Monday, March 28, 2011

No Need for Summer Time in Cali

When in England the last weekend of March with the clocks moving forward is always one of my favourite times of the year.  All of a sudden, the extra hour is created that rapidly lengthens as the summer progresses, giving us long, and occasionally warm and sunny, evenings that are perfect for playing sport, BBQs and drinking outside with friends.

It has to be said, one of the best things about living in Cali is the climate, I think it's officially described as semi-tropical but makes socialising in the evenings so pleasant and easy.  Last Saturday night we stayed up playing the Colombian game 'sapo,' (sort of like darts) and drinking on a terrace overlooking the city until 4am with no worries at all about the temperature and no need to go to a bar as you generally do back home.  This can't be said of all Colombian cities, the varying altitude throughout this mountainous country means every city has it's own individual climate.  Bogotá (2,600m) is pretty cold and grey generally, the coast is incredibly humid and hot, Medellin (1,500m) is very pleasant and Cali (900m) can be too hot during the day when the temperature is around 30oC, but is a perfect 20 or so in the evenings.

Typical early morning from my room
The year round summer does seem strange at times however.  Hearing friends back home now remark about the sun coming out and having no need to wear coats doesn't really register with me - it's always like that here!  Nearly April?!  The month and seasons are pretty meaningless in Cali, some months of the year there's more rain but they all sort of merge into one really.  Leaves on trees fall off every now and again instead of all at once, grass grows year round, sunrise is around 6am, and sunset about 6pm - all this comes from being so close to the Equator, which is only 300 miles or so south of Cali near Quito, Ecuador.

There's always pros and cons to everything.  Caleños talk with great excitement about whenever they go somewhere 'cold' - by cold they mean about 15oC or so in the mountains above Cali, not -20oC on a winter's night in the north of England as it was in December.  I'd like to see them experience that and talk with such enthusiasm about not being hot.  Some people say they love the rain that comes in torrential downpours a few times a week, but being from Manchester I'm not convinced by this, I don't think I'll ever miss the constant pissy drizzle I was subjected to all my childhood.
Cricket in a tropical climate

Even though it can seem strange playing cricket in January, there's more advantages to this climate than negatives.  The whole Caleño lifestyle is based around socialising, and the wonderful weather makes this possible.  Adults drinking and dancing salsa on the street, story tellers in the park at the weekend, children on their bikes every night - it does make for a lovely lifestyle, and one that doesn't make me miss the cold and wet of a January night whatsoever.

Here's a link to my second Guardian article that I had published 2 weeks ago about teaching English in South America.  They spelt my name wrong, again, but have since learned how to spell Colombia, so some progress made.
I've also written a few pieces for my fellow Geography graduates, Michael Gray and Joe Richardson, from Leeds University on their "Gradulthood" site, which is about us graduates from the recession foraging our way into the world of work, in an ever more competitive and demanding job market.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Minutes, Minutes, and how to run a Colombian Business

Mobile phones are just as big a part of life in South America as anywhere else in the world, but the cost of ringing cross networks here in Colombia is pretty expensive comparatively, and most people can't afford the direct debit, monthly contracts with hundreds of included minutes that we all have back home, just having simple pay as you go deals instead.  Consequently, 'minutes' are a recurring feature on any street in Colombia.  Basically it's some random Tom, Dick or Harry with a phone for each operator, Comcel, Movistar and Tigo, who you pay a couple of hundred pesos per minute or so to use their phone to call someone on a different network.  A very simple idea that all of a sudden gives a lot of people an enterprising opportunity for employment in a country where about 40% of work is in the informal sector.

Minutes in action
It's more or less like having a phone box on every street corner, and generates quite a few interesting social nuances.  First, if someone's calling you from a 'minutes' phone and you don't necessarily want to speak to them, for whatever reason, it's already too late, you've picked up because you don't know who's calling you and are then having to think of an excuse on the spot for ignoring the said person.  Next, there's the annoying one bell phenomenon.  If someone wants to talk to you but is too tight to use their own minutes, they'll give you a quick 'one bell' and hope you call them back, and be unreasonably annoyed if you don't.  My policy on this matter is to ignore these futile attempts to control you , if someone really wants to speak to me, they will pay a few hundred pesos to do it.  Phone etiquette also goes out the window.  A call creeping over from 59 seconds to 1 minute means another 200 pesos to pay, so conversations just end rather abruptly with the bare minimum discussed.

Minutes on a personal level are one thing, arranging nights out and such is made a bit more complicated by having to nip in and out to ring various people, but you get used to that.  However, I learnt the other day that the phone package at the language institute where I work is also minutes based, and that they have run out for the month.

So a bizarre situation currently exists where a business cannot ring anyone and just hope people call them for the next week or so.  I asked the obvious question of why they don't just get some more minutes, and how this would be just inconceivable in any developed country.  A business nowadays just couldn't operate or survive without a phone or internet, but it appears possible in Colombia (at least I hope it is possible here otherwise I might be looking for another employer soon!).  I was then told that they only gets 500 minutes a month anyway which I found bewildering.  500 minutes?!  That's about one Colombian working day, and seen as a fairly menial quantity even for personal use, and this leads me onto a more general topic of how businesses work here.

Foreign businesses often get a lot of stick in South America, especially the big transnationals, where they're seen as a capitalist threat to the established businesses of a country.  But on another level I can understand how they do so well here.  Foreign owners and managers obviously impose their own policies on efficiency, organisation and communication.  Colgate have a big presence here in Cali and I can't imagine they ever run out of minutes, and when you're in a competitive market these things obviously work in your favour.  Hence if someone wants to learn English at one institute and they don't contact you, they'll just go a few blocks away and enrol there instead.

I do often think about opening my own business and whilst it's never an easy thing to do, no matter what country you're in, if you imposed certain things on your employees in Colombia, you'd already be a mile ahead of the opposition.  Punctuality that means you open on time, respond to emails and get a phone package with minutes and you're onto a winner.  This is all part of living abroad though, there's some things from a different culture that'll you never understand, but add a novelty and variety to your everyday life that you'd never get at home, but make you appreciate those ever so basic things from your own country all the more so.