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!