Archive for December 2011

Finding Christmas In Colombia   3 comments

Christmas is a tough time of the year.  Especially for people who are far away from family, friends and their own country.  On the surface, or maybe better said in the media, it’s deck the halls, joy to the world and presents under the tree.   Below the surface, for a lot of people, there is a lot of pain, stress, melancholy and disconnectedness.  I got a call from my sister a couple of weeks ago telling me that her step son had committed suicide.  Last year, about the same time, a very prominent Universal Studios executive, with whom I was working, took her life.  What is it about this time of year that causes people to feel such sadness, such despair, such detachment?  After all, this is the season when people gather to recognize one of the greatest gifts humanity has every received.  Christian, Jew, Muslim – it really should not matter.  A gift is a gift.  And this one, Jesus, the universal symbol of peace, joy and sacrifice, should be a cause for celebration.

In my feeble attempt to focus on that lesson, a number of years ago, I tried to get away from the gift giving thing.  Colombia gave me some much needed distance on the billions of dollars and the politics of patriotism that fuel the overly conspicuous consumerism that is expected of us this time of year.  What I noticed this year is that the further I get away from the materialism the better I am able to integrate into my consciousness what I feel Christmas is really about.  Christmas is about giving and receiving love.  Not symbols of love.  Not bicycles, Wii’s, rings, purses and the thousands of other things people give each other this year.

From the middle of it, it is difficult to see the conflict the materialization of Christmas causes.  One does not have to go far to understand how our attitudes, behaviors and messages can be toxic and alienating this time of the year.  It is not bad children that receive lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings.  Unless we do something about it, it is poor children that receive the lump.  They are the ones that will go to bed hungry.  But the United States blaming the victim is a sport that keeps the “haves” comfortable in the privilege of having more.  The truth is that most of the people who are poor in the world are children.  Whether they are good or bad has nothing to do with it.

This Christmas Eve, my friend Carmen invited me to her Foundation’s program for the children of La Manga, a poor neighborhood in a part of Barranquilla with a reputation of being a little wild. When we arrived eighty or so children were seated outside of the library/community center she runs.  It is about the size of some of my friends’, in the United States, living room.  Some children, mostly between 5 and 12, came in the only best clothes they had.  Others came in the only clean clothes they had.  Their chairs were arranged in neat rows that had been brought outside from the library, as cars, buses and the occasional ambulance whizzed by.  There were not many parents with their children, maybe four or five.  The street is busy with people walking by and street vendors selling their goods.  The houses are built close together, mostly shanties, with bars on the windows.  It is too hot to sit indoors.  Homes in this part of time do not have air-conditioning.  So, walking the streets and sitting outside are ways to pass the time. You can tell, for many this will be an all-nighter.

I was along to give out the gifts that I had helped to buy.  They are simple gifts.  Each child will get a toy, a ball, and some books.  Some know me.  I have been here before.  The North Americano who speaks Spanish with a foreigner’s accent.  We spent almost two hours with the children on Christmas Eve.  Teenagers volunteered to help run the activities.  They had stuffed the bags ahead of time.  Stories are read, songs are sung and there is even an X Factor style singing contest.  Despite all that is going on around them, these children are attentive and so well-mannered I wonder about the competition kids in the USA will face if these children are given half a chance.  Some smile at me.  Some shyly come over to stand by my side.  Though many study English in school here, it is only for a few hours a week.  Kind of like me taking Spanish in high school.  Without the need to use the language you forget most of what you are taught. With each passing moment they strengthen my soul’s knowledge of the difference between waking up and receiving presents and spending time sharing the gift we were all given.

Seeing the connectedness of all things is a monumental task.  There are so many forces at work that see more profit in making use believe that it is all about us.  A misnomer our egos are only too glad to believe.  But long ago we were told otherwise.  The gift we are celebrating, Jesus, told us that it was not about us.  It is not about what we have.  It is not about who we have.  Jesus told us that it is about what we have in our hearts; the connections that we have to a greater good.  We are but tiny threads in a universal fabric.  Instead of focusing on expamding the tininess of our being, our celebrations should be about our connectedness.  Our suffering, our sadness, our despair are all connected to our joy, our peace and our contentment.  The place from which our sorrow flows also holds our joy.

Coming to the realization that we are not the center of the universe can bring about a fundamental sadness anytime.  Coming to the hollowness of lives lived without true connectedness at Christmas time can be too much to bear.  The children of La Manga reinforced that life is not about me. That any sorrow I felt had no place.  Their joy in the meager gifts we shared was the joy they gave to me.  But more than that they were simply happy to be there.  The love that Christmas is and the gift that giving love gives was the gift they gave to my growth journey.  Love is really the only gift that it makes sense to give this time of year.  The children know it.  And so did the child whose birth Christmas is meant to celebrate.  When we get there.  When the media blitz is focused on giving the gift of love, there would be a lot less poor children in the world.  And a lot fewer people in despair!

Posted December 26, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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Colombia’s New Hot Market: Barranquilla   2 comments

They call it creating a shared vision. From my experience organizational culture, personal biases, individual and organizational preparation and political motivations affect leadership’s ability to bring about change. The pace at which the world is moving these days has many businesses, organizations and governments dealing with how to manage and lead change. The attention given to strengthening leader’s abilities to motivate followers, guide organizations and systems is well deserved. Yet, in my experience too little is dedicated to connecting the people responsible for implementing changes to the success of making change happen. From Kotter to Drucker to Greenleaf and many more, much of the research on, and theories of, leading change focuses on leaders. I have wondered if the reason change theories and conversations are focused more on leadership is our culture’s inherent belief in, and value for, paternalism. Something the United States has in common with Latin America.

Colombia’s leadership has a vision for a country that will be the gateway to South America in commerce culture. Hundreds of billions of pesos (Colombian currency) and hundreds of millions of dollars (yes the United States is an active participant) are being spent to make this vision a reality. Airport renovations (Bogota); regional airports replacing smaller ones (Manizales/Pereira and Cartagena/Barranquilla/Santa Marta); new hotels (parts of Cartagena is starting to resemble Miami’s South Beach and the region’s most prominent hotel chain, Estellar, has built or will build seven new properties in the country); and scores of new roadways, bridges and homes are all making Colombia an investor’s paradise.

Barranquilla seems to be one of the cities at the forefront of this face lift. This coastal city, lying between Cartagena and Santa Marta, with seeming unlimited property for development, is undergoing one of the most massive make-overs that I have seen. Ocean view lots can be had for $20,000 to $40,000 with all services available. Nice apartments, condos and houses can be purchased for as little as $40,000, depending on where a person wants to live and the amount of space they require. Certainly, if a person wants to pay $200,000 or more for a top floor ocean or river view apartment/condo they can. And $250,000 or more can get a person a 3000 square foot house, with a pool.

Just in the northern part of the city more than thirty construction projects are happening. Large apartment buildings; housing tracks; new office buildings and a new hotel; and smaller apartment projects all can be counted within a three kilometer area. The growth, and amount of money being spent, is astounding to me. One can only imagine the services that will be/are needed. There are too few public laundries. Restaurants (folks here love to eat out) arealways in demand. As the population becomes more international (and it will) there will be more of a need for different types of cuisine. Clothes, electronics and other goods can be expensive here (especially if you buy them in the malls). But with the October (2011) signing of the U.S. – Colombia Free Trade Agreement the doors will open wide for cheaper US goods and products to appear on the shelves of Colombian stores. With thousands of new housing opportunities coming available one can only imagine the opportunities.

Now, here is the rub. At least to me! With all of the private investment the public dollars seem to follow slowly. And what seems to follow even more slowly are the cultural habits. I was thinking about buying property in Barranquilla. In my conversation with an attorney her rate quote surprised me. I needed someone to do a property valuation, contract review and be present at contract signing. I was told the fee for these services would be 2,500,000 pesos (about $1300). I laughed, and said I do not want to pay gringo prices, meaning they jack up the cost of things because they think you got money. So the fee was reduced to 2,000,000 pesos (a little over $1000). I later got quotes of 1,000,000 pesos (a little over $500) for the same work. The local drug store quoted me a price 50% higher than what I knew the prescription cost. After telling the guy what my doctor told me the price was, he lowered it. In the United States, we are used to prices for most services and goods being fairly the same. You may pay for a firm’s prestige but the work being done will also likely be different. We are used to being lured into buying things by promises of getting the lowest price available. Here, one has to get used to being charged for services according to what people think they can get. You negotiate taxi fares here before they take you someplace. To ask the price afterwards can lead to getting raked over the coals.

In this growing modern metropolitan area, take a walk down sidewalks and you will find uncovered holes. Some with four to six feet drops to what look like sewers or utilities. Homeowners are responsible for their property to the street. They can do what they want. Meaning sidewalks are uneven. Most Barranquilla streets have no way for managing the sometimes heavy rains. Arroyos, as they are called, means the water runs in the streets like a West Virginia river rapid; stopping traffic, causing accidents and making getting around horrible. Beautifully developed parks can be ill kept. And despite a city ordinance against them, horse carts on busy streets are a common sight.

But what is perhaps most to the contrary of the vision for Barranquilla are the habits of some of the people. Leaving the new PriceSmart, on a gorgeously designed newly constructed tree-lined thoroughfare, I walked past a family who had no concern for anything other than throwing their food containers out of their fashionable SUV to the ground. The next day, walking to the mall, I was surprised to see a young guy peeing against a wire fence on a busy street at about 5:30 p.m. It is no stretch to say that there are bad habits here. In fact, there can be little connection between the beauty of this coastal city and people’s sense of their responsibility to care for it. It is also a city where people remain concerned about their personal safety. While shooting some of the photos for this post I was warned by some youths that I was being watched by a couple of guys on motor cycles with intentions to rob me. Fearing being followed, their insistence caused me to take a taxi home. This was at 5:00 p.m. next to a very busy mall.

There is little that will stop Barranquilla from continuing to become a thriving international city in a gorgeous part of a gorgeous country. To live in Barranquilla now means coping with the growing pains of a culture whose habits are slow to change. The person who moves here now will simply have to suffer through a work in progress. Having the heart to do that will require faith, follow-ship and the ability to take a journey that neither the literature nor the systems available are prepared to help one figure out easily. My belief though is that the person who moves to Barranquilla now will be riding a wave of development that will ultimately yield lifestyle and financial rewards.

Posted December 21, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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A Visit To DiverCity is Well Worth The Time   Leave a comment

There are amusement parks, theme parks and park parks but I do not think I have ever been in a place where the theme of the park is “what do you want to be when you grow-up?”

No kidding. DiverCity, located on the fourth floor of the Centro Comercial Buenavista 2 (Buena Vista Mall), Cr53 # 98-99 in Barranquilla, Colombia, is a place where children, mostly age 6 to 14 go to have fun by learning about future jobs and careers. Sound boring? Maybe to those of us that think education is to be tolerated and career development does not begin until high school or after. For children and parents in Colombia DiverCity is fun.

What struck me first as we, I went with a friend and her daughter, entered DiverCity was the sign that asked what careers the children were considering. On the list was a nice mix of what I would call working class jobs and professional careers. From driver to nurse to accountant, it seemed that whoever created the list made a conscious decision to be inclusive. Being a guy who wants everyone to have opportunities, I really appreciated this part.

Inside DiverCity is a little city, maybe the size of football field (North American). There are banks, a television studio, a wharf, beauty shop, driving area, ATMs, university, bakery, restaurants, a farm, and much, much more. Each is sponsored, perhaps better said branded, by one of Colombia’s or Barranquilla’s well known businesses or organizations. The plane where children become pilots and flight attendants is Avianca Airline’s. El Herado is the newspaper for DiverCity. AMI, Barranquilla’s service for immediate medical assistance, has an ambulance. The Universidad Autonoma del Caribe gives a diploma to children, and dresses them in graduation robes for a photo, that complete a computer based program. One could say that each company is placing its brand in the minds of the children that come to DiverCity. And from the YouTube video here there is no attempt to deny that DiverCity is good marketing. That fact notwithstanding, children enter each place having the opportunity to learn about, by doing, future jobs or careers.

It is also a place where children learn about life and living. The television studio works, with children reading news copy, against sports, weather and other backdrops. In the beauty shop, children learn about make-up and get made-up. There is a place for children to get their cedula, the identification card that all Colombian citizens must have. There are places for children to earn DiverCity money, like doing work on the DiverCity farm. They can then withdraw their money from ATMs using the money to buy things at DiverCity’s stores. They learn to manage money, get a driver’s license and use services.

A street flows in the middle of the city in a grand circle where the ambulance, a fire truck and a train circle the interior. I learned the hard way that traffic lights and crosswalks are to be obeyed, drawing stares from parents and children as I walked across the street without waiting for the light to change. Adults are not allowed to stand in line. I watched the line entering the talent show – think of the X Factor. The children managed themselves very well being conscious of who was in what place. Only once did an adult have to intervene. And that was only because another adult was trying to get his whole family of children in ahead of another child. As the wait to get into most of the places can be close to a half hour, of course children can get fidgety but I didn’t see any type of disturbance or bad behavior.

DiverCity is a place that children are eager to enter. The place does not open until 4:00 p.m. and they start lining up to get in an hour before. Because of a national skating competition that was happening in Barranquilla, on the day I went there were children there from as far away as Bogota. It seems to be fun with a great purpose. Children have fun exploring careers and jobs. They learn to be responsible citizens.

It probably has struck you that DiverCity sounds close to diversity. That theme, diversity, runs deep through the experiences this park gives children. This is a place where the playing field is leveled. Children simply stand in line to live out their dreams. At DiverCity all children of age are encouraged to dream, and do what they can to make their dreams come true. What a great lesson.

Posted December 12, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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