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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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A prostitute by any other name

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a prostitute as "A person, in particular a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment."

The form of that payment is not explained, but it's safe to assume that it doesn't have to be upfront or even actual money. It could be payment in kind, as can happen in many other lines of work. Some journalists and writers, for example, start off working for no more than a few non-cash perks in order to get themselves established.
Money can buy you sex but perhaps not quite love!
'Love' is stretching it a bit here! (Image from memegenerator.net.)
Of course, quite apart from prostitution, a young or wannabe journalist working in such a way doesn't deny that he/she is a journalist or trying to be one. That, obviously enough, would be self-defeating in terms of career progression.

What's more, most if not all people who work in these more accepted professions do so by choice; it's a safe bet that the majority working in prostitution would rather be in a different, um, position.
Also, considering the stigma attached to the word, some would be horrified to learn -- outwardly anyway that is -- that what they are actually doing amounts to being a prostitute.

So what, um, boxes (sorry, we'll stop) does one have to tick to say that she is a prostitute? When you take the payment in kind side of it into account, it's a grey area indeed, open to a host of interpretation.

However, one important element has to be sentiment. If there is no sentimental attachment, no feeling of physical attraction (let's not even mention love), then we'd have to say it's sliding closer to prostitution, or at least the uninterested party is looking for some sort of gain.

Ideally it would all be clear cut. That is to say the more traditional prostitute, where it's payment upfront or as soon as the job is done.

Or, failing that, at least have it where both parties are left in no doubt as to the state of play: "I see that you are interested in me but I have no interest in you. However, I'm not in the best financial position right now so in return for having sex with me I will extract as much as I can from you in terms of financial assistance, in whatever form. Agree?"

The problem occurs when the lines are blurred. A charade of a relationship is maintained so that payments are given for services rendered or to be rendered, services that more than likely would not be made available if this financial assistance wasn't forthcoming.

Some will ask, with reason, that if the paying party gets what he wants out of it, a satisfied customer so to put it, then where's the issue? Well there isn't one really. Just let's call it what it is: Prostitution. It doesn't have to be a big deal.

Yet for the 'charade relationship' there is a potential problem as the thin veneer comes off it, more than likely ending the pretence.

The thing is, most men like to think they don't have to 'pay for it'. However, as has been said here before, we pay for it in some way (not always financially), but most of the time it's not as blatantly obvious as 'traditional' prostitution.

Basically, if desire and sentimental attachment are missing in any relationship, you have to ask what's the point of it?

This brings us back to that earlier suggestion: If both parties feel they're getting something out of it, occasional pleasure for the man, the woman some payment, monetary or otherwise (maybe even some pleasure as well), then on it can go.

It's all about how it's perceived. Accentuate the positives and everything can be fine, within reason. The key, perhaps, to any relationship that.
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Sunday, 21 May 2017

The thieving Catholics

We've written here before that you can never become too relaxed going about your daily business in Colombia. Let the guard down briefly in terms of watching your personal belongings and there's a high chance somebody will be on hand to take advantage.

In the almost six years that Bogotá has been our base, we've had a few face-to-face run-ins with thieves. Most of these incidents were down to our own risk taking, at times buoyed up on Dutch courage, doing things that others might see as outright stupidity.

One of the many Catholic Churches in Garzón, Huila, Colombia.
A seat of thievery?
On only three occasions -- three too many albeit -- have we been robbed clandestinely: the 'quintessential' 'dando papaya', that annoying phrase here that seems to blame the victim for allowing the crime happen. Whatever about being confronted by knife-wielding thugs, letting yourself be robbed by somebody who sneakily takes something out of your pocket, bigger fool you, eh?

That aside, the lamentable thing in all of this is that it happens. That people, remorselessly so it seems, take another individual's belongings at the slightest opportunity.

Yes, we can't talk about this without referring to the poverty that many who do resort to theft find themselves in, as well as a myriad of other social problems that they have to contend with.

Many also point to the corruption, nepotism and 'what have you' of the better-off types running the show as justification for illegal acts. (Alas, it's the hard-pressed working classes that tend to get shafted more than most, be it from politicians or underground criminals.)

Now it's not just Colombia we're on about here. The same can be said for a host of countries, but ones with an important connection.

That's because if we look at global stats on robberies -- difficult as it is to get a true picture for various reasons -- alongside anecdotal evidence and personal experience, this temptation to steal from others appears more prevalent in countries with a strong Christian, more specifically Catholic, background. Make the sign of the cross before and after your immoral act and all will be fine. (To be extra sure you could say a prayer or two for forgiveness from the 'Almighty'.)

Across the Middle East and Asia, where you have people in even greater poverty, especially so in Asia, than what you'll find in Latin America never mind Europe, this thieving mentality seems to be far weaker.

From a Middle Eastern perspective, it could be said this comes down to strong, what some might consider inhumane deterrents in some countries; or at least the threat of them.

Certainly in Catholic/Christian countries many are quick to talk about human rights in this regard, yet aren't as vociferous about human responsibilities. Punishments for petty crimes such as theft usually amount to nothing; a slap on the wrist and off you go.

Now we're not asking for extremes such as cutting off that wrist, but how about a 21st-century version of the chain gang? Something like a fenced-off area in a rural location where convicted thieves can grow their own food and learn to become self-sufficient (and work). Just a thought; there are variants on the theme.

Effective deterrents aside, there also seems to be something else at play. In general this appears to be bad schooling, where it seems taking advantage of somebody else is seen as a better quality than helping another person.

Whatever the case, the thieving mentality isn't going to dissipate any moment soon. For the time being, it's a case of being on high alert at all times.
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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Raising a Tostao to Bogotá

Exciting times out there. A middle-class revolution (of sorts) is in the Bogotá air.

You see there was a time when those of a perceived certain standing in these parts wouldn't be seen dead in what would be considered a more 'normal' establishment. They had a reputation to keep intact. One couldn't be mixing it with the 'ordinary' folk, now could one?
Tostao' Café & Pan: A Bogotá revolution (of sorts) ...
Tostao: Modern, relatively fancy yet at affordable prices. (Photo from Facebook.)

Yet, this misplaced mentality that if you spend more on something this means it's better and/or elevates you to a higher social stratum appears to be changing somewhat. The more well-to-do types, relatively speaking in any case, are voting with their feet, turning to places that don't sell things at ridiculously inflated prices and only market themselves at ‘desirable’ folk.

True enough, we can say with reason that middle-of-the-road options had been conspicuous by their absence until recently. Not too long ago, in terms of going for an afternoon coffee or the like, the basic choices were a fairly costly Juan Valdez or Oma (let's not get started on Starbucks) or your bread and (no) butter, bog-standard panadería (our favourite of course, once we've established the proper prices).

That's all changed now, thanks to the arrival of Tostao' Café & Pan. It offers fairly decent-quality fare at affordable prices in a modern, half-fancy environment -- OK, what constitutes 'fancy' for us may be open to questioning, but it's well kitted out nonetheless. From an Irish and UK perspective, think Costa Coffee or Insomnia Coffee Company.

Regardless of how its viewed, Tostao certainly has caught the imagination of large swathes of the Bogotá public. Pass by any of its now ubiquitous cafés and there's a good chance there'll be a sizeable queue waiting to get their coffee and 'whatever you're having yourself' fix, especially in the morning and at lunchtime. It does seem to be the, um, toast of the city right now.

In a similar fashion, the Aldi/Lidl-style D1 and Justo & Bueno stores have changed the grocery shopping habits of the working-to-middle classes. They aren't, though, low-cost leaders for all household goods. The more established Éxito and Olímpica can still offer lower prices and similar quality, depending on the product type. Plus we've the smaller supermarket outlets as well as the local fruit and veg stores which very often offer better value for the same kind of quality.

The thing is, the local store, just like our beloved local panadería for coffee and bread, isn't cool enough for some to frequent. Tostao, on the other hand, has hit a sweet spot for many Bogotanos. It's certainly 'in' right now. A sign of a ‘race to normality’ is how we’ll put it for now.
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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

San Andrés' quieter side

Being brutally honest, of the few remaining Colombian departments we've yet to visit, San Andrés rated as the least important.

OK, there are worse things you could do than chill out on a small tropical island in the Caribbean, but we've been there before in the shape of Barbados, as well as being well-acquainted with Colombia's Atlantic coast. Seen one Caribbean hotspot, seen them all, right?
San Andrés from its highest point, San Andrés, Colombia.
The view from the highest point on San Andrés ...

What's more, from speaking to others who visited San Andrés, the common refrain has been 'sure it's nice, but it's somewhat overcrowded and dirty'. (Throw in a relatively steep tourist tax to be paid before visiting and its appeal weakens further.) It's also widely agreed that the 'neighbouring' sister island of Providencia (the same department albeit) is the better option, with San Andrés just used as a necessary stopover to get there.

Yet when opportunity knocks in these straightened times, it would be foolish to turn it away. Thus, with a subsidised flight and a few free nights board on the table (it's a tough life at times), the decision to check out San Andrés was a no-brainer.

For sure, and lamentably in a not-too-untypical Colombian fashion, it's certainly not pristine clean. You don't have to look hard at all to find plastic bottles and drinks cans scattered around, normally within metres of a rubbish bin.

Interestingly enough, those with the strongest links to the island, the Raizals who speak Creole and seem to prefer using English than Spanish when given the choice, blame this spoiling of the land on the Colombian continentals who have made the place their home in big numbers over the last number of decades.

Indeed, the Creole types ill-feeling towards their 'administrators' seems to run much deeper than just the environmental pollution. Let's just say there appears little love lost between Raizals with deep roots to the place and some more recent arrivals; a feeling that the former are being systematically drowned out by the latter (something we'll leave for discussion in another post).
Some great diving & snorkelling waters on San Andrés' west side, San Andrés, Colombia.
Ideal diving & snorkelling waters on the west side.
That, what some may view as colonialism aside, one of the most visually spectacular features are the clear and colourful majestic waters, home to corals bursting with marine life -- snorkelling and/or diving is highly recommended on this front. Thankfully these appear to be well-maintained and long may it continue.

As regards where to stay, the more popular side of the island is the commercial centre in the north, around the airport and its environs. Here you have the big hotel names and a host of other accommodation options, as well as picture-perfect, golden-sand beaches. It has that recognisable holiday island vibe to it, nothing terribly original in that.

Further south down the east side of the island, around the San Luis area, there are more beaches, ones that tend to be less frequented.

Things are far quieter on the south and west sides of the island, the latter being the prime spot for diving and snorkelling. Here you'll find a host of homelier accommodation options in the likes of Cove and West View.*

For those looking for a more chilled-out stay and a visit not solely focused on sun, sea and sand, this part of the island is the best place to look. In any case, there are frequent buses to the centre from early morning up until 8.30 pm if you want to check out the livelier side of things -- the public transport also doubles up as a cheap way to get an island tour.

First Baptist Church, San Andrés, Colombia.
First Baptist Church: More English than Colombian ...
Most visitors rent their own transport to explore the island. Scooters are a good way to go for individuals or couples, with big quad-type vehicles, or mules as they're called, a handy option for three or more people.

The tried and trusted push bike for about 30,000 COP (10 euros) per day is another alternative, if you can stick the heat that is (if an Irishman can do it and survive, it's doable for most who are in any way active; the total area is just 26 square kilometres with the highest point standing at 84 metres).

A spin up Orange Hill to the landmark First Baptist Church allows for nice views of both the east and west sides of the island, and it also gives a flair to San Andrés' former British colonial past (note the church service board written in English).

In terms of expenses, standard accommodation and meals are costlier than what you'll find on the Colombian mainland, understandable for a rather remote, tourism-focused Caribbean island. On the flip side, beers and other alcohol products retail at prices similar to those in Bogotá's cheaper barrios.

The rubbish black spots aside -- a pan-Colombian problem that -- our four-night visit to San Andrés certainly didn't disappoint. Whether it's seen as a poor man's Providencia or not, it still has plenty to offer in its own right.

* Two recommended accommodation options on the west side are Siloé Cove Hospedaje Boutique and Royal Palm Inn (+57 3164957522). The Caleño-owned and administered Siloé offers bikes and a scooter to rent for guests, as well as snorkelling equipment (snorkelling can be done with the administrators, who do it on a daily basis.)
Royal Palm Inn is family-ran by a very friendly local couple and provides an airport pick-up and drop-off service. The owner also drops off and picks up guests wishing to go to the commercial centre.

Viva Colombia operates two daily return flights to San Andrés from Bogotá. The outbound flights depart El Dorado at 09.20 and 19.50. The return flights leave at 12.10 and 22.40. Visit vivacolombia.co for all Viva Colombia's latest routes and prices.
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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Feisty Fusagasugueños

When it comes to nearby escapes from the madness of Bogotá, we're not stuck for options. There's Choachí, Giradot, La Vega, Melgar, Pandi, Tobia and Villeta to name just some of the places we're familiar with. Each of those differ in terms of their tranquillity factor, but all are unquestionably more relaxing than the capital city.

We can't, however, say the same for the big town -- city by Irish standards -- of Fusagasugá. OK, on the weather front it scores well; warmer than Bogotá, but not too stickily hot as some of the locations mentioned above can be. Yet with a population of over 130,000 it's not quite a peaceful rural getaway.
Fusagasugá, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Fusagasugá: It has a couple of things going for it in fairness ...

In fairness, it's not marketed as that; well it's not marketed at all really, and with reason considering there doesn't seem much of interest to draw tourists. The pull factors tend to have nothing to do with the urban centre. For most of those who do go to the area, it's all about the rural retreats dotted around.

Yet cities and towns that don't rate high on the popularity scale have an attraction for us, and usually we aren't disappointed (well if you go not expecting too much, then it's easy to be satisfied; for example see previous posts on Buenaventura, Maicao and Turbo to name just three).

So a stay in the centre of Fusagasugá with a couple of like-minded Irishmen seemed like a win-win plan. And in many ways, it was.

For starters, it's reasonably cheap in terms of food, drink and accommodation, especially compared to Bogotá. What's more, unlike some towns close to the capital and other locations in the regions, there is an abundance of well-kept attractive ladies about (that is to say, not carrying far too many pounds than they should be; each to their own and all that). Then you have the aforementioned agreeable climate.

That's about as good as it gets, though.

On arrival, not having a Colombian cédula (national ID) for the hotels there was a bit of a problem. It was hard work trying to convince them to let us stay. You would have thought that the Colombian issued cédula extranjería, the compulsory ID all visa-holding foreigners must have, would have worked fine. But no. After a long chat with one receptionist we managed to convince her that all would be OK; if the police had any issue -- the reason behind this reluctance to check us in -- we'd speak with them directly. Pity those arriving with just a foreign passport, they'd have no chance it seems. Though this obviously rarely happens.

Then there's the 'people on edge' feel to things. Many appear to be lacking that relaxed, happy-go-lucky style that you'll find with Colombians in most other places (peak commuting hours in Bogotá excepted). No, in Fusagasugá it was more a 'what are you doing here' attitude from a number of its inhabitants, and not in a friendly way that.

One good representation of this was an off-duty policeman giving one of us an earful for, so it seemed anyway, no more than just because we were foreigners.

All this negativity might be down to the fact that the place tends to get types of a less-than-desirable nature spilling over from Bogotá -- the word for them in these parts being 'ñero'. Just a thought.

Now not everybody was in fighting form it has to be said. The onset of dusk, however, is the signal for the feisty Fusagasugueños to come out in force.

So if you're planning to let the hair down in Fusagasugá some weekend, it's probably best to do it by day; leave the locals to their own devices at night.
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