a little cameo

Life in Colombia and everything that goes with it

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.

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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

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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!

 

Back to study nerves

This week I will start studying a Masters degree and I’m nervous.

I had been thinking for awhile that in this country where a Masters is common educational currency to obtain work, and for my future aspirations when one day I am back in Australia, that I should go back to formal study.

It wasn’t an easy personal journey to get to applying for the course and perhaps it’s ironic that my first subject is Economics, as the opportunity cost of further study has been a key consideration player in the decision making process. The opportunity cost of the time I need to allocate, and the financial resources required were the two main obstacles I needed to overcome before enrolling.

The investment of a large sum of borrowed money and taking on the responsibility of paying that off was critical and I think many people, at some stage or other, question whether it is worth it. The commitment of time that I currently allocate to other, pleasurable activities like outings with my family and reading and writing has been another weight on my mind.

However, advancement requires sacrifices. And I always say without risk, there is no reward. So I needed to just dive in.

I spoke about going back to study with a few friends, and one of them who is doing an Executive MBA told me that we study to learn new things, it’s not supposed to be easy.

So I did it. I applied on a Monday, woke up to an offer letter on a Wednesday and enrolled that very same day. I left myself no more time or space to entertain the doubts and analyse again my decision.

I’ve chosen to study an online Master of International Business via Deakin University. The ability to study online, while not my preferred study mode for success, was a deciding factor. I know we will move to Australia in the near future, and if I only study one subject per semester, it will take me four years to complete, so the online course offers me flexibility in where I’m located.

I’m hoping to cast aside the niggling fears and doubts about balancing study with family and work commitments, the terror of studying subjects that I didn’t consider myself good at in my undergraduate course and that I barely passed, and the certainty that I won’t have time to read for pleasure.

Most importantly of all, I just need to have faith in myself and put in the work required.

Do you have any study tips to share for going back to study?

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Hand-me-downs

We bought these Cons for D a year ago but he’s outgrown them and I’ve discovered they fit me. 

Getting hand-me-downs from a 12 year old in a country where I often struggle to get ladies shoes to fit my size 9-10 foot. Strange but true.  

Would you like a side of crazy with your order?

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in San Francisco last week for work to visit my colleagues based there.

It was the first time I’ve spent anything longer than an airport connection in the US since the six months I spent in LA and cross-country road tripping in 2011, and my first time in San Fran since it was part of a two-day stop on my year long travels in 2004.

As is often the case when I’m in an English-speaking country again, I found myself speaking to people in Spanish, especially at the airport when they would ask me something and I would respond “Sí”. I also started speaking to my colleagues in Spanish at some point and had to go back to the beginning and start again in English.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how many people I heard speaking Spanish in the streets in San Francisco. I’m guessing there were lots of tourists visiting as I saw lots of families shopping heavily (because I spent all my spare time in the shops too!), but then the cleaning ladies at my hotel were speaking Spanish and the doorman at the office building greeted me in Spanish after he learned I live in Colombia. My first night was the night of the Copa America match where Colombia unfortunately lost to Chile and I saw people in yellow Colombian fútbol shirts pass by in the street.

I was surprised to find that in summer the weather was going to be around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, the same as Bogota’s year-round temperature, but unlike Bogota where the four seasons in one day stays on repeat, it was bright and sunny (unusually lovely weather according to my friends in San Fran).

Anytime I go home to Australia or visit other Westernised countries now, I always feel guilty about putting toilet paper in the toilet instead of the bin. I’m not really sure how come in Latin America the plumbing system fails when a small wad of paper enters it, but it takes awhile to break that mentality and I always end up thinking about it for a few seconds every time I go to the bathroom.

I also suffer from nervous tipping syndrome. I’m not sure how to calculate the tip and how to avoid offending. Again, I had forgotten that in the US the published prices exclude tax, and that also needed to be taken into consideration. I couldn’t just pull out a $1 note to pay for the magnet which cost 99 cents because the final register price was $1.08. Americans must be excellent at maths with all these calculations to do to figure out the real price of something.

But I would have to say that the most confronting part of being in San Francisco, was seeing the sheer number of homeless and mentally ill people in the city streets. I was overwhelmed by the number of people talking to themselves or with someone not visible to everyone else because it would have been every second block or so.

In Bogota there are a lot of beggars, a lot of homeless people and a lot of mentally ill people in the streets. While I don’t see it often in the area where I live and work, I see it frequently in other parts of Bogota. On my last two visits back to Melbourne, I also noticed a larger number of people begging and living in the city streets than I ever recall seeing when I lived there.

But I have never seen a person shooting up in the middle of the day in the middle of the city. I have never seen a person taking a dump beside a small plaza of people eating their lunches. They were things I saw during the two lunch breaks I had in San Francisco.

On my final evening, I had dinner with some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen since I was living in Los Angeles, a friend from my hometown and his fiancee. She is an emergency room doctor at a hospital in downtown San Francisco, and when I mentioned the number of crazy people I’d seen and how shocked I’d been, she explained that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. It is where many people from across the states who are living with mental and drug abuse issues come due in some part to a more liberal and tolerant society.

My friend said that she will often see patients come into emergency who had literally just gotten off a Greyhound bus and arrived in San Francisco. And there are others that she sees on a fairly regular basis coming in and out of the emergency ward. It’s really sad.

Returning to Colombia I told Edwin about what I had seen on the streets of San Francisco. He couldn’t believe what I was describing. He hasn’t been to the US yet, so his perceptions are those that are typical for Colombians based on what is shown in the media. He has this perception of the US being clean, organised, full of opportunity, without corruption and without the poverty issues that Colombia has, with a far more advanced society and with access to programs and support for vulnerable communities.

I’m not sure if destroying Edwin’s image of the US is a good thing or not, but one thing is for sure, there is the good, the bad and the sad in all places.

Chinatown in San Francisco

Chinatown in San Francisco

Just put a little stone under your tongue

“A what?!” I exclaimed, stopping in my tracks and turning to Edwin at my side.

“A little stone,” he repeated calmly.

We were walking in the centre of Bogota from the Flea Market in the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogota carpark along the Carrera 7 in search of pan de bono to snack on when I started complaining of having a stitch in my side. I’m not really sure how it got there, because I wasn’t exerting myself any more than a slow stroll through a shopping centre, but it was grabbing at me below my ribs.

It was then that I learned the word for a stitch is vaso and along with that new tidbit came a ridiculous-sounding home remedy. Edwin had just told me that to cure myself of the stitch I needed to put a pebble under my tongue.

I looked at him disbelievingly. How could putting a pebble under your tongue fade the pain of a stitch? I also wondered how I hadn’t heard this before, but Colombia is such a hotbed of superstitions and home remedies you could never claim to learn them all.

Edwin asked D to corroborate his story, and after a bit more feeding of parts of the story, D acknowledged that yes, if he had a stitch he knew that putting a little stone under his tongue would cure him.

I’ve gotten much better at just accepting some things since moving to Colombia, so my challenge back to Edwin was where was I supposed to find a pebble that I would be able to put in my mouth. We were walking along dirty streets that no one in their right mind would dare to stoop down, pick something up and put in their mouth after only a cursory wipe down with their own saliva. It’s the kind of street where a mum would just throw the baby’s dummy out if it fell on the ground, there would be no picking up, sucking on it and stuffing it back into baby’s mouth.

He shrugged, and I said meanly “So I’m just supposed to carry a pebble with me in case I get a stitch?”

The stitch eventually passed and so did my memory of the remedy until I was talking to colleagues over lunch and I remembered to ask them if they’d ever heard of a home remedy involving a pebble under the tongue. They hadn’t, nor had they ever heard anything about a cure for stitches. I figured that it was a costeño home remedy, not one shared by the rolos of Bogota.

I got the chance to test out the pebble under the tongue theory yesterday as we hiked to some waterfalls outside of Bogota. On our way back to the car we had to climb a punishingly steep hill, and at the top I felt the sharp pang of a stitch. Being on a gravel road there were lots of pebbles available, so I bent over to pick up a small stone.

As I was trying to give it a little spit wash, Edwin opened the water bottle and poured it over my hand, providing a much better wash for the stone that while I could feel the dirt crunch in my teeth was a more palatable type of dirty than the streets of Bogota.

I expected it to work instantly, of course. Perhaps more strange was that I actually believed that it would work. Edwin is quite a persuasive orator and I had come to believe that in the face of a stitch, all I needed was a pebble.

“It’s not working, I can still feel the stitch,” I stated, disappointed.

“Just give it some time,” Edwin responded, keen to keep moving and not have all the other passing walkers stare and wonder what his weirdo foreigner was on about. I forced him to take a photo of the stone under my tongue so I could post it here, but lucky for all of us, it didn’t show the stone, so there is no gaping dentist’s-view of my mouth for you to be grossed out by, because really, that would have been stretching the relationship.

I started walking again, this time downhill and over time the stitch faded. I think it faded mostly because that’s the normal course of these things, not because I was sucking on a rock under my tongue.

So the pebble under the tongue cure for stitches has been debunked, but if you want to give it a try, I’m not about to stop you from looking like an even stranger foreigner.

Have you heard of any other Colombian home remedies for common ailments? I’d love to hear about them.

The pebble I tested the stitch theory on

This pebble has been proven to not work at stopping a stitch, no matter what they might tell you.

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