Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Feeling very settled in my new flat and very lucky to have found such a great place with such lovely housemates!  Since I moved in, Kevin, an American man who’s spent most of his life in Venezuela has also moved in which is great – he’s a brilliant cook!  I’ve had my first dinner party where I introduced apple crumble to some dubious Colombians who are now full ‘pudding’ converts – just easing them in gently before mince pies and Christmas pudding next month…!  We’re having another dinner party tonight and I’m making bread and butter pudding!  Everyone thinks I’m mad at how much tea I drink – we don’t have a kettle so I make it on the hob; dedication.  Lorena and I just went to a massive market in Bogota and skipped a load of beautiful flowers which were being thrown away so our flat looks lovely now. Image

I managed to get a job teaching English for an organisation called ConIngles.  They teach lots of different groups of people but I think given that I need work to fit around working for CPDH I will end up teaching ‘business English’ to executives in companies around the city.  Although I have no intention of being a teacher, I’m actually really looking forward to doing something new which will be challenging and hopefully interesting.  Their level of English is pretty high so I’m really just giving them practice with pronunciation etc.  The paper work I have to do for each lesson is unbelievably confusing but hopefully I’ll get used to it!  They also help me out getting a working visa which makes things easier (although apparently the fact that I’m British yet born in Australia has caused massive confusion so not much progress on that front yet!).

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Medellin: view from the cable car up the mountain

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‘El Penol’ 740 steps to the top…

I spent last weekend in Medellin visiting some friends which was great.  The 9 hour bus drive there wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be as the scenery is unbelievable.  The road winds along mountain paths carved into thick jungle, often with a sheer drop meters from the bus!  Driving from busy Bogota into sleepy pueblos (villages) and through rolling hills with colourful fincas (farms) perched on hill tops was great and although I felt pretty ill for most of the trip (the man next to me forcing me to try various deep fried delicacies every time I opened my eyes!), it was great to get more of a feel for the country.  Everyone calls Medellin the ‘city of eternal spring’ because the climate is so good.  There are also really interesting innovations in Medellin, for example recently the mayor set up a huge library in one of the poorest areas of the city to encourage literacy.  There is also a cable car which links the poorer areas that scale the mountains to the centre of town.  In Medellin we stayed in a great hostel and visited beautiful Guatape.

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The view from ‘el penol’ of the man made lakes – so beautiful (with friends Amelia and Lottie)!

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Art symbolising the fight for justice for those forcefully disappeared

Having faffed around for a couple of weeks finding part time work etc , I have finally got stuck into to human rights work and am starting to see what a mine field it still is in this country.  A powerful reminder of this was a demonstration I went to last week a central square in the Candelaria.  It was to commemorate people who had disappeared in the Palacio de Justicia incident in 1985 with no acknowledgement from the State or investigation into their cases.  Seeing the friends and family of people who have disappeared really hammered home the injustice that so many people suffer here even to this day.  CPDH represents victims of State and guerrilla crimes, for whom access to real justice is a far off dream.  See my blog about the demonstration if you’re interested…

http://spititoutblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/seeking-justice-in-colombia/

Some of the cases CPDH is currently working on go back to 2001.  The system is slow here and requires money and time, neither of which is plentiful in NGO work.  I’m teaching some English lessons at CPDH which will be good – Diego and a few others feel that because they are often in the States, they need to be able to communicate better.

Other than that I am doing some funding research – trying to find foundations or individuals who can contribute to funding the work that CPDH does.  I‘m also helping prepare a presentation for Diego to give at a meeting of the European Commission of Human Rights which is interesting, he’s going to Ireland in a month for a conference.  I’m slowly finding out more about how CPDH works and I’m really excited to get stuck in.

Hoping to go to Laguna Guatavita on Sunday – the birthplace of the story of El Dorado.  It’s only an hour and a half from Bogota.  I feel like I know my way around the city a lot better now – still haven’t braved a local bus!  But I’m cycling now which is great – much quicker way of getting around!

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Since my last post I have mastered the Transmilenio (public transport system) so have considerably less sore legs and arrive everywhere much more efficiently!  I have moved out of my boss’ house and into my new apartment!  On leaving I bought a few bits and pieces for the house and for Diego’s mum which she didn’t just refuse out of politeness, she flatly refused to take them!  She genuinely shook her head and wouldn’t take anything!  So I’ve subtly hidden things in drawers so she’ll have to accept them!  Since I last wrote, she has ventured out of her bed to decorate the Christmas tree…Christmas starts as soon as Halloween is over here and everyone gets very excited!

I’m living with a lovely girl called Lorena who is a Colombian artist, and her very shy cat Lola.  She also makes clothes and has a studio in the flat.  The apartment is in Teusaquillo which is a really central and very picturesque part of Bogota. 

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The apartment block is on Avenida Caracas which is a main road and very busy, but the flat is on the other side to the traffic so it’s surprisingly quiet and this is my view! 

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My room comes with an exercise bike (ha!) and an actual bike, so I hope to brave the ‘loco’ traffic of Bogota soon and get cycling again.  There are quite a few cycle routes in the city but I don’t get the impression that these are particularly respected…Lorenav assures me that cycling is the best way to get around the city though, and if it’s anything like London I completely agree!  However, like other cycling Bogotanos, I will have to buy a waterproof suit – the rain here is unbelievably heavy and transforms the roads into rivers.  The most recent storm forced me to seek refuge in one of Bogota’s many huge, ornate and totally over the top churches where the congregation were singing a hymn to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’…I kid you not!  On a Beatles note – I’m getting tired of Colombians mocking my accent – I keep reminding them that the BeaTles were from the UK and BeaDles is not the ‘cool’ way to pronounce it! 

Waging a war of British pronunciation is not particularly productive as Colombians tend to learn American English and obviously hear it in films and music.  However, whenever people say they find my accent hard to understand I make a point of saying I speak the Queen’s English, the real English, and they have obviously learnt the language wrong…!  I had an interview and an exam for an English teaching job yesterday and I’m through to the next stage which is preparing a lesson and taking another exam.  So hopefully soon I will be able to spread the British love and convince people that despite the spelling, it is actually ‘water’ not ‘WAAADER’!  My boss returned from the States today so hopefully I can get started at CPDH too which I’m really looking forward to.

As I said previously, Bogota is a huge city which is becoming more apparent the more I explore.  I recently met someone from an area in the far north of the city called Soacha which used to be a village outside of Bogota but has been engulfed by the ever-swelling metropolis!  With the huge amounts of displaced people fleeing their rural homes due to violence, cities are becoming hugely crowded and slums have developed around the outskirts.  The public transport system has improved immeasurably with the Transmilenio, shipping hundreds of thousands of Bogotanos in and out of the city center.  Yet cars still completely rule the city, striking fear into the hearts of tourists as they swerve across streets at high speeds seemingly predicted by other cars, however, as I have yet to see a crash (touch wood)…

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The mayor of Bogota currently is Gustavo Petro, a left wing, ex-militant from the guerrilla group the 19th April Movement, which as you can imagine is pretty controversial!  I’m still not entirely sure how he has come to be mayor as he is pretty unpopular with the right wing government and splits opinion in Bogota itself.  He takes quite a radical and authoritarian approach which some feel gets things done, while others remain to be convinced.  He is now attempting to bring Bogota into the ‘technological age’ by making sure the whole city has wifi (which I found out at a free Colombian rock concert Petro organised in one of the main plazas last week!).  It’s a funny phenomenon that next to such innovation lies such chaos but I think that is a common theme in the fast-growing cities of developing countries. 

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Guide books warn foreigners not to ask people about the sensitive subject of Colombian politics, however naturally I have so far ignored such advice and made it my mission to gauge public opinion and find out the true impacts the conflict has had on the people living in the country.  Despite the positivity and optimism that exudes most Colombians, few are confident that the peace talks in Havana will lead to any sort of palpable peace agreement or reconciliation process.  The positions of both the government and the FARC remain pretty steadfast and it is difficult to see how either will compromise.  Equally, the problem of the guerrilla controlled drug trade is not being approached and continues to be a huge source of tension contributing to so much violence and unnecessary deaths.  Perhaps drug policy deserves a separate blog, but just to mention quickly, I think policy that criminalises the production of a product at the supply end, in such a poor country that only responds to the demands of Europe and the USA, is ill-conceived.  As long as the demand for cocaine remains at the level it is, and indeed increases as it has done over the years, the illegal drug production and trafficking that funds the guerrilla movement will continue.  I’d say the ‘war on drugs’ focuses on the wrong people – we should be targeting drug users and thinking of innovative ways to cut the demand rather than spraying coca crops with chemicals that pollutes the earth and water supplies of innocent farmers who have no choice but to bow down to drug lords given the huge power they wield in Colombian society.  Anyway, perhaps you disagree!

On a lighter topic, I now have a long list of Colombia food to try that various people have added to which is always nice!  The food is mostly corn-based and fried so you don’t need much of it, but it’s pretty tasty.  Lots of soups, rice, chicken, beans and plantain.  However, since having been forced to try ‘Chicha’ (a horrible drink made from fermented corn…traditionally chewed corn, spat out and left for a few weeks before being drunk!) I am wary of these so called ‘delicacies’ and perhaps slightly more selective about what I consume! 

So all in all a very productive week (I can’t believe it’s only been that long!).  I’m hoping to head to Medellin this weekend to see a friend and to escape the cold and rain!  Oh and here’s my address for those who fancy sending cheddar cheese, baked beans or French fancies…in return for Colombian goods…! 

Apartamento 401, Avenieda Caracas, No. 31b-15, Bogota

 

 

The overused metaphor of the ‘deep end’ seems pretty apt to describe my first few days!  The airport ordeal started things off to a confusing start, reminding me that my Spanish is far from fluent or indeed adequate to navigate Colombian predicaments…the latest being Spanish drinking games…however, everyone I’ve met so far has gone out of their way to help me and make me feel at home and I can’t thank them enough and given that not many people speak English, I haven’t got much choice but to improve my Spanish!

I am staying with Diego, the head of CPDH who lives with his mum and Camilo, the man who came to pick me up.  Diego’s mum is brilliant – she’s always lived in the north which is much hotter so she spends her days in cold, rainy Bogota in bed with a hot water bottle, radio and television on full blast, usually ‘Colombia’s got talent’ or something similar.  My room is off the balcony which has a great view but is pretty chilly at night. 

Bogota is a hugely varied and bustling city, seemingly simply laid out in a grid formation which is deceptive as each address I’ve tried to find has been an exception to the logic of the grid – a ‘calle 19B’ miles from calle 19 or 20, or streets which are parallel until they branch off and are suddenly called different names.  Navigating the city is made easier by various landmarks and the ominous mountains providing a fitting backdrop for the incongruous city.  What I mean by that is the city has so many contrasting characters.  Walking through the romantic Candelaria with its brightly coloured houses, cobbled streets and colonial architecture leads you to the sprawling shopping centre with warbling buskers and people selling bizarre objects – one of my favourites being handmade dog costumes his rat of a dog was lovingly modelling.  At Halloween everyone, children and adults, was dressed up all day, trick or treating (quite aggressively!) in shops throughout the city.  I’ve spotted two ginger Colombians which has been reassuring!  I don’t feel as much of an outsider as I actually am as Bogota is impressively cosmopolitan – one day I’m sure I’ll blend in effortlessly… 

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CPDH is a really interesting organisation and I’m looking forward to really getting involved with what they do.  They have lots of projects throughout the country focusing on different themes and addressing the particular needs of certain populations.  In Bogota, of the 8 permanent employees, three are human rights lawyers who do most of their work pro bono.  Their work is dangerous and whenever I have been with then we’ve travelled in a car with blacked out windows, a driver and body guard!  Given the precarious relationship these organisations often have with the state when condemning acts of violence which continue to go unpunished, human rights organisations have to tread carefully.  Diego and others in the organisation have been threatened, really hammering home the risks these people take as they fight for social justice.  So far I haven’t done a lot to help!  I’ve been reading documents and meeting people CPDH works with.  Hopefully when Diego gets back from the states we’ll be able to plan how I can contribute.  Hoping to work in the Bogota office for 6 months ish then travel around the country and see the other projects.

I feel like I have a good group of friends already thanks to everyone’s contacts!  The conversation exchange website I was on in London has a Bogota page so I’ve met a couple of enthusiastic Spanish teachers which has been really helpful and lots of really friendly people happy to welcome me into their groups of friends despite my ropey Spanish!  I’m looking for a more permanent flat, or room in a house – so far I’ve seen a couple so will make my mind up soon.  Luckily rent is a fifth (if not less) that of London which makes everything far less stressful!

So far so good – and as always, an open invitation to anyone to come and visit!