Thursday, 10 August 2017

Colombia's comedown?

For the last 12 months or so Colombia seemed to be on the crest of a wave somewhat. This was mostly down to the implementation of the peace deal signed between the government and the country's largest rebel group, Farc.

Heady times, albeit superficially and in just some areas. The bounce Colombia got internationally was apparent in numerous foreign media reports naming it as one of the must-see places in 2017. Add to this President Juan Manuel Santos' scooping of the Nobel Peace Prize and the grounds for optimism were clearly there.

However, considering Colombians can be as cynical as the best of them (amongst themselves that is, not normally to outsiders) coupled with a belief in many quarters that the Farc peace accords change very little in practice, the optimism certainly appears to have waned. (It should get a small shot in the arm with Pope Francis's upcoming visit here in September.)

Bogotá from a high: Is it, and Colombia in general, a work progressing or regressing?
Bogotá and Colombia in general: A work progressing or regressing?
Indeed for some the place is getting worse. A well-to-do Scotsman who has called Colombia home for the last 27 years believes this to be the case. He says that for the first time in his almost three decades here, he feels things are regressing. That seems quite a statement bearing in mind that when he first came here Pablo Escobar was still wreaking havoc.

So why, at a time when Colombia seems as open and welcoming as it ever has been, the negativity? The following sheds some light on things:

Cocaine high
Cocaine. Its mere utterance gives most Colombians a sinking feeling; the scourge of the country for decades.

Of course the substance is ingested just as much, if not more so, in North America, Europe and Australia as it is in these parts, but here is the source.

As long as the external demand and enormous profits to be made from it continue to exist, cocaine production won't slow down any time soon. In fact, the opposite has been the case of late, it has increased.

The money in the white powder offers a route to riches that 'legitimate' Colombia can't come anywhere close to. Thus, it's mob rule where cocaine is king with officialdom either turning a blind eye or implicated in it.

A not so well-oiled machine
In contrast to Venezuela, Colombia's oil revenue looks set to fall substantially in the coming decade.

Unsurprisingly, sources in the industry here say the government lacks any sort of plan for a not-too-distant future when the country will have to import the resource.

We'd expect Venezuela to have its house in more normal order in 10 years' time than it is now, so maintaining good relations with the oil-rich neighbour is key. Welcoming fleeing Venezuelans with open arms during this current crisis might just be the right strategy.

Short-term gain, long-term loss
As for the lack of forward thinking in terms of resources, so it is for practically every other area, especially in the likes of education and infrastructure.

Unfathomable and often contradictory legislation enforced arbitrarily combined with rampant corruption mean progress is slow or there's none at all.

In such an environment there are few signs that the vast inequality is being reduced. This ensures continued envy and justification for crime from the have nots.

Reasons to be cheerful?
Notwithstanding the above, we're not running away from the place just yet. The fact that the country is in a state of flux, a tad chaotic if you will, both excites and frustrates many foreigners based here.

Plus, with La Selección (men's national football team) on the verge of World Cup qualification, the powers-that-be can rest assured that the football-mad masses will forget all their daily strife, at least for a time.

And that's how things tend to roll here. Live for the moment, to heck thinking about the future.
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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Left misérables

We tend not to get too caught up in the left/right political tabs. It can be a bit simplistic to label somebody as purely leftist or rightist. Very often people display traits and have beliefs that come from both sides, regardless of how they may view themselves. Put it all together and a lot of the time they're closer to the centre than anything else; and we tend to find that's not a bad place to be.

At a national level, the Republic of Ireland as a whole is generally seen as being slightly more left than right in the political spectrum whereas it's the opposite with Colombia. Of course internally, for all countries, it's more complex and contested, but this overall perception is usually a good guide to a nation's psyche.
Chairman Mao: Misery personified and thus an idol for some extreme leftists ...
Chairman Mao: A barrel of laughs (from Wikipedia).
Nonetheless and obviously enough, we do have those who not only see themselves as being 'hard left' or 'hard right' but they also conduct themselves in such a manner, contrived as it sometimes is albeit.

While we pretty much dislike fundamentalists of any type -- they tend to be impossible to reason with, close-minded -- extreme leftists are a particular case in point. The 'left misérables' (not to be confused with the more enjoyable Les Misérables) let's call them.

Now it would be fine, in theory anyway, if they went about their miserable existence on their own, yet they tend to try and want everyone to be miserable with them -- or so it seems in any case. 'Happiness is a sin and the world must be rid of it' kind of thing.

We could look at it along the old Catholic versus Protestant lines. The traditional misery that the Catholic Church brought upon its flock contrasted with the Protestant individual 'freedom' to work and accumulate wealth; it's OK to smile (as long as you're working and making money).

The extreme leftist types are like those pious Catholics from times past: hardship and pain, the cornerstones of life. A big difference, though, is that this belief system is accompanied with an amount of aggression -- in a verbal and virtual (keyboard warrior) way if not always physical. Plus, these types come across as quite mean-spirited.

For sure the world is far from perfect. We've terrible inequality, rampant corruption, senseless violence and so on. The majority wish it wasn't so and some of us try to make it better in whatever way we can. Doing that with a positive attitude, a happier disposition even in the face of adversity, generally garners better results.

Why not give it a go 'left misérables'? Who knows, you might even start to enjoy life. Perish the thought, eh?
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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Introducing (our) Colombia

We all, those of us with links to the place at least, have our own views about Colombia and what it represents. There are, obviously enough, many ways to look at it.

Nonetheless, however you view it, do remember that it is 'Colombia' not 'Columbia'. For a country with so much to offer and seemingly growing ever more popular by the day, some outsiders still can't spell it correctly. Hence the line 'The only 'u' that should be in Colombia is you.' Clever enough stuff, eh?

So to help more in this regard, taking each letter of the country's name, here we give our -- sideways you might say -- take on what Colombia is for us.

Delicious changua, Bogotá, Colombia.
Changua: Not everybody's favourite. (Photo by Jorvato, Wikipedia.)
C is for changua
Admittedly this isn't the first thing people think of when linking the letter 'c' to Colombia. Most would more than likely go for the country's world renowned coffee. (No? What were you thinking of then?)

Yet we're plumping for changua here, not only because we find it delicious, especially in combating a hangover (on the rare occasions we have one), but also because not many outsiders will know about it.

In fact the changua we love -- a couple of cracked eggs cooked in milk with bread, cilantro leaves, a bit of onion and perhaps garlic, ideally some cheese melted in as well, with salt to taste -- is pretty much a Bogotá speciality. It's hard to get that exact mix on offer in other parts of the country.

For most who haven't tried it, it sounds revolting. We have to admit, we thought the same. But it works, and works wonderfully if you ask us.

O is for office
Panadería Vicky in Barrio Nueza Zelandia, one of our 'offices' in Bogotá ...
One of the 'offices' ...
We've had a few 'offices' scattered around the capital; they've generally depended on where we've been living at the time.

Basically we're on about 'our' panaderías, the bog(otá)-standard bread and coffee shops. Delightful places to get an affordable coffee with milk (a 'perico') and snack-sized portions of fresh bread, all the more better when the they're just out of the oven. We call them the office as we tend to spend a good deal of time in them, be it to do some writing or other work, or simply just to chill out.

Giovanni's on Calle 32 just up from Carrera 5 in La Perseverancia (see below) remains a favourite even though we now live miles away from there. Max Pan in Barrio Santandercito and Vicky's in Barrio Nueva Zelandia are new regulars in our current north Bogotá base.

Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia.
Lost City
L is for Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)
Colombia's Machu Picchu so to put it, but somewhat quainter and allegedly older. It's now over eight years since we visited this ancient indigenous settlement hidden away (well, not quite now!) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta jungle off the Caribbean coast, yet it left a lasting impression.

Things might have changed a little since then, but we found the three-day trek to reach it more authentic, and certainly far less congested, than the more celebrated Inca ruins. While we're due a return, there remains other popular and not-so-popular beauty spots that we've yet to visit here; 'a lot seen, a lot more to see'. All in its own good time.

O is for Ordóñez
An important 'o' this, insofar as some people put a 'u' in here. Don't. That's a different place.
So rather than 'u for Uribe' we've got 'o for Ordóñez', the nation's former inspector general (*LINK Ordóñez, Petro et al) who's now a 2018 presidential candidate.

As mentioned in a previous post, in many ways Alejandro Ordóñez represents traditional Colombia, so he's worthy of inclusion here. That and the fact that of the country's political big guns he's one of only a couple we've met, briefly as it was.

M is for mujeres
We could have used 'c' for chicas, but changua is far more important (and rewarding). So we'll mention the women, 'mujeres' here.

Colombia of course is well known for its beautiful women, but that beauty often comes at a price, in all sorts of ways. This is certainly the case for the majority of the ones we've tried to 'woo' anyway.

We've practically written the book on that in a host of previous blog posts (you can start with 'Ignoring is bliss' and work back from there), so we'll say no more other than try not to take things too seriously if you do get involved on this score. It's better in the long run.

B is for Bogotá
An obvious one, but it has been the base of our Colombian operation and it's a city that still exerts a strange hold on us.

When we do eventually leave the place, there are lots of things we'll miss. They're just not always easy to put a finger on.

I is for IQuiz "The Bogotá Pub Quiz"
Self-serving this may be, but we're talking about our experiences in the almost six years we've been here, and IQuiz has played a significant part. Put simply, our labour of love.

On the Rossies, from Fernando's tienda, barrio La Perseverancia, Bogotá, Colombia.
Best buddies!
A is for Abril 
No we're not referring to the month of April, which is 'Abril' in Spanish. We're on about the surname Abril, and more specifically our good friend Fernando Abril.

For sure Colombia has many amazing and unique things going for it, but as in many walks of life, it's often the simpler ones that matter most.

In this regard, Fernando, his small tienda and a number of the clientele in the not-quite-salubrious surroundings of La Perseverancia have been a memorable find.

Yes, in other barrios we've found similar places, but Fernando's and the folk of La Perse are the original, the first 'true love' so to put it (with a worthy mention of a bar up Barrio Egipto way, the precursor to La Perse in a sense).

So that's 'our Colombia', one version of it anyway. Each to their own and all that.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Colombia's 'No Dar Papaya' School of Motoring

It's perhaps stretching it somewhat to say that how people drive gives a true reflection of their personality. This appears even more so the case when otherwise friendly, generally polite people turn into nothing short of aggressive lunatics when they get behind the wheel. A sort of Michael Schumacher in his heyday mixed with The Incredible Hulk, something along those lines.

You'll get this, what we'll call character aberration with many Colombians. Nice people in so many facets, yet when they sit into a motorised vehicle they transform into quasi-kamikaze pilots (of course this isn't unique to here, but we're looking at it from a Bogotá perspective for this particular piece).

Autopista Norte, Bogotá D.C., Colombia.
It's a battlefield out there ...
As much as an anomaly as it may seem, it does fit in with one cultural trait, the 'No dar papaya' mentality. Basically, on the highways and byways this manifests itself into 'I shall not give an inch of space because if I do, there'll be somebody waiting to take full, merciless advantage.'

Hence the driving at breakneck speed up to a vehicle stopped ahead or traffic lights that have been clearly red for some time. 'What?! Go through the gears and slow down gradually. You must be mad! We'll be overtaken by all and sundry." The sad part is, this is true.

It's usually the privately-owned public service vehicles -- the few old-style buses that are still plying their trade and the yellow taxis -- that are seen as the chief culprits in this. They're certainly masters of it, but the drivers of the public-private transport system, the Transmilenio and SITP, are no slouches either. 'To heck what you paying passengers think, you're in my reckless hands now guys.' (A note on the taxi drivers here: Some get themselves into a hissy fit if you don't close the door in the calm manner they want, an almost impossible feat, yet they proceed to drive the car like a weapon of mass destruction.)

Now whatever about not respecting your fellow warrior motorists, those also behind the 'comfort' of metal and glass that is, giving scant regard to those on foot is taking it to another level. Either we've many colour blind drivers here (that would explain a lot) or they just don't really care about those annoying human obstacles trying to cross the street, regardless whether the pedestrians have the right of way or not. Unfortunately it's more the latter case.

Didn't you know the streets are first and foremost motorist territory? No? Well you'd better learn quickly.

For sure, drivers here have genuine grievances; there's the very poor state of many of the main arteries, a lack of efficient traffic management and security issues, to name some of those problems. In such an environment, we can understand a bit of road rage, to a point.

Yet some motorists could try bringing just a modicum of that more laid-back nature they have in other facets of life when they go driving. Both your vehicle and other road users will thank you for it.
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Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Pastrana-Uribe alliance: Colombia's path to 'redemption'

For many of the old and not-so-old bearded lefties, both men and, um, women, it's a nightmare scenario. A presidential candidate under the auspices of former heads of state Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana sweeping to victory in next year's election.

The two ex-presidents, anti the peace deal with the Farc that's currently in operation, have come together in a grand alliance of the winning 'no' side in last year's referendum on the peace accords. The far-too liberal agenda must be checked, the 'Good Ship Colombia' needs to return to calmer waters, and these doyens of the country's politics can guide her there.

It's not clear at this remove who'll be the actual face on the ballot paper, the Pastrana-Uribe puppet on a string so to put it, but with the big guns in his (it's sure to be a man) corner, it practically doesn't matter.
Former Colombian presidents Álvaro Uribe & Andrés Pastrana have formed an alliance ahead of the 2018 presidential election ...
The likely lads: Uribe (l) with Pastrana. (Photo from Facebook.)
Now while we've written here before that when it comes to genuine choice in Colombian elections it's generally 'la misma mierda' (the same sh*t) whatever you're having, there might just be merit in the 'new, old way' with Messrs Pastrana and Uribe. Here's why:

A firm hand
Let's be honest, if you give sneaky characters an inch, they'll take a mile and then some. In these parts we've plenty of such types in all walks of life. From a political perspective, we've some of those dastardly ex-Farc lads now trying to pass themselves off as honest politicians alongside other leftist relics looking to impose their 'far out' ideas on the country.

It's not exactly a case of nipping this in the bud as it's been going on throughout President Santos' stewardship, but the Pastrano-Uribe ticket can stop the rot. The old Uribe line was 'A firm hand, a big heart', so it's time we saw that firm hand again (it's better not to ask how firm that hand might be; rest assured it will take no prisoners when needs be).

Sure Colombia could do with a bit of population pruning; look no further than these guys for that.

The Lord is my shepherd
Not only does the country appear to be floating more towards nasty socialism akin to the mess that is Venezuela, it also seems to be becoming more secular.

The fundamentalist Catholic candidate Alejandro Ordóñez provides one anecdote to that, but Pastrano-Uribe may just have a broader, whisper it 'sexier' appeal.

The papal visit later this year is set to ensure that Colombia's religious fervour gets a good shot in the arm as well, not that it really needs it (as hypocritical as it tends to be all the same).

Religion still matters here and Pastrano-Uribe have that base covered as good as the best of them.

More Maduro than Maduro himself
Speaking of Venezuela, we've the Nicolás Maduro factor next door.

The Pastrano-Uribe alliance could be seen as fighting fire with fire to tackle the firebrand, if rather clownish, premier. Counter one idiotic proposal or statement with another. The perfect blocking tactic. Genius.

Tweet like Trump
You can't be a top president nowadays, so it goes anyway, without being a dab hand at the old Twitter machine.

In this regard, Álvaro Uribe even out trumps Trump -- indeed it might have been Uribe who The Donald took inspiration from. He's been shooting off (careful) controversial, divisive tweets for years. No doubt he'll be extolling the virtues of such a strategy to his anointed one for this election.

It's not enough to be a real-life bloody commander, you've got to be a virtual killing machine these days, too.

Whatever the case, there certainly shouldn't be a dull moment with the Pastrana-Uribe alliance in the mix in the run-up to round one of the presidential election next May. Just sit back and enjoy the ride we're all going to be taken on; there's not much else we can do.
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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Finding that happy place

Depression, as we know, is an illness of the mind. That being so, some view it as a condition that can be cured, or at least managed, by the power of the mind alone. In over-simplified terms, 'will ourselves into a happier state'.

In relation to non-clinical depression that most of us go through on occasions, there is merit to that. For example, and not meaning to be facetious here, there's no point getting ourselves down over such an uncontrollable thing as the weather. If it's raining there's nothing we can do about it, but we can take measures to prevent ourselves getting wet all the same.

Bogotá D.C., Colombia, viewed from a high ...
Happiness isn't always just in the mind; the place plays its part, too ...
If it's our routine and work that has us at a low ebb, the old saying 'a change is as good as a rest' might be the remedy. That's perhaps easier for some to do than others; it depends on our education, employment position, financial standing and such like. (It must be noted here that it is, generally speaking, those who have access to more opportunities who tend to find themselves in thinking this way.)

Yet for others, whether it's momentary 'depression' or one that has been clinically diagnosed, the place of residence plays its part. That is to say they're content at what they are at, but they feel they're doing it in the wrong place, usually inhabited by people not quite of their ilk.

In such a scenario, 'simply' willing yourself out of this delicate mental state is nigh on impossible. You basically have to get up and go to feel happier, but the get-up-and-go required to do that is often lacking, especially in major depression cases.

In milder instances, a short break from our normal environment does the trick; the key is to take them regularly. (For the record, while we like Bogotá, getting out of the metropolis is needed every now and again.) For most working-to-middle class people, regardless of marital status or offspring to cater for, 'escaping' on a regular basis for short periods is doable.

It's a far more complicated issue, though, if you feel no love at all for where you are, to the point that the actual place and people are the chief reasons for your depressed state, yet you have a significant other who is content there and has no desire to leave. An immovable object meets an unstoppable force. Either a compromise is reached or the relationship is pretty much doomed.

There are those who say that love conquers all and if it doesn't then it wasn't meant to be. Perhaps that's the case. 'If you loved me enough you'd live with me even in hell' kind of thing. However, staying in a place you detest for the sole purpose of maintaining a long-standing relationship, and one that seemed solid at that, certainly doesn't seem like the key to a life full of happiness.

Finding that happy state isn't always a matter of 'mind over mud' so to put it. On occasions that 'mud' you're treading on plays a big part, for better or for worse.
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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Things could always be better

When we're going through difficult or frustrating times, there is the old saying of 'Things could be worse' to make us feel a bit better.

For most, if not all people, that is the case. Things could always be worse. (OK, there may exist a person who compared to everybody else on the planet is faring the worst, but even that individual could, in theory, find solace in the words above.)
Do you see the glass half empty or half full ..?
Some people are happy with what they have, others not ...
It's similar to those who espouse to either the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty mentality. It depends on how you look at it, and in any one person this could change from day to day without there being any noticeable change in the actual circumstances.

Yet, the argument against the glass-half-full/things-could-be-worse outlook is that, in certain cases, it promotes mediocrity, curbs development.

For example, in countries that have had a less-than-glorious past, such as my native Ireland and here in Colombia, the desire to continue to try and improve things isn't always apparent, be it at a government or individual level. One reason (of many), perhaps, why the oft-criticised public transport system in Bogotá splutters unspectacularly along (the Transmilenio is one thing, but many of the SITP bus routes are in disarray -- let's not go there, again). There are, needless to say, other examples that we won’t get into here.

Those in the glass-half-empty brigade are often accused of being negative, pessimistic. That might be so, yet when it comes with a desire to make things better, then it can be seen as something positive.

The key, as is usually the case in such matters, is finding the balance. For sure, it's pointless to strive for what amount to unattainable goals -- once we know that is the case that is -- or get worked up about things that we can't fix or undo.

It's generally better to focus on the positives of our current situation whilst, should we so wish, look for improvement where we feel it's needed. Otherwise we'll never even be close to feeling content, no matter what the situation.

That being said, there is a danger of underachievement if we always think 'things could be worse', especially so when in reality making our lot better doesn't require an awful amount of effort nor drastic change.

It's really a quest for contentment and fulfilment; feeling satisfied doing what we at least think we should be doing.

This is what keeps us going. And for many it's never ending. Once one goal is 'netted' the search for another begins.
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