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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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Santa Marta's serene surrounds

It's no major revelation to state that the main reason most tourists go to Santa Marta is to visit the attractions surrounding it. In other words, the city is a tourism hub solely because it's close to places of greater interest and beauty. (It's historic centre is quaint enough for sure and it has a bog-standard beach, but they're not necessarily crowd-pullers in themselves.)

Of the many places of interest in the region, the best known are, arguably, Parque Tayrona and The Lost City, La Ciudad Perdida. Indeed, by all accounts the latter has become almost too well-known compared to our first and thus far only virtually-solo trek there back in early 2009. It's not that 'lost' at all these days so it seems. An inevitable result of Colombia's growing popularity that.

Paso del Mango, Masinga, near the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
A quite refreshing dip ...
Nonetheless -- and thankfully for those of us seeking less-crowded locations -- the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, this being the mountain range that surrounds the city, still has plenty of fairly remote spots to discover. And we don't have to go too far out of our way to find them.

In fact, about an hour's combined bus and moto-taxi ride from the city centre, via the suburb of Bonda and the village of Masinga, there's the quite stunning Paso del Mango. Similar to rural parts of Colombia's coffee region, many of the farms (fincas) here offer peaceful, sustainable mountain living but with the special bonus of the beach, should you want it, being just a stone's throw away, relatively speaking.

However, considering just the trickle of visitors the place seems to get, you mightn't be too pushed to leave the tree-shaded serenity it offers.

The small rivers that race towards the Caribbean around here regularly have their flow interrupted, resulting in impressive waterfalls that call out to you well before you can see them.

Paso del Mango, Masinga, near the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
Peaceful surrounds ...
Aside from being picturesque, the little pools they've created provide a very refreshing dip after trekking in the tropical sun -- not forgetting the natural massage the cascading water provides should you wish. What's more, there's a good chance you'll have them all pretty much to yourself to relax and unwind in.

Speaking of unwinding, another plus point for us was that there was no mobile phone signal in the finca we overnighted in.* Seeing as how addicted many of us have become to our handheld devices, rarely disconnecting even when on holidays, a bit of forced rehab is a very healthy thing every now and again. (At the risk of ruining the image, we must point out here that the finca's caretakers, a young local family, do have cable TV. We were able to avoid that, though.)

Lying in pitch darkness, the gentle sounds of a busy nocturnal jungle and flow of a nearby river are therapeutic-like (interrupted by the odd dog bark albeit and, if things get sticky, you may have to turn on a fan. Nothing's perfect, eh?).

Altogether, the biggest pull factor Paso del Mango has to offer is its tranquillity. With a few other fincas currently in construction, there is a risk it might lose a bit of that in the coming years. Here's hoping it doesn't. We're all for development, but when we're talking about a paradise like this, keep it sensible, sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment. It's not too much to ask, is it?

*For more information about Finca Entre Ríos, visit Aluna Casa y Café.
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Friday, 22 September 2017

'We are the law' police

As most Colombian country folk know well, if you poke a bull, you can expect a reaction. In the same way, if you antagonise people, most of us will react in some way.

There are a number professions, however, where maintaining a cool head and looking at things rationally is a prerequisite; or at least it should be.

One of those is policing. Yes, there's no doubt that being a law enforcer is no easy task. So for that very reason, it's something that should not be in the hands of those of a reckless disposition.

Policía Nacional de Colombia: It seems like for every decent police officer in Colombia, there's at least one incompetent one ...
Some police officers think they are the law. (Image from Facebook.)
Unfortunately, in Colombia, as you get in many countries, some police officers here don't have the temperament to carry out their duties in an even-handed, fair manner. Add to this a new police code which seems to have been introduced without much forethought or adequate instruction, and the risk of abuse of powers -- or not knowing the limitations of them -- increases substantially.

OK, there's nothing new in the fact that some Colombian police officers are corrupt or take advantage of their position. The problem with the latest police code is that rather than trying to curb these abuses, the way a number of 'boys in green' interpret it results in further problems, not less.

What's more, a lot of these additional problems are completely avoidable, with the police very often being the root cause. Rather than taking an objective view of the situation and doing some fact-checking, they take one side of the story and run with that. But hey, to heck with due process when there's a chance of money being made.

For sure, we all must respect the law, but what about when the law -- or those supposedly upholding it in any case -- don't respect us in the first place? With some of the penalties at the Colombian police force's disposal, it pretty much equals a 'guilty until proven innocent' policy. 'We are the police and we alone can decide whether you've done wrong or not.' Judge, jury and executioner.

There are, thankfully and rightfully so, procedures in place to contest penalties. The thing is, with more common-sense policing, some of these charge notices issued need not have been handed out in the first place.

We could also say that police time is being wasted on rather trivial issues while the bigger criminal problems crippling Colombia carry on pretty much unabated with, at times, police connivance.

Obviously enough there are areas where more effective policing is needed. Yet the way the new police code is being used by some officers -- not all that is to say -- seems more a case of coming down hard on the less serious problems in the country. The easy way out.

This isn't terribly surprising all the same. A case of adding a splash of paint to a few internal walls in a house where the load-bearing structures are falling apart, built on flimsy ground as they were.
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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

What the Farc?!

There have been a few developments since we took our what-you-might-call slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the early candidates for Colombia's 2018 presidential election.

Rather than having a clearer picture of the state of play, things have got even more muddled (heck, we might throw our hat into the ring yet; well, if everyone else is ...).

Former defence minister under outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, Juan Carlos Pinzón, has entered the running, distancing himself from the now unpopular Santos in the process; a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
Colombia's newest political party, Farc ...
'The Farc is dead, long live the Farc!'
On the female front, Angela Merkel lookalike Clara López is making another bid for the top job while the Conservative Party's Marta Lucía Ramírez is gearing up for a third attempt; suckers for punishment, eh? Very much on the other side of the political spectrum to Ramírez we've Piedad Córdoba on the list for the 'loony left' (don't shoot the messenger; it's how Córdoba and her ilk are generally viewed here).

Speaking of the left, arguably the most eye-catching move has been the founding of the political party for the former guerrillas, Farc. In a bid to distance themselves from the image of death and destruction that they represent for most Colombians, they've come up with a novel name: Farc.

The, um, devil is the detail. This Farc stands for Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común), different to what the armed Farc stood for, which was Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. See the difference?

We could say it's a case of 'keep it simple, stupid'. At least it will make it easy for both supporters and opponents alike to know who they are. No need to copy the Northern Ireland scenario where people said (and some still say) Sinn Féin-IRA, linking the party to the armed group it represent(ed). Farc was/is Farc, a rare instance of efficiency in Colombia that, to look at it positively.

Of course, as mentioned here on umpteen occasions and alluded to above, 'the left' is a dirty concept for not only middle-class Colombia but large swathes of its lower-classes as well. Come on guys, not all leftists are unwashed, miserable hippies. We shouldn't generalise now.

So the fear in some quarters that the political Farc could be a force to be reckoned with at the polling booth next year -- we've parliamentary elections in March, before the presidential contest -- seems quite irrational. Yes, it did register a less negative image than the other political parties in a recent opinion poll (the biggest thing that this poll highlighted was the lack of confidence in politics here in general).

However, if there's one thing we can rely on in Colombia, it's the electorate's unfailing support for the centre/centre-right when it comes to election day. Thus, the guaranteed seats Farc is to be given, five in each chamber as per the 2016 peace agreement, might be the party's lot for now.

What's more, the mess that we have in 'socialist' Venezuela weakens further Farc's chances of making any significant political inroads in the near future. We must note here that just because a government says it is socialist doesn't mean it actually is that way in practice. The 'whatever you're having yourself' political experiment that Venezuela currently is has done more to damage the left than the right ever could.

That aside, what 'post-conflict' (no sniggering down the back there) Colombia needs is a massive clampdown on corruption -- we're talking generations to achieve that; a culture doesn't change overnight -- and, as far as we're concerned, a healthy dollop of social democratic thinking and policy.

The question is, do we have a political party here that can actually deliver that? You cynics will say no, but we live in hope -- honestly, we do. Failing that, Venezuela might sort itself out in the next decade or so.
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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

What a load of (Colombian) buffalo

Colombia's coffee region, the Eje Cafetero. Home to coffee (we kid you not), beautiful landscapes, quaint colonial-style towns with friendly, easy-going folk (*LINK). It's why it tends to be on most tourists' must-visit lists.

One thing, however, we don't tend to associate with this part of Colombia, nay any part in fairness, is buffalo. Yet midway between the towns of Marsella and Chinchiná, tucked away among the spectacular mountains that define this region, you'll find a herd of 70-odd of the animals.

Buffalo from the Bufalera Gibraltar farm, located between the towns of Marsella & Chinchiná on Colombia's Caldas-Risaralda border.
Buffalo enjoying the environs of Colombia's famed coffee region.
To the uninitiated or if you're just not paying much attention, you mightn't notice them at all; these Indian-style buffalo could pass as cattle. (For the record most of the 'buffalo' beasts roaming the North American plains are bison.)

Nonetheless, buffalo they are and they've found a nice home for themselves on the Caldas-Risaralda border. They belong to Luis Fernando Sanint and his father, the latter being the man who first brought this particular breed of buffalo to Colombia in the 1960s.

While Luis Fernando and his wife's main focus has been on producing artisanal, organic cheese (the farm is considered fully organic), with the help of another few locals they're now expanding into offering farm tours. Considering the facilities they already have to hand -- an impressive, let's call it rural-style convention centre, a swimming pool and guest accommodation -- together with the growing, passing tourism trade, they might just be on to a winner.

Visitors are given the opportunity to get up close and personal with the buffalo during milking as well as having a wander among them in their pastures. There's a PowerPoint presentation on the animals, which gives an insight into the history of the breed farmed and also explains the health benefits of buffalo meat and milk (for the record, buffalo milk is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant and apparently it contains more Omega 3 than cow's milk while its meat tends to have more protein).

A highlight for many is getting to taste the cheese. The mozzarella -- do remember that the original, traditional Italian type is made from buffalo milk -- is a Colombian favourite, but European cheese lovers will probably find the quality mature cheeses they have on offer a treat (the typical Colombian doesn't tend to go for them, so finding a quality cheddar in these parts is usually a challenge).

While Luis Fernando doesn't specifically raise his own animals for slaughter, buffalo steak is, appropriately enough we could say considering the setting, served on the tour. If meat's not your thing, they also farm and sell fish, so you can catch your own lunch right on the spot.

Whatever the case, a visit to Bufelera Gibraltar should leave you satisfied food wise, if nothing else. The setting is pretty agreeable as well.
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Monday, 21 August 2017

Sustainable living, Colombian coffee-country style

It's generally accepted that no visit to Colombia is complete without a trip to its famed coffee region, the Eje Cafetero as it's known here. Even if the beverage is not your thing, the scenery that this part of the country boasts is as stunning as you'll find. There's also the agreeable climate, even if you have to dodge a few torrential downpours every now and again.

What's more, in terms of tourism infrastructure, it tends to be a bit ahead of many other regions as, for the most part, leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers haven't had such a devastating effect.
Brisas del Cauca, Marsella, Risaralda, Colombia.
Brisas del Cauca: Not just a pretty landscape ...
In this regard, when it comes to selecting coffee tours, visitors are pretty much spoilt for choice. Fincas, that is to say farms, are ten-a-coffee-bean so to put it. For the most part, to get an idea of the coffee-making process while at the same time enjoying the natural surrounds, you can't go too wrong with whichever place you choose.

Some, however, have a more commercial feel to them, lacking that genuine friendly touch that most Colombians, especially the rural folk, are famed for.

This certainly can't be said for Luis Fernando Vélez's Brisas del Cauca finca, located a short distance from the small, picturesque town of Marsella in the Risaralda department. In fact, it offers much more than a hands-on insight into Colombia's coffee culture and a breathtaking backdrop.

In many ways, in this more or less self-sustained, organic fruit and veg farm, what's on view is another way of life.

Alongside the coffee plants and cacao trees (the 'journey' from cacao pod to edible chocolate is largely similar to that of coffee; a step-by-step guide to both processes is available), Brisas del Cauca is home to avocado, bananas, honey, mandarines, oranges, passion fruit, plantain and yuca to name just a few of the natural goodies on offer.

What's more, fuelling Luis Fernando's penchant for throwing up a finca-sourced meal with a concoction of flavours, there's a host of diverse herbs growing on site.

Indeed a walk around the grounds with the affable host is akin to a green and healthy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience. Something edible comes along with practically every step. As for the herbs, Luis Fernando has the low-down on the alleged health benefits of each one. His enthusiasm for them and everything else on the farm would almost have you believe that eternal living is within grasp.

While most visitors come on day trips, there is the option for individuals or small groups to spend the night there; there's no point in rushing these things if you don't have to.

Whatever way you do it, for an understanding of the coffee-and-chocolate-making processes (check out our videos of those here) plus all the priceless little extras, Brisas del Cauca is as good as they come. Luis Fernando awaits you.

*Brisias del Cauca owner Luis Fernando Vélez can be contacted on +573116085894 or e-mail brisasdelcauca@hotmail.com. You can also find him on Facebook.
** For those not staying on the farm there are numerous accommodation options in the picturesque town of Marsella. The well-kitted out Hotel Carmen has good-quality rooms from $35.000 COP.
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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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