Monsieur Periné: Latin American Folk Meets Gypsy Swing

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OZY

“I spent one whole year trying to convince the other band members we should dress up,” says Catalina García, lead singer for Monsieur Periné.

“But finally I got them to do it,” she told OZY, after Colombian designer Alejandra Rivas insisted that they all needed costumes.

Now, when the Bogotá. -based quartet performs, its outfits are eccentric and just as hard to define as its music. One minute it’s a poppy, bouncy, jazzy rhythm carrying lyrics in French, and the next, it’s slow, serene, passionate and all in Spanish. Continue reading on Ozy…

 

Roses, Eucalyptus And Little Ballerinas: The Religion Of Milena Arango

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BEACON

It was a sleepy afternoon at the end of Holy Week when Colombia was contemplating the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The city felt as if it were asleep in that meditation. Some Colombians left the city altogether, escaping to small towns or the Caribbean coast on vacation from the monotony of Bogotá.

In a nearby church called Santa Teresita, a group of believers lined up in the pews. Some stood. Some sat. They all gazed out into the cavernous space of the cathedral. Some whispered prayers to themselves.

Not far away, the artist Milena Arango was hard at work in her studio. Continue reading on Beacon…

A Painter’s Progress: The Graffiti of Marcel Marentes

Marcel Marentes

BEACON

Marcel Marentes told me he was painting beneath a bridge one day. The police arrived. One officer jumped off his bike and ran down beneath the bridge to see what Marcel was doing. He was sure they were putting up pro-rebel symbols – something that qualifies as a serious crime in Colombia.

“Who is it? ELN? FARC?” asked the first policeman up top, referring to the country’s two largest rebel groups.

The second policeman came down and looked at what Marcel was painting under the bridge. Continue reading at Beacon…

Taking On A Beer Monopoly Never Tasted So Good

 

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OZY

If beer really is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, then, at least to Colombian Berny Silberwasser, God must have forgotten Colombia.

Back in the 1990s, Silberwasser’s Colombia was awash in tired, Bud-Light-like swill. So Silberwasser set off on a pilgrimage in 1997 to taste his way through the craft beers of Europe and the U.S. And there was enlightenment. When the beer enthusiast and culinary arts graduate came back, he decided to come to the rescue for Colombia’s next generation of drinkers. In 2002, Bogotá Beer Company came alive. Continue reading on Ozy…

photograph: bogotabeercompany.com

Asphalt Blues: The Streets of Emiliano Villabon

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Emiliano got up from the curb and tossed his cigarette to the ground. He went over to his cart and readied himself for the final trek. The two worn wooden handles came up from underneath him and struck him in the soft spot of his underarms. I saw him wince. The creases and wrinkles in his face criss-crossed madly across his calloused skin. For another day, he was a human mule. He will be 64 years old this year.

Emiliano Villabon roams the streets of Colombia’s capital scavenging for trash that he might be able to recycle. He lives close to an urban underworld of crime and drug addiction, but while many recyclers in the city commit themselves to drugs in order to cope with their misfortune, Emiliano likes his streets, stays sober and seems surprisingly proud. Continue reading on Beacon…

Bullfighting in Colombia: For what purpose?

November, 2012

Bogotá’s Mayor, Gustavo Petro, does not see the same art that Hemingway saw in the running of the bulls – corridas de toro – that have cured the masses of the Santa Maria ring in the center of Bogotá with entertainment for much of the 20th century. Earlier this year Petro tried to propose a ban on the blood sport that has been a traditional spectacle in the capital since Alonso Luis de Lugo brought 60 beasts and Spanish tradition to Bogotá in 1543.

 

The ban Petro proposed would put a halt to the Colombian matador’s game in Bogotá and might inspire mayors of other cities where bullfighting is controversial to cancel the games as well.

 

The tradition of bull fighting in Colombia took a strong hold when two Spaniards arrived in Bogotá in 1917 to develop the industry. Bull rings popped up in the 1950s, first in Manizales, then Cali, Bucaramanga, Medellín, Cartagena, and later other smaller municipalities.

 

In 2004, a law called the “Bullfighting Code” was passed under Alvaro Uribe to ensure that bullfighting was protected as an ‘artistic expression of human beings,’ and protect the art from being abolished.

 

Despite the code, many in Colombia think there’s nothing more than blood and brutality behind the ancient “art.”

 

Several of Colombia’s municipalities and a growing row of activist sentiment express disgust toward bullfighting, calling it inhumane. Medellín has already decided to oust the matadors from their ring. Of course, animal rights activists have reason with their strong views of animal cruelty. It is a sad thing to watch a bull’s legs crunch underneath its own might after desperately trying to survive.

 

Surprisingly, however, there is still a strong, unflinching following behind Colombia’s bullfighting scene. And some of them see something more important than whether or not animal cruelty is right or wrong.

 

Ernest Hemingway, for one, would turn over in his grave if he knew what Petro was up to. But he would probably turn over again if he knew why so many wanted to keep the blood sport alive. Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting.

 

After Ernest Hemingway witnessed the meticulous events leading up to the death of a bull or the man who tried desperately to kill it as majestically as he could, he was captivated with the dance that matadors do with death. He said, “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”

 

So now a matador standing trial for cruelty toward animals is an artist? Hmm…

 

Hemingway went on to write a treatise on the Spanish art of goring great 1,000-lbs horned beasts. He titled it Death in the Afternoon. He even participated in amateur bullfights himself. Through bullfighting, Hemingway ascertained the realities of fear, death and how the human condition tries to cope with it. Exposing himself to it was an important step for his journalism, as he would go on to cover and live through some of the bloodiest battles of the first half of the 20th century. It thickened his skin and primed him for his own encounters with the uncertainty of life and death.

 

Whether right or wrong, bullfighting is a ritual. And for the most part, that is how Spain, Mexico, Colombia and other countries that recognize it as an art choose to approach it. Matadors train at specialized academies from an early age, almost like little ballerinas might train. Duels between man and bull follow a specific series of stages before the matador can take the bull’s life. Those who choose to be spectators view the ceremony as an artistic dance with death more than an uncivil slaughter.

 

But a deliberate ritual is not always the way the spectacle works in Colombia.

 

What might be the most controversial incarnation of bullfighting is something called a corraleja.

 

It only happens in one place, but it happens.

 

Each year, in a small town called Sincelejo near the coast of Colombia, people build a wooden stadium where ‘journeymen’ – amateur bull fighters – enter into a ring with an agitated horned beast and try not to be killed. Unlike the young boys – usually 12 or 13 when recruited – who enter bullfighting school with the hopes of rising out of poverty and into the bosom of torero fame, the journeymen who enter the corraleja ring are untrained, mostly drunk, and the exotic variety of fame they’re looking for is called the peso.

 

What usually comes out of their drunken stupor is a marvelous chance to gamble their lives for the possibility to win a pocket full of cash offered by another intoxicated (and usually more wealthy) spectator if they can manage to do a somersault over the horns of the bull as it charges head on.

 

For this reason it is normal to see a pile-up of dead bodies after a good day of fun at the corraleja in Sincelejo.

 

Usually it’s a 20-40 count.

 

The festivities at Sincelejo, indeed, make up quite another ritual next to the majestic dances performed by professional matadors.

 

But it is doubtful that Hemingway would be much happier with the corraleja from Sincelejo than with Mayor of Bogotá and his pledged ban.

 

To the Mayor, Hemingway would probably say that fear is an integral part of Colombian history (not to mention human nature). Indeed most of Colombia’s 20th century was occupied by politically-induced terror for the Colombian people, and so why not allow them the choice to view how a young matador tries to face fear and cope with it in the ring? Let the spectators who choose to watch the dance formulate their own terms of how to cope with death.

 

To the ‘journeymen’ from Sincelejo, he would probably tell them not to get so damn drunk so that they can see the bull when it charges.

 

The point, after all, is not your prize in pesos, nor is it plainly to survive the bull. Everyone faces the uncertainty of death. It is more about how you choose to survive.

 

And everyone, no matter whether they face a bull or not, should get to choose how to survive.

The Wrinkled Passport

Friday June 8th, 2012

Stepping off the bus at a station called Escuela Militar, I can be certain that I will see two or three young men dressed in dark green canvas fatigues wearing hard faces and patrolling the platform. The police, like the rest of Bogotá, rush past me at the station. Their seriousness fits nicely into the city’s Andean chill.

I can also be certain that a Colombian flag will be flapping somewhere high above the white stucco Spanish colonial architecture that hides behind high barbed-wire walls and keeps a wary eye on the outside world from armed military police towers. Across the road, this is the Escuela Militar.

The Escuela Militar des Cadetes, founded in 1976 is one of several military institutes in Bogotá that trains young people for service in the Armed Forces of Colombia. It is required of young cadets to spend at least 12 months in the National Police Service before completing their study.

Today, as I strolled across the platform to make my transfer, two policemen stopped me and asked me for my cédula extranjería. I knew what they meant. They wanted to check my alien identification card – the one I didn’t have.

One of the most surprising parts about life in Bogotá is how militarized the city is. Colombia’s National Police force populates the public transit platforms in Bogotá. In addition to police presence at transit hubs, there are many areas where armed soldiers clad in fatigues patrol every other corner. The strong military and police presence is the manifestation of President Santos’ iron-fisted emphasis on civilian security.

Another surprise to note is that the force tends to be made up of young men of no more than 25 years old. The young cadets are responsible for answering questions about directions. At times, they might help an old woman onto the bus before the doors snap shut. Their faces appear non-threatening and they move about on the platforms seeming listless and distracted. Almost every face looks young – almost innocent.

Not the face in front of me though.

The bright neon green jackets stared at me. I knew what they meant when they asked for my cédula extranjería. They wanted to verify my Colombian alien identification number – the number that the government uses to keep track of foreigners who enter the country for brief periods of time – people like me.

One of the primary duties of the National Police is to behave as permanent sentinels for the city’s transport system and to verify that the people using it are indeed registered residents of Colombia. Having an identification card, like having a passport, is a means of proving that you are not guerrilla, not rogue, not the bad guy.

I wasn’t the bad guy, and I knew it. But I still didn’t have my identification card, and that could be justification for – well – anything. They stared right at me. A heavy hand waved at me to come toward the stare.

I looked back at the two men. The one who asked for it was older, and wore a hard face, and he stared at my waist, not my eyes. He was waiting for me to take out my wallet while the younger one looked afraid and held a clipboard in his hands. He looked like he was waiting for something to happen.

Maybe he’s in training I thought. Maybe this is just a little drill. Maybe this won’t amount to anything.

I reached into pocket and pulled out my wallet. I took out an old shabby, wrinkled-up copy of my passport and handed it over to the officer. It was so worn out that you couldn’t make out my full name. Trying to feel brave, I hurriedly explained that I had just arrived in the country three days ago and that I don’t have my passport with the cédula extranjería stamp and identification number. I explained that the only form of identification I had is a copy of the first page of my passport. My mind went numb with a storm of possibilities over what was going to happen next. Fear drowned my focus. I felt like one hundred eyes were fixed on my wallet, the unmoving faces of two National Police officers, and the winkled passport in my hand.

The older officer took the document from my hands. It almost fell apart as he unfolded it. I entered a profound certainty that I was in danger of being seized by the National Police and tried to prepare myself for the ensuing confusion of having to explain my case. My body tensed. All I could smell were the fumes that spewed out of the buses roaring past. Noise thundered across the platform. It almost muted the officer’s next response. I leaned in and strained to catch everything that ran across those moving lips.

“Thank you, kind sir,” he said, and handed back the copy of my passport. As he did, a piece fell to his feet. The younger officer quickly bent down and snatched it, jumped up to his feet, and handed it to me.

I looked at him. A wave of relief rushed through me.

I told him thank you in return. Then I hustled off to catch the next bus back to my house in the Palermo, where my lunch would be waiting for me. I knew it would already be cold when I arrived.

A Reason for Applause


Monday June 4, 2012

Bogotá – There was a celebration when we landed. It’s traditional in Colombia to clap when the plane hits the runway. My hands, however, were cradling my head. It is Tuesday May 29th and I’m dizzy.

As we swooped in at 2,600m above sea level, I grew intoxicated with altitude sickness. Whispers of Spanish flickered around me as the flight came to a halt. I sat next to a tall Colombian-American boy who was on vacation with his family. I learned that he was studying medicine in Florida, and I also learned that he was the only boy in a family full of women. All of his siblings, whose chatter filled the rear of the cabin, seemed happy. But not his mother, whose face looked as weathered as the Bogotá I’ve come to know – the one that turns blue skies into rain and storm clouds into sun in what seems like a snap of the fingers.

Things can change fast in Bogotá.

Immigration didn’t stop me. I always feel as though officials have the power to come up with a silly reason to stop you at immigration. You didn’t spell your address correctly. You can’t speak Spanish. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too beautiful.

After a brief pause and a hard stare from the sad looking immigration man who hid behind the glass, I passed through, back into Colombia.

I’ve been here before. In 2009 I came to Colombia to study Spanish for 2 months. I remember the fear and anxiety that plagued me when I landed in Medellín at the beginning of the summer. But suddenly there was an old friend from university and a handful of others hanging over a balcony in the Medellín airport. They were shouting and waving, and my welcome, indeed my entire time in that lovely city, was warm.

Again, now in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, even though the air is chilly, my welcome is warm.

Right as I walked away from the currency exchange window, I heard my name being called loudly. Cristian and Nataly, two members of the AIESEC Trainee Integration team, met me with huge hugs. They took photographs. They gave me a small traditional Colombian pouch with a hand-made Colombian poncho inside. A small bottle of aguardiente, the national white rum touted as a point of Colombian pride, came tumbled of the pouch as well. Then they bought me a hamburger.

I was happy. I felt comfortable. I felt safe.

The first thing you learn when you get to Bogotá is how dangerous it is, and how you have to tener cuidado or be careful. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. Did it mean that I was going to get killed? Kidnapped? Robbed? Tripped? Does it mean that some parts of the city are more dangerous than others?

“Everywhere in Bogotá is dangerous,” Yudbeny, the woman who runs my apartment, told me later. “After 8pm in the evening, if you are on the street alone, and the street is empty, then tener cuidado.”

It sounds like I have no choice when it comes to danger.

But the truth is: I do.

After hopping into a small car with Cristian, the road starts moving underneath me. Small, wobbly buses called collectivos zip and dart around us. It is dark. The road is dented with potholes and cracks. The car shakes violently. Cristian is cool.

As we zoom toward the house where I will stay for one week until I get settled, something in Colombia is happening.

What coincides with (almost to the day) of my arrival is the release of Roméo Langlois, a French journalist, by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that formed in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s tattered political climate, took Langlois captive during a firefight with the Colombian military in the mountains of Caqueta (a department in the south of the country) on April 28th.

When I learn of Langlois, my first impression is of a terrified hostage who is relieved to be set free.

But Langlois is not your average hostage.

During his 30 days in captivity, Langlois rigorously interviewed and documented the life of the guerrilla soldiers whose political motives and weaponry could decide life or death for the young Frenchman on a whim. He emerged from captivity claiming that he was treated well, and that the FARC desperately want to talk peace. Langlois came out of captivity singing the story of one of Colombia’s most marginalized and feared guerrilla groups – and how the international community needs to put pressure on Colombia for a peace process.

The next morning, as I read up on the news about Langlois’ mission, captivity and release, I also set out on my own mission: to learn the notorious Transmilenio, Bogotá’s public transit system, and try not to get lost.

Langlois’ story reminds me that I – like everyone – have a mission too, but more importantly, I have a choice.

I can weigh the risks in favor of safety and security. That is the route most people around me take in Bogotá. Colombia is not all war and conflict, but it does exist. I can, if I choose to, weigh the risks like Langlois did. I can make it my mission to get to the heart of a dangerous, messy, and deeply complex political story, and try not die.

I won’t though.

Being Roméo Langlois – a reporter – is something that’s been on my mind for awhile. Colombia, a country where reportage is important but risky, is no doubt an exciting place for a youngster to dig in and cut his teeth.

Then again, I think I’ll be patient.

US – Colombia FTA: Taking a Stab at a Better Image

Peering down toward his boots through the glass window below, a crane operator lowers the boom to snatch one of hundreds of container boxes that zoom through Colombia’s port city, Cartagena, where an expected $50bn over the next 5 years in fresh flowers, cotton textiles, and a torrent of other products now come and go cheaper than before under a free trade agreement recently signed by the US and Colombia earlier this year.

Colombia is generally optimistic about the new relationship, expecting 4.8% GDP growth in 2013, according to Reuters’ reporting. Even though its 2013 projection slouches slightly next to last year’s 5.9%, President Santos’ administration requested 185.5 trillion pesos (USD$103bn) in spending, a 12.2% nudge in investment up from 2012, a government official told Reuters.

 

The Free Trade Agreement will dismantle hefty duties and tariffs for commodities like coffee, oil, and precious metals. But it should also attract American companies and local entrepreneurs to set up in its Andean capital city, Bogotá, where increased security in recent years coupled with Colombia’s investment optimism make for a magnetic arena for doing business.

Some companies have already bitten the bullet and have decided to race to Bogotá for new opportunities.

Cincinatti-based Convergys, a company that specializes in customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, has already begun to tap into Bogotá’s thriving bilingual talent base. Convergys, whose global presence employs about 70,000 across 5 continents, chose Bogotá to set up a state-of-the-art call center. Known as “the Athens of South America,” Colombia’s capital attracted Convergys because of “the number of top-notch colleges and universities located in the city… and advanced telecommunications and transportation infrastructure,” according to a press release.

 

Richard Strub, director of operations for Convergys in Colombia, told The City Paper, a Bogotá local English-language newspaper, that “government incentives, a central location just hours from from North America and South America, and a motivated, highly educated workforce have played key roles in drawing business to Colombia, and to Bogotá.”

 

Not everyone can claim the same optimism as companies like Convergys though. Some, like Buenaventura’s port city, where roughly 80% live in poverty, could be wary of strong promises about more wealth and bounty for all. According to the Washington Office on Latin America a long history of abuse toward labor groups, who have historically occupied the violent margins of Colombia’s industrial thrusts, are still tender. Colombia Reports says that the FTA’s labor-related promises come with a rickety plan, which might not be enough to wipe clean workers’ harsh skepticism toward Colombia’s new commitment.

A sure group definitely falls in line to benefit from Colombia’s free trade kick. To educated Bogotanos the FTA means new opportunities. People like Strub and the optimism he carries should serve as signals to the rest of the world that Colombia is trying to change its image, that it is eagerly opening up for business and trade, and that the country is desperate to show off its nearing successes, not its appalling past.

Sogginess Is Expensive for Colombia

Flooding in Cali, Colombia

February 2012

Lately, life in Colombia resembles fiction more than anything else. That is foreboding considering that its literature, when not whispering about love, is strewn with scenes of political violence and the wrath of nature. This time the imagery leans more toward the latter.

Flooding that followed the Niña, a series of Pacific warm weather patterns that agitate Colombia’s wet season, caused mudslides, eroded farmland, and left a painful proportion of the country homeless.

What is worrisome is that the damage looks worse than it was last year, where costs associated with the flood stung at the touch of $5.1 billion or 2% of Colombia’s GDP. But it might not be as much of a burden to clean up. One reason the costs will not climb that high this year, according to analysts, is because after the 2010 floods, the Colombian government decided to set aside $850m for over 4,000 government led projects that intended to corral the chaos expected out of the following wet season. Seems like a good preventative step, doesn’t it?

That is how the floods are viewed from Bogotá’s perspective.  But the wrath brought on by the floods is still a very immediate threat to the real time cash flow of workers and businesses.

For the herders whose cattle are stranded while trying to graze in standing water, and for the truck drivers who cannot meet their shipping partners because the road linking them to the port city of Buenaventura is being diced up by mudslides and washouts, the costs are sure to keep feeling suffocating.