Thursday, 6 December 2018

A new state of play?

Some of you may have noticed (hopefully you did anyway!) that there hasn't been a new post up here for some time. In fact, November was the first ever 'dry month' in terms of new blog stories since this page went live back in November 2011.

There has been a number of reasons for this. Now while I enjoy having this little outlet to put my 'musings' about various things out there, the focus has been elsewhere of late.
The Colombia Cast: Brendan 'Wrong Way' Corrigan's new podcast with Revista Semana.
The Colombia Cast: Off the ground, for now anyway ...
Newborn: The Colombia Cast
Since my return to Colombia in late October after a refreshing break back in Ireland followed by an interesting week in New York, and having kicked English teaching to touch, more energy has been put into IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz". My little baby let's say, one of almost four years of age albeit!
"It's best not to assign a sex to it in the current climate."
Now that baby has a sibling (I won't say what sex either one is lest I offend anyone). This latest creation was a long time in the womb — gestation for new projects, especially in these parts, is substantial. Nonetheless, it's alive and kicking, for now at least.

The Colombia Cast, in conjunction with Semana magazine is the latest addition to that growing world of podcasts. In a similar vein to IQuiz, it's purely a labour of love, for the moment at least.

'Show me the visa (and the money!)'
Alongside this, though not quite in the labour-of-love category, is a new full-time gig at a global marketing company — work visa pending, but I've already started (not sure of the legalities of that one guys).

So after over seven years as an independent worker in Colombia, being my own boss to a large extent, I've now entered the full-time work force. Or so it appears: La Cancillería has to give it the official approval yet.

My mantra for most of the last seven years had been that I wouldn't work full-time for a Colombian company.
"The 'quantity of hours over quality of work' culture permeates."
Not only did I — and still do — value my independence, but the ridiculous long hours that many Colombians seem obliged to spend at work, whether they're actually doing work or not, is something I said I wouldn't sign up to.

The thing is, it's not actually a Colombian company I'm working for. Nonetheless, the 'quantity of hours over quality of work' culture that permeates through many organisations here seems at play. It is early days, so I might be a bit off on that one. I hope I am in any case.

So in a year where it looked odds on that my stay in Colombia was coming to an imminent end, it now appears I'm about to commit for a bit longer (visa pending of course!).

I might just be here for the opening of the new Irish Embassy in Bogotá after all.
Facebook: Wrong Way Corrigan - The Blog & IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz".

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Saving ourselves (planet Earth is fine)

These seem to be especially frightening times we're living in. One could be forgiven for thinking things have an 'end of days' feel to them.

The Earth's medium-to-long-term future should be fine but for us humans, things are far more uncertain ...
The end of the world as we know it?
The global political picture seems as divided as ever. Well you could argue it's similar to Europe in the 1930s, so we've been here before, with people finding comfort in the darker corners of the Left and Right, depending on how the Facebook algorithms roll for you.

Therein, of course, lies one major difference: Europe in the 1930s didn't have the internet and its 'social' media to contend with (it did have a good dollop of censorship all the same).

Whatever the case, there's nothing really novel about the political — and economical — situation of any period troubling the masses. It would nearly freak us out more if this wasn't so.

What appears to be setting these worrying times apart from previous eras are the natural disasters looming that look set to seriously alter the way we currently live — and where we live, too. (At 2,600 metres-above-sea-level, Bogotá's inhabitants should be safe enough from rising sea levels a fair bit longer than most other major population centres around the world.)
"The optimistic view is that we can still turn things around."
As the almost weekly scientific reports from respected quarters tell us, if we don't change our ways now, that is to say use 'green' energy sources as opposed to those that contribute to global warming, catastrophe awaits.

That's the optimistic view: Time is still on our side, it remains in our hands, just about, to avert the worst-case scenario.

A lot of the language used in this battle for survival is about 'saving the planet'.

Solid Earth
Yet, as the late, great (most of the time, anyway) US comedian George Carlin pointed out years back, the planet doesn't need much saving. Barring some unprecedented meteorite attack, a calamity with our sun, things of that magnitude, the future of Earth looks pretty solid for the next few million years.

OK, we can only go on past form, but as advanced as we humans like to think we are, it's unlikely that it will be our dirty work that spells the end for the planet.

The most likely scenario, think dinosaurs here, is that the planet will continue on well after the last human on it breathes his/her (or whatever other gender is out there now) last.
"If we're going down, we're taking a host of others with us."
What we sophisticated humans are indisputably doing, and here I differ from Carlin, is making sure that as we go down, we're taking a host of other species with us. And we're doing a pretty good job at that.

As Carlin put it, for the planet we're probably like fleas. An irritant, no more, no less. Now if the planet had its own way, it would most likely just get rid of us and keep the majority of other living things (yes, even those dastardly mosquitoes).
And we call ourselves the intelligent, sophisticated race ...
But can we change our ways?
However, as the host doesn't directly interfere in how its 'parasites' go about their business, bar the occasional earthquake, volcanic eruption and the like, our actions ensure, and have ensured, other, more 'low-maintenance' users of the globe cease to exist.

So rather than thinking of 'saving the planet', we should be thinking of 'saving ourselves', collectively that is.

Yet, it's the self-centred nature of many of us that will put paid to that. Forget the utilitarian 'greater good for the greater number' school of thought. We seem happier with 'the greater destruction for the greater number.' "Heck, if we're doomed anyway we might as well live to the max rather than inconveniencing ourselves fighting a lost cause."

Oh well, it's one, whisper it 'final solution' to our money and political woes.
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Monday, 17 September 2018

Leaving behind the Bogotá standard

After almost seven years of having Bogotá as the base, the greatest 'achievement' — let's not get caught up in the semantics here — has been my assimilation to the working-class Bogotá barrio life.

While many locals with aspirations to improve their lot try to get away from it, I found myself actively seeking it out.

Don Rincón's tienda, Barrio Santandercito, Bogotá, Colombia.
Sure where else would you want to be than in the local tienda?!
Indeed, in the last couple of years, with the departure of some good foreign friends who would regularly 'force me' to change scene, I have become even more entrenched in this environment.

Mixing it with the masses
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with this. I'm a rural, working-class man at heart, so it could be said that I was just 'finding my level' in terms of mixing it with Colombia's normal masses rather than a minority elite, or those wishing they were part of it at least.
"Ireland's working class isn't quite the same as Colombia's."
Yet, at the risk of sounding arrogant, most of Ireland's landed working class (it exists) aren't quite in the same sphere as the majority of Bogotá's working class. Having much easier, more affordable access to quality second-and-third-level education plays a big part in that.

Now while it wasn't by design, from a personal perspective this gap has closed in recent years, monetary speaking that is if nothing else. Alas, this has had more to do with my decreasing earning power rather than the locals getting richer (and, dare I add, better educated).

A passport to riches?
So if you're a peso-pinching, non-dancing Westerner who's not a big fan of dating, any appeal that this previously imagined 'rich' foreigner had with the local women quickly wanes. "Best to stick with our own kind if this 'gringo' isn't a passport to riches" appears to be the general thinking.
"I might yet regret this conservative approach."
Whether that's fully true or not, I've come to accept it anyway, and in a rather indifferent manner in the barrios I frequent. 'An old conservative head on relatively young shoulders' you might say, happy out in what are practically 'gentlemen only' drinking dens.

Paradoxically, I might come to regret this old-school attitude, this 'missing out on the action' when I am older. You know, as the saying goes, 'You can't put an old head on young shoulders.'

Nonetheless, the likes of Santandercito and La Perseverancia have remained the focal points. Good friends have been made, some of those friends for life I'd like to think.

My Bogotá experience would have been much different without them. Some people might believe it would have been different for the better, but that can't be said with any certainty (if I ever get this book sorted, there are plenty more tales to tell on this front!).

Barrio blues
Back in 2008, when I took my first solo steps in South America, one of my biggest worries was leaving behind Gaelic football in Ireland. I saw it as a fundamental part of my life. It didn't, however, take long for me not to miss it. I found other attractions along the way.

Ten years on, I'm now wondering how life will be without the barrios, and by extension the regular mini-escapes to Colombia's small country towns that I also enjoy exploring so much.

They will be missed if I do have to leave them behind indefinitely. Yet, there'll be other things to embrace, wherever the road may take me.

New 'barrios' await to be broken, so to put it. Though to borrow from the film Casablanca, "We'll always have Bogotá." For better or for worse.
Facebook: Wrong Way Corrigan - The Blog & IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz".

Friday, 7 September 2018

Flying the flag for political incorrectness

Many people still don't seem to get it. Or they wish it wasn't so in any case.

Basically, a significant reason US President Donald Trump proved to be — and still proves — popular across Middle America, away from the east and west coast echo chambers that is, is that he speaks a straightforward language.

Donald Trump: Tells it as he sees it ...
Trump: Middle America's president. (Photo from Twitter.)
He tells/tweets it as he sees it — for better or for worse. Unlike 'mainstream' politicians, not everything, nay nothing in terms of tweets anyway, is precisely planned, framed in 'must not offend' diplomatic speak.

In the 'politically correct' West, where the leftist discourse has taken a strong hold in the universities, shaping in such a way many of our current and future key opinion leaders, somebody deviating from the accepted script is bound to find favour with those 'not in the club'.

This is not to say that all Trump supporters are dumb hillbilly racists, the standard charge levelled at them.

Indeed many 'Trumpists' I know find his controversial, excessive tweeting irritating. Neither do they agree with all his utterances — in fairness it can be hard to keep up with them in any case.

Yet, it's the feeling that despite his many flaws, he is about as honest as they come. He doesn't hide behind political advisers. What you see is what you get.

In this day of carefully groomed, mannequin-esque politicians, this resonates. (That the US economy is performing well under Trump's watch is another important plus point.) It's a question of "Who do you really trust: Somebody who comes across as 'holier than thou' or a guy seemingly showing us his warts and all?"
"Now name calling does hurt us."
Trump's presidency and other similar eschewing of the standard political system elsewhere have been the inevitable backlash against the over-the-top political correctness we've had to stomach for the last couple of decades.

Where did our childhood act of defiance to 'hurtful' words go? You know, the old schoolyard rhyme, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.'

We realised back then that acts of real violence could be lethal, but name-calling? Whatever. We could rise above it.

Now, however, many of our law framers and influencers have become 'too cool for school'. "You can have your free speech but you can't say this and you sure as hell (OMG, did I just say 'hell'?) can't use that word."

We're in the process of creating an impotent, sterile bunch of human beings. Like the announcer at the bumping cars (do they still exist or have they become too 'unsafe', imparting evil habits in our young?) in a funfair used to say 'one way round only', now it's 'one discourse only', even if it goes against biology, to name but one area of contention. (How many genders do we have now? It's difficult to stay, um, abreast of the accepted pronouns these days.)

The British intellectual, amongst many other things, Stephen Fry has a refreshing approach to all this craziness. At a debate on political correctness earlier this year he said that if somebody wants to call him a 'fagot' — he is gay — then so be it. It's not the end of the world. There are far greater things we should be crusading against.

It's not the case where we want things to become overly verbally abusive — radicals or fundamentalists on all sides are adept at that already — but we don't want people having to consult a lawyer every time they want to speak lest they offend some unsuspecting bystander.

Fry's 'common sense' view is nothing more than we'd expect from a man of his standing. Yet, worryingly, he doesn't seem to be in the majority in the 'intellectual' world.

In Colombia, one of the refreshing things about life here is how it's normal to call somebody by their outward appearance. So you have people being affectionately called 'fatty', 'blacky', 'thinny' and so on.

Imagine how that would go down these days in most 'First World' countries. The courts would be on the go 24-7.

With all that in mind, we're now just over two years away from the next US presidential election. The big question is, if he survives all the scandals and potential impeachment, can Trump get re-elected?

A lot, of course, will depend on who he's up against. The danger for the Democrats is that in their desperate bid to win back the White House they'll opt for an 'everything for everybody' candidate. A product of our 'one size fits all' globalised world. "Tell us what we want to hear, regardless of the reality." Ah yea, that makes it all better.

The Democrats would be doing us all a favour, everywhere, if they look more towards the centre-ground.

Alas, the radical left will do their bit to make sure that doesn't happen. Trump will happily toot to that.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Colombia's foreign press clampdown?

In previous posts I wrote about, or at least mentioned in passing, the visa issues I had in Colombia this year.

Indeed, the chief reason for my recent visit to Venezuela was down to being unable to renew my 'independent journalist' visa. (I am somewhat thankful to Colombia that it forced my hand and I was able to return to the 'brother country', despite all the pre-journey fears.)
Is Colombia deliberately making life difficult for independent journalists?
Is there an official Colombian clampdown on independent journalists? (Image from web.)

While I wasn't actually denied the visa — the door is still open to get it — new requirements in relation to my journalist diploma made things much more awkward and time consuming than they had theretofore been.

Had it been my first visa request it wouldn't have been as disheartening a saga. "OK, these are the requirements and I have to follow them." However, I was going for my fifth, after which I would have been entitled to apply for residency, and that lasts for five years.

So considering the time and money I've invested here, that I'm now back at zero in terms of visa continuity is a little bit disappointing.

Now it must be said I'm not terribly down about it. I'd been considering my future here anyway, before the visa complications started. In some ways it's been positive. Since my return from Venezuela I've been focusing on work areas more 'down my street', or what I think I should be doing in any case.

It remains to be seen whether this new, um, 'Wrong Way' results in my immediate future still being here in Colombia or it means moving on to pastures new. The next few weeks will tell a tale.
Whatever the case, I'm relaxed. Things are happening.

Specifically in terms of the visa stumbling block, though, it never crossed my mind, not with any real belief anyway, that there were more, let's call them 'sinister forces' at work.
In fact, I still don't think there are.

However, it appears that a good number of foreigners in a similar position have had the same issue. So much so that the head of Colombia Reports is getting European diplomats and other international agencies to look into the matter.

Of course it is rather difficult to prove that there is a concerted effort from Colombia's La Cancillería — the department responsible for visas — to remove independent journalists from the country.

What's more, officialdom here is fully within its rights to change the visa requirements as it sees fit. From an Irish perspective for one, it's not like we have an open-door policy for the few Colombians who wish to make Ireland their home.

Personally, the idea that I was a 'target to take out' for La Cancillería is a little amusing, flattering even. As much as I'd like to think differently, this blog and the occasional other media groups I've collaborated with to write and talk about this country are unlikely to have caused much, if any, fuss amongst Colombia's powers that be.

For sure, there have been a few negative articles, but it's safe to assume they didn't set the alarm bells ringing. Hey it'd be great in a way if there was a 'Wrong Way Out' campaign. Alas, I haven't quite made it that 'big' yet.

This isn't to say that other journalists/reporters from here haven't been singled out. They may indeed have been. The most likely scenario, if there is something untoward at play, is that it's more of a general sweep, the idea being to cut down on these 'volatile' independent journalists/writers.

It will be interesting to see where Colombia Reports gets with its investigations in this regard. I'm guessing it will be a case of, 'Nothing to see here guys, move along.'

That being said, there are, unsurprisingly, some grey areas in the whole process.

Previously, so it went, with journalism being an unregulated profession no official qualifications had to be submitted with the application. It was all about proof of actual work.

Now however, as mentioned above, La Cancillería is demanding the translation and certification of the relevant qualifications — a long and relatively costly process.

This does beg the question for those going for an independent visa where they actually don't have a qualification to 'prove' their skills in what they're doing, what do they do?

For example, I have dabbled in a bit of acting, basic and ad hoc as it has been. So what if I were to apply for a visa as an actor? I don't have papers to say I'm one, I just discovered I'm good at it and there is a demand for my services in the country (relax, it's a hypothetical scenario!).

Plus of course, not all journalists, broadcasters or presenters have the qualifications in those specific fields. Some just fell into them by chance.

So you'd have to think there are allowances for such things.

Then again, in a country that tends be value the piece of paper over actual real-life ability, maybe not.

Perhaps they just want to let in those of a more academic disposition. Good at the theory — or as often happens in Colombia, with deep pockets — but not great in practice.

Talk the talk, but can't walk the walk. Good luck to them with that.
Facebook: Wrong Way Corrigan - The Blog & IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz".

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Backpacking in 'no-go' Venezuela

During my recent 16-day visit to Venezuela I had a host of people asking me "What's it like 'for real'?" I'm still getting asked that since my return.

Via an article on The Irish Times I did touch on a number of the everyday issues that Venezuelans are currently facing.
Crossing from Colombia into Venezuela at Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar near San Antonio.
Party border
Here, I want to describe things from the point of view of entering the country overland as a tourist, which is effectively what I did.

Visa issues in Colombia meant I had to do a border-run and while I could have opted for Ecuador, Venezuela appealed far more to the adventurer/journalist/reporter in me. From that perspective it was like having the World Cup on my doorstep. I couldn't 'not go', especially now that I had the visa 'excuse'.

Don't go
For sure, it wasn't a decision I took lightly. Not only was I strongly advised against it by a high-up diplomat friend at our Irish embassy in Mexico, but even some Venezuelan acquaintances here in Bogotá thought it wasn’t the best idea.

On top of that, there were the daily news reports on Colombian media that made the place seem akin to hell on earth. Only a lunatic would consider a 'holiday' there, especially doing it overland.

What made me feel a little bit more relaxed about going were the messages from my friend Yessi in Caracas. I'd stayed with her and her family for my previous visit back in December 2015.

This time Yessi told me that while the situation for Venezuelans on the ground was more desperate due to, amongst other things, the hyperinflation and food shortages, in terms of security it wasn't much different. And it was this, safety, that concerned me most.

So with Yessi's somewhat reassuring messages and, more importantly in terms of giving me the final push to go, an arrangement that her cousin living in the Venezuelan border town of Colón would accompany me from Cúcuta across the 'wild' frontier, it was 'Venezuela here I come'.

A cash-laden sitting duck
I was, I have to say, quite nervous thinking about what lay ahead during the 15-hour bus journey from Bogotá to Cúcuta. Arriving in Cúcuta, that apprehension worsened on receiving WhatsApp messages from Yessi's cousin informing me that she couldn't meet me in Cúcuta.
What's more, she asked me to go to a different border crossing to the one I was familiar with in San Antonio. It all sounded a little too complicated.

In any case, Erika from the money exchange office I used at the bus terminal in Cúcuta wasn't sure if I could get my passport stamped at this other border crossing.*

I decided I'd go it alone to San Antonio.

Just about to officially enter Venezuela, waiting for the entry stamp at San Antonio.
Getting the Venezuelan entry stamp
The 'What am I doing?' thoughts ramped up further still at the money exchange. On discovering I had 'emergency' US dollars and euros on me, alongside a decent amount of Colombian pesos, Erika told me I'd have to hide everything exceptionally well.

She had stories of Venezuela's infamous Guardia Nacional (National Guard) recently strip-searching people, looking for their hidden foreign currency, pretty much essential for any visitor to survive economically in Venezuela. I'd faced the intensity of the Guardia Nacional before, but the way Erika was speaking, it seemed like things were far worse.

My suggestion to hide the cash in my shoes, as I'd done before, was "too obvious" she said.

Thus, for the good part of an hour we carried out surgery on the Lonsdale tracksuit bottoms I was wearing in order to make places to hide the cash.

Incidentally, based on Yessi's advice, I only changed a small amount of cash, 50,000 Colombian pesos (COP), into bolívares. I received slightly less than 10 million, about 60 per cent of the value you'd get for doing a black market bank transaction, which is what most Venezuelans exchanging foreign cash do. They send the money to a Venezuelan bank account. Due to the shortage of bolívares, you don't get the full value making cash-for-cash exchanges. 

That aside, with the foreign currency hidden on my body as best we could, I took a shared taxi to the border.

Fiesta frontier
The first thing that struck me on arrival was how lively it was. Street vendors and tiendas blaring out music catering to thousands of people. It was like a little city of its own. This was completely different to the last time I crossed. It was more like a funeral procession back in 2015. The liveliness of it put me at ease, even if I did seem to be the only foreign face about.

After queuing for about 90 minutes to get my Colombian exit stamp — unfortunately on the Colombian side it's the same queue for those entering and exiting, so I was lumped with all the Venezuelans going the opposite way — I walked across Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, the bridge over the River Táchira, the divide between Colombia and Venezuela.

On my previous visits, the office to get the Venezuelan entry stamp was in the middle of the town of San Antonio. Keeping myself to myself, I headed that way, but not before a Guardia Nacional checkpoint. I mentally readied myself for a very thorough inspection.

To my pleasant surprise, the rather pretty lady officer barely opened my backpack. A more chilled-out Guardia Nacional, I couldn't believe it. She was even quite friendly! When I asked her about my entry stamp, she told me that I'd already passed the place, and I better hurry as it would soon close (it was getting late). The office is now right on the border, just as you come off the bridge; much more conveniently located.

On the Venezuelan side there is a separate queue for those entering as opposed to those leaving. There was, unsurprisingly, nobody in the queue for entering, so I got my stamp in seconds. (It's important to note here that there wasn't much of a queue for leaving either. Two weeks later, when I was leaving, this had dramatically changed.)

With my passport stamped, I passed by the Guardia Nacional checkpoint again where my 'friend' waved me on. OK, I'd only just entered the country, but I was already beginning to think 'What was all the fuss about?'

On failing to reach Yessi's cousin from a 'minutos' stand (a person on the street with a mobile phone you can use, charged per minute) I decided I'd go to San Cristóbal that night, a place I knew relatively well.

All this time, the fears I'd had about visiting Venezuela were decreasing. As in previous visits, a big factor in this was down to the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals.

For example, the 'minutos' guy helped me board the right bus to San Cristóbal and told me exactly how much I had to pay. Laden down with over ninety 100,000 bolívar notes, I was still trying to figure out its value. (As it turned out, the bus from San Antonio to San Cristóbal cost 250,000 bolívares. Using the exchange I got, that worked out at about 1,200 COP, or 35 cents in euros. Pretty cheap for a 90-minute bus journey.)

Crazy currency
It was well into darkness, about 9 pm, when I reached San Cristóbal. Bus terminals pretty much anywhere aren't the safest places, especially at night, but I'd always stayed close to the one in San Cristóbal on previous visits and I'd had no problems.

Considering the time, I took the first place I found. "How much?" "5,000,000 bolívares." With the exchange I got in Cúcuta, that was over 25,000 COP, expensive for what was a very basic place. I'd basically spend more than half my bolívares on one night and I still needed cash for my bus ticket to Caracas. "How much is it in Colombian pesos?" "5,000." "What?!"

I obviously paid with my pesos! I'd soon discover that when paying in cash with your Colombian pesos, one million bolívares equals 1,000 pesos. So it was much better for me to use my pesos for everything save transport, which was either cheaper in bolívares or more or less the same.

Take a 222 ml Polar, the tipple of choice for Venezuela's beer drinkers. It costs between 800,000 and 1,000,000 bolívares. With the exchange I got, that would make a bottle cost about 5,000 COP, pretty expensive for a small beer. Yet paying in pesos, it's just 800 to 1,000 COP. Madness.

Once I'd got my head around the money, knowing my pesos made me 'rich' in San Cristóbal and meeting yet more friendly locals, I ended up staying three nights there. Even though many employees in the food stands and bars around the terminal told me to be careful, I never felt anything untoward.

On the contrary, I was having a great time being the 'only foreigner in the city'. At least it felt that way anyway.

Facing down the Guardia Nacional, Irish style
In fact, the most, nay the only, intimidating, uncomfortable experience I had was on the overnight bus from San Cristóbal to Caracas. I was preparing myself for it in fairness. Experience had taught me that Guardia Nacional checkpoints on busses heading deeper into Venezuela are where you tend to meet the 'meanest' officers.

Thus, just after the city of Barinas, half-way on the journey to Caracas at about 2 am, came the Guardia Nacional treatment I'd been expecting. You might avoid them on the street, but there's no hiding on a bus.

Being a foreign-passport holding man (I'm not sure how women fare) means automatic selection for a bag and body search. Unlike other times, I actually had Venezuelan company on this occasion. With the other four lads, it kind of felt like safety in numbers.

Wearing the 'remodelled', money-laden Lonsdale tracksuit bottoms again, before alighting from the bus, I hid a 'dummy' 40,000 COP in my boxers. The reason: I figured the young officer would expect to find foreign cash on me, so I thought I'd let him do so with some relatively easily.

After meticulously revising all our bags followed by an equally thorough frisking, especially around the groin and hip areas (but not my shoes, damn Erika!), the officer let the other guys back on the bus. I was held back.

"What's the money you've got hidden around your boxers?", he asked. "Has he felt my neatly concealed dollars and euros?", I wondered, the heart beating a little more intensely. "Surely not, but they are in that area."

I pulled the 40,000 COP from my boxers, explaining that I live in Colombia and this was left over cash.

He walked me to a different area, where another two guards, one clearly being the head honcho, were waiting. I felt like it was a scene from a Tarantino movie. All the seated sergeant was missing was a fat Cuban cigar. I was asked yet again to empty my pockets.

"What do you think of President Trump?" the boss man asked with a grimace. "I'm Irish. Trump means nothing to me." "Ah, you're Irish. Ireland is a friend of Venezuela, isn't it?" "Of course!"

With that, he let me on my way, but not before taking a small packet of chewing gums I had. I didn't protest about that. 

My next Guardia Nacional experience would come at the border back in San Antonio, where I stayed for two nights waiting, in vain, for the ridiculously long (a 10-hour wait at least) exit-stamp queues to die down. And I can happily say that those who I dealt with there were cordial — one even let me film the queues on my phone on my first evening there.

On the return journey from Caracas to San Cristóbal there was a Policía Nacional, National Police, checkpoint. This arm of Venezuelan law were far more even-handed than the Guardia Nacional. Everybody on our overly-crowded minibus (transport options departing Caracas were thin on the ground; it was a case of taking whatever you could find), women included, was asked to get off and we all had our bags searched, but not our bodies.

Beer: Payment in kind
As for Caracas, staying with 'my' family in their working-class barrio, I had a great time. The only inconvenience was not really being able to spend my own money.
Enjoying some sun, sea and sand at La Guaira, Vargas, Venezuela.
It wasn't all hard work in Venezuela
The Colombian peso is less accepted there compared to the border regions. Also, with hardly any bolívares available, alongside needing bag loads of them to pay for just the cheapest of items, the majority pay for things by card. Without a Venezuelan bank account, that option wasn't open to me.

So my hosts pretty much paid for everything. On departure I paid them in dollars, money they can get very good value for on a street market transfer or the like (one dollar is currently at 3.8 million bolívares on the black market).

I did also buy three crates of beer — to share of course — from the local tienda, the owner there was happy to take my pesos. 60,000 COP in Colombia is just one good night out in the local barrio. The equivalent price of the beers in bolívares, 60 million, is twelve-times the monthly minimum wage.

In terms of security in the capital, I never felt uneasy. Now it is important to note here that at practically every moment I had someone from my Caracas family by my side. It might be a different experience for a foreigner wandering around the place on his/her own, taking public transport, availing of the free metro, that kind of stuff. But maybe not.

Of course with no end in sight to Venezuela's major problems, there are similar, less complicated places to visit. There's Colombia, for one. It's just the Venezuelans are friendlier. Relax, it's a joke!

*Erika's money exchange office, located in Cúcuta's main bus terminal at Local N1-90, is called 'Luna' and she can be contacted on +573163228453.
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Thursday, 5 July 2018

Refocusing the energy

Sorry, sorry. I know the, um, legions of Wrong Way readers have been wondering where I've got to the last while.

The recent presidential election and Colombia's World Cup exploits, nay the tournament in general, have been distractions for sure. "Yet", I hear you ask, "haven't they also been great things to write about?" Of course.

More pertinently and personally, ongoing visa complications have been occupying my mind. A right saga indeed. Akin to an existential crisis really — well in terms of my permanence in Colombia anyway. A visa-run to Ecuador is now firmly back on the cards.

Time to refocus ... (Photo from the mountains around Bogotá, Colombia)
Focusing on a new path ...
Again, a good blog topic that, you might say. However, sitting down to upload new posts hasn't seemed the most important of exercises of late. (Having my laptop stolen has also played its part; you can just never switch off in these parts.)

No more Mr Blog guy?
Now, truth be told, this lack of enthusiasm to write isn't just because of the aforementioned.
No. The thing is, there's been a slight refocusing of energies.

Basically, the blog posting has always been a labour of love. Well, the Google blog initially had a small chance of becoming profitable, but, as detailed at the time, that 'lucrative' avenue was closed off years back.

This blog, launched back in late 2011, and the El Tiempo space which began at the beginning of 2014, were started with a view to being springboards to something greater. For the record, there has never been any hope of getting financial reward for the El Tiempo blog.

In some ways, they have served this 'route to reward' purpose. They've maintained my hand in journalism of sorts as well as, so I like to think anyway, developing my writing skills (I class myself a broadcaster first and foremost, the only full-time, professional job I've had in my life to date). It's unlikely I would have been used for reports from here for Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ if I hadn't the blogs to 'prove' my credentials.

The El Tiempo blog also played an important part in getting an independent visa as a journalist, something I've had for the last four years and hoping to get again if and when I get the new paperwork requirement sorted out. Let's just say La Cancillería hasn't made the visa process any easier.

Pet projects
These blog benefits now, however, appear to be on the wane. Other things have become more worthy of devotion, at least for the time being.

In a previous post this year I alluded to writing a book on my experiences here in Colombia. That's still a work in progress, slow progress. Indeed, while I will finish it, it may never see the light of day in terms of getting it published, be that self-published or otherwise. Whatever the case, trying to put it together is proving to be an interesting, worthwhile experience.

On top of this, the prospect of working on a long-yearned-for project with other Colombian media groups is back on the table. Or at least it seems that way. More meat should be put on the bones of that in the next few weeks and months.

If not, it will more than likely signal the time to hit for the exit door — I can't keep ignoring these signs. It would have been nice to try this project with El Tiempo considering I've been writing on this website the last four-and-a-half years, but that hasn't been possible. It's been a closed shop.

Thus, while I don't intend to scrap the blog writing completely — it can be a bit of an addiction — the frequency of posts will drop considerably.

The barrio panadería lifestyle isn't that excessive, but one still needs to earn a bit to put that bread on the table.
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Friday, 8 June 2018

Colombia: The risk is seeing your paradise go up in flames

We don't have to go too far back to find a time when Colombia was pretty much considered a no-go area.

At the turn of the millennium, only the true adventurous, nay mad in the head, would consider visiting the country as a tourist, let alone actually settle down and invest decent time and money in it.

For the last number of years, as most readers of this blog will know, this negative reputation has been rapidly changing.

Uribe's utopia
The peace agreement signed with the Farc guerrillas in 2016, officially ending over half-a-century of internal conflict between that group and government forces, was a significant moment in this regard.

The arson attack at 'Finca Entre Ríos, Paso del Mango, Santa Marta, Colombia.
Up in smoke: The damage caused to 'Finca Entre Ríos'.
Yet, as important as that has been at an official level, the truth is this viewing of Colombia in a much more positive light internationally had begun years before. Unpalatable as this may be to many Colombians today, especially younger generations, between 2002 and 2010, under the hawkish presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the general security situation improved considerably.

Whether the ends justified the heavy-handed means — heavier on some violent types more so than others it could be said — is something still being discussed today.

A home from home
Nonetheless, from a tourism perspective, visiting the many natural gems the country has to offer became much less risky, for locals and foreigners alike.

This trend, some hotspots notwithstanding, has been continuing.

Alongside increasing tourist numbers, a not insignificant number of foreigners have made Colombia their home. They've voted with their feet in a positive way, demonstrating to those who care to listen that this place is not the violent backwater some in the more 'developed' world still think it is.

At times, however, the country gives us all a little reminder that it has a bit to go before we can compare it favourably with other, more established spots when it comes to investing in it. Quite a bit to go.

Para-dise's price
One of these more sinister sides is extortion, which reared its ugly head for fellow Irishman Patrick Fleming who has called Santa Marta his home since 2001. While we've heard stories of police being directly and unashamedly involved in this practice, this particular example is to do with suspected paramilitaries.

In some ways, that Patrick managed to avoid trouble for so long could be seen as good fortune. Paramilitaries did operate in the area in question when he first arrived, but nothing untoward had ever happened.

That aside, when your little piece of paradise on the Caribbean, a magical place visited by this blog last year, gets deliberately burnt to the ground at any stage, it's difficult to view it in a positive light.

In fact, after years developing his 'Finca Entre Ríos' at Paso del Mango on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where he provided employment for a young family, this arson attack now has the generally easygoing Patrick and his Colombian wife contemplating their future in the region.

The reason it happened is quite simple.

Pay or go?
Earlier in the year Paso del Mango's small community experienced a number of petty robberies. Shortly afterwards a hotel in the area was approached and asked to pay the dreaded 'vacuna', the word for protection money in these parts.

The community got together and decided they wouldn't fork out the cash to the extortionists. Extra police protection was asked for, which duly came. It didn't last, though.

As a further buffer, the community also managed to get additional army patrols, but again, the frequency of these soon decreased.

Thus, with little sustained help from state authorities, be it by accident or design, the rather secluded community was ripe for the picking. Cue the arson attack.

Now it must be said that one man was arrested and charged in connection with the incident. Authorities seem content, by all accounts, that they've done their bit.

Yet, for Patrick and the Paso del Mango community in general it's a question of 'What next?'

Mob rule appears to have taken hold, where the only options seem to be 'pay up' or 'leave'. The hope is that this retrograde step is just temporary.
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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Up your Paipa

Since we first came to know a few years back of the various Irishmen who played significant roles in modern Colombia's history, the town of Paipa came into our sights.

That's because the main park/square of the somewhat popular tourist spot is named after Dublin-born James Rooke — well they've Hispanicised the name to Jaime Rook, but we won't castigate them for that. The park is also home to a bust in his honour, in need of a power wash and lick of paint as it is.
The bust of James Rooke in Parque Jaime Rook, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia.
The bust of James Rooke, aka Jaime Rook; we think!
Irish, English or Colombian?
Coronel Rooke fought and died here in the wars of independence against the Spanish.

How 'Irish' he felt is open to debate. As the story goes, when he lost his arm in battle he shouted "Viva la patria" ("Live the homeland"). When asked if that was Ireland or England, he is alleged to have responded, "The country that will bury me." Now as far as we are aware, although we've been unable to get it confirmed, he's buried in Colombia.

That aside, considering Paipa is less than a three-hour drive from the north of Bogotá, it falls inside our 'short escape from the madness of the metropolis' category.

It's not quite the 'pueblito' we were expecting — it's a decent enough sized town. Yet it's still far more chilled-out than midweek Bogotá (OK, that's not too hard to achieve, in fairness).

Lake placid
Like other lake-side towns we've visited through the years — Queenstown in New Zealand and Chile's Pucón spring to mind — it seems to have a very pleasant vibe to it. The man-made Lake Sochagota's tranquility appears to exert a calming influence on the locals. (It might be slightly different at the weekend when more visitors are about, but the locals say it doesn't change that much.)
A view of Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia from the hills to its north.
Paipa from ahigh.
For those, like ourselves, who like to do their own thing, a stroll around the lake, with a 1.6 kilometre surface area, is a nice way to take it in and get some light exercise in the process.

If you're up for something a little more taxing, great views of the town, lake and surrounding countryside can be got by trekking up the hills to the north, behind the church on the main square.

Kayaking and other activities on the lake are also an option, but for our short stay on a tight budget we gave them a miss.

Hot springs are another popular attraction that we left out — we've experienced our fair share of them.

Cheesy cazuela
From a culinary perspective, Paipa is known for its dairy-related products, particularly cheese.

In this regard, the cazuela Paipana is worth a try to kick-start your day. It's basically a super-charged changua, packed with almojábanas (a rather delicious-when-just-baked type of cheesy bread made from corn flour, another favourite in these parts) and decent offerings of quality cheese.
Cazuela Paipa, a popular dish in these parts. Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia
Hearty & wholesome-ish! Cazuela Paipa.
Speaking to some other Colombians, Paipa has a bit of a reputation for being costly in terms of accommodation. For sure, there are a number of relatively expensive, 'fancy' hotels overlooking the lake, but budget lodgings can be found as well.

The respectable Canada Hotel has single rooms from 20.000 pesos per night. It's not gold standard, but it more than adequately does the job.

All told, and not that we're making any connection with James Rooke, but if Paipa was to be our last Bogotá escape before we potentially have to leave the country (very much alive, though, we hope), it's not a bad one to go out on.

**Canada Hotel is on Carrera 20 #23-61, just a few blocks away from Parque Jaime Rook. The friendly owner Adelaida can be contacted on +573138314483.

Friday, 18 May 2018

All that you can't leave behind

Many people on the outside looking in think our Colombian life is kind of cool. An exotic existence, away from the dreary 9-5 drag with a nice amount of time to travel.

On that score, it is. Our work life is anything but 9-5, Colombia certainly is exotic and we've been able to explore a fair chunk of it.

What's more, a few somewhat surreal 'acting' gigs have come our way that were enjoyable to be part of.
The end of an era? Wrong Way Corrigan contemplates his Colombian future overlooking Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia.
The end of an era?
Nonetheless, when you do the same, economically unstable thing for a number of years, the gloss does wear off. It's not for nothing there's the saying 'A change is as good as a rest."

Of course, making that change is not always easy. Plus it's not always clear when we should make it and what exactly it should be. As we've oft said, that grass over yonder may not be as green as we think.

However, if there's a feeling that progress isn't really being made as regards the current situation, then it's probably a good time to shake things up, even if it is a step into the unknown as such a move often is.

We've become somewhat cosy in our Colombian comfort zone, albeit one that for most other Westerners would be anything but comfortable.

Now it is easier, in theory anyway, to move on when things aren't going to plan (we do have a rough plan, honestly we do).

So the fact that the goalposts to obtain what is a 'key' fifth consecutive independent work visa have moved should make bidding adieu to Colombia a less difficult decision. (For the record, after five year-long visas you are entitled to apply for residency, which itself lasts for five years.)

With official Colombia making it harder for us to stay coupled with our own long-lingering doubts about being here, it could be said it's a no-brainer. Our previous four work visas were obtained with little hassle, thus opting to 'give it a lash' for another year required less soul searching.

This time around the thinking is, 'If you're going to make it more complicated to stay here, no thank you.' It's not like we're looking to stay in everyone's favourite Latino country, Venezuela. (It's a joke, relax. Although it does seem our loyalty to Colombia over the years has counted for nothing!)

Yet, Colombia has been home since late 2011. As frustrating as many things have been during our almost seven years here, there have been plenty of highlights as well. It's proving to be more difficult than we'd thought to just quietly walk away from it all. (Not having something concrete to go to elsewhere is playing a significant part for sure.)

In some ways, it's a similar mindset to the one a rather green 'Wrong Way' had back in 2008 before making the decision to leave Ireland and take flight for a period of solo travelling.

Once on the road, the many hiccups aside, it was a case of 'What was all the fuss about?'

With that as a guide, ten years on albeit and slightly more concerned about our financial situation, leaving our Colombian comfort zone is unlikely to prove fatal. Unlikely that is; things could happen outside of our control.

In any case, while losing our work visa status will be a little bit deflating, the option to stay here as a tourist until the year is out is still on the table.

We don't have to drop everything in an instant. Although, at times, that's the best strategy to adopt. When it's done, it's done. Move on, at haste.
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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Colombia's EPS: All in its own good time

After over six years based in Bogotá we've experienced many aspects of Colombian life, from the hugely enjoyable to the utterly frustrating.

However, there's one thing that, thankfully, we've yet to sample (and hopefully never will): The health service (well that and scopolamine).

OK, we've had to get some dental work done, but that was a private affair, not through any health scheme, and not a sickness issue either — having front teeth isn't completely essential, is it? (On that, um, front, it did take some time to find a trustworthy, reasonably-priced dentist. We got there in the end, though.)
Sura EPS: Regarded as one of Colombia's best in this regard.
Sura: Seen as one of the best EPSs out there ... (Image from Facebook.)
That aside, the 'opportunity' hasn't arisen to use an EPS ('Entidad Promotora de Salud', health promoting entity), the somewhat private health service that's the default option for the majority of Colombians.

Basically, for a relatively small monthly fee you get what results in pretty much free health care when the need arises.

For the very poor there are other, government-subsidised options, while private health insurance is a more attractive alternative for wealthier Colombians. Yet going through an EPS is where it's at for most.

There are many of them to choose from, all operating in more or less the same way. Naturally enough, some are rated better than others — the EPS you use determines which clinic or hospital you get sent to for any specialised treatment you may need.

Thus, they function as a sort of middleman between you and the medical specialists. Minor issues are generally dealt with by a GP at an EPS clinic.

For problems of a more serious nature, but not emergency life-or-death ones, your EPS has to grant approval before any treatment is given. It does foot the bill after all — with a little help from your small monthly contribution of course (and the government in some cases).

So that the EPS has to give prior authorisation is fine, in theory. In practice, however, it can lead to a lot of time wasted waiting in line just to get signed off for surgery or whatever.

Take the case of a friend who was in a bicycle accident recently. His EPS sent him to hospital — unnecessarily by ambulance as it was — for an X-ray on his injured arm. The doctor who saw him first up was unsure if surgery was needed or not. Further examinations were required to determine that but they couldn't be done at that specific time.

Our friend got a temporary cast on his arm and was told he'd have to come back to fully ascertain the extent of the damage. But before that could happen, he had to return to his EPS to get the green light.

In short, for practically every additional step in his treatment he had to keep on going back to the EPS for official approval. The result was that a whole three weeks passed from the date of his accident before he was told surgery was necessary. And, before that surgery could actually happen, the EPS had to give the official stamp of approval. All rather convoluted.

Nonetheless there is some method to this medical madness. It helps to ensure that the EPS isn't forking out for unnecessary, costly procedures.

You see, so it goes, some of these institutions have been rather lax, in a beneficial way albeit, about their patients' needs, resulting in their accounts requiring some emergency treatment of their own.

Somebody eventually has to pay for expensive medical operations. And somebody has to, or at least should, pay the professionals carrying them out. That doesn't always happen in the Colombian health service. We've heard stories of doctors waiting months for their remuneration.

Being that as it is, we're happy not to be an extra burden on the system. Long may it stay that way.
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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

'Right you are, Colombia'

There is very often a significant difference between what one might like to see happen and what actually does transpire.

In this regard, in relation to our previous post, lest there be any confusion, we don't expect Humberto de la Calle to be Colombia's next president. As much as we may like what he's about, the majority of the Colombian electorate, those who actually matter in this, don't. Or at least they don't want him as their next president.
Iván Duque: Colombia's president-in-waiting ...
Iván Duque: The 'right' fit for Colombia (photo from Facebook).
In fact, de la Calle himself more than likely realises he won't be taking up residence at Palacio de Nariño.

The man who will be doing that, barring what would amount to a significant sea change in the state of play, is Iván Duque.

It's pretty clear why.

Firstly, in 'normal' circumstances, those who bother to vote in Colombia look to the centre/centre-right when electing their president.

Taking that as a given, there are really only two other 'serious' challengers to Duque: Sergio Fajardo and Germán Vargas Lleras.

Yet, if we are to trust the majority of opinion polls, the country's left, or more socially-democratic minded we could say, are behind Gustavo Petro in significant numbers. For many in this bracket, it's Petro or nothing (or certainly not Álvaro Uribe's protégé Duque). So this large minority, if they get out and vote, should do enough to get their 'messiah' into the decisive second round vote.
The thing is, faced with a split centre-right vote, the Petro ticket does well.

However, in a straight shoot-out against just one, let's say more 'acceptable' candidate for this country, Petro's a losing bet. This is especially so when it's seen as a black-and-white contest, left versus right, as it will be with Duque.

It seems safe to assume that the majority of Vargas Lleras votes would transfer to Duque. Some Fajardo voters might swing to Petro, but certainly not all of them.

Thus, for the many 'Anybody but Duque/Uribe' Petro voters, their best chance of keeping the Centro Democrático out might be to opt for Fajardo in the first round. That is, try and make it a Duque-Fajardo head-to-head. In that scenario, some more centrist-type voters who wouldn't contemplate siding with Petro, might be more inclined to go with Fajardo rather than Duque.

Of course this sort of tactical, second-guessing voting largely based on opinion polls is risky. It could all backfire.

Nonetheless, regardless of how the others line up, this looks to be Duque's contest to lose.

This brings us on to the broader issue of why Colombia tends to shun anybody with a hint of 'left' to him/her when it comes to its president.

The fact that the state has been battling leftist insurgents since the 1950s is a significant factor. For this particular election, the murderous activities of Farc dissidents on the Ecuadorian border, the controversial arrest of a high-up ex Farc guerrilla on drug trafficking charges and the stop-start peace talks with a still active ELN reinforce the commonly-held view that 'left is bad'. The political and social turmoil in neighbouring 'socialist' Venezuela is also playing its part.

Yet other Latin American countries have had to deal with a violent left without this resulting in such political thinking being pretty much dismissed outright.

One of the differences for Colombia is due to the fact that the state, with significant help from right-wing paramilitaries, systematically destroyed the political left, rendering it no more than an irritant. The discourse has been dominated by the victors, the rightist state and its media friends.

Those on the left are subversives, a threat to the Colombian republic. So the narrative goes anyway.
(It is important to note here that the United Nations estimates that the Farc and ELN accounted for 12 per cent of civilian deaths in the conflict up to 2016, with 80 per cent attributed to right-wing paramilitaries. The government was responsible for the remaining eight per cent.)

Thus, with the recent violent events mentioned above, Colombia's rightist guardians look as appealing as ever to urban dwellers across the stratum divide.

Now is not the time to rock the boat. Better the devil you know guys.
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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Colombia, de la Calle

OK, we may need to change our preference. While we still have plenty of respect for V.E. Blanco, the sad reality is, for, um, existential reasons 'he' won't actually physically make it to Palacio de Nariño, Colombia's presidential palace.

That being so, you still have to admire his performance ahead of the presidential first-round vote on May 27. He's doing better than four of the seven actual candidates in the race. Only Iván Duque, Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo (just about) are more popular according to the opinion polls.

Colombian presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle: A good compromise choice?
De la Calle: As his name suggests, he's right at home on the streets ... (Picture from Facebook.)
Yet, taking Dr Blanco out of things, who do we endorse for Colombia's top job? For many locals it's either the rightist Duque, the candidate of former president, the divisive Álvaro Uribe, or former Bogotá mayor and once leftist guerrilla with the defunct M-19, Petro. The never-again-to-be-trusted opinion polls have Duque ahead, a man who has promised to make significant adjustments to the peace agreement outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos signed with the Farc.

In many ways it would be interesting to see how Colombia would operate under a leftist president, something it has never really had. Now how left Petro actually is depends on who you listen to. He talks a somewhat leftist game in any case, yet he certainly doesn't dress like a man at one with the impoverished masses.

For sure, all candidates realise the need to address the vast inequality Colombia has, and have various ideas in this regard. Yet proposals on paper are one thing, putting them into practice quite another. Needless to say there's no simple solution.

Notwithstanding that, considering Duque-Petro is seen as a battle of the extremes — "a hawkish Duque presidency will result in deepening political and social division, a Petro administration will see the country slide towards socialism and potentially cripple the economy" — more moderate Colombians are looking for the centre ground. On this front, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia department governor Fajardo appears to be the preferred candidate.

He's promising to be a "president of reconciliation", playing in a way to that concern that a win for either of the current leading candidates will dangerously divide the country.

Of course, he's not the only 'centrist' candidate. However, the polls have him comfortably ahead of both Germán Vargas Lleras, who had a stint as vice president under Santos, and the Liberal party's Humberto de la Calle, whose last political role was government chief negotiator in the Farc peace talks.

That the two men had important posts in the Santos administration is no doubt working against them. The electorate is looking for change and both Vargas Lleras and de la Calle have been too close to the outgoing crowd.

Yet, the country could do worse than taking stock of things after a few rocky years. For one, there's been that aforementioned controversial peace agreement which ended up being rejected in a referendum yet its implementation went ahead anyway. We've also seemingly never-ending corruption scandals and the delicate issue of streams of Venezuelans continuing to enter the country as they escape the mess they have at home.

In such an environment, an experienced, largely respected pair of hands in the shape of Humberto de la Calle could be seen as a good compromise, interim choice.

At almost 72 years of age and his moderate background, he’s not exactly in the same mould as a Putin or Uribe. A ‘president for life’ by whatever means possible he will not be.

He's unlikely to dramatically change things, for better or for worse. However, at a time where the tendency across the globe seems to be to run to the extremes, de la Calle offers Colombia a little breather from the madness, and maybe even a bit more.

Humberto de la Calle: Steady as she goes for four short years?

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Serene Suesca

In terms of little escapes from Bogotá, generally speaking, we prefer to hit for one of the many lower-lying, warmer locations dotted all around the metropolis.

This is even more so the case when the capital city is going through one of its somewhat depressingly grey, wetter-weather phases, as it has been of late.
Suesca, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
A view of Suesca with Las Rocas in the left background.
The thing is, when it's public holiday time in Bogotá, most people have the same idea. Thus, you have a run on the likes of Girardot, Melgar, Tobia and Villeta to name just a few. And with that, the prices for hotels and other tourist-related things shoot up.

In fact, if you're your own boss and can take holidays more or less whenever you want, staying in a much more relaxed Bogotá during these peak holiday times is an appealing option.

Nonetheless, not every town in a 200-kilometre radius or so of the capital sees an influx of tourists when work's out for a few days.

A 90-minute bus drive from the north of Bogotá, the quaint, tranquil town of Suesca is one of them. At about 2,600 metres above sea level, it certainly does not fall into the 'warm-weather escape' category.

One of the main — if not the main  — pull-factors is the alluring cliff rocks, 'Las Rocas', on the town's outskirts. These imposing cliffs stretch for about four kilometres and are popular with rock climbers. Many visitors avail of the camping facilities alongside them as an accommodation option; there was a steady stream of crusty campers about when we were there in any case.

Yet around Suesca's picturesque main plaza it still has very much a local, 'unspoilt' feel to it. This we very much like.

Now in similar style to our San José del Guaviare trip, we just rocked up here with little or no prior planning.

So the fact that the tourism office was closed didn't help things in terms of finding out what's to do and see outside of Las Rocas.

Armed with contradictory information, we did set off on an ill-fated wander to Laguna (Lake) Suesca. Had we been unequivocally told at the start that it was at least a three-hour trek and that the lake was pretty much dry — it had been dry season despite the bit of rain and overcast conditions we had for most of our stay — we probably wouldn't have attempted it on foot at all. (My fellow Irish companion wasn't up for a long, potentially fruitless hike; tut, tut Finbarr.)

So after an hour-and-a-half's walk that culminated in stumbling across a 'hidden gem' of a tienda bar, where the owners told us we were still some way off the lake, we paused for a liquid refreshment before returning to Suesca. We did get some nice views along the way, as well as discovering the aforementioned tienda, so it certainly wasn't fruitless.
Suesca, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Wandering the hills around Suesca ... Reminds us of home, kind of!
Speaking of watering holes, Suesca could be seen as the home of the tiendas. It appears that every second establishment is one where you can sit in and have a beer. However, while we're not averse to a Poker or two, Suesca's rather chilly weather and exposed tiendas aren't conducive to knocking back a few cold ones. Not wanting to be rude, we did give it a go all the same.

Sipping on a tasty and very-reasonable-priced coffee whilst watching the day go by in the panadería (bakery-cum-café) 'Las Rocas de Suesca' on the main square is a decent alternative to the tiendas.

Whatever tipple you choose, as refreshing, short breaks from Bogotá go, weather aside (it's not that bad either, especially from an Irish perspective), Suesca is as good as they come.

*The rather expensive Hotel Casona Quesada aside, there aren't too many obvious budget accommodation options in Suesca. However, with a bit of persistence, we found a well-kept house-cum-hotel for 30.000 COP per night for a three-bed room. It's located on Calle 4, just off Carrera 5 next to a little park with a basketball court.
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