Tuesday, January 27, 2009

People Watching

I promised myself I would not write about politics on this trip. But it´s hard not to think about what's going on in a country that's had an on again off again civil war since the Spanish left. The past five years have seen a dramatic return to peace that no one could have predicted.

I wrote about this transformation last year, the tireless efforts of an executive who refused a conciliatory stance to the guerrillas, about the enthusiasm of the people who could drive on their highways without fear.

Order is probably a better word than peace, human rights groups would argue. The army is everywhere, and the current Pax Romana has had its share of victims. The "false positives" for starters, innocent villagers shot by the military and then claimed to have been guerillas to up the body count in the war against the FARC. President Uribe, who saw unprecedented levels of high support even a year ago, is slipping badly in the polls, perhaps because he is testing the waters for a constitutionaly prohibited third term or because the links to the para-militaries keep surfacing ever higher in his administration. He might also be losing popularity because people have had enough time to take the new security for granted. The problem with a law and order ticket is that once you succeed, the people want to know-- ok, now what next?

In a country where cocaine is the major industry, order from on high will take a constant and tremendous input of energy. This solution will prove impossible without public support. Unless the narcotraffickers are complicit in the order, it is hard to imagine peace can last. To some extent this could be the reality here, who knows and only a fool or suicidal journalist would want to find out. Short of a near simultaneous legalization of cocaine in both producing and consuming countries, the alternatives are sure to be murky compromises.

From a security standpoint a single mafia is less problematic than competing mafias. United States drug enforcement strategy is to go after cartel leadership with the assumption that their substructures will then be unable to function and lose potency. The result been seen a shift to more atomized criminal networks, increasingly the likelihood of a future of competing mafias and a return escalating the violence. That is, once the populace tires of the overwhelming military and security presence that maintains the current order. And the people are getting weary. For the first time in ages, the homicide rates in are pushing back up in the traditional seats of the drug industry.

So, if you´ve had a desire to travel in Colombia, I suggest you visit now before things change again.


A few of chance encounters in country of over 40 million people should not reflect on a country. That would be akin to judging a baseball player on a single at bat. Unless the baseball player's name was Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds, chances are that one at bat is going to make an out. Still, it's fun to people watch.

Chris and I were getting out of a cab at the bus terminal in San Gil when a woman approached us and asked us if we'd like a ride in a car to Bogota. More comfortable, and only 40,000 pesos (the bus is 50,000). We were both a little cautious but she was a good looking woman with long brown hair, a maintained figure and nice skin. She was about our age and was well dressed. She didn´t look like a kidnapper. We dropped our guard when we saw the car, a four wheel SUV with her boyfriend at the wheel. A young couple wanting to pick up some extra cash on the way home from vacation.

I don´t remember much of we talked about. They were not a memorable couple. He had just started a wine importing company, so far the wines were coming from Argentina. She had just opened a store for baby clothes. They were headed to calle 70 in Bogota, the heart of Alto Chapinero, a tony district full of 30 something yuppies. A neighborhood in Bogota where it is safe to walk around at night.

They asked if we needed to stop for anything and I mentioned it would be nice to get a paper for the ride. The conversation turned to the papers in the country and how some were very ideological. I asked what was the best paper, and he naturally replied El Tiempo, Bogota´s nationally circulated, center-right press. But his description of why it was the best paper was the interesting part.

"Because El Tiempo is just the news," he explained. "It doesn't have a political ideology. It is owned by one of the best families in Colombia."

A paper without political ideology? Could it just be that paper shares his politics, the climate that he grew up in, the 'maybe if everyone else will just be reasonable and let the best families do what is right for the country we'll all be better off' ideology?

Politics weren't their game. No worries here, politics make for boring conversations at best with people one hardly knows. But I assumed that this couple would at least be good at being yuppies.

They invited us to have lunch with them at an Italian place near their apartment building. Bogota is one of the few places in Colombia where the food is consistently good, especially if you are willing to pay international prices for high cuisine.

Their restaurant pick had the international prices, a bit unusual for pizza pasta joint. Good pizza is not that hard to come in Colombia, one of the few dishes they consistently do better than in America outside of New York City.

The pizza looked like it had been baked in its glass serving dish. Flotsam and jetsam of vegetables floating in a mess of cheese and runny sauce. I can't say if the crust was tasty or not. The dough had all drifted to one side of the dish and had set like cement. The dish looked expensive so I did not ask for a chisel,

I don't write up the place for its pizza. I would go back for the decor. The walls were covered with blown up photos of the casts of every 1980's American TV show you wish you could forget. The crown jewel was the flat screen behind our table playing a constant stream of 80's New Wave music videos. An altar toVH1's Dada-inspired golden age.

If I had grown up in the projects and only had music videos to know them by, white people would have scared the hell out me. Just type New Wave Music Videos into YouTube and check out the freak show for yourself. Those people were truly creepy. I would love to interview some of the creators of those videos.

If it wasn't for our new acquaintances and that it was Chris' last hours in Colombia, I might have vegged out all day and basked in the decade of my childhood. We asked the couple for some must dos in the city. Maybe one day I'll write up the place they claimed was an obligation, a steak house/disco/vaudeville circus.


Last week I visited an American school. I had met a teacher from the school at the beginning of my trip and he had offered me the chance to observe some of his classes. Teaching at an American school has always been one of those paths I've kept in the back of the mind and I didn't want to pass up the chance to see the reality of a day in the life of a teacher abroad.

Nothing really to report from my observations. A typical k-12 private school. The demeanor in the faculty room suggested a usual range of teachers,some good, a few outstanding, and a couple of real weirdos--more Unabomber than the kind you'd put in a music video.

The high school social studies teacher was a frail and nervous looking man amazingly white for someone living in the tropics. He did not look thrilled with his current life, and was clearly more interested in fruit salad than in making any new friends. But he was my ticket to the high school history classroom, so I did my best to make conversation. After some prompting by my acquaintance, he reluctantly invited me to watch his class the last period of the day.
When I arrived at his classroom at the beginning of the period, the door was locked with no evidence of anyone inside the room. I waited a good 20 minutes, no one showed. It could be he got his schedule wrong, or maybe he just didn't like being observed. No matter, I had my blog to attend to. I went to the teacher lounge and then to the administrative offices and said my thank yous. The school day was almost over by the time I started walking out the main gate.

Past the gate and on the other side of the campus guard house I heard a girl was screaming at the security officer at the end of the school's semi circular driveway. She was standing next to the open door of a new Mercedes sedan that was blocking the end of the drive. She was an attractive girl, maybe 17, though it was hard to notice anything about her besides loud mouth and her alarming breasts. I would later learn it was her brand new Mercedes that her father had given her because the trauma she had suffered the first day back from break when she was suspended from school for hitting a girl. I didn´t ask what offense she had committed to get the over sized implants.

The guard was trying to get her to move the car, forcefully at first, but with less conviction once she started threatening him. I couldn't follow it all, though I can assure you it was nasty. She repeated several times that her father was her boss, and that the poor man was going to be fired. The girl already had her cell phone out and apparently Daddy answered as in a breath she transformed from monstrous bitch to crying little girl.

I had nothing to do, so I figured I might as well take a seat in the shade and watch whatever was unfolding. In less than five minutes Daddy´s Land Rover pulled up to the guardhouse. He was yelling at the security guard through the driver's side window before he was out of the car. The guard waited for an opening and tried to explain his case, that the girl was blocking the drive with her car, but the father cut him off. Meanwhile parents were starting to lineup their cars and a balding man in a white Polo shirt was exiting the front gate. The man stopped a few paces from me to watch what was happening.

The father was threatening the office. Apparently, it was his security company, and how dare he yell at his little girl. The guard pleaded with the man, how were the parents going to pick up their children with a car blocking the driveway´s exit.

"You can figure that out somewhere else," Daddy said. (or at least something like that)

"Excuse me", the balding man said, speaking to the father, "I'm a director of this school. If you fire this man the school will find another security company and your daughter will find a new school."

No one had recognised the man in the white Polo. I learned that he was the school's chairman of the board, and was in a position to follow on his words. The father told his daughter, crying again, to move the car. He made a curt apology to the Chairman, and made a quick exit without so much as a glance at the security guard.

I was lucky to work in a private school with a reputation for reasonable parents and in a public school where at least no one was looking over my shoulder (ever). In the Delta, you had to go looking for the parents, who, if not too cracked out or fall down drunk to speak, would ask you heartbreaking questions like, "Can you tell me what to do with this child?" In both cases there was respect. Even the worst war stories I've heard from other teachers don't come close to those five minutes on the sidewalk outside the American school.

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