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Colombian Everyday Life – Part 1/3, April 2011

Joni AlWindi, Cali, Colombia
Multilingual, social and business entrepreneur from Sweden with experience in Colombia since 2003. Living and working in Cali, Joni is dedicated to global development through quality education and international business for all.
joni.alwindi@cw-connectingworld.com

Colombian Everyday Life – Part 1/3, April 2011

It was about 7 years ago that I first traveled to Colombia, in October 2003. Since then, I’ve taken part in the country’s everyday life for about 4 years in total. The following is an attempt to give a summarised but fair account of how life is lived over here in one of the most active cities of the country, Cali – the salsa capital of the world – and of the surrounding environment that sets the conditions in which life is developed. The article is divided into three parts with eight different headings that include the following topics: salsa dancing (1), work (2), local transportation (3), education (4), everyday violence (5), and poverty (6). Other important topics related to Colombian everyday life will be returned to in upcoming articles.

1) Salsa Dancing – the Joyful Life 

In Cali, salsa music is heard everywhere. Without the least bit of exaggeration, everywhere! On my first trip, with a great curiosity to learn, I spent on average 4 hours a day, 5 days a week for a period of 8 months in a salsa academy learning the basics and fundamentals of the dance.
On my second visit, I went to the same academy for an intensive instructor course to become a certified salsa instructor. Additionally, I took a first level course in Cuban casino style salsa to flower up my Colombian dancing style.

With an additional month of personal classes I could advance a couple of levels and pretty much get the basics covered. On my return to Sweden that same year and for about a year, some 50-100 local and international students of Stockholm School of Economics got to be my salsa students and witness my voluntary attempt to act a salsa teacher. All things considered, I think I did fairly well, but my previous students would have to be asked for an objective judgement. What I aim to get across is that living in an environment dominated by this happily energetic style of music and dance can really influence you profoundly. Salsa is not only a dance or a hobby – it’s a lifestyle.

On my third trip, I was invited to take part in a rehearsal for the Guinness World Record attempt to create the largest synchronized salsa circle to dance a complete song. With more than 500 couples dancing to the famous ‘Cali Pachanguero’ – a sort of national anthem to the salsa fans of Cali – the world record was achieved.

The attempt had been the highlight of the inauguration to the 2007 World Championships in Inline Speed Skating, which fantastically enough Colombia won.

It was, of course, not a coincidence that the salsa record attempt was made in Cali. Neither was it surprising that it was achieved. Words fall short in describing how the salsa music is dominating the city. It may seem exotic or surreal that even the Christmas holidays, for example, are celebrated with one of the most phenomenal salsa happenings of the year, the Cali Fair (December 24 to 31). Right after the sacred family gatherings by the Jesus crib for the Catholic Novenas, the salsa music takes over completely. Internationally renowned salsa orchestras return from whatever international tour they might be on to play their classic hits in the city of their origin. The people either go dancing in the restaurants and clubs to the more exclusive concerts or stay dancing on the streets to the open-air concerts.

Last year (2010) the fair celebrated 53 years. I, however, was enjoying a very different kind of Christmas holiday in the Amazon jungle. More on this in an upcoming article on business in the jungle.

2) Work – the Hard Life
Having both moved around extensively in the low income neighbourhoods of the city together with local NGO members on earlier occasions and made acquaintances with top managers representing the highest level of affluence in the country on later occasions, I’ve been able to observe many aspects of daily life in Colombia’s all 6 socioeconomic strata (social classes).
When it comes to the working conditions of the lower stratum, what most people face are long hours under the sun on the street corners and the traffic lights selling all kinds of things such as coffee, juice, breakfasts, avocadoes, chewing gum, cell phone accessories, children’s school utilities, books etc.

It’s questionable how entrepreneurial these people really are, considering the horribly low productivity level of what they do, but they are certainly persistent and hard working with the discipline to start working before sunrise (6 am) and continue working long after sunset (6 pm). Considering that their income is not close to being assured to reach the national minimum wage of formal jobs, their ‘forced willingness’ to work is admirable.

It’s not difficult to argue in favour of why more foreign companies should grasp the opportunity to invest in the enormous potential labour force in the lower strata, which to very affordable wages could be liberated from the inhumane working days on the streets. The monthly minimum wage in Colombia this year (2011) was set to 535 600 COP (286 USD), with an additional transportation subsidy of 63 600 COP (34 USD).This is a 4% increase from last year and is supposed to favour the creation of 2.4 million new jobs and the formalisation of 500 000 work places.

This is according to the objectives set by the new government. (Source: businesscol.com).

As for the upper classes, the salary, no matter how high, is not an indicator of how much free time managers have or how long vacation they can take. As in most places, top managers are the first to arrive to the office in the morning and the last to go at nightfall, obliged to make sure the overall operations are under control, and that their inboxes full of emails are taken care of.

Overtime work is the default rather than the exception and no extra pay for the extra hours worked is to be expected, although the salaries at the top level of multinational firms can be quite comfortable.

Besides an unemployment rate starting out at 13.5% this year, still struggling to come down from a high average of 14.6% the last 10 years, the incapacity of the formal sector to generate enough employments has given rise to a large informal sector. It includes around 34% of the workforce, of which 45% earn less than the minimum wage of the formal sector (Source: tradingeconomics.com, caracoltv.com, elespectador.com).

Despite the many challenges to employment, formalising your own company is easy in Colombia and entrepreneurship is also the great solution for many hard working individuals. More on this in an upcoming article on the reality of small businesses.

3) Local Transportation – the Chaotic Life
Coming back to the issue of productivity and time efficiency, the topic of local transportation has to be brought up. Since last year, Cali is experiencing a phase of major development of the city’s infrastructure, mainly to improve the chaotic mobility in the city. For too long, old and independent bus companies have dominated the streets with their provision of the public transportation. A crazy kind of competition has, for some reason, not prospered much, with bus drivers being paid according to number of passengers transported. Instead of resulting in healthy competition, violation of speed limits and transit laws, as well as accidents, have been the major consequences. Additionally, lack of proper safety control measures has left hundreds of seemingly outdated vehicles still transporting around 300 million passengers yearly. Until recently, no decent alternative was left for the average citizen.

In March 2009, a massive transportation system started to function in Cali. This has renewed and improved the local transportation tremendously, with brand new and comfortably air-conditioned Volvo and Mercedes busses starting a takeover of the city. With several exclusive lanes on important routes, it reaches even European transportation standards at times.

However, with the enormous amount of people in relation to the still relatively few busses, the queues are horrible at rush hours.

Although the ambition is great of the present mayor to revive the city to a calmer heartbeat, a serious issue facing the transit situation is that a total of twenty-one mega constructions were recently initiated more or less at the same time.

This is causing several roadblocks and sudden one-way streets that continuously redirect the traffic to cause tremendous confusions. Instead of experiencing an improvement of the transit situation little by little, an even more chaotic situation has emerged, and the old busses with their more direct routes are still attracting enough citizens to stay in the game.

Despite this, the development of the massive transportation system is very much needed in Cali, especially as the city’s safety and security issues are not improving. With all main stations being well monitored and controlled, a strong sense of protection is surrounding the new system. This sense of protection is completely non-existent in the old busses.

Taxi is still a great option for shorter distances, but too costly for distances across the entire city. The public transportation system has been so insufficient for so many years that ‘pirate taxis’, charging the same fees as the busses and with space for up to four passengers, have become a natural option even for the lower middle class, on occasions even for the upper middle class. This trend is threatening seriously the legally operating taxi drivers, who already have too much competition to fight with. Cali alone has about 16 500 registered taxis (compared with New York City’s 13 300)! The fare in the city is already so low that sharing the cost in three or four, the average caleños can get basically anywhere they want in their side of the city more cheaply and much faster with a taxi than with a bus.

Old bumpy roads make local transportation an adventure. Very little tax money has benefitted any real care even of the main avenues and highways. On any rainy day, with over-soaked streets, the many holes are dangerously covered and deadly motorcycle accidents can be witnessed. No matter how convenient it is to go by car, with the bad streets full of reckless motorcycle drivers, pressured buss drivers and rude taxi drivers competing for space, it is relatively safe to take shelter in the undisturbed massive transportation system. When it comes to time efficiency though, there are still lots to be done for a smoothly running system.

It will be interesting to see the progress in a year from now, when the mega constructions are supposed to be finished. A new Cali with a complete transportation system is definitely welcome and most likely to become a reality. The big question that arises concerns the old and independent bus companies and drivers.

Can hard working spirits compete against a massive transportation system with own roads that cover the entire city? For better or worse, this renewal is benefiting the great majority of the city’s population and it can only be hoped that the lost jobs will be replaced sooner or later.

With greetings from Colombia,

Joni AlWindi

 


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