Archives for the month of: December, 2013

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

First Published Pieces in Bogota!

Coffee at the heart of Devotion

Hello!  Hope those of you in England are preparing yourself for the worst winter in 100 years…!   Offer still stands to visit – although weather in Bogota at the moment is not much better.  Last weekend, in typical English style, we had a BBQ for a friend’s birthday and despite the pretty heavy rain, we persevered with umbrellas.  Every day starts promisingly but erupts into storm at about 2pm.  And bizarrely, people love talking about the weather here too!  There is something quite comforting in the conversations I’ve had about Bogota’s ‘four seasons in one day’ which are distinctly reminiscent of many an hour I’ve spent discussing the weather back in England!

I am now the proud owner of a years working visa, which despite confusion about my nationality (being born in Australia but being British is apparently totally unheard of in Colombia…), the process was very efficient and easy as it can all be done in the country now.  So with that, a bank account and bits of actual paid work, I’m feeling much more settled and almost Colombian…!  I only found out recently that ‘mona’, what everyone in the street calls/shouts at me, is not the female form of ‘mono’ (monkey) but means ‘blonde’!  Far less rude than I thought!

Since last writing I’ve been exploring the city and have come across a few unlikely gems.  Architect Salmona has designed several buildings in Bogota including a section of the national university and a huge library in the middle of the Parque Simon Bolivar (every other street, plaza and park is named after the infamous Latin American liberator).  His buildings are normally circular and contain lots of water, whether in ponds, moats or fountains, which makes for really modern, beautiful and relaxing spaces.  Despite Bogotanos obsession with huge American-style shopping malls, there still remain a few undisturbed corners of the city such as Usaquen which used to be a village until it was swallowed up by the ever expanding city.  The quirky artisanal market with old men playing banjos is a pleasant surprise amidst the sometimes overwhelming nature of city life in Bogota.

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I also made a trip to the barrio of San Luis, a poor neighborhood far up one of the nearby mountains with a spectacular view of the city.  I am hoping to do some work with a foundation called Healing Colombia who have several projects in this neighborhood including a mentoring program for teenage girls, most of whom have children at a very young age and all of whom are victims of gender based violence.  Colombian ‘machismo’ remains ever present and threatening not only in the poorer areas of the city but across the country.  When discussing the phenomenon with a Colombian friend he said, ‘it’s the women’s fault, they let the men get away with discriminating behaviour’.  Although shocked at this, I realised he was right.  The ‘women-serve-the-men’ culture still pervades the country, so the empowerment of women has to come hand in hand with education for the men.  Gender based violence is still very much seen as a ‘women’s issue’, a recent example of this being the owner of a famous restaurant stating that the rape of a girl in the vicinity was essentially the girl’s fault as she was wearing a short skirt.  This caused a huge backlash with many people boycotting the restaurant.  However it is a sentiment which is unfortunately echoed by men across the country.

A few weeks ago the women of Colombia hijacked the one of the main streets in Bogota, marching for ‘Women and Peace’ to the Plaza Bolivar in the centre.  It was a fantastically inspirational event with representatives of women from across the country demanding recognition of their rights and representation in the peace talks in Havana and well as the reconciliation process which will follow.  Have a look at the blog I wrote about it for more information. 

http://spititoutblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/soy-mujer-y-la-paz-es-mia-i-am-a-woman-and-peace-is-mine/

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A few days ago the ‘campesinos’ (farmers) from all over the country marched a similar route, demanding that president Santos keeps his promise to protect the agricultural sector in the face of multi-nationals paying farmers pittance for their produce.  Representatives from the coffee, rice, sugar, maize and many other sectors united outside the Ministry of Agriculture threatening more strike action in the coming year if their demands aren’t listened to.  Colombia has such a vibrant and  active civil society, I only hope the government listens to their demands and reacts in the way a progressive democracy, that it proclaims to be, should. (Blog on this subject to follow!)

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A couple of weeks ago I met the editor of an English paper out here called The City Paper in the hope of being able to do some writing for them.  It is a free paper is aimed at expats and people wanting to come to Colombia but also for Colombians who are learning English as the country which previously has been notoriously poor at learning foreign languages is now attempting to be bilingual.  I sent him an article which he liked and following that he asked me to interview a coffee entrepreneur for another article which was really interesting.  The latest edition was published on Wednesday with my two articles in but I haven’t got a copy yet – I will post some photos when I do.  Here is the website which should be updated with the latest edition soon.

http://thecitypaperbogota.com/

I have also started teaching English which so far I’m really enjoying!  I have a range of students, from executives who already have a good grasp of the language but just want conversation to practice, to groups taking a more structured ‘business English’ course, to lower level groups.  It is a lot of work but I’m enjoying coming up with interesting things to discuss in the lessons and luckily there is a huge demand for native teachers so I have lots of work which will hopefully be enough to keep me going financially.  One of my students is head of HR for a huge bakery company and insists on me trying their products each lesson – I’m not complaining!  In the meantime I’ve been doing bits and pieces for CPDH – my boss has been away for a week so hoping to do more in the coming weeks as my Spanish improves!  Still haven’t got used to ‘Colombian time’ – as always I turn up 15 minutes early to everything and the average Colombian will arrive at least 15 minutes late…with the exception of the boss of another English teaching organisation who arrived an hour late for my interview! 

I have had an eclectic time over the past few weeks, ranging from a big thanksgiving dinner in our flat last week followed by a great night of salsa, to stumbling upon an experimental poetry evening full of hipsters who wouldn’t be at all out of place in Shoreditch, reading ‘poetry’ whilst hitting various pots and pans.  One girl warbled an apparently Russian song, dancing around clutching a ball of fairy lights inside a tent.  I thought perhaps it was the language barrier that was preventing me from understanding a really deep, powerful metaphor but I was assured by Lorena that she didn’t have a clue what was going on either!  Human rights film festival starts this week and there are lots of other interesting Christmas exhibitions going on which I’m hoping to go to. 

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Bogota is covered with pretty amazing street art – they’re really proud of it!

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The title of this blog refers to an event I witnessed in the center of town quite recently which I feel nicely sums up Bogota’s idiosyncrasies.  A resourceful and entrepreneurial man had set up about ten upturned plastic bowls with numbers on them and invited the passersby to place their bets physically on top of one of the bowls.  As people crowded around, seemingly out of nowhere appeared five guinea pigs which the man placed in a group shivering with nerves about ten feet from the bowls.  Once all bets had been placed, one by one the man would gently push each guinea pig who, with rousing support from the crowd ran into one of the upturned bowls to manic cheering from the successful bidders.  A bizarre, yet incredibly lucrative event which left me questioning my choice of career and wondering whether there would be a market for guinea pig racing in the UK.  Thoughts and comments most welcome.

Christmas celebrations are well underway here with fireworks most evenings and Christmas decorations smothering every inch of the shops, plazas and people’s homes.  I’m hoping to go to Cali for New Year – salsa capital of South America if not the world (perhaps slightly overestimating my salsa ability) but not sure where I’ll be for Christmas yet.  Wherever it is I’ll be sure to force mince pies and carols on whichever poor Colombians happen to be with me!