Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Cali on the fringes

"What?! You were in Cali for its famous end-of-year festival and you didn't go to it. Madness!"

That's pretty much how most view our (three like-minded Irishmen that is) non-attendance at any of the Cali festival events during our recent visit there.

This 'shock' is understandable, of course. People flock from far and wide to check out what is viewed as one of Colombia's biggest and best festivals.

A view of Cali, Colombia from Cerro de las Tres Cruces ...
Cali from a high ...
What better way to get into the salsa swing — Cali is regarded as the salsa capital — when much of the city is in party mood?

Truth is, we'd generally prefer to shovel stiff concrete on a hot day than awkwardly move to salsa. Sure, we've given it a go before, but we just don't enjoy it.

Anyway, there was/is more to the festival than salsa; well, we guess so. However, our choice of hotel left us quite removed from the festival vibe.

The rather industrial, rough-and-ready, Barrio Santander wouldn't be most visitors' choice of location to overnight it in Cali. Yet, at festival time prices unsurprisingly shoot up in the more popular locations, such as the tourist-heavy San Antonio.

So getting a private room for 20.000 COP a night was a bargain not to be turned down. Plus, the city centre was only a steady 30-minute walk away.

In any case, as our few regular readers may have guessed, hanging around and socialising in Colombia's working-class barrios isn't at all anathema to us.

You could say we were getting a truer reflection of how Cali rolls. Away from the crowds and the tourists that the festival attracts.

It's what we enjoy doing when in a new place. Get an idea of what it's like to live in, Wrong Way style. Thus, finding the value locations is one of the important things in this regard.

As the country's third biggest city, it's not exactly a relaxing escape from the normal mayhem of Bogotá. This was one reason why we weren't overly bothered that after over six years in the country we'd never visited the place.

Taking into account that it was the festive period, there was a nice feel to the place nonetheless. A much warmer climate, but not overbearingly so, than that of Bogotá played its part in this.

Barrio San Antonio, Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
The picturesque church in Barrio San Antonio ...
Now considering we had three, um, moderate-drinking Irishmen together at end-of-year holiday time, there wasn't much exploring done.

We did, however, find time to trek up Cerro de Las Tres Cruces (Hill of the Three Crosses). At an altitude of 1,480 metres, it's over 400 metres higher than the city itself. It's a nice little workout to get to the top, from where you get nice views of the metropolis. (Apparently the barrio at the start of the trek can be somewhat dangerous, but we didn't get any sense of that.)

You can also push yourself a bit more and pump some iron and concrete in the outdoor 'gym' at the summit. We gave it just a short test — one wouldn't want to overdo it.

Apart from that and a bit of wandering around the centre and Barrio San Antonio, that was pretty much our Cali experience. Some people might consider it a shameful act for where we were, but there wasn't a salsa dance in sight.

We won't get our legs in a tangle over that one, though.
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Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Manizales: Bien pueda

'Manizales, el mejor vividero del país.' So runs the slogan on the city's tourist map. It basically means it's the best place to live in Colombia.

It's a bit of a statement to make in a land that has an abundance of natural beauty spots. What Manizales claims to have, however, is more than just the impressive, hilly, landscape it's set in.

Manizales, Caldas, Colombia.
Hilly setting.
As one of Colombia's more moderately-populated department capitals, getting around the place doesn't tend to be a headache. Indeed, it can be navigated easily enough on foot, if you don't mind the steep inclines and declines that is. (On the commuting front, a city that has a cable car service incorporated into its public transport system is always a little special for us.)

Its location in the country's famed and relatively well-developed Coffee Region (Eje Cafetero) boosts further its quality-of-living index. It's not an isolated outpost. Word on the street is that there's money floating about the place, there are employment opportunities, framed in a limited Colombian context as they must be.

Another bonus is that many everyday things are cheaper here compared to Bogotá.

On top of all this, not only are many of the locals friendly — something which can be said about many places in Colombia — the city also has a largely safe feel to it. This can't be said about some of the other big urban centres here.

For those who feel more at home living the 'high life' in the hills than by the beach, as we do, at 2,200 metres above sea level, Manizales certainly ticks that box.

When the sun shines it can get up to a satisfying 24 degrees Celsius or even a little more. At night, the temperatures don't drop as low as they generally do in the slightly loftier Bogotá.

As well as being in the Eje Cafetero, Manizales is also in Paisa Country. The home of the Paisas, those recognised as Colombia's more business-minded and industrious types, is regarded as Medellín.

We had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the country's second city, so it could be said Manizales offers Paisa living without the Medellín drawbacks.

The musical Manizales accent is, as far as we're concerned anyway, another pull factor. It's rather enticing.

Manizales' main cathedral. Manizales, Caldas, Colombia.
City centre cathedral. 
It could be said it has some sort of an Italian flavour to it. Whatever the case, it's certainly quite distinct from the plainer Bogotá tones.

On that Italian front, the fact that meatballs — albóndigas in the local tongue — are a staple of the cuisine here, might suggest some sort of previous connection. (A tenuous link it may be, but the Manizales and Italian flags use the same colours, albeit in different order and direction. The city's football team, Once de Caldas, however, display the green, white and red on its crest in the same way as Italy.)

Granted our week-long visit was over the Christmas holiday period, the city still seemed quite busy, yet with a relaxed vibe to it. We were assured this is how the place typically rolls.

Indeed, if one was considering a move out of the mayhem of Bogotá, Manizales doesn't seem like a bad option at all.

As the locals would say themselves to such an idea, 'bien pueda', 'well you can'. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Replacing religion's false comforts

It wasn't quite billed as a clash of titans, religion versus science, but with the Rocky walk-on music it hinted that we might be in for something special.

In the end, what we got was a rather tame affair -- shadow-boxing if you will. There were a few reasons for that. For one, the format certainly didn't help.

After opening statements, each man was given separate, alternate questions to answer. So it made it difficult for a robust, heated encounter to develop. A time limit on those answers would have done no harm either.
Richard Dawkins debates Colombian Jesuit priest Father Gerardo Remolina at Bogotá's Javeriana University ...
Clash of the heavyweights - well, not quite ...

Another reason as to why sparks weren't exactly flying is that the opposing sides weren't actually that much opposed to each other -- at least that's how it appeared. 

We're referring to Javeriana University Bogotá's 'debate' titled 'Is God an illusion?' (¿Es Dios una ilusión?). The protagonists were Colombian Jesuit priest and author Father Gerardo Remolina and the British evolutionary biologist, author and atheist Professor Richard Dawkins.

We more or less knew what we were going to get from Dawkins.

It was Fr Remolina who surprised somewhat. He basically came across as a man of reason and some science who has just happened to have made a good living from something he doesn't entirely believe in. Or if he does fully believe in it, he's not very convincing.

He effectively reduced all the core tenets of Catholicism to symbols. 'Is God an illusion?' 'Well, what is God?' 'Eh, you tell us Father.' 'Does heaven exist?' 'Well, what is heaven exactly?' OK, we're using a bit of poetic licence here but many of his answers to questions that are at the core of Christianity were abstract to say the least.

This aspect to proceedings did not surprise us. He had a fair idea of the gallery he was playing to. (In one way, at the risk of being facetious, it was like the 'That would be an ecumenical matter' scene from the Irish sitcom Father Ted.)

It would have been much more entertaining to have a fundamentalist Christian from Bible Belt USA on stage. A creationist to the core.

Their phoney arguments are much more engrossing. It's not for nothing the influence of the traditional Christian churches is on the wane. These new guys on the block have a far sexier story to sell; and selling it they certainly are. There's money in that crucifix you know. (They definitely would have felt at home with the Rocky entrance music anyway.)

Of course religion's greatest strength in the face of rigorous scientific enquiry is the comfort it provides. It's a release from the trials and tribulations of this mortal world we toil in.

It tells us that there is something more than our present existence, something greater. It can give hope in the midst of despair. Who cares if the evidence suggests otherwise? Remember, 'happy are those who have not seen yet still believe.'

Stony-faced science, in contrast, can leave us cold. Take Dawkins' rebuttal to that comforting aspect of religion, quoting the Canadian cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker: 'If you're being chased by a tiger it may comfort you to believe it's a rabbit. But it's a tiger and it's going to eat you.' Doesn't tend to leave one all that chirpy, does it?

Yet, science isn't in the game of emotions. It's about truth seeking. Fantasy and fiction, on the other hand, by definition operate without the inconveniences of having to prove themselves. In this regard, a fantastical story of everlasting life is generally going to appeal more than the theory that when we die, that's it.

Religions across the world, despite the many glaring holes and contradictions in their stories (it's not called having 'faith' for nothing), still trump atheism.

Thus, when asked if he felt we were coming near the end of religion, Dawkins said he can only hope that that's the case. The reality, however, suggests we're still some way off that juncture at this stage in our development as a species.

Some people might ask, 'So what? What's the big deal?' As we wrote about before, getting personal comfort, strength even, from belief in a higher power is one thing -- what you do in private is your own business after all. Forming whole societies based on religious doctrine that doesn't stand to reason, is quite another thing.

We're not going to take up space here disputing the argument that a religion-free world would be some sort of immoral, violent backwater.

Coming back to comfort, it's not like an atheist is devoid of it. Science can provide it. And it's arguably a more reassuring one than what religions offer because it comes more from fact.

Take an individual's very existence. It's a remarkable achievement in itself when we consider all the things that had to happen by chance to actually get us on this planet. Isn't that something worth celebrating and living for? Not to mention making the most of it for the short period we are here.

What's more, it could be argued that parents have a lesser need for religion than childless, singletons (even if in reality the opposite seems to be case). Who needs a god or organised religion when you have your children and later, perhaps, grandchildren to get behind, your raison d'être?

So a world without religion doesn't have to be a gloomy, hopeless, meaningless place. Remember, it's only in recent years that the more established religions, from a Christian perspective in any case, 'jazzed up' their message to the masses. In the not-too-distant past the stick was preferred to the carrot. 'It's God's will or it's eternal damnation.'

Atheism can be appealing, too, liberating even. Don't dismiss it right out of hand.
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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Colombian universities' English at all costs

Colombia's powers-that-be place a fair amount of importance, in theory anyway, on improving the level of English here. There was even a ridiculously ambitious plan from the government to have the country bilingual by 2019. Still on track with that guys?

There's aiming high and then there's the pie in the sky. Keep it attainable people. (If only the Brits had colonised the place instead of those plundering Spanish, eh?)

In order to graduate from university, many Colombian students are forced into trying to learn English ...
"This would have been much easier if I'd started at a younger age." (Picture from web.)
Nonetheless, as the global language (for now) in an unprecedentedly interconnected world, there's no doubt having English up to a workable level is, or at least could be, an advantage.

Thus, convincing the masses to warm to it is a noble pursuit.

Like most things, but perhaps even more so with languages, the younger this is done the better. However, Colombia's track record in this regard, especially in the public schools, leaves a lot to be desired.

This being the case, the fact that in many university courses you can't graduate without attaining a certain, usually relatively high level of English could be viewed as being a bit harsh.

Of course, if you're studying international relations or the like where English is usually a core element and prerequisite for the course, fair enough.

Yet for degrees where English is not essential per se, why then make obtaining a good grade in it a qualification requirement?

If the student has shown to be competent and worthy of his or her degree in the chief area of study, let them at it we say.

Fair enough, as mentioned above having a decent grasp of English may open more doors in the work place. So the universities in question could be seen as forcing a good deed on students who have paid hefty enrolment fees. How thoughtful of them.

Now as you know it's far from cynical we are here, but those of that disposition could be forgiven for thinking that the English requirement is just a money-making racket. 'Aw, hard luck, you failed English. Not to worry. Pay for a course to get your level up to scratch, pay for an additional semester and hopefully you'll be good to graduate in a few months.' Come on guys, these universities would never be so self-centred.

As tough as it may seem on those who struggle with English, as ever in these parts some centres of learning 'allow' a way around it. From what we can gather, in not all places does the English test have to be taken supervised, on campus. There's an unsupervised, on-line option.

We recently had the friend of an acquaintance ask us to assist her while she took this on-line test. Of course we objected strictly on moral grounds -- it had nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't financially worth it for us.

This practice, where it happens, obviously makes a mockery of the whole English requirement. (For the record, this was Universidad Central.)

An Ielts or Toefl exam would soon find out those who profess to have English to a high level (to a point anyway; some people who do have good English don't always perform well in these type of tests).

Outside of that, coming back to the practice of having an English test requirement for degrees where it's not essential, isn't it best to just let potential employers deal with that?

A Spanish-speaking civil engineering firm searching for prospective employees would probably list English as merely an advantage, not an actual requirement.

Forcing the language on people at a later stage in their development isn't the way to achieve bilingual status.

Needless to say, it starts at a much younger age.

If English is a priority for Colombian officialdom, the place to get serious about it is at primary level education.

Alas, from a public school perspective anyway, it's more a case of the blind leading the blind in this regard.
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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Bogotá bubbles

In a Colombian context, especially in relation to employment, Bogotá is where it's at for the most part. As the capital and most populated city, it's the place that attracts the most job seekers, both from within and outside the country.

In many employment sectors, such as education and finance to name just two, it's where the best money can be made. Yet, as we've oft mentioned on these pages before, it's a very unequal city.

Bogotá, Colombia: A very unequal city ...
Bogotá: It looks fairly equal from this viewpoint ...
Colombia's inequality is, arguably, most apparent here. In simplistic terms, financially speaking, it's broken into three groups: 'The have lots', 'The have a littles' and 'The have nots'. For our time in the country, putting aside our 'First World' background that, in theory anyway, puts us on a higher plain in this regard, we're firmly in that second group. We share this space with perhaps about 60 to 70 per cent of those who currently call Bogotá home. (In actual monetary terms, we're talking about an average monthly wage of roughly 350 to 450 euros at current conversion rates.)

That is to say, if we operate within certain circles of the city, a working-to-lower-middle class bubble so to put it, we can live within our means. Indeed, with a not-overly frugal existence, those of us in this middle group can even put some money aside on a monthly basis.

Nonetheless, from a socialising perspective, the likes of the city's 'exclusive' Zona G, Zona T and Parque 93 are largely off limits, save for on very rare occasions.

Not only that, but for the seldom times that we do go out in those places, we tend to be quite uncomfortable. Paying multiples of the price for the exact same product, or something very similar, that we can get, with a smile, in the barrios doesn't sit well with us at all. OK, there are some places, although not too many in our experience, that offer both good quality and decent service -- this being a particular rarity in these parts -- at reasonable enough prices.

The thing is, after six years of having Bogotá as the base, remaining in that more modest income bracket, even if we were to see a significant upswing in terms of take home pay (while we're always striving to improve our lot here personally and professionally in the pursuit of a happier existence, money's not the chief motivation), it's unlikely that our socialising habits would change that much.

We now have a very clear idea of what the price of things should be. So when we're asked to pay significantly more than that for no real strong reason, we don't like to. For many of the more well-to-do Colombians, not only do they not have many major issues paying above the odds for things, it's actually a status symbol to do so. Going out in the fancier establishments is a true sign that you've made it; style, questionable as it is, but with little substance. It's also a good way to help ensure the riff-raff are kept at arm's length.

Of course, the quest for a life without these socio-economic divisions, or bubbles as we'll call them, is idealistic in the extreme. The best we can hope for is to see a fusion of some of the bubbles, a levelling out of living standards. The likes of Colombia has a long way to go in this regard, but there's always hope.

From a global perspective, it's also worth bearing in mind the following, which we read in an official UN source a few years back: If the poorest 80 per cent on the planet were to live like the richest 20 per cent, at current consumption levels we would need four planet earths to sustain us.

Thus, it's not a just a case of improving the lot for our most unfortunate. The richer amongst us need to learn the art of modesty in living. We can't all over-indulge in the man-made finer things in life.
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Friday, 27 October 2017

Measuring success

How do we measure success? It really depends on how we define it. It's different things to different people, being case and very often time dependent.

In some walks of life, defining success is a bit more straightforward, in theory anyway. The sporting world is one obvious example. The rules of engagement are, usually, easily understood and from them emerge the winners separated from the also-rans. Of course normally there can only be one winner and some individuals or teams may have a clear, unfair advantage over others. In such an environment, those who don't actually win may view their season or career or whatever as a success.

We might be on the road to success but we just don't realise it ... (Wrong Way Corrigan)
Looks quite like the road to failure ... (Image from quotefancy.)
However, on a more personal level, taking our life as a set of interconnected things, judging it as a success (so far; we're not planning to pack it in just yet if we can help it) is down to the way we view it.

As has often been said, the roads to success and failure are very similar. In fact, seeing life as just one long road with plenty of twists and turns, then the difference between success and failure at any one time just comes down to which side of that road we're on. It's therefore a mentality thing more than anything else -- basically which side of the bed we fall out of on any given day, so to put.

Yes, we have to make decisions at various stages along that road of life, but we continue on one path nevertheless. We can't be on different routes simultaneously.

Even what some people see as fundamental indicators of success can be contested. Take financial stability, for example. On its own, it doesn't necessarily mean we have achieved success. (Fair enough, the line 'It's not always about money' is easier to utter when you have it compared to when you don't. So it is said anyway, we wouldn't know.)

We might have money but we may not have achieved what we wanted to or what we were capable of doing.

Bringing it back to something more natural, the fundamentals of a species, success is ensuring that we pass on our genes to the next generation, and multiple times at that to increase the chances of the germ line continuing for some time.

Yet with the global human population becoming almost too difficult to manage, we could view success as somebody actively limiting the number of offspring he/she has, or not having children at all. In this case, we might not pass on our genes, but we can rest assured that our energy will convert into something else when we breathe our last. Reassuring that.

Thus, success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. That is to say, if others view us as being successful but we don't feel it ourselves, then it doesn't really amount to much. In this regard, being successful is linked to finding happiness and fulfilment in what we do.

'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' as they say.
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Monday, 9 October 2017

Taking the time to think

Many of us were brought up with, and still adhere to, the old adage, ‘The devil makes work for idle hands’. In other words, not having anything to do invariably leads to negative occurrences. Thus, to keep out of harm’s way it’s all about, to borrow from Rihanna, ‘work, work, work, work, work’; always having something to do, always being busy. Indeed.

However, there is a growing appreciation -- backed up by research -- for a little bit of, if not quite utter idleness at least a bit of boredom in our lives. The thinking is, in today’s always-connected world, we don’t leave enough time aside to actually think. It’s all go, go, go.

Disconnecting is good for us ... (Image from ClipArtPanda.)
What’s more, even in our ‘down times’, a lot of us are staring at a screen, plugged into music, messing around on our phones or such like. There are distractions all over the place preventing us from truly switching off and getting in touch with our minds on our own terms.

Where once the daily commute to and from work could be used as a time to ponder, now it’s rare to find somebody not fiddling with their smartphone. (Heck, even the old sanctuary of the toilet is under attack, be it with people using their devices on the throne or rushing the experience so as to get back to work.)

For sure, a lot of people don’t view using the latest app or whatever in their leisure time as a bad thing, but research suggests that it can adversely affect creativity. A case of when we’re using such things, even if they’re educational, somebody else has already done a large part of the thinking for us, so to put it. (Where alcohol, to a point, stimulates the creative juices -- so some like to think -- being too busy, too ‘switched on’ impedes them. Sure didn’t some of the best Irish writers of times past like a drink every now and again?)

From a personal viewpoint, not having a smartphone, nay any phone, these last few days -- a forced absence due to a theft albeit -- has been quite refreshing (we’ve found the silver lining in this cloud).
Nonetheless, and unfortunately in certain aspects, not being in the smartphone loop these days can mean missed work opportunities, especially for independent workers.

What’s more, for those of us working in areas where the internet is a fundamental part, there are many pros to having a smartphone. In effect, it’s a convenient, pocket-sized office. So what previously was considered lost time, like waiting for a meeting to start, can now be used more productively.

In theory, this should free up other time to be used as we see fit, at our leisure, letting our minds wander. In practice, however, it often leads to us trying to squeeze more smartphone time into our days. Rather than letting the battery die, many of us frantically search for a power point. ‘Sure I couldn’t be without WhatsApp for 30 minutes now, could I?

Another angle to all of this is multitasking. Modern technology has allowed us to have lots of things on the go at once. What can happen here is that we fail to devote enough time to any one of them to complete them properly. A variant of the old ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ line.

As we’ve said before on similar themes, it’s all about balance. Finding time in a busy, always-on-the-go life to pause, take stock, let the mind drift, this is important. This little bit of helpful ‘boredom’.

On the other hand, however, there are those who perhaps think too much, question what they are doing, where they are going to the point where it becomes a problem in itself. This can be a momentary thing, like after the death of a loved-one or some other life-changing incident, a natural reaction really.

Yet, if it’s more long-lasting, it’s more than likely a sign of feeling unfulfilled, believing our lives lack purpose. In this scenario, the ‘cure’ may be found in less moments of boredom or excessive thinking and more action.

Whatever the case, bored or busy, keeping that dastardly devil at bay, that’s the key. Most of the time anyway.
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