights of fear from ruthless enemies didn't stop with the Spanish conquest nor the coming of the Colombian Republic. In fact, we don't have to go that far back in history to find examples of people uprooted from what they had once called home.

One of those Colombian 'lost communities' is to be found, or not to be found as it is, in the picturesque and now tranquil setting of Lomalinda in the department of Meta, home to Colombia's plains. Now, as mentioned, forced displacements aren't novel here, but the Lomalinda case does stand out from others for a number of reasons.

For starters, Lomalinda wasn't your typical Colombian community or settlement. In fact, it wasn't Colombian at all. Founded in the 1960s, its origins began as a remote outpost for a Christian missionary / indigenous research project originating from the United States. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (Instituto Lingüístico de Verano in Spanish), as it was known, came to Colombia to study and put into writing the languages of the many indigenous tribes to be found here. As the work was going to take considerable time — we're talking decades here — the Colombian government gave the organisation unoccupied land close to the town of Puerto Lleras.

A shot of the old airfield in Lomalinda, Meta, Colombia.
How it used to be: Lomalinda's airfield back in the day ...
It was here, in what the new inhabitants named Lomalinda, which means 'pretty hill' in English, the community grew and indeed flourished. Some people came specifically to work on the project, while others came to aide Lomalinda life itself; there was a need for primary and secondary school teachers for the expat children, for example. So you had a mixture of permanent-to-semi-permanent residents and those on more of a temporary stay.

While the language in the community was English, some Colombians did come to settle nearby and it wasn't completely cut off from what was going on around it.

However, considering the deteriorating security situation that was to come, Lomalinda's residents might have wished they could have lived in a bubble. As the Farc guerrillas gained control around the area in the 80s, it signalled the beginning of the end for what many residents had seen as an idyllic, lake-shore life. How could a small, defenceless Western community, however vibrant it had been, survive with self-proclaimed communists menacingly nearby in what was to became a war zone?

After threats, kidnappings and a number of deaths, the last of the expat Lomalinda residents left in the mid-90s. Following their departure, the Colombian army moved in to secure the area. Thus began a process of degeneration; military personnel stationed in Lomalinda helped themselves, unsurprisingly, to some of the 'goodies' left behind.

The army, for reasons unknown, departed in the late 90s and that left the way open for the Farc, who had control of nearby Puerto Lleras, to continue the destruction of the village. Over a number of weeks the guerillas cleared out everything they could. Houses basically disappeared bar, any brick walls they had and their foundations.
Lomalinda, Meta, Colombia.
Lomalinda certainly has tourism potential ...
As the country's conflict rumbled on, the Farc lost control of the area. Yet, as it has been for many places in rural Colombia, until recently it was still seen as a no-go location. It's not exactly guerrilla nor paramilitary free today, but it's far, far safer than it was.

Something resembling 'normal' life seems to be returning to Lomalinda, minus the English-speaking Westerners as residents that is. In their place, on many of the foundations they built, have come those of a more common hue for these parts. Some of these new arrivals were displaced from elsewhere themselves due to Colombia's conflict. That such rather desperate folk with few opportunities have taken ownership of what was left behind might be of some comfort to the departed expats.

Yet, as the locals are quick to point out, this is still an area where guerrillas and paramilitaries (or paracos as they're also called) linger. Things may not be as dangerous as before, however it's hard to find anyone in favour of the peace deal that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos is pursuing in Havana, Cuba. For the locals here, they envisage no change to the Farc — or whatever those using that name now might call themselves post any 'peace deal' — collecting taxes on the one hand, and paramilitaries controlling their ground on the other.

Whatever the future may hold, what Lomalinda's current residents want now is to carry on with their lives without fear of forced eviction or death hanging over them. Is that too much to ask? Considering what's gone before, they could be forgiven for thinking 'yes'.
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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Remembering Casement's Colombian connection

It's fair to say that the name Roger Casement means very little, if nothing at all, for the vast majority of Colombians. There's no surprise in that really, especially considering that in his native Ireland, despite Casement being one of the most written about figures from the 1916 Rising period, his life isn’t the best known among the masses.
Indigenous from Colombia's Amazon go through a ritual at the 2012 event honouring the centenary of the publication of Casement's report into human rights abuses in the area.
From the 2012 event in La Chorrera, remembering Casement's report (photo from Fucai).
For those completely in the dark, before his more controversial involvement in the Irish republican movement which ended in his execution by the British in 1916, the Dublin-born diplomat carried out what could be described as pioneering work in the field of human rights, both in the Congo and South America.

This is where the Colombian connection comes into play. It was during his time as a British consul in Rio de Janeiro that he undertook an investigation into reports of maltreatment of indigenous tribes by a British-registered Peruvian rubber enterprise, Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), deep in the Amazon jungle.

In 1910 Casement made the first of two lengthy visits to the Putumayo region on the Colombian-Peruvian border where the abuses were taking place. What he found happening there was truly shocking. Not only were indigenous forced into unpaid labour by PAC employees, but they were also subjected to severe physical abuse such as the use of pillories, branding and whipping. Thousands were murdered, many at the hands of PAC station chiefs, while indigenous women and girls were victims of rape.

Casement's report of these horrific crimes caused outrage in Britain when the details were made public. It also signalled, in some ways, the beginning of the end for the Peruvian Amazon Company (other, external factors in rubber production also played their part in PAC's eventual collapse). Such was the extent and significance of Casement's investigation, he received a knighthood from the king in 1911. Alas, it wasn't enough to save him from the hangman's noose five years later, when he was convicted of treason, sabotage and espionage against the same British Crown for his involvement in the Irish independence struggle.

That tragic end notwithstanding, Casement's heroic work on behalf of the Putumayo Indians is something that has been and continues to be celebrated and remembered. For example, in 2012 hundreds of indigenous peoples from the region attended a celebration for the 100th anniversary of Casement's report.

What’s more, Ruth Chaparro, director of Fundación Caminos de Identitad (Fucai), a Colombian NGO working with and for the country’s indigenous, continues to see the importance of Casement’s contribution to highlighting human rights violations. She believes the meticulous and dedicated nature of Casement's investigations and reports are a great example to all human rights activists in how to carry out analysis of such abuses and how to ensure reports are rigorous enough to help bring about change.

With that in mind, as this coming August 3rd marks the centenary of Casement’s execution, a commemorative event is being held in the village of La Chorrera, deep in the Colombian Amazon. It’s being organised by indigenous peoples there in collaboration with the Irish-born barrister, academic and indigenous activist, Brendan Tobin, who for the past ten years has been planning to visit the region.

For Tobin, it's a case of following in Casement's footsteps as he hopes to visit a number of the communities that suffered at the hands of PAC. Tobin sees the trip not just as an opportunity to celebrate Casement’s legacy but more importantly as a chance to highlight the continuing threat to the natives posed by trade and advancement towards ‘modernity’. The abuses of the rubber industry may be a thing of the past, but the Amazon's indigenous continue to face exploitation in other ways. (Quite pertinent at a time when Colombian officialdom finalises terms to sign a peace deal with the Farc leftist guerrillas.)
The Indigenous rubber tree workers were subject to appalling conditions by the Peruvian Amazon Company ...
Forced labour: Indigenous carrying rubber (photo courtesy of Fucai, Colombia).
To mark the event, Republic of Ireland president, Michael D Higgins, has been invited to send a letter to the indigenous to be read out at the August 3rd ceremony, which takes place in the environs of La Chorrera's Casa de Conocimiento, the indigenous school on the grounds of what was once the headquarters of the infamous PAC in the region.

Tobin himself hopes in the future to raise enough funds to have a bust erected in honour of Casement in the secluded Amazon outpost. For the moment, as part of the ceremony, he is going to present the locals with a personal copy of The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, edited by Angus Mitchell, for inclusion in the local library.

Casement may be long gone, with his name tarnished for some due to subsequent actions after his human rights work, yet the good he did for the Amazon's indigenous cannot be merely swept aside. As Tobin puts it, Casement serves as something of a focal point around which the people of Putumayo can gather to discuss, share and collectively seek a way to heal from a horrid past that still resonates. The La Chorrera memorial on August 3rd allows another opportunity to do just that.
For a previous piece on Irish-Colombian links, see With O’Leary in Bogotá.

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Defenders of the unfaithful

While there are those who take a zero-tolerance approach to relationship cheating, there are others who give it something of a scale of seriousness. True enough, a willingness to give some leeway in the event of a breach of trust might reflect that you weren’t that serious about the relationship in the first place, and may even be inclined to do likewise yourself, but this isn't necessarily always so.

We're all pretty animal at heart, right ..?
Lost dog or top dog ..? (From Facebook.)
Whatever the case, at the lowest end of this cheating scale, for those prepared to use it, is 'the mistake with regret'. An example here would be a drunken kiss with somebody. The guilty party isn't fully 'with it' when the misdemeanour occurs, it isn't really actively pursued and it's something that gives rise to immediate shame for doing it. For the doves amongst us, this can be forgiven pretty quickly (although a far less tolerable attitude will come into play for repeat offenders).

Moving up the scale, we've got the vindictive cheat. This is actively sought, thus making it much worse than above, yet it's done because the person feels badly hurt by their partner, perhaps after a big argument. It's not to say that they have no feelings for the one they've cheated on, it's more an act of punishment to readdress 'the hurt'. The door to reconciliation is still ajar, if both sides are willing to go through it.

On from that, leading the way on the negative side of our scale is the couldn't-care-less cheating. It's pretty impossible to resurrect a relationship after this one. Basically, it's cheating done with blatant disregard for the 'other half', their feelings registering not a beat in the heart of the cheater.

Now yes, it could be a case where this type of 'offender' never felt in anything close to a relationship; unrequited love so to put it. If that's made clear from the get-go, then fair enough. But no, here we're referring to people who had said openly they were in a relationship and generally pretended to act as such. This is what makes it particularly severe, as it implies the 'romance' was nothing but a charade, just a little game at the very most; 'use and abuse' being the motto to follow.

Looking at it from the way things seem to play out here in Colombia — where unfaithfulness and cheating, it could be argued, are more common than in other parts (see Republic of Jealousy & for example) — a good approach is to try not to get too emotionally involved, don't take things seriously. That, of course, can be easier said than done.

Nonetheless, overcoming problems, be they of a cheating nature or otherwise, are part of a lasting relationship. Plus, we do have the old saying that 'it's better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.' On the flip side, there's the adage of 'not missing what you never had.' Perhaps there's a happy medium? It might just require a mindset change for some.
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Tuesday, 21 June 2016


A quick glance through the Colombian (Bogotá-centred ones anyway) newspapers or sitting down to watch the main TV news here and it's unlikely you'll read or hear much, if anything, about Zika. Indeed, most Bogotá residents have probably forgotten what it is. (In case you need reminding, it's that mosquito-spread virus which can be particularly dangerous, it is believed, if contracted by pregnant women as it can lead to severe brain malformations in the fetus and other birth defects. Such complications, though, may not be as bad as first feared, going by the findings of a recent study.)

Zika: It's not that bad ...
Sure it could be worse ... (Image from Facebook.)
After it being in the headlines constantly at the end of December last year and early this year, it pretty much seems to have gone off the radar for Colombian media — save for that new, slightly more positive report, linked above, questioning Zika's adverse effects on the fetuses of late-term pregnancies.

From a personal (and male) point of view, the furore it had created, and seemingly still creates in many Western countries, had been and is a little over the top. For most relatively healthy human beings, those who aren't pregnant anyway, being struck down with Zika isn't a major deal. The symptoms are pretty mild by all accounts. There would appear to exist far worse infections for us to be concerned about.

Of course, that it hasn't been a topic of conversation or cause for worry in Bogotá isn't at all surprising. This is because the mosquitoes that transmit the disease aren't found in these parts due to the city's lofty altitude. Granted, you only need to travel a short distance outside Bogotá or go to most of Colombia's other major cities and towns to come into 'Zika range', something that a good number of the capital's residents do on a regular basis. (Alas, that hasn't been my case this year, but that has nothing to do with Zika fears; a trip outside the metropolis is badly needed.) Nonetheless, the pandemic isn't causing consternation among the masses. (For the record, as of April this year, there were 65,726 cases of Zika reported in Colombia.)

In fact, were it not for a phone call from a concerned older cousin in Europe who is considering visiting Colombia, Zika wouldn't have entered my mind. Apparently all the advice he's getting in the West is to be very careful if he visits here due to the disease. Again, it's fair to say there are greater worries — be they from man, beast or insect — than Zika for anybody coming to Central or South America.

Now maybe there's a bit of that renowned laid back Latino attitude at play in all of this. Perhaps all of us living here should be a little more concerned about Zika, especially so those planning to have children due to that fetal abnormality issue.

Yet, from the 'safe' heights of Bogotá it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. No point worrying about something that can't get to you, really. Now as for Colombia's dragged-out peace process, that's another story.
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