Sex, sex, drugs and more sex (deep and meaningful reflections)

So, this is going to be last entry into this blog, so thanks to anyone who read any of it.  It has been a great way of keeping in contact with people and also hearing from some people I hadn’t spoken to in a while.

Now that I am back in the much more modest climate of Northern Ireland I would like to reflect on some of the things I may have learnt (like how mentioning sex in your headline is a great way to give a piece a SEO boost).

To give this some structure (and to save on time and effort) I am going to be balancing my experience against those of Chris Ellis who wrote this article called: ‘20 Unforgettable Lessons You Can Learn From Travelling the World’.

I feel this falls within the parameters of fair use, but if I anyone knows anything to the contrary please let me know.

Even though I haven’t really been travelling, I am going to go through the first 10 and see how many of them apply to me. All the bits from the original article are in bold type and my comments are in italics below.

1. You learn a lot about life.

There is nothing like diving out of your comfort zone to make you realize that you are a newbie in life no matter what your age. There are so many things to learn such as how to get a meal in an Italian restaurant when the menus are in Italian and you don’t speak Italian. (Hint: Go to Duolingo.com and learn some of the basic menu items from where you are going. They also have lots of fun language learning games.)

Fair enough. But you also learn a lot about life from having a job. Or doing your taxes. Or having to organise funeral proceedings for a dead pet. Not having a go, just saying. 

2. You are never alone.

You can make friends anywhere. Be the first to smile. Make an effort to join in their celebrations or simply ask them questions about their lives. This is all it takes.

– I’m not sure I agree with this. One of the nice things about knowing people for a long time is that you build subtext and understanding. Having to sit crosslegged in a circle with a bunch of people wearing harem pants listening to sitar music can be a tall order when you just want to talk about the weather. 

3. You meet unforgettable people.

Several years ago, I purchased a small apt in Southern Italy. It has been magical.

One of my most treasured friendships is the one I found with the lady who owns the little grocery store in Santa Domenica Talao. Her name is Nunzia and we loved each other from the moment we met.

We still struggle with the language a bit but that doesn’t seem to matter. Every time I arrive, kisses rain down on me, spontaneous hugs erupt out of nowhere and I have been pulled into the bosom of the village through her acceptance and love.

In the morning I go to her shop for coffee. I love to watch as the villagers come in for their produce (buying or selling) and an update on whatever is happening in the village or surrounding area. And every day Nunzia saves the freshest eggs for me behind her counter.

She is an amazing lady whom I adore. Who knew I would find her tending a little store, in a medieval village in Southern Italy?

– I agree with this point here, I do think you meet unforgettable people. Bully to this person for making a buddy for life in Nunzia and getting all those lovely eggs.

Once again, as a cynical adjunct, I would like to say that I am opposed to anyone ever being treated as window dressing in stories about how down with the locals a person might wish to appear. Although this person seems pretty sincere and I don’t think that is what is happening here. 

4. You learn to enjoy transient relationships

On a recent trip, I ended up taking the slow train from Cremona in the North to my place down South. I spent 13 hours in a train that stopped at every station. Happily I shared a compartment with a group of people from Naples.

If you have not met folks from Naples, I can tell you that they are so much fun! The train barely started when questions were asked about me, where I was from, where I was going, and what I was interested in. Food was opened and passed around. discussions were had. The young girl next to me asked me to translate every word she could think of into English so she could wow her friends. We had a great time!

At the end, no numbers were exchanged, just simply the promise to look for them when I visit Naples and the idea that Naples will be a perfect destination for my next trip.

Yeah, pretty happy to go along with this as well. My main focus was trying to learn the language while I was in Colombia so meeting people who I could talk to was pretty agradable.

5. You have to try new things.

Whether you are staring at a menu realizing you have no idea what the items are, or jumping on a bus that you hope will get you somewhere familiar, travel is exciting. You have to do new things. It is all about getting yourself into situations and turning them into amazing experiences.

– That’s fair enough, isn’t it? I also like doing old things though, I have to say. And to my timid mind, getting on a bus “that you hope will get you somewhere familiar” strikes me as the wild idiosyncrasy of someone who has spent the morning huffing gloss paint. 

6. There are no “mistakes”

Ok, maybe one or two. Don’t eat anything you would not step on in your bare feet (one of my important life rules) and if the water is not good, don’t drink it or eat anything that has not been cooked.

Other than that, go and have some fun. Read up in the culture before you go and when something goes off plan, turn it into an exciting experience.

Oh and make sure you have an emergency packet of tissues as you never know about train station bathrooms!

– Yeah, this is nice. Don’t be too hard on yourself and see where things take you. Can’t knock that. 

7. You find the value in getting lost.

Really! Get lost in a city then wander around. The great thing is there are taxis all over the place and you can always dive into one when you get tired.

There is nothing like being lost in Rome where every street corner has another spectacular sculpture; or being lost in Brussels where every neighborhood has a cluster of bistros or bakeries.

There is so much to see and experience that is not in the guide books. Go off plan and get lost!

– This wisdom definitely applies to the places the writer is talking about in Europe but should come with a health warning elsewhere. I got mugged and pickpocketed while I was away.

If I had been more on the ball I probably could have avoided both of those incidents – and knowing exactly where I was and what to expect probably would have helped. 

8. You get out of your environment

Every time I travel, I find that that I can view my life from the outside and find solutions or changes that I never would have seen if I had not gotten away from it all.

As we live our lives, we keep our heads down and we keep going. Any problems we have, we are in them. When you travel, you get outside of them and can solve them.

We always seem to have solutions for other people’s problems but struggle with our own. That is because we are IN our problems and it is difficult to find solutions to something you are inside of.

– While I think I got some perspective from being away, I do instinctively draw back from this. 

The reason being is that it purports that people who have been to other countries – especially weird countries – hold a special cache of life experience that isn’t available to those who decided to stay at home. 

Plane tickets cost a lot of money and you can probably make yourself a better person by taking up bridge or something like that. 

9. You learn to forget the plan.

When I travel, I make an outline but not a rigid plan. There are always things I want to see and do, but the last thing I want is to be a slave to a schedule. Make your trip elastic. See what you want to see but leave lots of time to drift.

Visit the church you stumbled on, on your way to the Vatican or just go out and bob in the sea until dinner time.

I am usually a type A personality but one of my favorite pastimes in Southern Italy is getting my little air mattress and bobbing in the sea. I look at the sky, watch the kids play in the water, think about dinner… I relax. The monuments will be there next time. Don’t deny yourself this luxury!

– I like this. It has a positive message. Relax. Take it easy. It’s like that song Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock. 

10. You learn to talk to people

There is nothing like struggling with another language to get you looking at people as they are. Hilarious grammar errors are made and laughs are shared. It is a golden opportunity to fall in love with people. That is one of my favourite pastimes too!

– Yeah, also agree with this. Trying to bridge the language divide does bring people together. 

(So that’s it. Thanks again for reading it. Also – without looking back over what I’ve said – I can be a unnecessarily cynical at times so if I have said anything that annoyed or offended anyone at any point I apologise for that and would like to say that it wasn’t intended. I am thinking about buying an domain and starting a website about the post-fame life of the Duracell bunny so I’ll keep youse posted.)

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The virtue of being a romper (hygge for the great unwashed)

(Hey, thanks to everyone who has read this blog over the last ten weeks. All 15 of ya. I am going back to Ireland on the 17th so I’m going to write this one where I slag off the Danish and then one tomorrow where I explain all the profound and life changing things that I now know that I did not know before and then that will be it.) 

If you’ve had access to the internet and hold political sentiments that lean vaguely to the left, you’ve probably ran into the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced ‘bananas’).

Apparently, it was the subject of 200 think pieces in 2016, which is exactly 200 times as many think pieces that were written about how nice a person Paul Daniels was.

He's only looking after that rabbit for tax reasons

He’s only looking after that rabbit for tax reasons

What it is, if you’re not familiar, is a Scandinavian concept of comfort specific to Denmark. But not the sort of comfort you get when you put the heating on, or when you win £2 on a £1 scratchcard.

This is a different, more special type of comfort.

Through the unexplained machinations of the universe, it turns out that the Danish are actually superior to the rest of us as human beings because they like fannying about indoors with the fire on, wearing socks.

And, in this year when openly hating another culture for unspecified reasons has been pretty much okay-d, I think it is fair to say: Fuck you Denmark.

For one thing, according to this really long article in the Guardian, in Danish culture the idea can have as much to do with exclusion as it does to do with cosiness – and has been used as an anchor by Denmark’s People’s Party to push for a version of their country that doesn’t allow just anybody to come to the soiree.

You know, a Denmark that takes valuables off of refugees.

A group of refugees being totally 'Uhygge'

A group of refugees being totally ‘Uhygge’

The must have been too busy drinking mulled wine to check if there was any historical precedent for doing something like that.

Secondly, the ‘planned fun’ vibe of hygge gives me the heebie geebies.

On face value, this is a picture of a group of friends having a nice time by the light of candles and filament light-bulbs.

"We are having an above average time!"

“We are having an above average time!”

But if you want to label it ‘hygge’, and then imply that this is hitting some sort of predetermined standard for simplicity and happiness, then – I think – it becomes super creepy.

No longer is it simply a happy group of people having a nice time; now it feels rather more like having stumbled into a Max Mosley-esque Nazi sex party.

All body parts, catch phrases and discipline.

My third reason and main reason for whinging about this is that we all have our own hygge, don’t we?

In sports-underdog classic Cool Runnings there is a bit where Derice, the protagonist and defacto leader of Jamaican bobsleigh team, attempts to replicate the techniques and methods of the highly-ranked Swiss bobsleigh team – much to the annoyance of his teammates.

Taking him to task his best friend and the film’s comedy turn, Sanka, says:

“All I’m saying, mon, is if we walk Jamaican, talk Jamaican, and *is* Jamaican, then we sure as hell better bobsled Jamaican.”

This is a great Christmas film by the way, if you're looking for recommendations.

This is a great Christmas film by the way, if you’re looking for recommendations.

By this flawless logic, should we not hygge Irish?

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but is going to the pub on a Thursday night for four pints not hygge?

Having a petrol station that functions also as a bar, pet shop and newsagents, is that not hygge?

And is telling the chemist that you’ve got dental pain and can’t afford to go the dentist so they’ll give you the type of Nurofen that has codeine in it, is that not hygge?

And what about Northern Irish hygge? Like being able to swear during the first sentence of a conversation with a stranger. Or asking someone for a fight as a means of ending an argument.

So there, why would you want to aspire to be anything like the world’s ‘least corrupt country’ (read: ‘least craic’).

(By the way, ‘romper’ is a word specific to the local lexicon of Derry. Yeeeeah, it doesn’t really translate into English. It is more of a feeling. A sort of attitude…)

Is having sex with prostitutes OK? (and who is paying for all of this)

Drugs... yeah. (Probably not sherbet).

Drug use always looks worse close-up and in black and white.

During the first few weeks that I was attending Spanish classes at a university here in Medellín something became apparent.

There was an awful lot of dudes knocking about the place.

So far I have been in four different groups of people, with probably around 18 other students.

Out of that entire group only one has been a girl.

Asking around I heard a few different theories as to why this might be the case.

For one thing, the afterlife of Colombia’s bad old days still draws hesitancy to the surface, especially – going by what I’ve heard – among US citizens thinking of heading south.

Despite all of the major progress that has been made, safety concerns might still be enough to make a single female traveller think twice before coming here.

The other theory is that Medellín’s reputation as a sort of Disneyland for creepy white men might have something to do with it.

"Hey, I'm just down here in Colombia to see the... err, Manny Pachu?"

“Hey, I’m just down here in Colombia to see the… err, Manny Pachu?”

Here, it is really easy to buy drugs and solicit prostitution.

When I was in school and on the precipice of adolescence, the teachers went to great lengths to warn us about the dangers of drugs.

One of the things that was drilled home was that any day now, hoards of drug dealers were going to start approaching me and my classmates frequently and at random.

Much to my chagrin, this never transpired.

However, walking around Parque Lleras – the white-person part of Medellín – it actually feels like what we were warned about.

After 8pm, a stroll in the area is punctuated every 20 feet or so by a teenager in a baseball cap trying to sell you cocaine.

By and large, I am not really opposed to drug use – as long as it isn’t hurting anybody.

But that’s the thing; here it clearly is.

Most of the guys selling the drugs should be in school. Maybe they are. And for a city that prides itself on the strength of its industry and entrepreneurial spirit, its international reputation is still overshadowed by its association with drug use.

This guy.

This guy.

And that brings my onto my next point: prostitution.

The whole subject is a bit of a moral quagmire.

Last year Amnesty International released its findings calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution internationally – with this being considered the clearest way to protect the safety of those working in the sex trade.

The kick back against this was led by noted academics Meryl Streep and and Lena Dunham, who – despite the findings of a Nobel prize-winning international human rights organisation – felt the ‘Swedish model’ of criminalising the buyer was a better approach.

At the time I felt that this was driven by a sort of moral volition on the part of the celebrities opposing the findings, with a sense that sex workers should be taken as a homogeneous victim group unable to speak for themselves.

Criminalising buyers of sex also seems to lean on the idea that all buyers of sex are predatorial males aged 18 to 65.

I am sure that a majority of them are, but I know of a case where a blind guy (not my dad or anyone associated with him – just in case he tries to come after me shouting defamation) arranged for a minibus full of other blind guys to go and visit a brothel in London.

How does that make you feel?

I still absolutely think that Amnesty International are highly qualified to formulate policy in this area, but a few things recently have made me think about the morality around all of this.

Here in Medellín, prostitution is pretty up-front and centre.

The city’s largest brothel has this bat-signal light that shines out across the city at night.

Couldn't find an image of it in Google Images, so here is the actual bat signal

Couldn’t find an image of it in Google Images, so here is the actual bat signal

There are a couple of young people at the university I am attending, both male and aged under 21, who have recently decided to start taking up with prostitutes.

It wouldn’t be such an issue for me, were they not to discuss it with a sort of posturing bravado that to my mind has always been the hallmark of insecurity.

This is coming off as very high-handed and judgemental, and I’ve done plenty of shameful things in my time, but – putting that aside – something else stuck me about this situation.

The women that they are paying for sex from might well be around the same age as they are, but where the parents of the young westerners are bankrolling them to frolic around on what is basically an extended holiday and inadvertently fund the sex industry, the sex-workers here have – through choice or circumstance – elected to get involved in a pretty serious, pretty adult business.

It’s quite a disparity.

Anyway, I would like to end this by saying that I don’t really know what I am talking about, and it isn’t really my position to judge anyone.

With drugs and prostitution it is really up to each individual to take a look around, take account of all available evidence, and then do what they feel comfortable with.

Five reasons to be happy that Trump is the US President! (And other parlour games!)

[The blog went off the boil because it takes a while to write and I have a fair whack of Spanish study to be doing. Back now though.]

Preparation H - the only hemorrhoid cream you'll ever need

Preparation H – the only hemorrhoid cream you’ll ever need

OK, so the satanic small-handed master of the nothing at all has been elected President of the United States.

Almost 48 hours have elapsed since this most considered and thought out decision.

With hoards of Americans heading for the Canadian border, and a spate of racist attacks across the US, things are starting to feel a little bit… apocalyptic? Even Mel Gibson’s career seems to be in the midst of a resurgence.

However, never fear – for every cloud has a silver lining. Although to be fair, the lining of this cloud is probably more of a dirty, off-copper colour.

But a lining all the same! So, without further ado, here are five reasons to be happy Trump is now the President elect!

1. Expand your professional boundaries!

Do you find the perusal of job specifications a disheartening experience? So nearly coming up to scratch, only to have your dreams thwarted by a missing GCSE in Maths, or a deficiency in lifesaving training?

Well, as Grandmaster Trump has shown us, none of that nonsense is going to matter anymore. All you have to do is believe in the American Dream, and somehow figure out how to leverage people’s inherent racism to your advantage.

In the spirit of this, I plan on Making Open Heart Surgery Great Again.

For too long, the people have grown weary of hearing that these procedures should be performed by “trained surgeons” backed by a crooked mainstream media elite.

Pictured: A meeting of the Bilderberg Group

Pictured: A gathering of the Bilderberg Group

What the world needs is someone smart, someone with who knows business, someone with a set of pliers and a toothbrush.

Someone like me.

God bless the United States.

2. Cash Money Baby!

Remember those Wall Street power elites that Hillary was in red-hot cahoots with?

It seems they’re taking the election of America’s new crusader of the proletariat in their stride, and the Dow Jones, the S & P 500 and the Nasdaq have all seen their values rise.

Probably a circling of the wagons before Comrade Trump really hits them below the belt by stripping away all regulation in the sector.

This deregulation is also great news if you own a prison, a pharmaceutical company or an oil well.

Expect to start stacking some serious Benjamins if you cash in on incarceration, create opioid addictions for optimum profits or oil your pockets with oil from… the ground.

3. Let’s hear it for the men with no hair!

Ever met a man with a bad wig?

As in you can see the sides of his head where his hair is missing, and then whatever he has on top looks like a shiny, half-melted liquorice all-sort?

Well take a look at these two twats…

Pictured: A pair of twats

Pictured: A pair of twats

Male pattern baldness is serious business and impacts on a lot of us, myself included.

These men are shining lights for the guys out there who don’t feel like taking it graciously.

It is sort of like if Right Said Fred didn’t think they were too sexy, and – feeling the burden of their own insecurities – had some Dr Frankenstein incarnation of Vidal Sassoon glue the contents of a hairdresser’s floor to their heads.

And those guys both run countries!

If Jackie Healy-Rae was still alive no doubt he would be drafted in to help in some sort of special-advisory capacity.

If Jackie had a part in all of this, at least the roads would be getting fixed

If Jackie had a part in all of this, at least the roads would be getting fixed

4. At least you now know for sure!

Nothing worse than getting a job rejection letter back with the same generic message sent out to every failed candidate.

It might read something like this:

‘Sorry, we received a large number of well-qualified applicants for the position, and after careful consideration, we have decided not to bring you forward to the interview stage. We wish you the best of luck with your future endeavours.’ 

These always leave you wondering.

‘Where did I go wrong?’, ‘Should I change the layout of my CV?’, ‘Was using the HR manager’s first name too personal?’

I imagine if you live in the United States, and you’re a woman, a person of colour, a disabled person, a person from a minority religious group or pretty much anyone that isn’t red-meat eating, tobacco-chewing white male, most of your life must be filled with small moments a bit like that.

And this election has sort of been like sending off the follow-up email to ask if they could specify exactly what the thinking was behind your rejection.

Well, the response is in, and it’s something like this:

‘Yep, sorry. It’s just that we’re all a bunch of ignorant racists is the thing. So while many of us will still say this is something to do with Hillary Clinton being more a member of the elite than a second generation multi-billionaire, we also found it very sexually exciting when Donny said he was going to ban all those God Damn Muslims from getting in.

Soz.

 Thank you for your application, and God bless the United States of America. 

5. Yeah, there isn’t a fifth reason. Coming up with four was a pretty big stretch.

Also, standards are going to start dropping off a cliff. Get used to people ducking out of their promises.

Living out in the streets (with children’s mouths to feed)

indigenous-1

An indigenous family on the streets of Medellín (Image taken from Cosas Del Alma blog)

(I would just like to preface this by saying this is going to read like an vaguely racist 18th century travelogue, so forgive me for that.)

Ethnically, Colombia is broadly broken down into a mix of people of African descent, people of indigenous descent and people of Spanish descent.

Going off my rough estimation, the population of Medellín seems to have drawn most heavily on the European gene pool.

What has been stark is that the only indigenous people I have seen so far have been living on the streets.

It’s jarring for a few reasons.

The groups are almost exclusively female, and without fail have children with them.

The ages of the children are at the extreme low end, ranging from a few months up to maybe five.

As much as their parents seem to be trying to look after them, they don’t have much at hand to help them to do so.

Yesterday I was passing one group and two children who were no older than 18 months were lying face down on the pavement with their knees tucked underneath them and only a piece of cloth separating them from the concrete.

An indigenous family on the streets of Bogota

An indigenous family on the streets of Bogota (Credit: Mike’s Bogota Blog)

Homelessness and the housing crisis is perhaps the biggest issue that the current generation of Irish people have to deal with, and the dependency on emergency accommodation and hotel rooms is a disgrace in a western society.

But still, the story of a family with a young child having to sleep rough earlier this year was a big enough issue to be raised in the Dáil by Mary Lou McDonald. 

The other thing that is striking is that the indigenous people I have seen wear bright traditional clothing, so on first impressions it can be hard to reconcile their appearance with the fact that they’re in such dire straights.

To try and find out why this seems to happen, I asked around a few Colombia people, and what I heard most was that a lot of the people have been displaced by the war in the country.

This has happened on a pretty massive scale.

While around 220,000 people have been killed during the 52 years of conflict in Colombia, close to 6 million have been displaced.

It can be hard to make statistics emotionally palatable, but if you think about that, that’s every person in Ireland – north and south – being booted out of their home.

According to Amnesty International the groups most impacted have been Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmers, with groups that depend on agriculture for their livelihood impacted the most.

Many of these people have been forced off their land after threats from paramilitaries, the armed forces and guerrillas, with 14% of the country’s territory having been either abandoned or illegally acquired.

indigenous-2

Indigenous families set up camp under the school building in Aguasal in Alto Andágueda after being forcibly displaced from their homes in 2012 © Steve Cagan / Amnesty International

The other reason that people have been forced off their land is, inevitably, money.

Once the government cottoned on the fact that a lot of these lands contained valuable natural resources, they had no problem granting licences to mining companies to get digging – with the fate of the Indigenous and Afro-descendent people living on them barely an afterthought.

Since 2012, the government has backed a programme to give people their land back, but this has been a slow moving process and a relative few have been able to regain legal ownership.

This is definitely something I am going to try and learn some more about while I am here in Colombia.

Click here for more information from Amnesty International about the plight of displaced people in Colombia. 

Narcos is a helluva good programme (but not if you live here)

(Last week some of this blog made it’s way onto TheJournal.ie. Major shoutout to my old boss Susan Daly for making that happen.)

If you haven’t seen Narcos and plan on watching it, this contains a few spoilers. 

Plata o plomo?

Plata o plomo?

Have you seen the programme Narcos?

It’s about the rise and fall of notorious drug boss Pablo Escobar, who (as anyone who has seen the it will tell you) was once listed by Forbes as one of the richest men in the world and whose Medellín drug cartel controlled the bulk of cocaine entering the United States in the 1980s.

It´s a pretty great show.

It’s narrative centres on the efforts of DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena as they come agonisingly close time and again to nailing the drug kingpin.

The programme’s greatest strength is its pseudo-documentary feel, with pictures of the real Escobar and news footage from the time period interspersed between dramatic renderings of the pursuit of the drug lord.

The opening sequence even finishes with a close up of the real Steve Murphy, who, I think it’s fair to say, actor Boyd Holbrook is sort of a better-looking version of.

You see what I mean?

You see what I mean?

Much as I like it, people here do not; if you take a step back, it is easy to see why.

Imagine Amy Adam’s Leap Year, but rather than focusing on the romantic follies of an American overseas, the film’s hammed-up accents and clunky local  references actually centre on the exploits notorious loyalist paramilitary Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair.

That’s basically what Narcos is to the people of Medellín.

For starters, Wagner Moura – the actor playing Pablo Escobar – isn’t Colombian.

Not a major crime in itself, but Moura isn’t even from a Spanish-speaking country – he’s Brazilian.

As much as I enjoyed his performance, that’s sort of like letting Gérard Depardieu play Winston Churchill.

"I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly."

“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

Secondly, like any decent anti-hero-centered drama, the viewer is left in the driving seat about how much sympathy they should be affording to Escobar.

To draw sympathy for their protagonist, the creators lean heavily on the relationship between him and his cousin Gustavo Gaviria.

Other than Escobar’s wife Tata, his children and his mother, Gaviria is portrayed as the only other person in his circle that he has a deeper bond with.

Escobar’s most sympathetic moment comes when he imagines seeing his dead cousin – who was killed earlier in the series – one last time in a park moments before being killed in a police raid while trying to flee across the city’s roofs.

At this point – unshaven and overweight – the drug kingpin is shown at his lowest ebb, with his empire in ruins and unable to provide for his family.

During my first week in Medellín a tour guide told me that there is about a 95% to 5% split in Colombia when it comes to support for Pablo Escobar, with the majority against him.

My Spanish teacher later told me it was probably more like  80% to 20% in Medellín.

Either way, by the time he was killed, I felt pretty bad for the world’s biggest ever drug trafficker.

I imagine that at least some of Netflix’s global viewership might have felt something similar, and you can see why that might annoy a few people who can remember the devastation caused by his criminal empire.

Photograph taken of the real Escobar after he was killed

Photograph taken on the real Escobar after he was killed

The last thing that that has drawn the chagrin of the people I have spoken to in Medellín – and what has come up most in relation to the programme – is that it is told from an US point of view.

That’s hard to refute.

While the main actor and director and Brazilian, the show has an US writer and is backed by US money.

Whether or not that had any influence on the creative process, the show does still focus on a couple of US mavericks dishing out some much needed justice way south of Mexico.

In don’t know too much about this – and because I’m not being paid to write this blog I’m not going to bother doing any research – but I’m not sure that two foreign agents (and one that doesn’t speak Spanish) were quite as an integral part of tracking down Escobar as was made out.

Or maybe they were, I don’t know.

Saying all of that, it’s a great programme.

Really, really good.

Just not so much if you’re Colombian, and especially not if you’re from Medellín.

So close and yet so far away (it’s a no from me Jim)

A list of names outside a polling station in Medellín

A list of names outside a polling station in Medellín

Colombia has voted, and it’s a No.

As anyone who woke up to the news alerts on the morning of Brexit will know, there’s nowt so queer as folk, especially when it comes to mass decision making on a country’s political future.

In the end, it was less than 55,000 people out of an electorate of more than 30 million that made the difference to the vote on the peace deal with Marxist rebel group the Farc.

The live coverage on Colombian CNN felt like a plangent echo of the UK’s decision to leave the EU – with the uncertainty about what will happen next amplified by the irreversible nature of the decision.

In Colombia the pre-vote polls were extremely confident this wouldn’t happen, with Yes bounding out in front with as much as 66% support.

A high-profile deal-signing ceremony last Sunday in the coastal city of Cartagena between government representatives and rebel leaders gave it a feeling of inevitability.

Surely, after everyone had gone to the effort of wearing white and shaking hands with Ban Ki-Moon there was no way the deal was going to be rejected.

Perhaps indulging in a touch of pre-referendum melodrama, President Juan Manual Santos even went so far as to say that he had no back up plan and that a No vote could mean a return to war.

Outside the polling station in Medellín's EAFIT University earlier today

Outside the polling station in Medellín’s EAFIT University earlier today

In all likelihood that isn’t going to happen, and the country’s political leaders – at the request of Santos – are today sitting down to try and thrash this out.

A ceasefire has been in place since the end of August and Farc leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, has reiterated his group’s commitment to keeping the peace and “to use only words as a weapon to build towards the future”.

To me, an outsider with no ties to Colombia, it seemed like taking the peace deal would have been a good idea.

My thinking was mostly influenced by my landlady, whose husband was killed by anti-government forces during the conflict.

Monica, one of the nicest people you could wish to meet, is a fresh-faced 40-year-old who has witnessed the worst of Colombia’s history first hand.

Over the past few days I’ve also had the chance to meet her daughter Zara, who had come home for a wedding and her boyfriend’s birthday. She’s aged around 20 and studying conflict resolution in Bogota.

Around the walls are pictures of the three of them while Monica’s husband was still alive, and taking prominence in the living room is a large 18th century old-style cash register that he had bought as a present for his wife.

A bookshelf next to the kitchen is also covered in pre-colonial artefacts, which Monica explained to me he had collected while he was still alive.

I haven’t pried too much on the subject – because I’ve found that asking someone about their dead spouse in a foreign language you barely speak isn’t the best idea – but I think she moved to this apartment after selling the family home in another part of Medellín.

I don’t want to labour the point, but it has occurred to me that – once the immediacy of a tragedy has passed – the day-to-day impact of something so awful seems to manifest itself in much more mundane ways.

I didn’t know her husband had been killed when I asked her which way she was voting, and probably wouldn’t have asked if I did know, but – all the same – she did say she was voting Yes.

There had been too much pain for everyone, she said, and this was the right thing to do.

An observation she had was that, in broad strokes, the people voting against the peace deal were less likely to have been impacted directly by the conflict, while those who had been directly impacted were more likely to vote for it.

Monica's cat... I'm not sure what it's called.

Monica’s cat… I’m not sure what it’s called.

I think it is only fair to temper all of this by saying that, as an outsider, I have absolutely no right criticise the No vote.

With the referendum on same-sex marriage in May last year it felt like there was a moral imperative to voting Yes, and making marriage available to everyone was the decent thing to do.

While No voters here also seemed to be of an older and more conservative ilk, the same narrative does not apply.

There is still an active conflict going on in the country, and so far close to 220,000 (of which 178,000 have been civilians) have been killed since it began in 1964.

The deal, were it to have passed, would have given get out of jail free cards to Farc members who were responsible for crimes that included abduction, recruitment of child soldiers and the killing of thousands.

Many voters have also had difficulty with the fact that the deal would have made the Farc a mainstream political institution, opening the door to a possible future where the group could rule over the people they once imposed terror upon.

That’s a lot to stomach, and it is understandable that – by the finest of margins – the people of Colombia decided not to do so.

Don’t worry, be happy (because you’re going nowhere)

(That claim form for my insurance was put in on Saturday, so hopefully it’ll be less than two weeks before I can start taking half-way clear pictures again. Although it could be a lot longer. I don’t know. Insurance companies are a notorious bunch of shysters.)

poverty

In George Orwell’s book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ he has a lot of interesting things to say on what it means to be impoverished.

The book is the author’s real-life account of living on and beneath the poverty line in the two major European capitals back in the 1930s.

In its conclusion, the book gives a summation of how poverty is viewed in wider society, with the author saying that he sees it as being a ‘taboo’ – and I always thought that was pretty insightful.

It’s a pretty modern thought, isn’t it? Poverty being unseemly in the same way a sex act involving excreta or becoming a neo-Nazi might be considered unseemly.

I think, and I’m including myself in this, reacting to the unseemly nature of poverty can snap response for a lot of people back in the UK and Ireland when confronted with someone in serious dire straits.

In the developing world (at least the part of it that I’m in), that concept has sort of been flipped on its head, and poverty in certain forms has been reimagined as entertainment.

George Orwell

George Orwell

And that’s a good thing for the people living in the communities.

In the favelas in Brazil you’re able to pay a local to bring you out and show you around, putting money into the pockets of people who will benefit the most from it.

Here in Colombia the poorer neighbourhoods are called comunas, and by paying a guide, tourists can experience them in a similar way.

While it is jarring that there is a tourism industry built around the poverty that people live in and what they have to do to get by, putting the narrative in the hands of a local person helps creates understanding – and that can surely be no bad thing.

Comuna 13, once one of the worst areas of the city, it has been rejuvenated into a prominent tourist attraction

Comuna 13, once one of the worst areas of the city, it has been rejuvenated into a prominent tourist attraction

Here is what annoys me:

It’s a well-worn cliché, but plenty of tourists and travellers still come away with the message that the people in these parts are ‘poor but happy’.

‘Poor but happy’.

What a complete fucking joke.

My mother is a big fan of celebrity life coach Tony Robbins – who much like George Orwell – has things to say about where people are at in their financial lives.

According to one of Tony’s well-delivered but ultimately predictable pieces of guidance, people are happy when they are making progress.

The minimum wage here works out at €265 a month, meaning that if a person was to save 25% of their wages to put towards a new average-priced small car, it would take them four years to save up.

Happiness doesn’t buy you a car.

And as I’ve mentioned before, plenty of people here earn below the minimum wage in the unofficial economy, so Christ knows how long it would take them to buy a car.

And what if you’re an Afro-Colombian, Indigenous or rural person – those most likely to be exposed to the worst of the country’s inequality – and one day discover you’re serious unwell.

The only option on the table would to be to roll the dice with Colombia’s public health system, which is described in this report from the Organisation of American States as the ‘Death Carousel’.

Well, at least, you know – you’d still be happy.

By stating that people are somehow happy in their poverty, it puts them apart from society in a way that says they don’t have the same desires, and don’t deserve the same opportunities.

Rather they have hit a perfect equilibrium in their roles of enriching the spirit of the travelling white man, and show our waterlogged 9-to-5 brains the beauty of not having running water or electricity – but pulling together all the same.

As I’ve said on a few occasions, I’m not an expert on Colombia’s social situation – but everyone deserves a chance to get ahead.

[Sorry, this is all a bit heavy – I swear there is going to be some fucking jokes in this next week. The only one I can see there is a sort of half joke about Tony Robbins being similar to George Orwell. That just seems pretentious and doesn’t really land. Must try harder.]

Getting from A to B dangerously (and the need for divine intervention)

(Still sorting out the insurance on that phone that got nicked. Photos will be less blurry once that’s all sorted.)

img_20160922_165957

On a surface level, the one thing that separates Medellín from European city of comparable size is the way that people use the roads.

In Europe – or at least in the UK and Ireland – everybody is kept safe and sound through a collective agreement to stick to the rules.

Rules developed and ingrained through a fairly rigorous teaching and testing system.

And I would know, I failed my test four times.

Here are a few things that you learn when you take the theory test:

  1. Driving on a motorway? – Stick in the left lane, unless you’re overtaking.
  2. Passing a horse? – Leave eight to ten feet of space between you and the rider.
  3. Turning left at a junction? – Get in lane early and indicate.

Here these rules might be interpreted as follows:

  1. Driving on a motorway? – You have right of way in all lanes, both real and metaphysical.
  2. Passing a horse? – Of course, you’re not going to be beaten by a fucking horse.
  3. Turning left at a junction? – See rule one.

Traffic during rush hour can be overwhelming, even if you’re just a pedestrian trying to cross the street.

While there are pelican crossings that hypothetically give you right of way, a lot of the motorcyclists view these in the same way that a lot of cyclists back home view them – in that if you’re on two wheels you’re outside the rule of law.

In a bizarre nod to safety and accountability on the roads, almost all motorcyclists have their licence plate numbers emblazoned across the back on their helmets – as if that makes it easier to report them for veering across four lanes of traffic and mounting the kerb at a zebra crossing.

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The motorcyclists of Medellín say: Safety First

The other thing here is the buses.

They are not the sanitised, colour-coded, semi-irregular beasts that they are back home.

Rather the driver will pick you up wherever you want, and it’s something of a social faux-pas if your ineptitude at jumping onto a moving vehicle forces them to drop out of second gear.

Once both of your feet are securely on the bus, the driver accelerates – using their right hand to to simultaneously change gear, take cash from the passenger and give change.

It’s quite something to witness.

Most of the buses come adjourned with pictures of the Virgin Mary or other religious iconography.

You can’t really see it in this picture, but this driver had a Flava Flav-sized set of rosary beads hanging from his rear view mirror.

'Chill out, I can break this red light, Jesus has my back'

‘Chill out, I can break this red light, Jesus has my back’

This is something I – quite rightly – find unsettling.

You shouldn’t need divine intervention to stop you from totalling a bus full of people into a wall.

Just drive slower.

 

The cost of living get so high (rich and poor they start a’ cry)

To kick this off, I’m going to give you a rundown of the last five places that I’ve lived in:

  • Double room in five-person share in Stoneybatter, north Dublin / a period of around four months in 2016 / bills not included – €600
  • Double room in two-person share in Stoneybatter, north Dublin / around a year between 2015 and 2016 / bills not included – €500
  • Double room in four-person house in Harold’s Cross in south Dublin / just about a month in May 2015 (sorry Russell) / bills not included – €450
  • A box room in Cabra in north Dublin / around nine months between 2014 and 2015 / bills not included – €450
  • Double-room in a house with an engaged couple who caught the worst of the 2007 collapse of the housing market who had to suck it up and let a single man in his mid-twenties live in the spare room and dry his underpants in their kitchen / around 18 months between 2013 and 2014 – €400 a month

*IT’S PROBABLY ALRIGHT TO SKIP TO HERE.

The point I’m trying to make here – one that any mildly employed single person under 35 living in Dublin will be familiar with – is that renting a room can be a complete nightmare.

You may be willing to pay above the market rate, provide dazzling personal references and boast immaculate personal hygiene – but could still well find yourself scrambling for the dregs.

Beyond just the not unsubstantial amounts of cash I’ve been dishing out, the other thing to note from the above bullet points is the frequency with which I have changed my place of dwelling.

Three of those places I left off my own accord, and two of those I left because the landlord wanted me gone.

Sorry, I do realise most of you don’t care in the slightest about my living history, but I’m coming to a bigger point.

This is my profile page on CompartApto (the Colombian version of Daft.ie):

apartment-website

These are eight unsolicited offers of rooms I’ve received in the past 24 hours, and doesn’t show the more than 70 unread messages I earlier had to delete – all of which came off the back of posting something that I didn’t even realise was an advertisement.

My rent for a double room in a complex with a swimming pool will now be €180 a month.

While I hope that information really annoys everyone I know that lives in Dublin, it does also beg the question why things are so insane back home, and so reasonable over here.

Well, for one thing, I’m what Malcolm X would call a blue-eyed devil – and as such my idea of what might be cheap or expensive does not harmonise with the outlook of the average Colombian.

The minimum salary here is just under 700,000 pesos a month (around €210), and last year GDP per capita worked out at less than €13,500.

Those on the minimum wage may well count themselves lucky, with estimates that around half of the country’s workers could be informal – and probably earning a good bit less.

The other reason rooms are relatively cheap is that there is a lot of them.

You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to work that out… you don’t even need to be a tree surgeon.

Check out this neighbourhood:

Where there's a will, there's a house

Where there’s a will, there’s a house

It goes without saying that these are the homes of the city’s less well-off residents, and a fair number of them would have been thrown up illegally. 

So while I may be able to have my pick of the places in the most honky-tonking neighbourhood around, the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in this city who would find my new residence well out of their price range.

The third reason that I am getting my room so cheap may well be down to the swelling numbers of people in Colombia that own their own homes

It has been a slow change, but since around 2012 homeownership has gradually become more available to Colombians, with a drop in the housing shortfall of around 480,000. 

Households with the potential to buy their own properties has also been on the rise, with Colombia’s middle class swelling by between 13% and 20% between 2006 and 2014.

Lack of supply back home is at the heart of the reason that rents in Dublin are now higher than they were at any point during the boom. 

So what’s to be learnt from all of this? Besides the fact that I like to Google statistics to make myself appear clever.

To be honest, I don’t know enough to be drawing conclusions – and wouldn’t wish to draw the chagrin of any experts on the subject.

What I think it is safe to say is that – much like shopping in Primark – if you’re getting an absolute bargain, someone somewhere could well be stitching a ‘help me’ note to the inside of novelty Superman T-shirt.

(Bonus points if you can name the Bob Marley song the title is taken from. Reply in the comments.)