Gone outside to Colombia

First up, what’s this “gringo” business all about? I have lost track of the number of times I have been told it is a neutral term, I don’t buy it for a second. Do they think I’m dense? Seems rude to me, but I haven’t managed to get into a row with anyone about it yet, so watch out for updates as I tease this apart. Reminds me of gwailou in Chinese, which is kinda rude and they expect you to put up with it. Seems more honest to me.


Lo esiento. No hablas espanol. However, I can order things like food and drink and bus tickets and count to a hundred. That last fact confirmed by a five year old sat next to me on the bus in Cartagena who thought I was just rather a slow learner.

It is very odd being somewhere where English is so little regarded. 400 million Spanish speakers can’t be wrong, but I wonder what combination of education failure, cultural preference (or resentment of their northern neighbour?) and functional irrelevance play in how few people speak English here. I will nose around and find out. I like having to learn a new language, but it presents a challenge only some of which can be over come with waving and pointing and mutual smiling. Progress is being made slowly. I’ve found Colombians incredibly patient and helpful so far.


By the way, swearing in Spanish is rubbish. “Puta” gets you a long way, and Narcos has been an education in how it can be used to liberally garnish several sentences and contexts with bile, but I’ve always thought you can’t beat English swearing.

On discussing this with another traveller, I learn that Croat has around 6,000 different ways to swear. So I’ll be learning Croat after Spanish.


Anyway, that, I think, is my overwhelming impression of Colombians. They’ve been beating seven shades of shit out of each other for over a century and yet everyone seems…so…pleasant? Maybe it was just the people I met, but even in places which felt, for want of a better term, “well dodge” people were helpful and nice. I mark this one down for the “incentives are powerful” crowd.

Colombia has been exporting things and endogenously creating violence for a long time. Although cocaine is the big name export other illicit trades have been major throughout Colombia’s modern history. After the Second World War the illicit Emerald trade powered violence in Colombia’s interior. Well before blood diamonds wreaked west and central Africa, blood emeralds were powering violence in Colombia. The Peace Corp arrived in the 1960s and thought Colombia was fantastic because weed grew freely and so they started getting involved in the first major narcotic exported from Colombia. Ironic that the hippy peace corp helped establish violent smuggling rings which would help destroy a country. Ironic, but not funny.

And then Escobar. Obviously I watched Narcos before coming out here, I’ve even seen some gringos somewhat tastelessly watching it on the overnight buses I’ve taken around (hmm, maybe gringo is a useful term). It is really hard to imagine the level of violence Colombia endured thanks to him and other narcos. And while he’s got some cultural cache in the west all the Colombians I met who mentioned him seemed to really hate the puta. I often wonder how the UK would react to the level of interior violence Colombia endured, or is the norm in places like Pakistan. Culturally I doubt it would be pretty, although in terms of state-led security response I know where I’d rather be.


I understand that Colombia is now poorer than Poland. This surprised me, because although I knew Latin America was “middle income” and very poor in places I didn’t realise how sporadic growth and progress were south of the Rio Grande nor quite how rapid convergence had been for the EU’s new members. The EU’s eastward expansion is A Very Good Thing and one day I how something with similar affects happen in South America. Bogota and Medellin seem relatively prosperous, but of course they aren’t.

You can see the sources of Colombia’s poverty. I mean that in a very literal sense. You can see the formal and informal sectors very clearly. You can also see a big disparity in infrastructure quality. Medellin as a great metro and escalators and cable cars which are actually useful, Johnson. Whereas other much smaller towns like Taganga don’t even have paved roads. You can see why Colombia has struggled to project state capacity and fight its internal enemies. There hasn’t been much state in a lot of places.

I tried to keep track of how many different brands I saw. Escalators were largely ThyssenKrupp, supermarkets were Exito, Chevrolet dominated buses. There seemed to be dominant players in different sectors throughout Colombia, only a small number of them were Colombian. So monopoly and few domestic champions, poor in other words. Since the 1990s Mexico has implemented a huge array of policies which all seem very sensible and Washington Consensusy and yet it’s economic performance has been relatively poor. In large part this seems to be because it’s informal sector grew as fast as its formal sector. Something similar I think is happening to Colombia as violence ebbs away the informal sector is expanding as much as the formal.

The formal sector seems incapable of expanding and taking over from the informal sector. Barriers to establishing a proper supermarket with bad infrastructure and instability holding you back, but people selling small amounts of merchandise or hawking services etc are ubiquitous. You can also see the informal sector holding back the formal sector. I met a university-educated civil engineer in Medellin who earned $400 a month. He quit to learn English doing casual work in a hostel so he could try something else. I told him there was loads of civils work coming up in the UK which wasn’t particularly helpful as he felt he had next to no chance of moving to the UK. Everybody loses, hooray!


Developing country, informal employment expanding holding back productivity. It’s Brexit Britain!


You can also see Colombia’s lack of development in its health and safety culture, or lack of it. In Salento there are jeeps in the town square and they are very cheap to ride, in part because if they are full you just stand on the footrest at the back and get a better view and a slightly higher chance of injury (it is only slightly higher because the absolute risk of injury in one of those jeeps is already Actually Quite High).

I don’t think health and safety causes any country to become rich (although I think it is a good thing) or that becoming rich somehow spontaneously causes health and safety laws etc to come into being. Nobody actually wants to die, and although life insurance policies will tell you lives really are worth different amounts in different places it doesn’t feel like that to those living them. Instead, I think getting rich and embracing health and safety are both determined by something else, agreeing to be ruled by rules. Having to think about how you should act on a jeep and then seeing it enforced is in the same family of things as thinking about how to run a business, or infrastructure

This also got me thinking about why there’s a strong correlation between Brexit voters and people who moan about Elf and Safety Gone Mad (I’ve seen no polling on this, but I’m willing to bet quite a sizeable proportion of my travel budget I’m right, and I’m not expecting any takers). The EU is about rules, and this is one reason, in my view why it is very good. It takes the continental politics of the historically most warlike region of the world and turns it into rules which everyone, more or less, begrudgingly follows. Brexiters want to just play silly buggers. Brexit is very much a developing world, or emerging market ideology. And you can see that in Sterling’s bounding up and down.


tl;dr it is fun to ride on the back of a jeep through the Andean countryside but someone should ban it.


I mentioned state capacity earlier and Comuna 13 in Medellin offers an interesting short parable. Up until the early 2000s it was one of South America’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. Which obviously meant it was then one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods outside Mogadishu or Grozny. The state was not present. In 2002 Uribe ordered two operations against the paramilitaries and criminal gangs hiding out in Colombia’s second most populous city. Eventually after a couple of hundred deaths the Colombian state established dominance in Comuna 13.

Comuna 13 is poor for the same reason the state had little sway there; it was isolated. Geographically it was near to Medellin, but refugees from the violence of the countryside had established it sprawling up the side of a steep hill with narrow streets. 1000 steps from bottom to top separated you from starting your walk or bus journey to work. Poverty, and a lack of control went hand-in-hand.

I absolutely love the solution here: fucking outdoor escalators. Loads of them.

This was a physical expression of state power, but as well as allowing police access it also meant that people could get to work. Spending millions of pounds on urban transport is a good anti-poverty measure, as is bringing the state into somewhere lawless. Win-win! Anyway, I did a great graffiti tour there, so if anybody wants the details for a tour guide, let me know. Say LO sent you.


On my second day in Colombia while helping one of the medical students there practice his English they said “In Europe, you have a big problem, yes?” “Do we?” “Yes, the Muslim Problem.” I could definitely hear all three words capitalised. I had expected to hear this from Americans, having kept up with some US media, but I was surprised to hear it in Colombia. On saying this wasn’t really true he seemed to accept it. I think he’d been reading the US media to improve his English. His main worry was that Muslims seem to throw stones through a lot of windows. He didn’t mention terrorism, but he was very emphatic about the window breaking. Who knows.


I met some hipsters trying to use gentrification for good in Cartagena. Colombia, like all settler colonies has a Race Problem. Afro-Colombians are much poorer as a rule. I met some Australians who opened a coffee shop in Cartagena who were running it as a social enterprise, taking on poor Colombians for three month paid internships and teaching them to make very good coffee and proper cafe service. Seems like a nice idea. They made nice coffee.


Coffee is not great in Colombia. They export all the good stuff.


I finished Seveneves while in Colombia. It is utterly brilliant. Read it. I then followed it, accidentally by reading an Afro-futurist piece of young adult fiction and I fucking hated it. However, I’m about twice the age of its target audience and was comparing the exposition of a children’s book to one of the best hard sci-if books I’ver ever read. So I don’t think I’m racist, it was probably actually good. I’ve also been rereading the Discworld series. I’ve now read every Guards book up to the first half of Snuff. I have loved it, although I didn’t realise until reading them back-to-back how much repetition in character establishment there is from book to book. However Snuff is sad. Terry Pratchett seems to have changed Sam Vimes so much, and the exposition is clumsier. It feels more Alzheimer’sy which is quite an unpleasant thing to feel when reading a book. It feels different to Thud! And a world away from Men at Arms. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame this on Alzheimer’s, there’s still some great Pratchett in there, but there’ lots more which isn’t. I’ll go back to Reaper Man after this, and start reading though again. Hopefully get the rest done by the end of the year. I also read Spike Miligan’s first war memorial and it is much more racist, sexist and bullying than I remember. However, almost every other sentence is funny. Guess that’s privilege, being able to read a horrible book and slide over the horrible bits.


Off to Peru. See you in a month.

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