31 March, 2012

The Environment / El Medio Ambiente

As mentioned in my previous post, Colombia has a lot of impressive stuff. One of the most spectacular things here is its natural beauty - and this from someone who's only been to two sites outside Bogotá! I can't wait to explore the rest of this country.

Sadly, part of my desire to 'escape' Bogotá is to literally escape the pollution here in the capital. All kinds of vehicles, public and private, zoom by spewing out clouds of black smoke as they go. The buses and lories are the worst offenders:

(I wish I had been brave enough to take a photo like this myself, but instead I thank this blog)

In a city where more people are killed or injured every year in traffic accidents than in street crimes (I have no links in English to back that up, sorry) I understand that there are more urgent priorities. Similarly, as I have felt the frustration of the trancones myself I know that on a day to day basis reducing the number of vehicles on the road feels more important than what's coming out the back of said vehicles (and there are indeed various schemes to reduce traffic: an annual car free day (world's largest!) and pico y placa, for example).

It just seems so strange to compare the UK and Colombia in this way. In London everything is grey all the time (unless you have the fortune to be in one of the many wonderful parks on a sunny day). We don't really have much 'environment' (of the world-famous variety) around to protect. In Bogotá, however, there are so many grassy embankments in the middle of roads and so many flowering bushes by the sides of the pavements that even when it's pouring with rain you are surrounded by vibrant hues.  Yet it is in London that you find mandatory recycling schemes in houses (with up to 5 separate categories no less!), in London you find organic food, in London if you drive an eco-friendly vehicle you pay less tax, in London if a car produces too much pollution then it fails its MOT and can't be used until it's fixed, in London you often have to pay to receive a plastic carrier bag.... We have nothing compared to Colombia yet we protect it so fiercely, or is it better to say 'publicly'?

The Andes, covered with jungle and sunshine. Not a view I think we have in the UK.

For there is a lot of protection going on here, just not on quite as obvious (bureaucratic?) a scale:
The metal bins in the Simon Bolivar are compartmentalised and colour coded, and can even be swung down by children so that they can put their own waste in the correct place, and they look a lot older than the similar (plastic! = fail) bins in Oxford Street.
In houses and flats all over Bogotá the desire to save electricity and water borders on the obsessive (I do, however, suspect it is more about the money than the environment, but as noone admits that I must give them points for being green). In fact last year's "Earth Hour" was one of the more enthusiastic.
In Colombia, thanks to the 'eternal spring' there are always fresh fruit and vegetables available in season, so not as much of it has to be grown in greenhouses/imported from the other side of the world (added bonus: it tastes so much better too!), and almost every street has a greengrocers where the selection changes pretty much daily.
The Ciclovía was not only invented in Bogotá, but is one of the worlds largest. It's also a lot of fun :D
In primary schools children are not just able to draw you a reasonable map of Colombia, but tell you which parts are hot or cold and why, why they don't really have four seasons, what they have instead and how it works, and why Europe does have seasons. It may be that I just don't remember that part of my childhood (without cheating, do you know what the 'Coriolis effect' is and how it affects the weather here?), but the majority of adults here can also explain all of the above with labelled diagrams, so even if I was taught it, the Colombians were obviously taught 'better.'
In short, it looks like everyone here is aware of the problems the environment faces, and everyone wants to do what they can.

So, I will leave you with a picture of the "lungs of the Earth," something that everyone (except the darn bus drivers and plastic-bag-givers!) is trying to protect:

Confession: not the real Amazon. 
This photo was actually taken in the Botanical Gardens in Bogotá :D

27 March, 2012

Where dreams come true / Donde los sueños se cumplen

Colombia has everything you could want.

Hot, sandy beaches? Santa Marta.
Snow-capped mountains? La Sierra Nevada (also Santa Marta)
Wild jungles? The Amazon.
Civilisation? The Athens of South America (Bogotá, obviously)
Rocky volcanoes? Quite a few, and active at that.
Grassy flatlands? Los Llanos.
Rivers, lakes, and lagoons? Try the Magdalena, Guatavita (In a meteorite crater! El Dorado!!), or Tota.
Oceans? They have two.
Deserts? La Guajira.
Traditional villages? Santiago, Putumayo.
Modern amenities? Medellin (Rolos don't hate. You don't have trains, and I've already included Bogotá in this list once!)
Festivals? Pick one.
Food? Where to start?
Drink? Learn to say 'Dos por favor,' even when drinking alone (it's that good you'll want a second)
And so on...

Now, quite a lot of that list is unavailable in the UK, but the following things are, and for some reason I never got around to them much while I was over there.

Of course, 'never got around to it much' doesn't literally apply to pubs, but that didn't stop a dear friend from taking me to an Irish pub in my first week in Bogotá.

London, the City of, is one of the world's greatest (= naughty?) financial service centres. How many issues of The Economist did I read while living there? None. How many have I read in Colombia? I'm on my fourth (thanks to an enthusiastic business student).

Growing up under Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, I should have seen The Iron Lady in January when it was released on home soil. Preparations for coming to Colombia meant I had to wait until last weekend when La Dama de Hierro was released here (thankfully subtitled, not dubbed) before I could get around to it. Definitely worth the wait, and much more emotional now that I'm 8482km away.

Having spent three years in Liverpool for university, one might think I'd had enough of the Beatles. As it happened, those three years were wasted trying to avoid all mention of them. I have now seen the light and have my fingers crossed to see Paul McCartney in concert next month.

Finally, I grew up in a part of London affectionately called Little Korea (officially called New Malden). That would have been the perfect opportunity for a martial arts-obsessed teenager to take up Taekwon-Do, the honourable Korean art of kicking people in the head (elegantly). Instead, my first lesson is tonight. I get sworn in as "a champion of freedom and justice." Wish me luck, I'm afraid my next post will be written from a hospital bed :D

So, Colombia... What else am I going to find here that I've always wanted?

PS - some of those links are, I admit, just google images, however the majority will take you to better descriptions, videos or articles of the things mentioned. Try some!

19 March, 2012

The National Anthem / El Himno Nacional

At the weekend I had the honour and the pleasure of going to a Taekwon-do tournament (pictures and videos to follow) with a friend who was competing. As part of the inauguration ceremony they sung their national anthem. This is a big part of daily life here, as every day at 6 o'clock (both of them!) the anthem is played on all radio and TV channels. This prompts 'Oh, is it 6 already?' conversations from everyone, everywhere. The first time it happens it's a little eery to have everyone suddenly say the same thing at the same time. The second time it's amusing ('They still haven't worked out that this happens everyday and I'm the tourist?!'), and by the fourth or fifth you start joining in :D

(Missing the first rendition of the chorus as I really wasn't expecting it)

For the full lyrics in both Spanish and English, I refer you to (where else) Wikipedia. Colombians really don't need to click that link because, as you can hear in the video, everyone knows the words. It really puts the English to shame - not even our national squad can get through our first verse with confidence. So instead, I leave you with, not only the best version of our national anthem ever, but the only one we don't have to sing along to: God Save The Queen.

Colombian Sign Language

Although the Italians may be more famous for their hand gestures than, well, any other nation, every country has it's own manner of communicating silently (students, if you're reading this, please don't make the peace/V sign with your palm facing you in the UK - ask your current English teacher why not - I'm sure they'll be more than happy to explain :D ). 

Here is a selection of what I see on a daily basis for those of you who haven't met that many Colombians (or for those that do have Colombian friends and would like to understand them):

14 March, 2012

The Weather / El Clima

Would you take an umbrella when you leave the house on a day like this?

If you answered 'No,' you'd get wet. Very wet. When it rains in Bogotá it does so with latin passion. 

A video of heavy rain for anyone unfamiliar with the concept.
Taken in the Casa de Monedas (the old mint).

Having come from London in January, I'm still laughing quietly at the way Colombians refer to Bogotá as  tierra fria, or ' the cold lands.' However, the weather here is enjoyable for the Brits not just because of its comparative mildness. As a nation we are fairly obsessed with discussing (and, apparently, blogging about) the weather, despite the fact that it's really rather boring when you get down to it. We have many months of cold, grey skies, followed by a short burst of industrious complaining about the heat. Yes, sometimes its windy, sometimes its rainy, and sometimes its both, but that's about it, without variation, for weeks at a time. Even the proverbs attest to this (March winds and April showers bring forth the May flowers - in three months the weather only changes twice!).

Bogotá, on the other hand, provides a full year's worth of British weather in a single day. In the morning it is freezing and dark (people wake up too early in this country), which gives way to beautiful sunny skies in time to eat lunch next to an open window to let the breeze in and admire the flowers. This, in turn, becomes a torrential downpour which lets you know that its about 3 o'clock, which stops before the sunset so everyone can get home safely/to the party without ruining your hair.

This means that every time you discuss the weather it's a different topic! No more whole months going by discussing the same drizzle with everyone you meet! It's fantastic!

If only the Colombians felt the same way about discussing the weather as we Brits I do...

12 March, 2012

Toilets / Los Baños

Going to the toilet, as any well-seasoned traveller can tell you, can be an adventure. In Colombia (or at least, in Bogotá... who knows what delights the countryside holds?) the standard is actually quite good. They have 'real' toilets, not holes in the ground (Sicily, I'm looking at you). Toilet paper is often provided, running water and soap always are. They are almost always kept immaculate. I have yet to find one that charges. You know what I'm going to say next though, don't you?


The toilet paper is communal, ie: there is only one roll holder, and that is outside all of the cubicles. Don't forget to take some before you enter! In the unlucky toilets where they don't even provide that, people use napkins from cafes. Always grab a handful with your coffee por si las moscas. In addition, toilet paper is not to be flushed down the toilet, but instead put in a bin to the side. Can someone please tell me why?

Once inside, look before you leap sit - very few toilets have seats. Thankfully everything inside the cubicle is at a reasonable height. The walls, on the other hand, frequently stop at my shoulders.

While the sinks don't even reach knee-level! I'm not even standing up straight in this photo and I still can't reach the taps. 

(No, this is not the children's/disabled sink - it's the only one there is.)

This photo also doubles as the standard facebook profile picture for teens, although more pouting is usually involved. 

As for the men, well, I'm sorry guys but you're going to have to find out by yourselves...

08 March, 2012

International Women's Day / El Día de la Mujer

International Women's Day is not something that is really celebrated in the UK, which is a terrible shame. After all, any excuse for cake should be a welcome one, right?

Cake, gifts, and fizzy drinks!

There are two alleged origins of this day, but according to the UN it's a Socialist/Soviet thing, designed to celebrate the important roles women have played throughout history. According to Wikipedia (and therefore 100% true) the other story (about commemorating a French women's protest being 'dispersed' by the Police in a rather unpleasant way) came about in order to distance the holiday from it's Soviet origins. Gringos, eh? ;)

The assembled teachers and guest (the back row are on tiptoes trying not to look short)

Either way, in Colombia it's a day of cute gifts and cards for women, and cake for everyone. 

Chocolate covered hazelnuts and a beautiful card

Of course, there are plenty of annoying/rude Colombians here, but not one day has gone by in this country that I haven't been surprised at just how lovely the majority are. These pictures are of a small celebration held at a local primary/secondary school. I've only met half the people in these pictures a couple of times, and the rest I met today. Nevertheless, they invited me into their school, gave me cake, presents and a card, and generally made me feel really welcome. They even spelled my name right. Thank you.

(loose translation below)
"On International Women's Day we want to greet you with a big hug and recognise in you all of the women that contribute to the bettering of our country with their work everyday. 
We know what a difficult task the women have: to take on so many roles and to try so hard to satisfy everyone. But we also know the infinite amount of love that you put into everything that you accomplish. And for this what you do is even more important. 

01 March, 2012

How to celebrate Christmas / Como celebrar la navidad

In the UK, especially in the more commercial areas *cough Oxford Circus cough* putting up the Christmas decorations starts well before December. Switching off the lights, however happens on the 12th day of Christmas, and before long all the decorations are gone, leaving us with a bleak, grey January filled with resolutions, overcrowded shops, and nothing really to look forward to until Valentine's Day (and then only if you have a soppy partner). According to the old pagan superstition, from the times when decorations were evergreen plants, we only borrow the holly etc from the sprits that live inside them, and if we don't return the plants to the woods after the 12th night then we'll be cursed for the rest of that year.

Colombia has it all backwards ;) Having only arrived in January I can't say when the decorations start being put up, but now it's March and I still can't tell you when they start coming down! The huge public displays (three separate links) which put Regent Street's movie tie-ins to shame all disappeared long ago, but the smaller, more private Christmas is still around...

Inspired by a journalist friend I decided to investigate and ask why, the most common answer being "Oh, yeah. They just get left there until next Christmas or until someone steals them, whichever comes first."
Well, merry Christmas from Colombia! Off to find a chocolate orange...