Feeling it in Colombia: Doing Without

Of course right at this very moment, I am to be found in a process of and semi-permanent state of reflection and these words banged into my keyboard are reminiscent of a narrative stream of consciousness with potentially no beginning and certainly no ending.

Lost 'n Lazy

Lost ‘n Lazy

Unfortunately for you out there, James Joyce I am not. However, I am a father, an author, a journalist, a hotelier, a guide and potentially a number of other things (and not necessarily in that given order) as I strive to make each day different from the last and not grind myself down beneath a haze of repetition which leaves the individual of today powerless against such an onslaught of consumerism and woeful monotony.

One has to make an effort to avoid the blandness of life, channelled and funnelled at us from all directions and ingrained into everything including something as the morning news that’s so diluted nowadays that it is now de rigueur have our heads filled with the banality of the lives of the famous, even before we head to work or have even enjoyed the morning’s first coffee. And this piece is not just a think diatribe harking back to a former life in London or a period in New York, it’s also relevant to where I am today in Bogotá.

Doing Without, Bogota's ubiquitous "recicladores"

Doing Without, Bogotá’s ubiquitous “recicladores”

And then we willingly fill our heads in a catatonic zombie-like slumber provided by abbreviated news by way of free newspapers which clutter the drains, soil the pavements and are used to cover the excrement in local parks. The monosyllabic three-point update delivered mid-afternoon to one’s cell phone as a text message by the operating service is the worst. My wife came up with the best term for it all, “noticias del barrio”. It’s water cooler information. Call it small talk; label it as irrelevance but there’s no sense in denying the fact that all of it is thoroughly mundane and lacking in creativity.

As writers, journalists and creative types we serve our stories which, in turn can be as raw and as full of meanderings and whimsy as we choose. This makes us creative. It’s not just about the content but also the structure. The other day I was able to interview a hot-shot Colombian start-up entrepreneur Alex Torrenegra over the phone to San Francisco. I had been alerted to Torrenegra’s existence through a Wall Street Journal piece and then a startlingly and refreshing article he has written on his website (Read: It’s Difficult to innovate in Colombia, Especially when the Government does more harm than Good.). At the end we discussed the fact that Colombia should be attempting and striving to create its own “Arepa Valley” and not mimic poorly the actual Silicon Valley.

And he’s right, but then Torrenegra is a shining example of a new and refreshingly altruistic generation of social entrepreneurs, just read the tagline on his website: Working on enabling humankind to reach its full Potential.

Doing without or scraping by in Bogota?

Doing without or scraping by in Bogotá?

We need to be doing our own thing and perhaps that means, to use the title of a poem by David Ray recently brought to my attention and recited on my new favourite podcast The Writer’s Almanac with noted writer and radio host Garrison Keillor, “Doing Without.”

It’s a real struggle to do without: you feel at a loss, disconnected, unable to participate in not only work, but in the daily activities we have grown accustomed to doing like texting, Facebooking, and tweeting, among others. In a world that relies so heavily on technology, it feels like a real sacrifice to do without. While the 1974 David Ray poem was written before there was an Internet, as we know it, the passage does serve as an allegory for the choices we make and the implications of those decisions.

We must clear our desks, our inboxes, our lives and our routines from the workaday nuisances. There is time now for a head-clearing walk, even if that means just skirting the open manholes and treacherous crazy paving in Bogotá, time to read a real book and feel the cover in your hands, admire the artwork and massage the paper pages between your fingers, to dust off your old camera and take real photographs rather than hastily snapped images which are then tightened up on Instagram. Make it real, take a chance and remember what it is like once again when you are doing without.

This is not to say that you should toss your telephone and tablet off the bridge (I did this once and I can vouch for the catharsis I felt), just disconnect, deactivate your notifications from time to time and allow your mind to wander. When was the last time you waited somewhere without your MP3/4/Pod playing music? When was the last time you waited for a friend without sliding your finger back and forth, checking Whatsapp, playing a game or refreshing your twitter feed? This is not a call asking you to follow in Bob Kaufman’s footsteps and take vow of silence (the beat poet managed a stretch of 10 years from Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 until 1973), but just to remember what it takes to exercise your creative ability.

When was the last time that for you, silence was indeed deafening?

Doing Without

David Ray

‘s an interesting
custom, involving such in-
visible items as the food
that’s not on the table, the clothes
that are not on the back
the radio whose music
is silence. Doing without
is a great protector of reputations
since all places one cannot go
are fabulous, and only the rare and
enlightened plowman in his field
or on his mountain does not overrate
what he does not or cannot have.
Saluting through their windows
of cathedral glass those restaurants
we must not enter (unless like
burglars we become subject to
arrest) we greet with our twinkling
eyes the faces of others who do
without, the lady with the
fishing pole, and the man who looks
amused to have discovered on a walk
another piece of firewood.

from Gathering Firewood, 1974
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT

Listen in to my brief interview with Alex Torrenegra on Colombia Calling out on Monday April 27 around midday and available on iTunes as a podcast.

Author Richard McColl is trying to do without and has recently edited and contributed to a collection of essays inspired by the Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled: “Was Gabo an Irishman?” His updated version of the Bradt Guide to Colombia will be out later in 2015 and he hopes to have his own novel: “the Mompos Project” completed by the end of June.

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