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.]

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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.)

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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.)

Love thy enemy (and the perils of plastic furniture)

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In around two weeks time the people of Colombia will be voting on a peace deal with the FARC.

Think about it as sort of being the Good Friday Agreement… on crack (I really hate it when people use drugs to imply superlative, but because of the inapprorpiate nature of doing so in this context I’m going to go for it).

Some people are for it, and – as you might expect – some people are against it.

According to the most recent edition of news magazine Semana, the ‘Sí’ side are beating out the ‘No’ side in the polls by a margin of 72% to 28%.

With them numbers, you might think the Sí side would be dedicating their time and resources on finding the most obnoxious ways to rub their inevitable victory in the opposition’s faces.

But no, everyone is still manning the decks, and yesterday I got to see a load of people doing this:

What you’re seeing there is two rows of people going face to face, arguing it out over the merits and pitfalls of this peace deal

All while sitting on what appears to be borrowed garden furniture.

At home, the referendum on same-sex marriage in May last year saw things getting pretty heated.

The ‘Yes’ side faced accusations of being dismissive and condescending to the views of large swaths of Irish society, while the ‘No’ side seemed to lean on some pretty specious arguments about the possible impact on adoption law.

At some point in the near-ish future (whether that means in a year or in a decade) Ireland is going to have to have a referendum on abortion and repealing the 8th amendment.

When that time comes around, rather than letting debate on the issue be confined to late-night news magazine programmes, advocates on both sides might do well to sit down on garden furniture and get their knees touching.

It’s a lot harder to call someone names when you’re staring them in the face.

Seeing all of that was sort of incidental though.

I was actually down at an event to see this dude:

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That’s José Mujica, former president of Uruguay and hero of the internet (while in office he continued to drive a VW from the 1980s, rejected the presidential residence in favour of staying on his farm and gave away around 90% of his salary).

This political event was comparable to the sort of left-wing rallies you get back in Ireland – in that they had far too many speeches and the soundsystem kept on cutting out.

There were about 3,000 people in attendance, all seated on the same plastic chairs that were being used outside.

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They were being kept together with plastic ties, and when someone got in or out of their seat it narrowed the spaces between the rows, driving my knees into the chair in front of me and putting a trip to the toilet out of the equation.

When it came time for the main event, Mujica sort of stood up after being introduced to rapturous applause, and then sat down to give his speech (I was much more forgiving of that after the event when Wikipedia told me that he is in fact 81-years-old).

He seemed to be a pretty good speaker, although to be honest I didn’t have a single clue what he was saying.

Got a lot of claps though.

This final run-in to this referendum will play out over the next two weeks, and I feel lucky to be in the country for this particular moment in history.

I will definitely try and get along to a few more events before polling days arrives, with a view to establishing the ubiquity of plastic furniture.

Working hard for a living (not me, those people over there)

(Pics taken from Google Images because my phone’s still knackered. If I’ve stepped on anyone’s toes please let me know nicely.)

“Brian worked every hour that God sent him…”

That’s one of those phrases that crops up in the eulogies of small business owners to emphasise their tenacity and determination to succeed in the face of trying circumstances.

I always thought it was a bit of a stupid expression – because that’s a physically impossible thing to do.

I used to think that a better expression might be: “Brian worked somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the overall time allocation that God sent him.”

Admittedly, that’s a lot less catchy.

And – having been here for almost two weeks – I’d have to say that my reductionist version probably undersells the hard work of the Medellín street vendors.

A street vendor flogging stuff in Medellín (Getty Images... as you can probably tell by that prominent watermark)

A street vendor flogging stuff in Medellín (Getty Images… as you can probably tell by that prominent watermark)

The hustle that people have here makes a mockery of the local Costcutters back home that freezes easter eggs.

In the UK and Ireland, ‘startups’ are the order of the day, and any company without a significant social strategy and one eye on multi-million series A funding might as well pack up their bags and go home.

Starting a business is less complicated over here.

All you need is something you’re up for selling, something to hold it in, and also – if convenience is your thing – some sort of wheeled contraption to help transport your goods.

Walk 50 yards on any street, even residential ones, and you’re liable to pass around 10 vendors, flogging all sorts of stuff.

In the Downtown area near to San Antonio metro station there are dozens of guys selling this sugarcane and lime drink called Guarapo Costeño. It costs around 30 pence a cup, and many of the vendors maximise their earning potential by blocking up access ways at pelican crossings.

Clever fellas.

Man selling Guarapo Costeño

Man selling Guarapo Costeño

Like at home, fruit and veg is also a big street product here.

A lot of the fruit vendors have taken it to the next level by selling mango, pineapple and some sort of unidentified green fruit in a ready-to-eat format.

Sort of like this:

mango-2

To sell their fruit they even have microphones attached to their carts. Yesterday at around 9pm in the middle of the city, there were two sellers side-by-side shouting across each other, with both of them set up in a 12-foot gap between the crossing of a main street and the entrance of a supermarket.

My Spanish isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure the back and forth went like this:

‘His avocados are shit, buy my avocados. Much better than his shitty avocados’

‘No, his avocados are shit. Buy my avocados. He has psoriasis’

‘I don’t see what that has to do with anything. Probably only saying that because he has shit avocados’

————————————————————————————————————

Then there are ice cream and soft drink companies (the names of which escape me at the moment) that have geriatric armies wearing their company’s uniforms and pulling branded granny-type shopping trolleys through the streets full of the goods.

Everyone of these I’ve seen so far appear to be at least 70 years of age, so I suppose at least it gets them out of the house.

I’m now staying in a flat in a residential part of the city, and today I looked out the window and saw a man, probably about 75, pulling one of these trolleys and dressed up in the gear.

Walking in the middle of the road, all of a sudden he stopped, looked up at the sun, took his hat off, wiped his brow, lit a cigarette, shook his head… and then kept on going with the shopping trolley.

I thought for a second he was considering quitting on the spot, but no, someone somewhere needed a bottle of his Colombian soft drink.

These cigarette and sweet stalls are so common through the city that it feels like the scenery in a Scooby Doo chase scene at times.

(Click on this link to see what I’m talking about)

These people seem to be everywhere, flogging chewing gum and cigarettes.

As of yet, I haven’t actually seen anyone buy anything off any of them, and Colombians don’t seem to smoke very much.

I’m sure I probably just need to pay more attention.

By far the most hustling-est (and I say that with the greatest admiration) thing that I have seen is the system for making phone calls here.

In spite of modern mobile technology and the still thriving Colombian pay phone industry, these mini-kiosks all over the city work on a system where you go up and pay someone to use their phone.

cell-phone-minutes

This is just some pictures I found with a Google Image search, but to further emphasise entrepreneurial spirit on show, this guy also seems to have a service for shining shoes.

Oh, and the phones are attached to a chain so, you know, the person doesn’t boot off with it – although the one I saw being used yesterday was a Nokia 3310.

There are even guys that don’t have a stall, just a high-vis jacket with the words ‘Minutos a todo destino – $100’ on them.

That’s just a rough overview of the stuff street vendors deal in here, and doesn’t even scratch the surface with all the food (most of which I’m not going near because I don’t eat meat).

One thing for certain though is that these Paisas are anything but lazy.  

Is this culture? (and why you should go to Benidorm)

Over the past three weeks I have stayed in five different hostels in three different locations, and while it’s been good, I’m pretty pretty delighted it will be coming to an end tomorrow.

For the next while I will be renting a room off of a Colombian woman and then – if the good lord’s willing – will be moving into a shared flat after that.

I’ve met quite a few different people these past 22 days, most of whom have been lovely, and most of whom have been foreigners.

So now – with the forewarning that I am probably about to come off as a pompous, judgemental wanker – here are a few things I’ve noticed living cheek to jowl with six to eight strangers a night:

The difference between travelling and going on holiday

Travelling is what people do when they want to broaden the mind and enrich the soul, and going on holiday is what people do when they want to get a bit part on ‘Boozed Up Brits Abroad’.

drunk-abroad

That was always the way I had read the situation at least.

Not counting that time I went on a package holiday to Turkey and my Dad made them shut the music off on the party boat, this is the first time I’ve been outside of Europe.

Not to run down anyone’s experience, but from what I’ve seen,  travelling mostly involves booking flights and accommodation, meeting other travellers in whatever hostel you’re staying in and then taking in the contents of the Lonely Planet.

That’s cool, and the bit of that I did was good fun.

But – much like drinking too much Ovaltine – taking in so many tourist attractions in a The Price Is Right conveyor-belt fashion can lose its flavour.

I met this group of around eight Irish people who were all travelling, and maybe I’m biased, but they seemed to be doing it the best.

They veered away from extolling the life-enriching virtues of conversing with old Mayan women, and instead just seemed to be focused on having a good time.

And that, as far as I could tell, was sort of what is good about going on holiday – getting to have a good time without being beaten down by everyday worries.

And that also made me wonder why holidaying is seen as a less perfect way to experience other cultures?

To illustrate my point, before the package holiday became a thing, Benidorm used to be a tiny fishing village.

Back in the 1950s the mayor, a guy called Pedro Zaragoza, had a big vision for filling the place with Scandinavian, British and German holidaymakers.

One stumbling block was that the bikini – a relatively common piece of swimwear across northern Europe – was illegal in Spain

Taking action, Zaragoza rode his Vespa scooter from the southern coast to Madrid to ask General Franco for clemency on the beaches of his would-be tourist trap.

Pedro Zaragoza, the man who had a plan... and a Vespa

Pedro Zaragoza, the man who had a plan… and a Vespa

Impressed by Zaragoza’s eight-hour ride, Franco acquiesced, and the future of Benidorm – with tourism as its lifeblood – was secured.

The highly-flawed logic I’m trying to impose here is that the Germans and Brits taking their holidays in Benidorm have actually helped to shape the culture and identity of a place more than backpackers passing through more exotic destinations could do.

The last time I checked nobody had set up a branch of Lidl up the top of Machu Picchu (Ed. ‘What the fuck are you going on about Michael?’).

Getting off the tourist track, yeah?

For a certain type of traveller, the Holy Grail is doing some sort of activity that is edgier, less-regulated and more in harmony with the ‘real people’ than what the average bovine tourist might do.

I think the intention behind that is a bit mixed up, and – this is just my opinion – is more driven by a desire to rack up down-with-the-locals authenticity points than to learn more about a culture.

To give an example, I met this girl in a hostel in Rio who was very nice but a bit of a hippy (nb: she lives in a van back in the UK).

A few days later I ran into her on this Ilhe Grande island place and she explained that she had stayed in a favela for a few nights.

favela

Isn’t that a bit disrespectful?

On some level doesn’t that fetishise poverty and disregard the risk prevention – both in the favelas and around the city – that the people of Rio have to factor in each day?

I had this guy as my profile picture on Facebook for a long while:

richard_francis_burton_by_rischgitz_1864

That is a guy called Richard Burton (not the actor), and back in the 19th century he spoke around 29 languages and spent most of his time exploring and documenting exotic cultures.

He was also kind of an asshole.

After successfully managing to disguise himself as an Arab and go undercover to make the journey of Hajj (a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) – something prohibited to non-Muslim Europeans at the time – Burton said of the experience:

“A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand. This did not, however, prevent my carefully observing the scene during our long prayer, and making a rough plan with a pencil upon my white ihram.

That roughly translates as: “Ha ha! Fooled ya’ll motherfuckers!!”

I’m definitely labouring this point, but I think there is a bit of a parallel there, even if the context and intentions are different.

Cultural differences 

Breaking away from my fellow hostel-dwelling gringos, I’m hoping the longer I am here, the more I will get to know about the Colombian people.

I’m still pretty ignorant about the geography of the city, and find myself on edge walking through areas I haven’t been before.

Yesterday, I was walking through what appeared to be a fairly industrial section in the west of Medellín next to a dual carriageway.

As I was crossing a slipway, this 1980s Ford Sierra pulled up and the driver started pointing and shouting something at me.

I backed up a few yards and looked in his passenger window at him thinking ‘this is it, this is how I get kidnapped’.

‘Espejo’ he was shouting. That’s Spanish for ‘mirror’. He wanted me to pull out his wing mirror.

There plenty of good reason to be wary of new places, but also plenty of good reason to think that things don’t change that much no matter where you are.

Wherefore art thou art? (And other things I don’t really understand)

Anytime a government has a bit of fiscal belt-tightening to do, you can be pretty sure the arts will be first into the firing line.

Somehow more frivolous than health and education, it’s an area that isn’t pitched as vital to a country’s survival, and only really assists with progress in a peripheral sort of a way.

Back home, we even let All-Ireland winner Jimmy Deenihan be arts minister for three years.

Jimmy Deenihan, arting his brains out

Jimmy Deenihan, arting his brains out

Earlier this week I was taking a look around the Museo de Antioquia, the major art museum here in Medellín.

I was having a difficult time getting my head around a lot of the paintings and sculptures, because the little descriptions that you normally find in museums telling you that the artist was taking a lot of downers when he drew the camel in the bath were missing.

It was tricky.

But then I got to these paintings by this guy called Fernando Botero, and they came with a few more details, especially one he had about notable drug trafficker and Paul Simon-if-he-was-a-fat-man lookalike Pablo Escobar.

pablo escobar

Fernando Botero’s ‘The Death of Pablo Escobar’

For anyone who hasn’t seen Netflix series Narcos, Pablo Escobar grew up in Medellín and based his drug empire here – making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world during the 1980s and 1990s.

This isn’t verbatim, but the description on the wall of the museum said something like this:

‘Through his art, Botero has allowed the people of Medellín to deal with a part of their history they can’t ignore, without allowing it to overshadow the growth and progress of the city moving forward.’

That’s a tall order for anything, but somehow it seemed quite fitting, and I didn’t feel overestimated the impact of this painting of a dead drug dealer.

Especially considering the fact that this Botero guy is still doing the rounds and donated it to the museum where it is free to view for the people of Medellín.

He probably could have flogged it to a Russian oligarch or something and bought a holiday home in Benidorm.

Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero

Sorry, that’s all a bit sombre! This is mostly supposed to be about me stepping on open manhole covers.

Another thing I did in the past few days was go to a Spanish language adaptation of MacBeth that was supposed to work as a retelling Mexico’s history.

It was being performed by this theatre company that are staying in the hostel where I am staying, so I went along mostly out of politeness.

It was good though, even though I didn’t actually understand any of it.

They had a live chicken on stage, so that put people on edge, especially because the audience were all sitting on stage level with the actors.

Then they had a bit where they were chucking knives to each other right next to a few audience members.

At the end – get this – in a Late Late Show-esque flurry of generosity they dished out free booze to everyone in the audience.

Abbey Theatre (or whoever), sit up and take note.

The Irish: Sure aren’t we great

It’s always nice to be noticed.

And if you haven’t done anything worth noticing, then it is always nice for someone with the same passport as you to be noticed – and then to take credit for their achievements.

It’s hardly controversial to say that Irish people enjoy indulging in a bit of vicarious gratification.

Like the time great Irishman Muhammad Ali paid a visit to his ancestral home of Ennis in County Clare:

I have been in Colombia for less than 36 hours, and have already been informed that us (the plain people of Ireland) are of particular interest in Colombia at the moment, due to the monumental ceasefire declaration earlier this week by Colombian guerrillas FARC, and the parallels this situation has with the Irish peace process and the IRA laying down their arms.

Fair play to the lads! (The Colombians I mean, not the FARC or the IRA.)

All of this is according to Alejandro, the bearded and bespectacled self-proclaimed socialist manning the reception desk at the hostel I am staying in.

I may be biased, but it didn’t seem like flattery.

We even had this discussion:

Alejandro: ‘Who is the man, the man who was in the ey-ra (IRA) and is in the parliament? The leader?’

Me: ‘Gerry Adams? *Pause* Or, Geraldo Adams?’

Alejandro: ‘Yes… but you don’t have to translate the name’

It also turns out that for this peace deal to be approved, the Colombians will be indulging in that most Irish of pastimes: the referendum.

On 2 October the people here will head out and vote on whether or not to approve a peace deal agreed with the FARC, and the arguments for and against – at least on a superficial level – seem to bear some similarities to the arguments for negotiating with the IRA’s leadership 25 years ago.

From my limited understanding, it would seem to boil down to whether or not this is a concession to terrorism.

They even have ads.

Like this one, which sort of looks like it was made by someone using Microsoft Clipart: si a la paz

The messages ‘Sí a la paz’ translates as ‘Yes to the peace’.

Something tells me that the opposition campaign’s top line probably isn’t ‘No to the peace’.

Besides peace deals and referendums, much like Ireland, the weather here in Colombia is also a bit shit:

A picture of the rain taken on my backup phone's broken camera. Weather is normally a bit better I've been told.

A picture of the rain taken on my backup phone’s broken camera. Weather is normally a bit better I’ve been told.

On a more personal note, the 48 hours it took me to get here felt like biting down on a piece of Kit-Kat with the foil still stuck on it.

From Ilha Grande where I was staying before (a legitimately idyllic holiday island off the coast of Brazil) it took me a boat trip, an eight-hour bus ride, three flights and one-hour taxi to get where I am now.

It might be that I’m still tired from the trip and staying in an almost deserted hostel, but I’m definitely feeling a bit more of a culture shock.

Today it took me 20 minutes to buy a sim card, and a woman who was a customer in the shop when I first went in waited outside and came up to me afterwards and asked if I wanted her to introduce me to the the people of Medéllin and if she could be my guide.

That’s weird, right? Or maybe people are just nice.

We shall see.