Monday, April 25, 2005

Polite and quiet Colombia...??

In the terminal at Ipiales, near Colombia's frontier with Ecuador, a mother makes the sign of the cross in front of her daughter who is about to get on the minibus headed for Cali. An hour down the road, I can see her logic; I 'm making involuntary signs of the cross myself as our driver leans on the accelerator and prepares to overtake another truck on yet another blind mountain corner. Forget guerillas, kidnappings, gun-wielding drug dealers - by far the greatest danger in Colombia, as far as I can tell, is from normal citizens' approach to highway etiquette "Is this guy crazy, or does everyone drive like this here?" I ask the guy in the seat behind me. He grins from under his broad panama hat and shrugs his shoulders. "This is normal".

Staring into the Russian roulette of the blind bend, we gradually inch past the truck; around the corner the next oncoming vehicle is thankfully still some distance away. The driver glances complacently across at the pretty girl he's selected to occupy the seat next to him in the front of the van, then, moustache twitching, leans forward once more onto the accelerator.

The fact that this is a near-universal driving style is probably a blessing in disguise. Vehicles rounding blind corners *expect* to find someone on their side of the road. Most people honk as they head round the bend. Not everyone is as lucky as us, however. On the road to Cali we see the results of two multi-vehicle accidents, as well as an overturned truck-trailer which has spilled its load of sugar bags all over the highway.

Meanwhile, the scenery is utterly spectacular. As green as Colombia's famous emeralds, the hills of the western cordillera are separated by wide valleys and dizzying ravines. We drop into hot lowlands and climb over cloudy hilltops. Ubiquitous banana plants tumble down the hillsides with their floppy fronds, while the pasture lands at higher altitudes bear resemblance to the prettier parts of Northland, New Zealand. On the roadsides the red-tiled roofs of cottages are framed by sunflowers and bougainvillea, with chickens pecking on the grass outside.

Colombia's fame precedes it like no other country in South America. Images of drugs, danger and violence are triggered off by its very name, and when I email my current location friends and family react like Kathleen Turner's timid romance novelist in Romancing the Stone. "You're where!?!" I'm not immune to the prejudices, and have to suppress a chuckle as we pass lorries with big "Made in Medellin" signs on the back canopy. Later, I find that such reactions aren't restricted to ignorant westerners, but extend to customs officers in neighbouring countries. On returning to Ecuador, I'm subjected to extensive search and questioning by Ecuadorean officials - the first time in about fourteen border crossings in South America I've been given more than a cursory glance. Then, boarding a flight from Peru to Argentina, the sight of the Colombia stamp in my passport provokes a flurry of questions and sharper-than-normal review of my bags from the Peruvians.

But nothing is ever quite as you expect; what I see of Colombia turns out to be considerably more laid back than reputation, or the British Foreign Office, would have it. Strongest first impressions, apart from the driving, are people's almost old-world politeness - in a shop or restaurant you're greeted with a bright "A la orden!" ("at your service!") and farewelled with an effusive "con mucho gusto!" ("it's a pleasure!") before you even have a chance to say "gracias". And the food - you could get fat quickly and happily in Colombia. A regular lunch is big, cheap and hearty, while the stomach-stretching bandeja paisa features five kinds of meat, plus eggs, rice and beans. Plus fried banana with every course – you even get it in your soup.

Everyone's heard stories of tourists getting kidnapped in Colombia by leftist guerrrillas who roam the countryside. But to find a guerilla these days, you'd really have to go looking. The dollars poured in by the United States as part of its "War on Drugs" seem to have given the Colombian army the resources to dominate areas where guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries previously roamed freely. While my Lonely Planet warns that even a stretch of the main highway between the frontier and Cali may be under guerilla control, all we see are a series of army patrols every 50 km or so. Some people whisper that there's collaboration between the army and the guerillas to maintain the conflict and keep the dollars flowing in, and I hear stories of a colonel ordered to pull back when his platoon had surrounded and trapped a group of guerillas. The civil war has been going on so long that a whole generation has been born into the guerilla lifestyle , and no one can explain to me exactly what the conflict's ideological basis is, if it still has one.

Nevertheless, many people seem to be cautiously optimistic about their country's future. "Alvaro Uribe is a good president" says Beatriz, who with her husband Hildebrando runs several small businesses in Cali and around. "He's actually interested in the good of the country, not just in lining his own pocket". Not everyone agrees - I see graffiti criticizing "Fascist Uribe's" privatization policies under a bridge in north Cali. Nil, an anthropologist specializing in Afro-American history in Latin America assures me that “Colombia's biggest problem isn't the guerrilla war - it's corruption”. I question him about other people's view that Uribe is an honest president and he shrugs. "Maybe, but he's in the same pot with everyone else". But even he grudgingly agrees that things are probably on the improve.

The city of Cali sprawls on either side of the river Cauca in a wide valley between the western and central cordillera, dominated by the cultivation of sugar cane. It's neither truly ugly nor pretty - the centre is dominated by bland seventies tower blocks, but it's green in a kind of shaggy, unkempt way. The climate is delicious, the equatorial heat moderated by 1,000 metres of altitude and a breeze which springs up from the river in the aftenoon.

Apart from its fame as the Second City of cocaine, behind Medellin, Cali is also renowned for its nightlife. But either I'm missing something, or this too is exaggerated. Along the 6th avenue in north Cali are a string of gaudy discotheques with flashing lights, tinted glass and overeager doormen hustling for customers. Closer inspection, however, reveals that even on a Saturday night they're largely empty. "I would never go out there anyway" says Monica, a recently graduated clinical psychologist. "Those places are where the lower classes go - and the narcotraffickers. As a girl, you don't really want to attract their attention" I go with her and some friends fifteen blocks north to the "Zona Rosa" where there are a number of bars with cover charges playing a mixture of rock, salsa and electronica But even there, the rumba doesn't quite match the all-night drinking and dancing marathons to be experienced in Peru or Argentina.

Maybe everyone is still recovering from the Feria de Cali, the city's major festival which runs from December 25 – January 1. Or maybe it's just not as wild as it's cracked up to be. A more typical experience seems to be a Saturday afternoon in Chipichape, a popular shopping mall in the converted railway station, where people sit around sipping cerveza michelada, beer served with lemon and salt spread round the rim of the glass. In a well-stocked bookshop the attendant cheerfully spends ten minutes helping me get beyond the Garcia Marquez volumes and find the "contemporary" novel I insist on reading. We skim through a range of tales of political corruption and drug-related violence. "This one used to be banned" she says hopefully.

The next week, on something of a caffeine addict's pilgrimmage, I head up to the coffee-growing region three hours north of Cali. Beatriz gives me a lift up as far as the town of Tulua, where she has a restaurant. On the way we're stopped by, successively, the army, the police and traffic police. The first two are probably looking for "guerrillas and drugs" according to Beatriz, but the traffic police just want to check if we have our lights on. It's now compulsory to drive with your lights on in Colombia, as research has shown it reduces accidents (mind you, so does staying on your side of the road), and the police routinely hand out instant fines for failure to do so. Hildebrando has apparently managed both to collect a couple of tickets for having his lights off, and flatten his car's battery by leaving them on. Beatriz shakes her head and says something about "revenue collection"

Some things don't change - I laugh and tell her about people's frustration with speed cameras and quota-filling traffic police in New Zealand. But although she gives hard stares to the series of nervous and scarily youthful-looking officers who stop us, she supports the principle of the checkpoints. "It's good that they're concerned about security" she says.

Back in Cali, on a Sunday afternoon Beatriz and Hildebrando take me on a drive through the south of the city and up to Cerro de Cristo Rey, for a panoramic view of the valley. Sprawling out into the sugar cane fields to the southeast of the city are the new settlements of desplazados, people who have migrated from rural areas, often as refugees from ongoing violence in their homelands. The settlements are home to the grim reality described recently by Martin Amis and mirroring that of Medellin's hillside comunas depicted in novels and films such as La Virgen de los Sicarios and Rosario Tijeras

But while most Colombians have been touched in some way by their country's troubles, they don't exactly appreciate the almost voyueristic focus that they receive in the outside world. Monica gets mad when I show her the Martin Amis article. She is currently applying for two jobs - to work with traumatised desplazados or in a government programme designed to address inter-family violence, a huge problem in Colombia. She also has plenty of stories from her time as an intern in the public hospital. But she's still upset about the obsession with all the worst things about her country. She mutters something about "ignorant foreign journalists", and I have a hard time explaining to her about the brilliance of London Fields and The Information.

Everywhere you go in South America people want to know "what do you think of (insert country/region/village)?" But in Colombia they have an additional question. "What do people in your country who haven't been here think about Colombia?" I have to tell the truth; people think it's dangerous, they're a bit afraid to come and visit. My questioners nod their heads sadly. What exactly, it seems they're wondering, does this beautiful and welcoming country have to do to beat its bad press?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Zealand in "Most Expensive Place to Study" Shock

Ha! According to this article , New Zealand is the most expensive place in the Western world, behind Japan, to undertake university study. An independent study has established that, once the cost of living and the amount of support that comes in the form of loans is factored in, NZ easily beats out supposedly expensive places like the U.S.

I knew there was a reason why I spent good parts of my honours year eating a cup of rice per day and still got saddled with a loan that was growing faster than I could pay it off for my first two years as a hard-working public functionary...

And this comparison is made in today's environment, where students and their families know what to expect, and those currently studying are exempted from paying interest on their loans. I started studying in 1990, against the background of a long history of minimal fees and a universal student allowance. The next year, without any warning, the government allowed fees to increase tenfold and dumped student allowances. But financial support was still available - just sign up for a loan! The catch was that we started paying interest from day one, at a fixed rate of 8%, which for much of the intervening time has been above the market rate. By the time I finished my degree, I'd already been charged thousands of dollars in interest.

Meanwhile, the University Bursary and Scholarship awards, which were originally intended to support high-achieving students, had been allowed to be frittered away to a pittance by inflation. I got an 'A' Bursary and four subject scholarships, which netted me a grand total of $200, almost enough for a couple of textbooks.

My time at university spanned from 1990-94. It wasn't until 1999, with a change of government, that the system was reformed somewhat, with interest rate exemptions and write-offs, and the reintroduction of genuine rewards for doing well at school (I believe a subject scholarship is now worth about $1,000).

Am I bitter and twisted? Hell no. There's no point fretting about the time and place you were born into; we're still amongst the most 0.0000001% most privileged people to have ever lived, as Simon Doherty is fond of saying. And I've never exactly been stopped from doing anything I wanted to do. If I hadn't taken off to travel for 3 years, my loan wouldn't have compounded quite so much or so quickly. Although on the other hand if I'd taken my supervisor's advice and gone off to do a PhD in Philosophy in Indiana it would have grown just the same.

But the revelation that, compared to our OECD cousins, life as a student really is quite tough, makes me feel a bit less guilty about some things. Like quitting my 20-hour per week job at the gas station with its miraculously entrenched penal rates ($13.50 an hour on Sundays!) towards the end of my third year of study. After all, I had worked there four years, and 20 hours a week is substantial - my grades did actually improve afterwards.

It could be argued that NZ only appears to be more expensive than places like the U.S. because the comparison is with public universities. And to get a good education in America you have to pay exorbitant fees for somewhere private, right? Whereas in NZ all the public universities are of a "good standard". Well, I can't speak for the quality of the state universities in the U.S. (though I understand that many of them are very good; my sister is studying law at one right now). But at the University of Canterbury when I was there, I can offer testimony that the English (first-hand) and Modern Languages (second-hand, from my sister) departments were both sub-par. If anyone learnt anything or was stimulated/challenged in stage III English, it certainly wasn't related to the classes. By contrast the Philosophy department, where I ended up doing Honours, was great :)

One more thing - this study is an international one, and I would say has been done principally at the spreadsheet level. It doesn't even take into account the actual conditions students have to live in while they study. There's no way they will have drilled down to the level of analysing:
-what kind of houses do students live inhabit in NZ (old rotting wooden ones)
-what direction do they face (south)
-what is the average temperature in, say, Christchurch, during the winter months (pretty damn cold)
-how much does it cost to properly heat one of these houses (more than students can afford).

OK, so it was never exactly like being a campesino in Juliaca, but the more I think about this, the more self-righteously indignant I get. Could the level of genuine difficulty in getting by be an excuse for why I didn't advance in any sporting, social or cultural fields when I was at university, and didn't really achieve anything apart from passing my courses?

It could be, if it wasn't for the beer...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Epiphanies of the Selfish Genes...

Once in a while you have a little epiphany; the mists of your ego roll away, and something about the world becomes clear and concrete. Struck by what you feel is a new understanding, you resolve to become a different, better person. Usually, you're soon back in the grip of your weaknesses and foibles and stupid little hang-ups, which short-circuit your better intentions. But at odd opportune moments, something of your moment of clarity resurfaces and reminds you to get some perspective – occasionally it even stops you from behaving like quite so much of an asshole. So in some incremental way, you have in fact become a better person…

Last weekend I met for the first time my five week-old niece Alexandra, or Alex as she'll be known from now on unless she perversely decides to prefer the longer version of her name. She's small and delicate, not quite entirely helpless, and is just figuring out that the humaniverse comes in discrete person-size packages. I should stress that I do not “like babies”. At my workplace, when the latest new mother brings in her baby to show off at morning tea and have colleagues compete to goo-ga at the child, I usually become extra interested in the report I’m writing. Frankly, I find the baby-appreciating ritual an uncomfortable mixture of baffling, cloying and frightening.

But seeing Alex was different. It’s not like I was suddenly in raptures of joy, struck by the beauties of babydom or, god forbid, convinced that I’d like one myself. But I did feel something new and unique; when she smiled at me (or was it a yawn) I felt like I’d been favoured by royalty. I wanted to protect her, give her presents, maybe teach her some stuff when she gets older. It was genuinely sad to think that I mostly won’t be around to see what happens as she grows up.

This is, of course, because she’s related to me. As Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker et al would happily point out, my sudden attack of tenderness is related to the fact that a whole bunch of my selfish genes are seeing themselves perpetuated, and without even any effort on my part - happily, Sophia and Jeremy have volunteered for the task of cleaning up the poo. But who cares? It’s still an epiphanistic experience, and I know that young Alex will pop up in my thoughts every now and again to remind me not to be so bitter and grumpy – she’s one more reason to live.
How to Make a Comment on this Blog...

If you want to comment on a current post, scroll down to the bottom of the post. You will see a little hyperlink which says "comments". Click on this, and it will take you to that post's individual web page. Scroll down again to the bottom of the text, and you will see a hyperlink which says "Post a Comment". Click on this, and you will be able to write your comments...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Bidsta comments on the cricket...

Into the 4th day of the NZ vs. Sri Lanka test at Napier, and although the flat pitch might have made a high-scoring draw inevitable anyway, one might have expected even a smidgen more imagination from the NZ selectors in the hope of snatching a win while the Sri Lankans are still adjusting to conditions.

But with all the pace bowlers with any kind of variation or penetration (Shane Bond, Jacob Oram, Ian Butler) injured, and Daniel Vettori rested, to whom do the selectors turn to fill out the bowling complement? None other than Kyle Mills, who has taken one test wicket at 99.0 and is notable for delivering at a friendly pace and being hit all over the park in the closing stages of one-day internationals. What was the expectation? That Sri Lanka would be lulled into a false sense of security by the sheer ordinariness of a pace bowling lineup reading James Franklin, Chris Martin, Kyle Mills? Or - Kyle Mills is supposed to be a nice guy - was he intended to gently persuade the Sri Lankans to get out in return for a round of beer?

The inevitable answer is that resources are thin; who else would they turn to? Well, ideas a bit more geared towards the prospect of actually winning would have included someone who tries to bounce the ball, such as Wellington's Mark Gillespie, or a second spinner (not quite sure who).

Now, as Sri Lanka scores rapidly to overtake 561, there's even the prospect that NZ will be left with a tricky day-and-a-bit and will collapse dramatically against uncoventional but pacy SL Malinga the slinger. It will be decribed as an "inspired" spell of fast bowling, such as those that players such as Sami, Ahktar, McGrath, Waqar Younis, etc. always seem to produce specifically against us, causing the entire batting lineup to collapse in a snivelling heap in the 3rd or 4th innings. Call me pessimistic.