10 days in Cuba – what an insane place!

Arriving into Havana airport from Bogota I was harassed for a good 2 hours by at least 3 different people giving them exact details of what I was doing in Colombia and why I wanted to come to Cuba (apparently ‘tourism’ wasn’t a good enough answer but I thought it was slightly safer than ‘seeing how people live in a defunct communist state’, or ‘for inspiration to start my own communist revolution in the UK’…).  I had some books about the Colombian elections in my bag which led another few uniformed men to eye me up, beckon to each other and whisper in fast tones as I sat nervously biting my nails wondering if I’d be deported.  I wanted to assure them that I was on their side – I wish I’d had some Marx in my bag to prove it!  Anyway I finally made it into the old town in Havana where I had the afternoon alone before meeting up with Dad and Catherine.ImageImage

Havana is a crazy city.  Parts of it are absolutely beautiful but most of it is completely falling apart.  Houses are being propped up by wooden planks and a lady who I got talking too told me that most Cubans have no electricity.  Our guide one day told us that there was an extensive (yet completely undemocratic) renovation project going on after 50 years of complete neglect in Havana, focusing on buildings of interest to tourists rather than Cuban homes. 

However the bustling tourist industry transports you to a city of European-style comforts with stunning squares, aristocratic buildings and many-a smart bar and restaurant catering to international tastes (at a fraction of the cost!).  When the average weekly wage is $19, charging tourists $3 for a beer seems ludicrous.ImageImage

However the Cuban State has devised a completely logical-sounding but utterly bizarre-functioning system to balance the two income strata with two currencies: one for tourists, one for locals.  This became most apparent when driving through a small town and stopping for a pizza in a place that only took local currency.  3 beers and 3 pizzas cost less than $2 – we suddenly realised what a fortune people were making off tourists and what absolute pittance Cubans earn.

Our trip, despite the madness of the actual country, was absolutely fantastic – incredibly varied scenery, great food, lots of mojitos, many a discussion of socialism (leading to a few tantrums, mainly on my part!) and overall a great adventure.

We began in Havana.  After an interesting tour of the new town and trip to the revolutionary museum which authoritatively (not that convincingly) informed us that communism had (and was continuing to) save the Cubans from their Western fate – I soaked it up and was a nearing revolutionary as we left, Dad and Catherine balancing my opinion at every possible opportunity! Image

The next day we began our road trip, driving the 250 miles from Havana to Trinidad which started with an unfortunate diversion which coupled with the abysmal lack of road signs ended in us getting lost a good 10 minutes after setting off.  Luckily a very nice man (who persisted to rip us off horrendously!) got in the car and took us on a huge detour which ended up in the right place but caused a huge (never-ending) discussion on whether he was a con man or just a friendly Cuban….we will never know!

After driving down the pretty well-built Autopista, we arrived in Cienfuegos – an attractive sea-side town with the obligatory South American/Caribbean central square and church.  We had lunch in a strange little place where we were forced to buy a CD of a distinctly average guitar player out of pure English awkwardness! 

We continued onto our final leg to Trinidad where we experienced our second scam….two women asked for a lift to Trinidad on a road where unhelpfully the arrow on the road sign had been rubbed out so we couldn’t see which way to go.   We had to stop to ask them the way so felt bad and let them and their male friend into the car for a lift.  About 15 minutes later we stopped with a puncture.  Luckily the man got straight out and repaired it (later as Dad would say, ‘as if he knew it was coming…’).  He then informed us that we should fix the tyre before the coastal road into Trinidad which would be full crabs which could puncture the tyre again….sooooo we stopped at a random house (which he would later tell us was a non-state owned garage…) and he abruptly took the tyre saying if he handled it he would get us a better deal – obviously us tourists would be ripped off.  So a few minutes later he returns informing us that we had not one, not two but FIVE holes in the tyre which would cost around $50….I spot a scam…anyway we tried to negotiate down a bit and eventually did and carried on until dropping our friends near the entrance of the town.  We will never know if it was a scam to make some money – needless to say Hannah’s naive and instinctive trust in people has been dashed by conspiracy theories that seem more and more viable the more we discuss them…!

Trinidad is absolutely stunning.  A 500 year old town full of character, cobbled streets, endless salsa and colourfully painted buildings.  We had a great few days exploring the town and hitting the beach with its white sand and unbelievably hot sea.  I spent the evenings being spun (at a much faster pace than in Colombia!) across dance floors to the infectiously uplifting Cuban bands in the arms of exceedingly good looking Cubans!ImageImage

After two nights staying in someone’s house we drove through the mountains to Santa Clara – the infamous Che Guevara’s hot spot.  The drive was fantastic, stopping off at a beautiful look-out point and a 4 hour hike down to an isolated waterfall with freezing cold fresh water.

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The last few hours to Santa Clara poured down with rain so arriving into the industrial town was quite tricky.  However, we were greeted at a traffic light by an unbelievably friendly Cuban absolutely soaked on a bike who told us to follow him as he peddled into the incessant storm and brought us to our hotel! (Dad has since promised to do the same for tourists in London!).

We stayed the night in the outskirts of the town before visiting the stereotypically communist statue of Che and museum.  Che is completely idolised here – not only for his heroic efforts during the revolution but I suspect mainly because he was killed at the age of 39 in Bolivia fighting for a similar cause and was therefore martyred in the eyes of those with his iconic face brazen across their chests.  Despite killing a fair few people, his dedication to ridding South America of the American influence which had been so damaging was definitely understandable – a sentiment which is still felt across the continent today.Image

Onwards from Santa Clara we headed to Vinales, the mountainous, tobacco-growing West of Cuba where we learnt about the communism that seemed so un-present across the rest of the country with capitalist ventures sprouting around the ever-increasing tourist industry.  In Vinales 90% of all tobacco plants are seized by the State leaving just 10% for farmers to do what they wish with….but not export so not sell for the extortionate prices that many cigars fetch abroad. ImageImage

After being brought to someone’s tobacco farm (which, with hindsight could have been yet another scam!) we learnt the fine-tuned art of tobacco growing and cigar rolling and headed to our hotel with a beautiful view across the peaceful town. Image

The morning brought horse riding which much to the delight of Dad and I didn’t mean doing and awful lot!  Assured by our guide that the horses were ‘semi-automatic’, we literally sat on them and they did the rest!  Other than a slightly sore bum, horse riding was a nice way to the see the country, punctuated with a farm offering fresh fruit juice and another selling us the best mojito we had had so far in Cuba (apparently the farmers make it with honey for those connoisseurs amoungst you!).Image

After Vinales we set off for Cayo Levisa, a tiny island off the North-West coast of Cuba with white sand beaches, turquoise seas and masses of wind!  We had a really relaxing few days followed by a trip along the worst road yet where Dad skilfully navigated pot holes, along the coast back into Havana, stopping at a distinctly un-touristy fish restaurant who looked completely bemused to have three Brits in their establishment!

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The Cuba of 2014 is riddled with contradictions – touts making a tidy few dollars (the equivalent of a decent few family meals) directing tourists in old Havana, whilst the Cuban population relies of their monthly ration of staple foods, a generous gift from their seemingly uncaring State.  Education is free and as renowned as the health service, yet saving enough money to repair the holes in your house is a far-off dream.  Old American cars drive past ancient rusting signs depicting traditional communist propaganda slogans such as ‘Socialism of Death’ and ‘Viva la revolucion’ (wasn’t that 50 years ago?!) reminding you that communism is the ideology of the day, yet in few other places is it truly visible. 

Cuba is certainly not living in the communism of Stalinist Russia or even Eastern Berlin, however it is difficult to see where the island is headed in terms of modernisation and change.  Despite some steadfast loyalties to Fidel, the general sentiment seems to be pushing towards a Western view of modernisation with designer shops and smart restaurants sprouting up across Havana and Cubans widening their horizons with dreams of travelling the world.

Catherine and Dad were unbelievably open-minded and relaxed about the whole trip, despite the lack of road signs and constant attempts to find ways of getting money from us (Dad reckons he spent as much on tipping bands as he did on food)!  I had a great time and am not looking forward to the cold rainy Bogota that awaits me…lots to look forward to in the next few months however, I don’t think I can’t complain too much!

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I’m writing this from Bogota’s equivalent of a ‘greasy spoon’ – a seedy cafe playing very loud radio and offering huge, deep fried breakfasts that for some reason I feel I deserve…

Since Mum left, tensions have been rising in Colombia in the build up to the elections on 25th May.  I’ve applied to be an international observer so hopefully I will be able to spot firsthand the corruption, vote-buying and concept of ‘El Voto Blanco’ which has received so much press recently.  Various public figures (including prolific Colombia critic Fernando Vallejo) have been encouraging the public to ‘Vote Blank’ so as to engage with the system but publicly demonstrate the lack of viable candidates for presidency, initiating some sort of revolution that I’m not sure many have given much thought to.

Anyway, el Voto Blanco in my mind shows greater engagement and awareness than the traditionally high abstention rates and the law which requires parties to receive a minimum of 350,000 votes in order to remain in the democratic system.  We will see how it all pans out.

El Paro Agrario (farmers’ strike) is now in its second week with students joining the ranks of farmers throughout the country, blocking roads and initiating public disturbances in the hope that the government will finally listen to the agrarian sector and enact policies to ensure its fair treatment.  I’ve been caught in tear gas twice so far – not a particularly nice experience but probably my own fault for seeking out the protests!  There was a great march on May 1st with representatives from lots of trade unions and workers organisations.  As always in Colombia however, peaceful protests are infiltrated by people who just want violence and ended up being suppressed by disproportionate police violence.  It is difficult to tell how this strike will end as politicians seem unwilling to negotiate with the farmers who they see as disruptive violence initiators, but I sense the farmers won’t back down as they feel their demands are not being listened to or taken seriously.

In other, more positive news, Bogota has hosted some incredible art exhibitions recently and the Feria de Libros (book fair) is currently underway.  It is a hugely impressive conference with exhibitions, book launches, talks by authors and masses of activities for people of all ages.  The guest country this year is Peru who have put on a fantastic exhibition of art, photography and poetry and many celebrated Peruvian authors are here giving talks and workshops.  I’m off again today to catch a couple of talks.  On Saturday it was so great to see so many children queuing to get their favourite book signed or sitting listening to readings.  A sight not too common in the UK!

I was asked by the editor of the City Paper to write a piece on the British boy who died taking Yaje in the South of the country.  Such a sad incident but an interesting article to write through my perspective rather than that given by English press.  Here it is for those who are interested.

http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/yaje-a-dangerous-trip/

I managed to get an article in and Australian magazine – Green Left Weekly (great title!) – and hoping to publish as much as I can about what’s going on in Colombia in it.

https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/56328

A couple of weeks ago Lorena and I went to buy a load of materials for her to make me some clothes!  The joys of living with an artist!  Yesterday she emerged with a bikini and two dresses, beautifully made and they fit me perfectly!  Another huge reason to visit me….!

My lovely friends Tilda and Roo bought me a Nigel Slater recipe book for my birthday so I’m trying to do a dinner party every week.  So far I’ve done two and they have been pretty successful – Nigel Nights!

I’m off to Cuba in 6 days to meet my Dad which I’m so excited about!  I’ve been reading up lots about it and can’t wait to see my Dad salsa dance!  He has assured me he will point blank refuse but I reckon after a few mojitos there’ll be no stopping him…

Everyone’s getting very excited about the World Cup now with most people filling the Panini sticker album with the teams from all the countries.  One of the funniest sights I’ve seen here is groups of suited business men crowding in public spots at lunch times swapping stickers and crossing off various names on their meticulous lists and tables in an almost clandestine way as though they know what they’re doing is wrong…but it feels so right!  Reminds me of pokermon cards – but whenever I say that I’m brutally shot down by defensive men upholding their right to spend a fortune on a sticker album….

English lessons have been carrying on as usual and work at the NGO has been interesting.  I’m looking into the impact of Free Trade Agreements on human rights in Colombia. 

I’m past the 6 month mark now which is pretty terrifying!  I had an interview for a role with PBI a few weeks ago which if I get would start next January – so my plans are definitely to stick around for a while but we’ll see what happens.  George will be here in 5 weeks which I’m really excited about followed by Jess the month after!  And hopefully lots more visitors to follow…

Having just sent her off into the Bogota wilderness to board her first of two long flights back to the UK, I think it’s time to reflect on Mum’s unbelievably varied experience here that couldn’t have been more Colombian!

Sunday 13th, Mum’s flight was early which had me frantically rushing with images of her arriving with no Spanish and being lost and confused but luckily I got there in time!  It was so lovely to see her and hear about her trip to Peru, seeing George and trekking the Inca Trail to knock Machu Picchu off her bucket list.  Awesome!

We immediately cracked out the much anticipated (from both of us!) G and T and Lorena and I made sushi.  Not a particularly Colombian welcome but very civilised!

Monday was my birthday and we had a lovely day in Choachi – the village an hour over the mountains from Bogota.  After a beautiful scenic walk into the village, Mum had her first tinto (watery and very sweet black coffee served in a polystyrene cup with a straw to stir) and engaged in the first of many bouts of people watching in the central square.  We headed to a picturesque Swiss chalet for lunch where the owner, in a most Colombian fashion, seemed completely bemused by the fact we were looking for lunch in her restaurant, but eventually brought out some beers and a sort of rice dish.

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The beautiful walk down to Choachi!

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Salsa birthday crew!

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Taking Mum and Lorena out to a very posh restaurant with some vouchers I got!

Back in Bogota we got dressed up and headed to one of Lorena’s favourite spots in the city – the oldest, but recently done up bowling alley with people physically picking the pins up and re-positioning them each time they’re knocked down!  Mum met lots of my friends and we then headed to one of my favourite salsa spots where Mum was officially crowed Salsa Queen and was spun across the dance floor (fuelled by shots of Aguardiente) all night!

After spending Tuesday showing Mum around Bogota, we left the city on Wednesday morning for los Llanos Orientales – the flat planes South of Bogota traditionally dangerous and attracting very little tourism.  Suffice to say no others foreigners, let alone gingers, were spotted on our trip!

Mum, Mike (an English friend from Bristol who’s been travelling around Colombia for almost three months) and I had an almost seamless journey winding through the stunning Colombian countryside to Villavicencio then onto Acacias and even further to our hotel in the middle of nowhere.  Quite simply the most bizarre place I have ever been to! 

We were greeted by another woman who seemed bemused and almost angry that we had come to stay in her hotel – the act of welcoming guests obviously disrupting her otherwise uneventful day.  She showed us through the Alice in Wonderland-esque garden full of plastic chairs of a variety of colours, statues of birds and the compulsory Mary and Jesus, past the optimistically named ‘lake’ with a Disney Land-type bridge and cages of birds and rabbits, to our room.  The bathroom was covered in orange cushiony mats and had no door, just a curtain….

However, despite the unorthodox nature of the hotel, we cracked open the first beers and had a hilarious time!   We spent the next few days walking through the stunningly different landscape of los Llanos, picking mangoes, bird spotting, swimming in rivers and visiting cacao farms.  In the evenings we played a lot of cards, again fuelled by Aguardiente and punctuated by tejo explosions.

On Saturday we headed to an indigenous community, Uitoto – originally from the Amazon, this community of around 30 people (6 families) were displaced due to guerrilla violence and have been living in los Llanos for 10 years.  Santiago, the head of the community began telling us the harrowing stories of the plight of the Uitoto who see no value in money or Western ideas but have had to enter into the capitalist system for their own survival as their traditional forms of food, building materials etc from the Amazon can’t be found in los Llanos.  However, this move has meant that opportunities to share their culture with visiting tourists and further study options for their children have presented themselves.

Being the official translator I took great pleasure in watching Mum’s face as I relayed the information that this community used to be cannibals!  They are a very spiritual community (who also believe in Catholicism due to missionaries heading to the Amazon in the 30s) and have very strong ritualistic culture which we were fortunate enough to witness.

Mum was well and truly pushed out of her comfort zone as we canoed up rivers in the pouring rain, were welcomed into various families’ shacks for sips of Chicha (a fermented maze drink – as Mum said, it’s amazing what you’ll drink when there’s no beer is on offer!) and finally sleeping in hammocks surrounded by frogs and the sounds of nature.  I was unbelievably proud of Mum for throwing herself into everything and in her usual infectiously positive manner, making the absolute most of every situation.  I’ll miss her masses but I’m confident her tiny taste of Colombia has whetted her appetite to see more…

In other news I have had a few more articles published and have finished with a lot of my English lessons in the afternoon which is nice so I’ll have more time to spend at CPDH. 

This article is about Colombian women and their international reputation… http://thecitypaperbogota.com/opinion/selling-the-belleza/

This is on the horrendous trend of acid attacks we have seen recently in the city… http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/bogota-acid-attacks/

This is on the 7th World Urban Forum which took place in Medellin earlier in the month… http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/medellin-hosts-the-world-urban-forum/

Not much more to add, hope everyone had a Happy Easter!

It’s been a while since I last wrote and I can’t believe it’s nearly April!  Lots to look forward to next month, most importantly Mum’s arrival in a few weeks time! She arrives in Peru on Friday and will (hopefully!) be met by my beardy backpacking brother.  She will be there for 10 days then is coming up to see me.  I can’t wait to show her the sights!

March…

The month began with a trip to Melgar, a town a couple of hours from Bogota with a very hot climate and lots of holiday homes of rich Bogotanos.  We stayed in a friend’s villa for Lorena’s 30th birthday with a pool and beautiful view of the mountains.  Below is me and my Swedish friend Lotta (who I met in Buenos Aires 5 years ago!) by the river in Melgar.  Getting back into Bogota after a weekend away is a nightmare as there are only a few routes into the city and everyone is on them!    

The senate elections took place in the first week of March, an absolute farce with hundreds of accounts of ‘irregularities’ and under a third of people turning up to vote.  People don’t vote here not out of apathy but rather out of complete mistrust in the political system.  Politics is considered a separate realm to the daily lives of most Colombians who have no interest in engaging with it.  Colombia has a threshold law whereby a political party must get a minimum of 350,000 votes to partake in the democratic system.  In a country where no one votes, a law like this is worrying as soon opposition to the traditional power blocks will non-existent, a disturbing thought in a liberal democracy.

The senate is now predominantly right wing, with ex-president Uribe’s party winning a surprising amount of seats.  The senate can exercise considerable pressure on State policy and indeed President Santos’ decisions, perhaps a worrying thought for the continuation of the peace talks in Havana which Uribe is very strongly against.  We’ll see how it all pans out…

Petro (the mayor who was ousted from his position before Christmas) has finally left his post following an unbelievably complicated and convoluted legal battle where it seemed no one had a clue what was going on!  He has been temporarily replaced by an unelected mayor before elections for a new one later on in the year. 

I wrote an article about the Union Patriotica (a left wing party, victim of political genocide) and democracy in Colombia that got published in Global Politics Magazine.  Here’s the link if you’re interested.

http://global-politics.co.uk/blog/2014/03/09/cause_for_concern_columbia_patrioticunion/

Following this, a friend who presents an English radio station out here asked if I wanted to come on his show and chat about the elections and what I’m up to in Colombia.  I don’t know if anyone is really that interested in what I have to say but I really enjoyed it!  Here’s the link to the podcast if you want to listen to it (the second one, Finding Employment) https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/finding-employment-in-colombia/id657800894?i=279611762&mt=2 – there are lots of other interesting interviews with various expats doing great things out here. 

I’ve been enjoying work in CPDH doing various research projects and most recently finalising a funding proposal for the British Embassy which is in for tomorrow.  They keep asking me for my ‘British’ point of view – ‘do you think this is what British people want?’!  In typical Colombian fashion, everything is left to the absolute last minute so I’m staying in all day today waiting for my boss to send me the proposal to translate…hours before it has to be in…! 

I’ve been to lots of interesting talks and conferences this month including one organised by a great NGO, ABColombia and the British Embassy about sexual violence in conflicts.  I got to meet the British ambassador here and hear about the campaign the UK is heading on this issue. I also went to an agrarian ‘cumbre’ which is sort of a roundtable meeting to discuss various topics.  It was interesting but not particularly well organised.  People like the sound of their own voice and so ramble on and with no structure, the meetings go round in circles.  A common theme of events I’ve been to here!

I escaped for another weekend to Choachi last week – a small town an hour’s drive over the mountains from Bogota.  My friend lives there and has a farm so we spent the weekend hiking up mountains and herding cows, really great!  The typical dish is a massive plate of every type of meat – couldn’t be worse for you but it’s pretty delicious!

My English friend Lotty’s been staying with me because she’s moving to Bogota which has been lovely, lots of wine and English rom coms! 

All in all a good month – English lessons still plodding along, nothing to report there really!  Missing everyone in England though, especially my lovely dog who sadly died this week.  Smokey was the best – an irreplaceable, loyal and loving family member that we will all miss hugely.  RIP Smokey!

Unlike the floods that I’ve heard so much (perhaps too much) about in the UK, the weather in Bogota has been gorgeous over February.  Sadly the sunny patch is coming to an end as the rainy season gets back into swing.  Bogota is really beautiful in the sun and really horrible in the rain!  Probably like most places!

February has been a hectic month and, as seems to be a common theme in my life at the moment, pretty eclectic!  I’ve been doing a lot more with CPDH which has been brilliant.  I’m starting to get a better picture of human rights work in this country and have been pretty shocked by what I’ve experienced over the past month.  At the beginning of February a right-wing paramilitary group, Aguilas Negras put out a public threat with bounties on the head of about 20 people.  The people belonged to communist and socialist parties and NGOs, two of them from CPDH.  As you can imagine this was pretty shocking and quite hard to stomach, however the people working in CPDH are used to this sort of thing and assured me nothing would come of it as long as protection mechanisms were instated etc. 

I am constantly amazed at how brave the people who carry on working in these fields are despite constant threats to their lives and often the lives of their families.  I wrote an article yesterday on the attempted assassination of Aida Avella, the presidential candidate for the left-wing Patriotic Union.  It is scary to think that even as Colombia moves forward from its violent past, there are still people in the country who maintain stoic Cold War mentalities and refuse to acknowledge the presence of a range of political opinions so essential for the flourishing of true democracy.  Here’s the article if you’re interested.  http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/ups-aida-avella-narrowly-escapes-attack/

Last week I visited Sumapaz in the Paramo region near Bogota with CPDH.  It is the biggest moorland in the world and plays host to 3,000 inhabitants and over 5,000 soldiers.  In the 80s the area had a large guerrilla presence but in recent years guerrillas have moved elsewhere.  This huge military presence presents difficult challenges for local inhabitants, all of which are farmers living in small, peaceful villages; a vivid reminder that the victims of the Colombian conflict are overwhelmingly concentrated in the countryside, where their peaceful lives become caught in the ideological cross fire that has increasingly lost credibility and logic.  We went to document violations of International Humanitarian Law and collect statements from the people who live there to begin legal procedures against the military. 

We tried to take photos of the environmental degradation and water contamination so many of the inhabitants complained about but the army wouldn’t let us through.  The ‘army’ in this instance were two clueless 20 year old boys with massive guns.  It was shocking to see how much power they wielded over us, a collection of human rights experts, member of the mayor’s office and a large number of members of the local community.  It reminded me that this level of violence has become normal in Colombia and those wielding weapons are those with power.  The experience was intense but definitely something I want to do more of.

This month I’ve been writing a lot for Embrace Bogota and The City Paper which has meant I’ve met lots of really interesting people and heard about some great projects.  I’ve written a few articles about conservation in Colombia which is a new hot topic as people are realising the importance of protecting the world’s second most bio-diverse country and to educate future generations about the necessity to conserve the immense variety of flora and fauna.  I also wrote about the first art auction house in Bogota and got to go to the opening where I was hobnobbing with Bogota elite amidst lots of free whisky!  Not sure I really fitted in but it was interesting to observe!

http://www.embracebogota.com/#!blog/clcx/Tag/hannahmatthews/

I also wrote an article on William Hague’s visit to Colombia, emphasising the UK’s commitment to reduce sexual violence in conflicts which I find pretty interesting.  It was the first visit from a British foreign minister in years. http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/hague-and/

In other news, it was great to show some more visitors round Bogota last weekend, although I’m hugely jealous that they are now sunning themselves on the Caribbean coast and I’m shivering in rainy Bogota!  My propaganda campaign seems to be working though, as people keep mentioning tentative plans to come and visit… please do!

I’ve been plodding along with my English lessons, waking up at 5.30am every morning!  Not overly enjoying them but I think my teaching is improving and I can’t complain as it’s a pretty easy way to earn money.  I’ve been doing a conversation club on Saturday mornings this month which included a pronunciation class where everyone came out speaking the Queen’s English!  I found out that Spanish only has 5 vowel sounds whereas English has 13! 

My salsa is definitely improving – a steadfast indication that I’m assimilating into Colombian life! However, given that the other day a man stopped me in the street saying he needed a photo of a gringo for a competition, I can hardly say I’ve blended in!  A Colombian friend assures me he knows a Colombian ginger, but I have yet to meet him and remain to be convinced!

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We’re almost into February and there couldn’t have been a better introduction to 2014 than hosting my first visitor in Bogota.  KK has set the bar very high for future visitors coming armed with 250 bags of PG tips, malt loaf and lots of biscuits.  Most of the supplies have gone but I’m keeping the malt loaf (which completely baffles the Colombians!) for a special occasion!  Having KK to stay has been an absolute pleasure.  She has boundless energy and enthusiasm, taking photos of absolutely everything from piles of rubble to telephone posts to stray dogs!  She has been doing an intensive Spanish course so is up at the crack of dawn every morning and has meticulously been learning vocab and doing her homework.  Not only has she improved hugely at Spanish but she’s made loads of friends and fitted in perfectly to my life here. 

In the afternoons I have marched KK to every corner of the city showing her the sights and finding new cafes and spots I hadn’t seen before.  We’ve walked hundreds of miles and used every form of public transport in the city.  We’ve been salsa dancing (compulsory for all visitors), bemused Colombians by annihilating the dance floor with some English classics (YMCA etc….you get the picture), sampled lots of local delicacies and visited countless museums, galleries and churches.  Coming for three weeks KK has seen a really different Bogota to the one most tourists see.  I hope she spreads the words and helps to dispel many of the myths and misrepresentations of Colombia that are so prolific throughout the world, especially in England.  For those who are interested I’m reading this book that KK brought over for me, a really great introduction to modern Colombia.  http://www.amazon.com/Short-Walks-Bogot%C3%A1-Journeys-Colombia-ebook/dp/B008K0X4NW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390580653&sr=8-1&keywords=tom+feiling.  It’s really well written and easy to read – I highly recommend it for a taste of the history and culture of this amazing country.

At the weekends we escaped the city to surrounding towns to give KK a taste of the ‘real’ Colombia outside of Bogota.  The first weekend we went camping with Lorena and two of her friends Javier and Henri.  Lorena has her own tour company so she took us on a hike through the beautiful countryside near La Vega, a town about an hour from Bogota with a much warmer climate, to an isolated waterfall in the middle of the jungle.  Just incredible.  Here’s an article I wrote on it for Embrace Bogota http://www.embracebogota.com/#!A-refreshing-escape-to-La-Vega/c23ok/8941D496-70FD-4466-BE88-7A181A7C0440

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We spent Sunday in the small town playing a game called Tejo which is like a Colombian version of boule, although instead of the small white ball there are explosives imbedded in mud that you aim for with a heavy metal disk.  Oh, and to pay you play with crates of beer.  The picture you have in your head is exactly what it is – drunk Colombian men hurling heavy weights at explosives… I was terrible at it but KK was great and named ‘La Campione de Tejo’!

I better mention, however the absolute nightmare of the night before…!  We arrived at the campsite at 7pm ish and put up our tents – I had borrowed one from a friend who told me the tent didn’t have a waterproof outer layer but not to worry as it probably wouldn’t rain…it did…there was a massive storm and KK and I cowered under our pathetically un-waterproof sheets, KK shouting ‘it’s like Noah’s Ark without the Ark, just end me!!’  After sticking it out for a few minutes we abandoned ship and ran to the toilet block completely drenched, only to find out it was only 1 am!  We squeezed into the other’s tents which was pretty cosy but so worth it as we managed to get a few hours kip!  KK will tell this story far more dramatically naming it the first time she nearly died in Colombia…

The second time was the following weekend when we were invited to go white water rafting with some of my friends.  We started the day with a hike up a river through the woods near a town called Tobia about an hour from Bogota.  That was beautiful and uneventful…however we began rafting in groups of six down a seemingly peaceful river until our boat crashed into a rock and threw us all out at the most dangerous point!  The water is relatively shallow so we all got bumped and bashed about by the rocks until we were hauled like beach whales into someone else’s boat!  Luckily someone got it all on video!  Again KK will tell the story more dramatically so contact her for more details…Image

I’ve had such a great time with KK and really don’t want her to go home.  She leaves next Wednesday so we’re packing this weekend full of activities to send her off (including going on a tour with a friend of mine’s Mexican band!).  She’s already thinking about coming back later in the year though so fingers crossed! 

My Granny passed away last week which although I knew was coming was still a shock and it has been difficult not being with my family.  Skype’s amazing though and I’ve been chatting to everyone and talking about what an amazing woman my Granny was.  She will always be a huge inspiration in my life and the queen of our family!

In other news I have been writing lots for Embrace Bogota and The City Paper which has been great.  I’ve been able to explore the city and find fun things and places to write about.  January has been a bit slow with English lessons as many people take time off over January but I’m getting back on track with them.  And I haven’t done too much with CPDH as I’ve tried to keep my afternoons free to show KK around but hopefully that will pick up again next week.  I’ve met lots more inspirational people here and joined a few clubs and groups so looking forward to a great 2014.  The weather is beautiful in Bogota, much nicer than the incessant rain of a few months back.  Can’t wait to show more people around, take a leaf out of KK’s book – quit your job and book your tickets! 

Had a lovely relaxing Christmas in Bogota with lots of food on Christmas Eve then a trip to Choachi with Lorena where there are thermal springs on Christmas day.  All very nice but not quite the same as being at home!

After knocking myself out with 3 sleeping pills for the 12 hour bus drive down to Cali a few days after Christmas, I arrived a bit spaced out but refreshed and ready for the infamous ‘rumba’ (great Spanish word for ‘partying’) I’d heard so much about.  The people of Cali are effortlessly cool with the insuppressibly constant pulse of salsa coursing through their veins, they maintain nonchalant expressions as they completely annihilate dance floors across the city.  Salsa never stops in Cali.  Whether in cafes, bars, buses or people’s homes the sultry Latin music is the heartbeat of the city.  And during the Feria (week long carnival) it is even more pronounced.

I met some great people and danced solidly for so many hours that muscles I didn’t realise I had were aching.  We went to some fantastic free concerts and watched reams of dancers and performers in the famous parades that dominate great swathes of the Autopista (motoroway).  The Colombian lust for life is so tangible in carnivals making for an incredible atmosphere where people of all ages celebrate their health and lives together in this amazing country.  A highlight for me was a performance by the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra in a small bar near our hostel.  They play a million instruments and their costumes and energy are amazing.  Equally some of the salsa bars that spill onto the street in the heat of Caleño evenings as everyone drips with sweat after having danced for ten hours non-stop will definitely stick in my memory.

One day I escaped the heat of Cali with a friend to a town a few hours away further up in the mountains called Silvia.  Such a tranquil place where you had the impression that everyone knew each other and lived a slow-paced but perfectly content life.  A re-inaction of the nativity was taking place in the central square with kings arriving on horses and angels appearing from behind the crowds of people on all sides.  The scene was peaceful and moving, only to be interrupted by the huge bang of flares every so often as there is known guerrilla presence in the surrounding areas.  Such a shocking reminder that the brunt of the conflict has been suffered by innocent areas and people who continue to exist in the fear that violence might again disrupt their lives.  Stunning scenery as ever however, it’s almost impossible to be bored on bus rides here.ImageImageImage

The carnival finished the day before New Year’s Eve and we had a party in our hostel on 31st, complete with the brilliant and bizarre traditions of Colombian New Year.  Driving to a nearby river on the afternoon of 31st for a swim, we passed masses of effigies – sort of Guy Fakes type models of men and women outside people’s houses across the city.  The site was eerie and strange but I was later told that these models were called ‘año viejos’ and represented the old year.  These models are burnt ceremoniously at midnight to represent leaving last year behind and beginning afresh.  Despite being quite a creepy site, especially when all that is left are very real looking legs with trainers on, for me this tradition sums up the Colombian optimism and ability to forget the bad and start afresh, a characteristic I very much hope to acquire whilst being here.  At midnight people run around the block with their suitcase – a tradition that’s supposed to bring good luck for the New Year along with wearing yellow underwear.  At midnight it is also custom to eat grapes – one for each wish or resolution, washed down by plenty of booze of course!

Moving on from Cali I caught a bus down to Pasto.  This sleepy town on the boarder of Ecuador turns into a scene of absolute carnage for the first week of January.  I met my friend Joe there who was a great carnival companion, although the two of us couldn‘t look much less Colombian so hardly ‘blended in’, resembling Alan Partridge type characters attempting to embrace the mayhem whilst at all times retaining British awkwardness!  The Carnaval de Blancos y Negros is a source of immense pride for the population of Pasto who are incredibly interested in and hospitable towards foreigners, plying them with incessant amounts of Aguardiente (very alcoholic Colombian spirit) and ensuring they are constantly covered with foam and paint.  The entire city transforms into a huge foam fight, everyone buying huge canisters and spraying shops, cars, children, policemen….no one is exempt!  On the second day paint was added to the equation – attackers from all angles spreading paint of various colours across your face and hair, which inadvertently eliminated the potential awkwardness of ‘blacking up’ I had feared.  Then came the talcum powder which ended up caking the streets of Pasto not to mention clothes and hair.

This complete mayhem is hard to picture from the comfort of your sofas in England, and sadly as there was so much foam not many photos were taken although this gives you a pretty good impression! 

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Suffice to say I had a fantastic few days watching more parades of hundreds of people in amazing outfits (including people dressed up as guinea pigs – a local culinary delicacy!), dancing to salsa groups made up of Policemen, singing Total Eclipse of the Heart at a karaoke bar (which went down surprisingly well despite Joe’s shaky Spanish MCing…better that Bonjovi later on anyway…!), salsa dancing at various people’s houses and on the streets, many a shot of Aguardiente amidst rousing choruses of ‘Que Viva Pasto Carajo!’ (Something like Long Live the Great Pasto!).  I missed the apparently best last few days at the end of the carnival as I had to get back to Bogota, but for anyone thinking of visiting next year, the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros is an absolute must.  Here’s a piece I wrote about carnivals for Embrace Bogota http://www.embracebogota.com/#!In-Colombia-its-Carnival-time-all-year-long/c23ok/52E16484-7AA1-4561-8859-022EC883DF32.  Also here’s the second article I wrote a while ago for the City Paper about coffee for anyone interested http://thecitypaperbogota.com/business/coffee-at-the-heart-of-devotion/.

Despite mounting nerves about the 18 hour bus drive that would take me back to Bogota, I had a fantastic trip with my own personal TV screen and Wifi!  I watched two Harry Potter’s and a couple of other films, slept a bit and arrived back in Bogota ready to greet my first visitor who is hopefully arriving in a couple of hours.  A great few weeks but very glad to be home and excited for what 2014 will bring…

Christmas is well and truly here now the Novenas (nine days before Christmas) have started and people are fleeing the city to surrounding towns to spend time with their families.  It is traditional that during the Novenas the whole family meets each evening at a different family member’s house for food, drink, prayers and songs (accompanied by an array of instruments from maracas to the famous Colombian cheese grater people ‘play’ on street corners).  I went to one of a friend of mine the other day which was really great although it definitely made me miss my family seeing the whole of hers together celebrating Christmas.  She has 9 siblings!  We are having a Novena at our house on Saturday – a fusion of British and Colombian traditions with mince pies, mulled wine and carols, natilla (a sort of milk jelly), bunuelos (balls of deep fried dough) and some drink made from sugar cane and aguardiente (Colombia’s favourite spirit).  

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Monserate’s Christmas lights (the top of one of the mountains behind Bogota)

Since last writing the city has experienced some pretty major turbulence in the form of the democratically elected mayor, Gustavo Petro, being sacked and banned from participating in political activities for 15 years.  This has caused uproar in the city for several reasons.  One, the ‘Procurador’ who removed Petro from his post is a well known strongly conservative, anti most things liberal, supporter of paramilitaries.  Two, there exists a clause in the so called liberal democratic constitution of Colombia whereby this one man has the power to overrule the electorate and dethrone the mayor.  Three, the main reason for Petro’s removal that has been sited was his attempt to nationalise the rubbish collection system in the city which resulted in 3 days of chaos with rubbish everywhere last December – it depends who you talk to but I think most are in agreement that this, although pretty badly managed, does not merit a 15 year ban from politics. 

This rash decision on the part of the Procurador (not sure of the English translation – minister of something…) could not have come at a worse moment.  Just as the FARC are negotiating with the government over their potential future participation in the political arena and a political solution to the conflict, a blatant example of the underlying corruption and anti-democratic sentiment still rife amongst the upper echelons of the Colombian government has done little to encourage the guerrillas that entering into the political system will be in their interest.  It has been an exciting time though as civil society, who despite corruption believe in the power of the people and the democratic system, is extremely active in Colombia, and for almost a week the Plaza Bolivar has been filled with protesters with banners, music, even interpretative dance!  On Friday it felt more like a festival than a demonstration with a hip hop group supporting the mayor and performing in front of thousands of his loyal supporters.  It has since turned into an occupy movement with many people camping out in the plaza.  I’m not sure how events will play out but Petro has gone to Washington to present his case in front of the International Court of Human Rights so we shall see…

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Prize if you can spot me….

Through CPDH I managed to get a guest pass into the Congresso last week which was really great.  It reminded me of the House of Lords, lots of ministers not really listening to whoever was speaking but instead showing other ministers photos on their phones, dozing or talking at such a volume that it was quite difficult to hear.  I watched Aida Avella (a major figure in the Colombian Communist Party, Union Patriotica, who was threatened several times in the 90s, shot at and finally exiled to Switzerland where she spent 17 years) win an honouree award and speak about the need for peace and stability in the country.  A really interesting woman, it was just a shame so few people were listening to her!  I’ve also found out much more about the people working for CPDH and what they’ve been through.  Diego, my boss, was president of his student union and when he was 21 he was displaced from his town of Cucuta and had to live in exile in Norway for 6 months as it wasn’t safe for him to stay in Colombia.  When he moved back he and his family moved to Bogota which was considered safer but he continued to be threatened as the government tried to quell all opposition, with students perceived as a major threat.  

I’ve started writing for a new website called Embrace Bogota which has been set up by an Irish woman who is married to a Colombian man.  She wants it to be a sort of woman’s magazine online, a go-to page for women of Bogota who want to experience all the city has to offer.  Here’s my first article about the Cerros Orientales – the mountains behind Bogota which I climbed with some friends a few weeks ago and have recently learnt much more about.  http://www.embracebogota.com/#!Los-Cerros-Orientales-Getting-back-to-nature-right-here-in-Bogot/c23ok/57F4653E-3813-41AE-A0D2-EFBF535A3007 and here’s me! http://www.embracebogota.com/#!contributors/c53i

Also here’s a link to one of the articles in The City Paper which has now been put online. http://thecitypaperbogota.com/culture/a-literary-wish-list/

I’ve been struggling on with my English classes – some of which I really enjoy, others are pretty challenging but I’m getting there!   This week we have had a training course at ConIngles, the English teaching institute, parts of which have been quite helpful, in and amongst a lot of pointless exercises such as getting into groups and actually juggling tennis balls which was supposed to represent us ‘juggling our students needs’ and understanding the value of observation and guidance in lessons…please…!  I’m also teaching my boss at CPDH, hopefully in return for some Spanish lessons as he has a friend who’s a Spanish teaching which would be useful. 

I have had a BBQ at the weekend for the past 4 weeks which is impressive given the climate!  A few weeks ago I escaped the city to a really lovely village called Choachi, about an hour’s windy drive across the mountains and down into a much warmer valley for lunch cooked in a friend’s family’s house overlooking the valley.  The village has thermal springs and the fresh, tropical air was a welcome relief from the pollution of Bogota which gets quite overwhelming at times. 

In terms of work I’ve got further with the fundraising proposals and I’m helping finalise a proposal for a grant for a forum to be held next year on security during protests and manifestations.  I have been to quite a few now and have always been impressed by the lack of police intervention but my boss assures me that the situation is far from perfect and important activists are often detained for the duration of a manifestation without justification and others are often abused by security workers.  I am also hoping to get involved in CPDH’s human rights education work they carry out in the rural areas of the country still very much affected by the conflict as well as facing new challenges such as the prevalence of multinational energy companies displacing people from their land to ravage the country of its precious resources.  No prizes for telling whose side I’m on…

Anyway I’m spending Christmas at home with Lorena and her parents and some friends then off to Cali the nest day in a 12 hour bus.  Here Christmas is celebrated on 24th and most people spend 25th hungover!  Hoping to stay for a week then head down to Pasto for a carnival called ‘Blancos y Negros’ where black people put white face paint on and white people ‘black up’…not quite sure it’s entirely settled with my politically correct conscience but it sounds hilarious and comes very highly recommended so look forward to seeing photos of that…!  Otherwise I wish all my friends and family wherever you are a very merry Christmas, I’m sorry I’m not with you to celebrate but I’m there in spirit and I miss and love you all very much!  FELIZ NAVIDAD!! 

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First Published Pieces in The City Paper

Two articles in this month’s edition of The City Paper – very exciting!

First Published Pieces in Bogota!

A Literary Wish List