Tag: Colombia

An evening with the Bogotá Filarmónica

by Alex on Dec.04, 2009, under Blog

The Cerro de Monserrate climbs to 3,152 metres providing a fantastic look out over the great city of Bogotá. We’d reached the top by way of the funicular railway laden with cheese, wine, baguette and an excess of warm clothing. It was about 25 degrees but at this altitude when the sun goes down it tends to get chilly.

We got to the church as the doors closed, it being full. Initially disappointed, it didn’t take long for us to conclude that sitting on the steps above the plaza outside of the church in front of the big screen would probably be a more fitting location to tuck in to our cheese and wine fest, and to smoke. We’d come to see the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá and what an amazing setting, far better than being cooped up inside. Off to the east roll heavily wooded hills for as far as the eye can see, due south lie the last of the hills with some kind of big Jesusy statue a few hundred metres from us. To the west Bogotá. The fading orange of the sun setting behind flat grey clouds gives way to myriad lights – street, vehicle and building, ever brightening as the sun retreats further below the horizon, the city becoming a blanket of dark sequined velvet stretching far across the altiplano.

‘Hovis advert’ declared my brain as the orchestra commenced with Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9, detracting massively I suppose from the appreciation of the music were it not to have such a mundane ‘daily bread’ association, hey ho… With the start of the third movement there was little doubt as to from where John Williams took inspiration for his Dual of The Fates(Darth Maul’s theme) and I wondered if this symphony ‘From the New World’ was as well known here in Colombia as it is back home, maybe there exists here a tradition of small boys pushing bikes laden with bread up steep cobbled streets – I’ll refrain from endeavoring to find out.

The plaza continued to fill as the orchestra played on and no one seemed to mind when we first lost the audio and later the video feed from the church. In my mind I pictured an inattentive security guard tripping over a cable bringing the performance to an end for those sitting outside. In time it was fixed and when the music was over the fireworks started. I don’t wish to come across as being too negative but had they shortened the display to 5 minutes it would have been great, I find the spectacle more… spectacular when the sky is filled with sound and colour, bangs and flashes, screams and sparkles – 2, 3, 4, 5 and more fireworks going off at the same time. For me that holds far more of the ‘ooh, ahhhhh’ factor than does maximising display time to the detriment of what otherwise might have been a veritable extravaganza of light and sound. Mostly black sky and silence punctuated every 3-4 seconds by an albeit pretty high-level firework ain’t floating my pyrotechnic boat baby. Maybe I should have words with the fireworks association of Colombia and tell them what it’s all about.

I then noticed the lights, they were everywhere. Angels in the trees, stars on the buildings, stuff all over the shop. It was… colouful and I shall refrain from proffering my opinion as to how tasteful I thought it, you can form your own from the below:

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I got interviewed on some national radio channel, had a cup of canelazo – a winter warmer made from aguardiente (the national anise-flavoured firewater), panela (sugar cane-based drink) and cinnamon then queued for 3 hours to get off the mountain during the process of which I realised that we were, probably, the only westerners in the thousands-strong crowd – even though tourism in Colombia is increasing at a rate probably higher than any other country in the world, you can still get off the beaten track here, very easily, even at a large event in a city of 8,000,000. Come to Colombia, it’s brilliant!

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What did I just say?

by Alex on Nov.30, 2009, under Blog

Travis and I are in a cab racing north through Bogota. Not as we’re in a hurry particularly, mostly as that’s the driving norm here. I know everyone comes home from Italy or Thailand, Greece or India with tales of crazy driving and I’ve been party to my fair share but past experience does nothing to lessen my flinching as we weave through traffic leaving a generous 6 inches either side as we slice between buses. I try to tell myself that it’s a beautifully orchestrated ballet, each and every driver having practiced their moves time and again culminating in this masterpiece of oh so very close to lethal coordination. But it’s not. And yet I’ve seen few accidents. Maybe these guys are just very very good at what they do… I guess on the plus side I’d think it impossible that you could get pulled over, fined or prosecuted for dangerous driving as I’ve no idea what you could do that might be considered dangerous. You certainly can’t cut anybody up as nobody looks twice at some swerving in front of them, a foot between bumpers.

We’d been looking at houses in which to set up our hostel and I’d diverted a call to answer phone whilst in the middle of a visit. On leaving the house I called the number and, the person being unavailable, I’d left a message. In between winces and sharp inhalations of breath through clenched teeth I get a text, and check this: the message tells me that the person for whom I left a message is now available followed by a verbatim copy of the answer phone message that I’d left. Were I to have been in Japan I would maybe not have paid it much attention, but here? Massively impressed! What a dichotomy – technology and a service that I’d neither seen nor heard of back home and then there being at least one part of the city that gets piped water for just 3 hours a week.

I was also quite impressed with my Spanish, must be getting better if the voice recognition software could understand me…

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A ride in a cop van

by Alex on Nov.24, 2009, under Blog

So I’m sitting in the eaty room of the hostel at about 11 pm and a guy wanders past, having come in from the street, wearing no shirt. I made a witless comment that probably had an edge of derision to it and was promptly informed that he’d just been jumped by 3 guys and lost his shirt in the ensuing melee. He’d also lost a shoe. We’d been talking about robbings and I’m sure my getting robbed story came out.

So four of us went out for a stroll to look for the shoe, armed (for purposes of defence only) with batons and a hefty piece of wood. We saw nothing as we approached where the incident had occurred and a brief chat with two late-night street sweepers illicited nothing interesting. What was interesting was the response of the police when we got to the party venue where it had happened. Whereas they, as is the norm, took little interest when the mugging had been initially reported, they seemed to consider the search for a shoe a pretty high priority task. After a few minutes of chatting we were invited into the police van to go for a drive, to look for the shoe. It seemed very odd, it was genuine friendliness and helpfulness but then you’ve the whole dichotomy to deal with when you compare this reaction to the laissez-faireosity encountered on recounting getting jumped on and punched etc.

From the outside, I’d not realised that a Colombian police van has three key areas. The first is the driver’s bit, the second, as you might expect is the bit in the back where more police might sit. The third, which I’d not seen before, it the little locky up bit where they put people. I’ve no idea how long these guys had been there but they seemed quite settled and indifferent to our presence as they chatted away in animated drunkenness as I looked at them with interest through the glass and metal grille. I’m sure they had no idea nor care for our quest for the shoe…

After a few blocks, a further chat with the street sweepers and a call over the radio, it was obvious that we’d not find it but happily we were very close to where we were staying. The police seemed a little concerned when I got out of the van, thinking that I intended to walk on alone, not knowing that the other guys were coming too. I told him I’d be OK and showed him my baton. With a smile he told me in an almost avuncular manner that ‘when I hit them, hit them round the legs, not round the head’. ‘Of course’ I replied with a knowing grin, ‘you could kill someone hitting them round the head with a baton’. I can’t quite imagine a cop in the UK advising me as to where best hit someone with a metal bar…

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Back in Bogotá

by Alex on Nov.23, 2009, under Blog

How time flies…

After extending my trip back home I eventually spent about 10 weeks in the UK, including a visit to my bro and his girlfriend in Finland and a lovely trip to Paris. I was introduced to a quality Finnish cartoon comedy called Pasila. After a cursory search, I’ve not managed to find any full episodes with English subtitles but you can find some of them in parts here. It’s well worth a peep.

On arrival I wasn’t as happy to be back as I might have thought but that all changed with a simple walk to the supermarket. There is so much vibrancy here, I’m not sure how to describe it effectively but it’s as if you can see real life going on around you as compared to the UK and other ‘western’ countries whereby to me it feels as if you see a lot more of people just getting from A to B.

I walk past an old guy hauling a cart of stuff up a (very) steep hill, chat to a wizened-looking lady selling cigarettes, sweets and crisps from a trolley who warns me to keep my camera out of sight and bids me a departing ‘a la orden’ (to the order – don’t ask me…). Admiring the approaching view of the Plaza de Bolivar, well the pointy bits of the cathedral that is on the plaza, I soak up the general hustle and bustle of La Candelaria. A bunch of school kids call ‘hello’ to me from a second floor window and I remind myself of the story that the reason why all motorcyclists have to wear high-visibility jackets bearing their license plate numbers on the front and back is to put an end to drive-by machine gun assassinations. Past Quinoa and Amaranto, a well presented rustic kitchen that does a three course veggie lunch for 9,000 pesos (less than £3/$5), the Botero Museum and little eateries, windows laden with attractive looking sweet stuffs, arriving at septima – seventh ‘avenue’ at thePlaza where a guy is busy pressure hosing the pavement in front of the cathedral.

I wander round the square a little between the ice cream vendors and those selling bags of seed to throw at pigeons wondering not for the first time how you can make a living selling phone calls when there are four other people next to you offering calls at 200 pesos a minute. Not having fully reaccustomised it’s very notable that about one in ten people on the street is wearing a police uniform, that is certainly one way to keep the streets safe. Then I wait the 10 minutes or so it takes for the supermarket to open, and during the meanwhilst am engaged by a random guy wondering where I’m from, how I’m enjoying Colombia and what I’m doing here. And this is downtown in a city of 8 million. What I bought at the shop is incidental, the fact that a simple stroll facilitating such a perfunctory task as buying some food might lift my mood so is perhaps not so incidental…

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We was robbed

by Alex on Sep.09, 2009, under Blog

Well I say we but it was my mate Cam rather than all of us.

A few weeks previously I’d bought an extendable baton after a spate of backpackers getting robbed on the streets of Candelaria (Bogota). No one had been hurt and it seems that generally, muggings in Colombia are not the violent gun and beatings-type that one hears of in Brazil and Venezuela, rather a case of very poor people knowing that foreigners are an easy target and will promptly had over their monies and possessions on the production of a knife. So my intention with the baton was not to beat people off, it was to carry as a display to the potential mugger that it’s probably better to find an easier target.

So, on my last night in Bogota before heading home for a while we headed out for a few beers. It was two and a half blocks to the bar and we were five, with baton in pocket I thought we were pretty low-risk on the getting robbed front. After about a block, a street guy who I’d seen before wandered up to us and started chatting to Cam, I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable ‘I’m not giving you an money conversation’ and wasn’t as watchful as usual feeling pretty safe due to the number of us. Suddenly the guy had grabbed Cam by his jacket with his right hand and had a piece of glass similar to your standard rule what we used to have in school held high in his left shouting to him to give him his money. I pulled out my baton thinking that the guy may decide that it’s best just to leave it. At this point, things and thoughts are going pretty quickly. Not being a Ninja and neither having had years of military training, quite what to do wasn’t as clear cut as one might hope. I was the other side of Cam, the glass ruler robber guy being a few metres from me. Cam was the one that would get hurt if the guy decided to stab and how much did I actually want to hurt this guy. Were I to aim for his head and connect with his temple I could actually kill him, hardly a fitting response to a glass ruler robbery, also, injuring him badly might make him lash out and then Cam gets hurt.

So, I went for the hand with which he was holding Cam, hoping he’d let go. The first strike got him on the back of the hand with the very tip of the baton – a metal disk that I guess is designed to channel the force of the blow through a very small area. With the second I hit him on the forearm a little down the shaft of the baton, it felt a bit tame when it connected and I questioned my decision to buy a plastic baton over a metal one. The guy wasn’t about to let go and I wasn’t sure what to do, I suppose that in these situations you need to be tough and fight without thinking too much but this was all new to me and there were so much information pouring into my brain that I couldn’t make decisions as quickly as I might like. One of the others shouted that Cam should just give him he money and so he fumbled in his pocket and handed over 10,000 pesos, about 3 quid/5 US dollars. The guy then ran away.

We were a little shaken, Cam less than some of the rest of us, he did well. One of the girls was already running to the square we’d been heading for and was telling a police guy what had happened, he didn’t seem to care. Another guy who’d seen what had happened was running towards us telling me that I should have some balls and run after the guy and give him a kick in, after all, we were five! Of course we chatted for ages about what we could have done and upon lightly hitting each other on the arm with the baton reckoned that I must have broken bones in the guy’s hand. And that was pretty much that. So I’ll now be vigilant irrespective of group size and invest in some cs gas when I get back. Oh and a new baton:

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I don’t have HIV, which is nice…

by Alex on Sep.04, 2009, under Blog

But I did absolutely shit myself for a short while.

Just before heading back to the UK I went for a sexual health checkup thing. I went to get my results, clearly expecting nothing untoward. I was gret, envelope in hand and smile on face by the lady who’d been there when I’d had my blood taken. Reaching out for the envelope, she walked past telling me that I had to see a psychologist.

That is when I shat my pants. Why? Why do I need to see a psychologist? What’s the matter? The fact that I’d done nothing risky didn’t help at all – employing logic at this point did nothing to quell the rapidly rising fear that I was experiencing. The only reason I could come up with for seeing a shrink was that there was some very very bad news coming my way.

Sitting in the waiting room I contemplated. What would I do? My life could be about to change in the most unimaginable way. How do I prepare my self for deteriorating health and a very premature death. Practically, what would I do, how would I earn money etc, how long did I have left?

‘Quite worried’ was my response to the ‘how are you’ with which the guy greeted me. ‘Wondering why I need to see you get get my results.’ ‘Don’t worry, it’s normal when ever you request an HIV test.’ Opens envelope, all negative, massive sigh of relief. The fact that I’d seen a psychologist before getting my blood taken had escaped my logical reasoning when searching the answer to my ‘why’ question. That too is standard fayre in Colombia. Apparently some employers try to demand that job applicants have an HIV test as part of the vetting process – this is illegal and so seeing an official before being tested is part of how people are protected.

The sense of relief was mental and I grinned and tittered most of the way to the airport, sharing with the cabby my good news.

Definitely not something to try at home…

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The next level in carpark convenience services

by Alex on Aug.17, 2009, under Blog

It was a few years ago that I first remember seeing the ‘I’ll clean your car whilst you shop’ guys in UK carparks. A great idea – you’ll be in the supermarket for at least 30 minutes, you’re not of the volition to actively seek out getting your car cleaned unless it’s stinking stinking dirty, which it’s not, but hey, it could do with a clean it’s effortless and cheap, so why not?

This is taking carpark convenience service to a whole new level:


Brilliant – you can get your oil changed, wheels balanced or alligned and I’m sure other stuff too, all whilst you stock up luxury imported foodstuffs in Carrefour.

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Why would you put an electrical socket in a shower?

by Alex on Aug.15, 2009, under Blog

Well, to plug the shower in.


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Colombian mentalosities

by Alex on Aug.14, 2009, under Blog

There is so much stuff that happens here (in Colombia) that is mental. By mental I mean ridiculous, plain stoopid, things indicative of the fact that no thought whatsoever has gone in to their doing, stuff to which one’s only reaction can be one of incredulity. Etc… Don’t get me wrong, I love the place, and those who know me well will know that I love a good rant and there is so much ranting fuel to be found here without even looking for it. I’d not suggest that any of these things are Colombia-specific, rather things of Latin America.

The lying thing when requesting info is odd, and a pain in the ass. When traveling these parts many moons ago I quickly learned that when axing directions it was breast to ask at least three different people or parties. You could go with the first happy, smiley, confident answer, but then you’d often find yourself miles, or at least kilometres, out of your way, your frustration magnified by the fact that not only have you been sent on a wild goose chase, you have been done so with a 20-odd kilo rucksack on your back. And what’s the point? Oh oh, to save face I hear people say. Bullshit! Do you know everything in the world? No. Not even the most stupidly proudestest of people from wherever they mail hail is going to answer in the affirmative to that little question. So, with that in mind, might one of the things that you do not know be the location of place X? I’m not going to think any the lesser of you if you don’t know and even if I were to, who cares? You don’t know me and you’ll never see me again in your life. I’m certainly going to thing a lot the lesser of you when I find out you’ve sent me the wrong pissing way, cockend! Shirley even the most stupid can work out that it’s better to say ‘ask her over there’ than lie and send you off on a random mission.

So, saying we’re really drunk or drugged or something and accept this ‘losing face’ crap, how does that work with taxi drivers. With people in the street they can point and shoot, they can send you off without witnessing the end result, the taxi driver, by definition, is going to be there with you, that’s the point, that’s his bloody job! But they will still lie to you. Of course not everyone, I’m not and indeed it would be ridiculous to suggest that an entire culture of people act in this way, I am though saying that it is quite the norm. You can ask and double-ask a taxi driver, you can throw in trick questions and tests and you’ll be assured that this guy actually lives in the place to which you want to go, he owns it, he IS the place yet he’ll get arsey when you explain quite reasonbly that you’re not paying the fair as displayed on the meter as he’s been pissing about all over the shop driving round and round, clearly lost, asking for directions and wasting your bloody time having fully assured you in the first place that he knew exactly where he was going. Madness!

Customer service, customer cervix more like – it doesn’t really exist here. Again I generalise and of course you can find places where the staff are attentive to your needs but the norm is pretty poor. And I used to get pissed off with the crap we oft have to put up with in the UK! I was, the other day, trying to get to the bottom of how my hostel reservation has been messed up. The phone rings and the woman to whom I was talking who didn’t really seem to care answers. After about 20 seconds I realise that it’s not a business call and neither was she quickly telling her mate that she´d call back, she was full on gossiping! ‘Excuse me. Are you serving me or are you chatting to your friend?’ I ask. ‘Oh sorry, it’s my daughter and she’s calling long distance.’ She says. ‘I don’t care who it is, I’m a customer and you are in the middle of addressing my complaint.’ I say, at which she leaves her daughter and returns to our conversation which, of course, terminated unsatisfactorally – incredulous!

The above and a myriad of other examples can of course be explained by way of cultural norms. What I don’t get are the refrigerated busses, they are totally mental.

You get board a well appointed coach on which you plan to spend the next 10 to 20 hours traveling from one beautiful part to another in this most wonderful of countries. You recline your chair, it’s comfortable. You settle in, look around and then wonder why the locals have brought blankets and wooly hats with them. Very odd, it’s 30/85 degrees outside and, naturally, you’re in shorts and tee-shirt. Massive error. Some of the busses are pissing freezing! On the journey from Medellin to Bogotá I couldn’t sleep for the cold and I had a wooly hat, trousers and jacket on. It makes no sense. I’m dismayed at the apathy of the locals who rather than saying something about the ridiculous temperatures en masse and having it dealt with chose to address the issue by bringing blankets and duvets. And, I’m ravenously curious as to what might be the reason for this counter customer comfort and diesel consumption increasing practice. This is a real conversation that happened on that journey from Medellin to Bogota:

Me: Excuse me, can you turn the aircon down please
Conductor guy: No
Me: Why not? People are uncomfortable. Look around you
Conductor says something unintelligible to me
Me: Why won’t you turn the aircon down
Conductor just fucks off without looking at nor answering me

The only suggestion that has even a modicum on an iota of a possibility of having any sense whatsoever was that busses were kept so cold so that the drivers didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. I don’t though believe for one minute that the driver can’t adjust the cabin aircon separately to the aircon in the coach and even if he couldn’t he can open his frigging window. So, if anyone out there knows what the freezer-coach thing is all about please let me know. I’m dying to find out.

There is stacks more to rant about but that’s enough banging on for today. I’m off out for more Bogotá wanderings…

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Bogotá at night, from on top

by Alex on Aug.02, 2009, under Blog

I’m sat in the kind of living roomy place in the Platypus Hostel in Bogotá and of the 9 of us here there are 6 with laptops – what a change since my last traveling stint in 2002. Robbing a backpacker in those days meant you’d be looking at a battered copy of Lonely Planet, some useless travelers cheques, at best a soon-to-go-out-of-date APS camera, some fisherman’s trousers and a couple of pairs of skidded pants. Nowadays you could jackpot it right up with a laptop, iPhone and massive 12 megapixel SLR. And, to be fair, robberies are pretty rife around here – La Canderaria in Bogotá. It’s a pretty place: an old colonial part of town close to the historic centre with lots of little eateries, hostels, universities and I guess guys with blades judging by the number of people I’ve chatted to recently who have been robbed at knife point. Now, don’t worry mum I’ve not heard of anyone getting hurt, it seems as if the local ladrones have discovered the easy targets that are non-attentive tourists wandering round a nice yet poor area supposedly laden with phones, cash and cameras. To advertise the fact that I’m not such an easy target I’ve recently purchased a tambo – an extendable baton that fits neatly in the pocket and can be drawn at a moments notice to suggest that they might like to seek out a less potentially violent source of profit.

Anyway, that is not what this post was to be about. I’d taken some lovely photos of the lights of Bogotá at night, was struggling to think of anything to say about them and now seem to have run away on several tangents. Oh well, back to the pics…

I’d not been out to a good good restaurant since leaving the UK – coming on for a year ago, and the other day booked a table at the restaurant on the Cerro de Monserrate, the big hill thing overlooking Bogotá with both a cable car and funicular railway to take you to the top. The decor, ambiance and general quality of service was fantastic which is a rare find in Colombia. It’s perfectly usual to go into a shop, bar or restaurant here and be consummately ignored for minutes on end and I’m sure hours were you to be happy to stand about unattended for that length of time to see if it would really happen.

There was a slight down side, and of course when I say slight I mean reasonably significant – it was a French restaurant which as a vegetableanarian is second only in the ‘what can you knock up for me’ stakes to dining at an abattoir. The meat looked pretty high-level though and value-for-money-wise at less than 11 quid for a Chateaubriand, anyone spending pounds, dollars or euros and not yet scared of all the zeros involved in spending pesos would be well happy with the set up. Wine though is a different matter, it being easy to spend 10 times the cost of your main course on a bottle, which amounting to significantly more than half the minimum monthly salary here in Colombia seems a little odd, especially considering how much wine is produced a few countries down in Argentina and Chile.

Anyway, all of this has nothing to do with the photos, and it’s getting late, so:

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