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.
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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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