Monday, September 7, 2009

Not so much of a tourist...

So…now been in Calí for over a month and am starting to feel less like a tourist and more like a local, people recognising me around uni, inviting me out for drinks, meet friends etc. I love these first few weeks, as I did on my year abroad, mainly for the reason that I have no concrete plans whatsoever. What are you doing next weekend? Don’t know. Fancy going out? Why not? And there you have it, night planned for next weekend. I do like keeping myself busy, so there is the side of me that wants plans like this all the time. However these occasions generally involve aguardiente, and a consequent bad hangover, so it’s not really feasible or sustainable to do them on nights apart from Friday and Saturday nights, which generally means I can end up twiddling my thumbs most of the week outside of work.

To keep myself busy, amongst other things, I’ve started to write what could end being a book and have started playing water polo at the uni. I’ve never really played it before, but I just generally enjoy the team atmosphere more than anything. There’s loads of words that fly over my head and the fact I can’t wear my glasses means I can’t see much either, so bearing in mind I'm effectively deaf and blind, I should be fairly crap at the game really! But I seem to be decent enough and the general banter that goes on in teams like this is something I miss, and of course it’s a good way to meet people. It’s also given me a general insight into “Cultural relations” shall we say, the one black guy on the team is subject to constant abuse which I found pretty shocking at first, nothing really malicious but you wouldn’t be able to do it back home. Just the way it is here it seems.

Whilst most of you reading this at the end of crap summer will be thinking that England is all shit and desperately looking to get away, living abroad does make you realise the finer things about your own country. I keep harping back to punctuality and reliability, but really, they are good things. I’m currently waiting for my ID card, I went for the appointment a month ago and was told I’d have my card in 10 days, great I thought, should be paid at the end of August. Nearly 30 days later and well into September I’m still waiting. It wouldn’t be that much of a problem but until I have my ID card, I can’t open a bank account, and until I have one, I can’t get paid. In my mind this is where South America falls down and doesn’t really help itself, it’s all very good being chilled out when it’s not an important issue, but when it is important, it can screw you over and there isn’t much you can do about it! The fact that Colombia has many national holidays no doubt contributes to this problem, it’s the image that you get in your head of it being the day before a holiday, the form arrives on someone’s desk and they think…nah, next week. And so you have it…the person at the other end is buggered, at the moment, that’s me!

Apart from lifestyle things, you also realise the great “exports” of your country. And if you ask most of my pupils what they know about England, first words, Premier League! Just about every bloke watches the games, some of my pupils know more about some teams than me and every Saturday cable TV is dominated by English football. I think most people back home don’t quite realise the global impact of the Premier League, especially in football mad South America, and I think we should make more of it back home through tourism and such. After all if you mention Manchester to anyone here, if they’ve been or not, Old Trafford is their main image of the city. I wonder if the Manchester tourist board know that. Quite pleasing for me as well to know that no-one knows the name of City’s ground!!! Other common popular things from back home that are always good talking points are things such as Harry Potter, the Queen, English music of course, and now I've even been asked about Susan Boyle - the power of YouTube!! I get quite nostalgic sometimes talking about these things, but then I hear about the weather back home, and look outside my window, and think, nah, I like it here for now.

I mentioned last time about the Chivas that roll around the city at the weekend as a preamble to a club. Well I’ve now been on one, absolutely brilliant fun is all I can say. The fact it’d be definitely illegal back home just about sums it up. Also, bear in mind that most of these buses are about 50 years old, and not in the best of shapes. So whenever you turn a corner everyone runs to one side and falling out doesn't seem too far of a distant possiblity, and whenever you stop at traffic lights the vibration of the clutch kicking itself causes a massive shock and almost makes you fall over itself! Basically they’re rolling nightclubs with about 50 people rammed on, all dancing and drinking on the way to a club complete with strobes, disco balls and loud music. They also bring you back at the end of the night which I think is even more incredible, providing you don’t do what I did and miss it and have to get a taxi back. My uni had organised this one for a special party, although there does seem to be one everyweek, not that I’m complaining. Turns out this party was a “tetero” party, which means baby bottle, so when you got into the club, everyone was handed a baby bottle with aguardiente. Quite surreal drinking from one in a club in Colombia when last time I drunk from one was when I was probably 2 in my cot back home really. Good idea I thought though, not spillable on the dance floor, refillable, actually makes you drink slower…a cure for binge drinking back home???…No, I thought not too.

Work is more or less settled, teaching my own conversation classes this time so no assessing of the students as in Chile. This means I’ve got more or less a green light to socialise with them which is quite good fun, especially given that most of them are my age or similar. They want to practice English, I want to speak Spanish and they generally know the best places to go, so it makes sense really. I'm generally very impressed with the standard of English at my uni, and the uni aswell, all very professional and lots of native speakers in the department, most from the US but even a few English guys themselves. The students here are amazed that as language students back home we get the chance to spend a year abroad, it’s made me think about trying to arrange something with my own uni in Leeds. I can definitely imagine some English students enjoying the Calí nightlife on their year abroads!

I don’t think a post is fair, especially in this week, without mentioning South American football, it’s World Cup Qualifiers this week as back in Europe. The table is immensely tight, with Brazil the only guaranteed qualifiers so far and more or less everyone else still in the running to qualify except Peru and Bolivia. Colombia’s hopes are in the balance with big game away to Uruguay on Wednesday. The only annoying thing about South American matches is that due to the time differences, you get games being played in the middle of the afternoon at times on work days, still, this doesn’t stop everyone watching it. Watching the game with Colombians on tv is a fantastic experience, sheer passion, more than can be said for most of the North stand at Old Trafford. The commentators are once again back on top form, especially for the English games. The Ryan Giggs song about running down the wing is still sung during the middle of the game, by the commentators, even though he doesn’t really play there now. Other players with their distinctive backers include “Carliiiiitos Tevez” and “Steeeeeeevie GGGGGerrard.” Absolutely fantastic, imagine Motty breaking out into full song during an England game, never a dull or dour comment either from a Lawrenson.

So, that’s all for now. I’ve got my first visitor coming this weekend, Emily, from Barranquilla. I’m thinking what to do, but Calí isn’t really much of a day place, much more nightlife orientated for tourists, so that’s what we’ll do I imagine. Need to start sorting out a place to live for October too, hopefully that won’t be too tricky!!!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Colombia...starting off

Hello, so here I am again back in South America! This time with a 2.1 degree under my belt after a fantastic final year in Leeds. Thanks to Gordon Brown and some bankers, there aren’t too many jobs going around back home, especially for graduates, so it’s given me a great excuse to desert blighty and come to Colombia! I’m here with the British Council, as I was in Chile, who’ve done all the donkey work again, in fact, the Chilean branch leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to the fantastically run Colombian office. They’ve also had the generosity to place me in Calí, in the south west of Colombia. Here as I look out of my window of my apartment at the Universidad Santiago de Calí, I’m blessed with a lovely clear sky, about 30oC or so, an outdoor swimming pool, two beach volleyball courts, football pitches, a gym, basketball court and even a 10 pin bowling alley. Yes, I did say it’s a university, but to be honest, it’s felt more like a holiday resort at times, a rather strange environment to have to work in.

Calí is a pretty tropical city, no summer here, no winter, in fact no seasons at all. Just this lovely weather everyday of the year, it’s very humid but more bearable than I imagined, especially when considering other aspects about the city – some absolutely stunning women (I’ve been told this by just about every Colombian I’ve met) and also it being the capital of salsa! So hopefully I’ll be a salsa king in a few months time and putting my skills to good use in one of the many salsotecas!

I arrived just over two weeks ago, and spent a few days in Bogotá. One spent being driven around by a Colombian who we had met oddly enough for about 5 minutes in the last Fruity in Leeds, and the others were spent having an induction course with the British Council. My first impressions of Colombians are overwhelmingly positive, very, very friendly. No shortage of people giving us their email addresses and numbers to go out or be shown around, and if they don’t live in a certain place, they have family or friends that do live there, and you get their contact details instead! All very keen to help you adapt and settle in, be it with changing their plans to take you to the supermarket or spontaneous nights out! Colombia itself has more than impressed me, the third world image we’re portrayed back home does exist, but so do some areas that could easily be from any Western city with fine restaurants, expensive shops and cool bars. Like all of South America, there are very wealthy parts, but also very deprived parts and not too much in the middle like at home.

The British Council induction was generally about teaching, but we also had a talk from the head of security for the British Embassy. Very interesting, and a little scary in a way. The general advice is just to be sensible basically and that the kidnappings that people perceive Colombia for are not very common, especially since the Foreign Office stopped paying ransoms for hostages, and since then kidnappings of Brits have dropped massively – hurrah! We’ve also been constantly reminded that the safety situation in Colombia has also improved drastically in the last 8 years under Uribe’s Presidency, and that now Venezuela is the place that is generally deteriorating with law and order collapsing. I’ve already learnt that Hugo Chavez is the butt of quite a lot of jokes and that in general Venezuela is seen as going down the shitter whilst Colombia is a phoenix rising from the ashes with it’s growing tourist industry and reputation ever improving on the world stage. Touch wood it will stay that way.

Immediately upon arriving, the South America that I’d forgotten about quickly returned. The outrageous disco style car alarms, ridiculously dangerous driving, a complete lack of punctuality, gaping 10 foot holes in the pavement and other things we just don't really see in Europe. In general though it's returning to the feeling of being very relaxed abut life, but also having to be on guard whenever in public, which is quite a strange sentiment and also a bit weird when a few beers down! The crazy nights have already returned with super-strong drinks to match, although I seem to be starting to feel the hangovers a bit more this time which is not good, that could be down to the aguardiente though (see below)! The South America I enjoyed so much whilst living in Chile and travelling around other countries is still most definitely alive and kicking and Colombia is definitely living up to expectations and more, I’d even go to say I’m preferring it to Chile at the moment!

Colombia does have its own little idio-syncracies. Security guards at every possible point checking bags and conducting searches, I don’t really have to explain why that’s necessary. Other slightly less serious things include a very high amount of food hygiene, all finger food is served in special wrappers and serviettes and I’ve heard KFC and their equivalents all hand out plastic gloves to eat their food! The local nightlife also has its own unique selling points with the “Chiva” buses. I’m yet to experience one of these open-backed buses that sells booze and pumps music out whilst people dance in the back, but I plan to on a night out soon. Basically it’s a moving nightclub, that picks people up as it drives round the city and ends up at a club, sounds fun to me.

One aspect that I’m not yet convinced about however is the local drink. Aguardiente, basically a version of sambuca. However, whereas it’s common to have a couple of shots in a night of the stuff back home, here it’s common to drink it all night. Now, as far as I’m concerned any alcoholic drink that people recommend you wash down with water is definitely flawed. Having said that, I imagine I’ll get used to it and I’ll be trying to bring lots of bottles back to England when I have to leave.

Things in the pipeline over the coming weeks include a weekend away at the uni resort, very strange I know, but they’ve got a holiday resort near the beach and buying a bike that may end up being used to travel up though Central America to the U.S. after I finish here, ambitious challenge, but porqué no?! Think that’d take 3 to 4 months, just an idea at the moment, but would be a good way to see Central America I think. There’s probably a puente (holiday weekend) on the horizon soon too, Colombia has the second most holiday weekends in the world, an unbelievable 18 of them! Good for travelling around. I’ll try and update this every week or so, or whenever I’ve got something (I consider) interesting to write. Enjoy the end of the summer back home!