The last Colombia episode

I’m back where this Colombia chapter of my life began, sweltering in Santa Marta wishing the neighbours would keep their music to themselves.

20180102_175457.jpgAfter 4 years and 7 months in Bogota, and a total of 5 years and 3 months in Colombia, I’m heading back to Australia, back to where I came from, downsizing from a city of nearly 10 million inhabitants to a tiny speck on the map with maybe 200 people living there. I’m going back to a country where I know how things work, where I can communicate in my native tongue and to a place where there is peace and quiet.

I’m not going alone; Edwin and D are migrating with me as they have permanent residency visas as a result of the incredibly detailed partner visa application we submitted in December 2016. However this time, the shoe will be placed on the other foot. They will be the ones seeking my help to interpret and navigate interactions with institutions. They will be the ones grasping for the correct words and tone to use for the situation. They will be the ones missing things they love the most, apple flavoured soft drink, street food like empanadas and salchipapa, being a short walk from a corner store, not having to remember anyone’s name as you can call them amigo/a, vecino/a or Señor/a and being a long, expensive series of flights away from family.

It’s going to be a new experience for all of us, as certainly these past five years immersed in another culture, another language and with a family have changed me. I’m reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race to try and learn what life in Australia is like for people with brown skin, so I can be prepared for what D might find at school and in the street. At the same time I’m desperately hoping that my part of rural Australia is more welcoming than I fear them to be and that D’s Colombian nationality and chocolate coloured skin won’t elicit bullying taunts from others.

I’m still excited, even if it is a hard road ahead.

Now that I’ve finished work and the stress of moving out of our apartment, deciding what will go with us in the nine suitcases we are taking to Australia, selling off furniture and giving away things and finally selling the car, has passed, in addition to my curiosity about the move for my boys, I’m free to think about the things I’m most looking forward to. Family outings on the Murray River, teaching Edwin and D to waterski, renewing old friendships and getting involved in my community, camping trips and being more involved in D’s school and extra curricular activities.

When I think about these things, I feel like my life has sort of been on hold – despite living half a decade in Colombia, having a great, career-oriented job, making wonderful friends and travelling to amazing places. I never came here indefinitely. I always knew I would return to Australia, or go somewhere else. So perhaps with that always in the back of my mind, I never truly put down the type of roots you do when you’re planning on staying. I barely have any female Colombian friends, I’ve never once looked at apartments or houses to buy. I always said no to D’s pleas for a dog because getting a pet to Australia from Colombia is an exhausting process that takes a long time and a lot of money. When my last visa expired, I was eligible for permanent residency, but instead renewed for a temporary visa only.

Ever since my first day in Colombia, surrounded by suitcases full of belongings with which to start a new chapter, the suitcases have been kept at the ready for this day, the end of the chapter and my return to Australia.

Edwin delights in telling people, usually after they’ve made some comment about me speaking Spanish well, that I even break out in typical costeño speak “no joda, que vaina” being one of them. But a few local idioms parroted out don’t mean that you belong there or are comfortable. I’m sure Edwin will feel the same in Australia, however the move is more indefinite and there’s a greater purpose to the move for him. It’s an opportunity to receive a fair wage for the work he does, but importantly, it’s for D to have more opportunities in his life. One thing all parents do is make sacrifices for the sake of their children.

Coming back to the coast from my little third floor ivory tower in the north of Bogota I’m once again surrounded by sad things. People without work struggling to feed their families and get proper health care, people with jobs who are woefully underpaid and exploited, young women without children who stay at home just to cook lunch and wash their men’s clothes, pregnant underage girls, cheating partners, grisly close up photos of murdered people on the front page of the newspaper, hearing that people I know have met with violent deaths, people who have to flee their homes because their own neighbours threaten them and so on. In Bogota I was shielded from most of this, or was at least at a very long arm’s length away. In Santa Marta, the whiff of danger and stench of depravity manifests in fearfulness.

My Bogota experience is such a polar opposite, that if I only had that to go on, everything would be amazing and incredible (except perhaps the traffic). But a fancy suburb of Bogota is not representative of the whole country, it’s just the cosmetic enhancement on the surface, whereas here in Santa Marta, I’ve punctured the skin.

Edwin is happy to be here, although he’s feeling sentimental and nostalgic because our departure date is just around the corner. But I’m happy to be going because I’m too delicate for this perpetual onslaught of a human condition that I don’t want to accept.

 

Feliz Dia from my little feminist

A light knock on my bedroom door this morning was followed by D coming in to greet me. He flopped his lanky teen body on the bed and burrowed his head into my side. As I put my arm around him he said “Feliz Dia de La Mujer“.

My earliest memories of International Women’s Day are from after I had started work in the late nineties, where my female colleagues celebrated the day and my workplace observed the day with seminars, morning teas and the colour purple. I don’t recall anything from my school days giving cause to note the 8th of March as any special day, which is a crying shame.

It’s probably given this that I received a nice surprise on the first International Women’s Day I spent in Colombia in 2013. D was then in Grade 4 and he, along with Edwin, wished me, la suegra and Edwin’s brother’s girlfriend a happy women’s day. I hadn’t expected this at all, and truth be told, I probably hadn’t even realised that it was International Women’s Day until that point.

Colombia is still quite a macho country, especially on the Caribbean Coast where my boys are from. Although men have an utmost respect for their mothers, that sadly doesn’t transfer often enough into respect for partners and young girls. So I was extremely pleased to see that International Women’s Day is acknowledged widely in Colombia and instilled in children at school, so much to the point that I’m surprised it hasn’t become a national holiday yet (although really, maxing out with 19 public holidays per year is probably sufficient).

Feliz Dia del La Mujer
A present from D in 2015

After D had left for school, Edwin came into our bedroom bearing pancakes and with another “Feliz Dia de La Mujer“. It gives me a nice cosy feeling to see the wonderful example that Edwin is for D and know that D is growing up in an environment where there is respect for women.

D is exposed to a family environment where there is sharing of household tasks and responsibilities and where a woman is the main source of family income. This should all be part of a definition of normal, and therefore I sincerely hope that these elements of his upbringing will be indiscernible in him as a man, and intrinsic to his future as a feminist.

Ashes and crosses

Today is one of the strangest days of the year in Colombia and every year it catches me off guard. 

On my way into the shop at lunch time today, I noticed a woman with a dirty face walking towards the shop from the other direction. She caught my attention because the only Colombians who go around in public with dirty faces are homeless people who also mutter to themselves. 

It wasn’t until I saw her up close that I realised the dirty black smudge on her forehead was an ashen cross. 

Today is Ash Wednesday, miércoles de las cenizas, and so the Catholics go to church to be blessed by the priest who dips his fingers in charcoaly ashes and paints crosses on the foreheads presented to him. Or at least I think that’s what happens (note that no actual research took place in the writing of this post). 

The first year I had no idea what was going on until I asked Edwin later on, and still every year. Now every year, the first ashen cross on a forehead I see I remember, and then forget until the days rolls around the next. It’s something that strikes me as so unusual and yet so mundane in the Colombian reality that it just gets bundled up with all the other normal eccentricities of this country. 

You have to wear the ashen cross for the whole day, so as I walked back to my building that is amongst a bunch of office towers, every second or third person I saw dressed was dressed in their impeccable business suit with a smudged cross on their face.  

Two people who stepped into the lift with me had clearly received their blessings and didn’t appear to think that this might help or hinder any chance of a promotion at work. 

Last year I remember taking a photo of the news reader whose forehead was emblazoned with an ashen cross. Even on national news! 

Even more unbelievable is seeing the President of Colombia with his blessed forehead out and about performing his regular activities. Edwin was at the ANATO tourism event today and managed to get a selfie-style photo with the President in it. (If you’re not familiar with the Colombian President and the latest Nobel Peace prize winner, you may need to zoom in on the grey haired man below to see what I mean) 

I guess I can add this to my list of the little things about Colombia that I’ll miss when we move, the surprise, confusion and curiosity of miércoles de las cenizas

Selso

Tonight in the urban jungle of Bogotá I was walked home by Selso, a Kogi from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Selso caused a few heads to turn in his traditional all white clothing carrying his poporo and wiping the saliva and coca leaf covered stick over it to make it grow. It’s not often you see indigenous people from the Caribbean Coast in Bogotá, and even rarer walking the streets of residential suburbs with a costeño and a foreigner.  

It’s Selso’s first time in Bogotá. He’s a guide at Turcol and is here to talk to people about Ciudad Perdida at the ANATO travel show this week.

Seeing the insult, not the silver lining

I had to apply for a new visa last week. It was three years since receiving my last visa and so I had forgotten about this particular niche of Colombian bureaucracy which is a jab-cross punch combination to anyone’s sanity.

As per usual, the process at the visa office was fairly straight-forward and civilised. You have your turn and a fairly comfortable seat to sit in while you wait for your number to come up and so begin the toing-and-froing with the officer who calls your number. However, once you get your visa you then get hit by the more powerful cross punch at Migracion Colombia, and this is where your day can go seriously downhill as you face unruly herds of foreigners, impatient and hungry children and battle to find a seat while you complete your visa registration and apply for a new cedula (identity card).

This is also where I made a beginner’s misstep that I really should have perfected by now.

On arrival at Migracion Colombia’s offices, a 10 minute walk from the visa office, I elbowed my way to the front door to gain entrance. After arbitrarily checking my bag, and more diligently checking my passport, the security guard asked me if I was pregnant and cast his eyes towards my stomach, whose size was enhanced by the knotted tie of my wrap dress. Stunned by this comment, that is only crude and an insult when it is on the wrong side of correct, I responded “No” and he let me through the door with a wave towards the darkened interior where the end of the line was lost somewhere in the crowd.

Only after squishing past him and seeing exactly how long the line was did I realise my error.

In Colombia in banks and public offices there are preferential lines for the disabled, the elderly and for pregnant women. When there are massive queues, having one of these priority client tickets is like having a winning raffle ticket, you wave it about madly to get up front and collect your prize before they draw another number out. I had been offered one of these and in all my naïve honesty I refused it, taking the guard’s comments as an insult rather than as a golden opportunity.

I spent the next 20 minutes in the queue to get my turn number kicking myself.

I spent the following 30 minutes waiting in the scrabble for the document check shaking my head at my stupidity.

And I spent the 2 hours and 45 minutes after that stewing over every tiny detail of that interaction with the guard as I saw other previously non-priority numbers had been upgraded to priority and catapulted ahead of me and as the officials took their lunch breaks leaving only a couple of desks open over two hours to process all these foreigner’s visa registrations, cedula applications and other varied processes.

I was tempted to get up and leave, but then once I’d gotten to a certain point of waiting, there was no return. So I sucked it up and instead of taking just the morning as I had planned for, it took almost my whole day and I arrived at work well beyond late, beaten, exhausted and hangry.

If I was a little smarter what would I have done better?

  1. Feigned pregnancy and taken the free priority pass
  2. Done the whole visa + cedula thing on a day other than Monday (at the beginning of the school year when there were dozens of the Ministry of Education’s volunteer English teachers’ visa applications being lodged)
  3. Separated the two processes, visa one day, registration and cedula the next. It also would have helped getting to Migracion Colombia for the visa registration and cedula process at the beginning of the day before the wave of new visa recipients come in from the visa office.

So this morning, as I planned to go pick up my new cedula, I thought about things a bit harder. I rode my bike to Migracion Colombia, grinning as I whizzed past all the cars in banked up, peak hour traffic and delighting in the beautiful morning sunshine. I arrived at 8:10am and the office was virtually empty of any clients, it even looked spacious in comparison to Monday week ago. I went straight to the window to pick up my shiny new cedula and within a minute I was skipping out the doors and getting on my bike again. Already the memory of the previous stressful experience at the same office fading away so that if I come back in another three years time, I’ll probably be in another charmed state and repeat all of my above mistakes again.

 

Making Long Term Plans

As 2016 drew to a close, Edwin and I were frantically organising the documents and their respective translations to English to start our journey to Australia.

Although I’m not sure you could really call it the start of our journey to Australia. I think it actually started somewhere on the Panamericana highway between Ipiales and Pasto on the first of January in 2016 where I, hit with the full force of nostalgia of New Years Day in my home town, suggested that it might be time to make plans to move our family to Australia. Edwin agreed and we decided to save up the hefty application fee during 2016 and apply by the end of October.

Although our timelines blew out a bit, we were able to submit the application before Christmas in a frenzy of stitching together pdfs of the original documents and their translations so they wouldn’t take up so much space in the allotted 60 documents per person in the application, naming all the files in an orderly fashion, creating spreadsheets to keep track of the documents uploaded and to be uploaded for each of us and a whole lot of printing and scanning so that everything could be attached to the electronic application – since we are now well and truly in the 21st century and you are no longer required to stuff a tree in an envelope and send it to the immigration office.

Even though we had most of our documents ready, it still required four full days to attach them correctly to Edwin’s partner application with dependent child included and it was a juggling act with our Christmas holiday plans and my studies also on the go.

Now that we’ve submitted the application, and Edwin and D have had their biometric data collected, we sit tight and wait for any messages of additional information required, the details to schedule the medical exam and hopefully, hopefully, within 9 to 12 months, that we receive a joyous email advising of a visa being granted so we can move to Australia.

Nine to twelve months seems like a long time, and it is. A baby can be conceived and born in the time it takes to receive notification of me being able to live in my home country with my family who happen to be of another nationality. For many people  in a similar situation looking at the same visa type, this timeframe is probably torturously long. For others of other nationalities trying to apply for partner visas in countries with different restrictive requirements (I’m looking at you, UK) it might seem but a tiny hurdle in comparison to restrictive eligibility criteria.

For us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy our (hopefully) final year in Colombia (for now, at least). We can really make the most of our time and lifestyle here. D can drink Postobon manzana as much as he wants (I’m too afraid to tell him that soft drink flavour doesn’t exist in Australia), we can eat delicious pan de bonos, enjoy the freedom that walking to work allows, be grateful to have a cleaning lady come to our apartment once per week, look at the cerros every day and feel the inspiration of living in the mountains, spend time with friends and Colombian family and visit places on our Colombia bucket list.

Now that we’ve made our large, non-refundable investment in moving to Australia and I talk to more people about it, many are asking me why are we moving if we enjoy a greater disposable income here than we will likely have in Australia, if we do truly enjoy our lives here and I’m not debilitated by homesickness. In other words, we’re on a good wicket, why change that?

True, they are all valid points. But so is the fact that I will have spent over 5 years living here – which I consider a decent chunk of time, Edwin genuinely wants to move to Australia and be closer to my family and also to have a fairer earning capacity in his chosen career, it is a good time for D to move and learn English and have better education opportunities than he might have here and really I am keen for a little bit of that Australian lifestyle, freedom and space that I love.

We will always have the opportunity to come back to Colombia at some point in the future if we decide to (if my Colombian visa officer is reading this, please do give me a new TP-10 partner visa tomorrow) and perhaps we may even live somewhere else in the world. Who knows?

All I know is that we are half way through our two-year plan to move to Australia and Australia is where we are keen to be for the foreseeable future. The journey ahead won’t be without heartaches, tough times and likely tears, but there will also be adventure, opportunities and new family memories for us to make together.

 

 

 

Spot the difference

20161008_142411.jpg
Spot the difference, real vs fake (hint: bottom 2 are fake)

Learning to spot the difference between real and fake bank notes in Colombia is an easy but important skill to have.

Regardless of how easy it is to spot the difference (and it is very easy by feeling the thicker paper and the pixelated print job), there’s a degree of difficulty added in. You can be awesome at knowing the difference and seeing the difference, but then environmental factors come in to play, which actually means you can get it wrong and end up losing money. Which is what happened to me today.

You see, when you are distracted or are just trusting, or naive, you are much more susceptible to falling victim to the bank note switcharoo.

Here’s how it happens.

You get to your destination and pay the taxi driver the fare. In my case, the fare was $6,900 and I handed over a $5000 and $2000 peso note, said thanks and then glanced down at my bag to pick it up and depart the taxi. I’d performed the transaction in a manner of ‘keep the change’.

Then the driver says, “This note is not good, please give me another one.”

I looked at the $5000 peso note he was giving me back, and sure enough, a single glance tells me it is fake.

I am surprised. I received it as change from Juan Valdez, and cashiers in stores are very vigilant about receiving fake notes. I don’t have another five thousand peso note to give him.

I then give the taxi driver a $20,000 peso note. He takes it and then says “Ufff, can you give me something smaller.” This is not an unreasonable request, although most taxi drivers can change a $20,000 note. I start looking in my purse and take the note back and shove it in.

I say I only have $4000 pesos. Taxi driver says “That’s okay, just give me that.”

I’m a little dubious about him accepting well below the fare, but give him the two $2000 peso notes and leave the taxi.

I was meeting friends for coffee so I showed them the fake $5000 peso note “Look what I got today!”

Later, as we were paying, I took out a $20,000 peso note out of my purse and as soon as I unfolded it, I knew it was fake too.

Scammed! I felt so silly and couldn’t believe that I’d gotten two fake notes totalling AUD$11.30 (a day’s minimum wage in Colombia).

In essence, the taxi driver had switched both the $5000 and $20,000 notes I’d given him for fake ones. He fooled me twice over, first by pretending I’d given him the fake fiver, and secondly by pretending he didn’t have change for a $20,000 note and switching my real note for a fake one.

I’ve only received a fake note once before, a couple of years ago when I got a $2000 peso note, also from a taxi driver.

Mistake #1 – taking a taxi in the street. Immediately upon doing this, you should pay a lot more attention to what’s going on. If you use a taxi app the risk of being fleeced is minimised and you can make a complaint because you have a record of the driver’s details. I should have taken note of the licence plate of the taxi I got in the street.

Mistake #2 – believing that I’d given him a fake $5000. No sir, that was not the case. You know when you have a fake note in your wallet. While you might not notice it when you receive it, you always spot the difference later when you go to use it for a payment.

Mistake #3 – not being on alert when the taxi driver handed me back money a second time after the first “this is fake” pass and paying closer attention to what was going on. Each time he only handed back one note so there wasn’t anything to compare between a fake and a real one.

Mistake #4 – thinking I’d been given the fake notes by a chain store (that had also given me a pamphlet about the security features of the new $50,000 notes about to be introduced, how ironic). If this kind of thing happens in a taxi, it’s far more likely that’s the origin of the fake notes.

So the take home lesson is be alert, be vigilant, and doubly so if you are a foreigner. It’s 78 days until Christmas, so robberies are going to go up and there are probably going to be more fake note scams going around. Keep your cash safe people!