Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A remarkable bird!

I wish I could tell you the name of this bird, but I have been unable to
get it identified. It makes a 'chuck-chuck' noise, no chirping or singing,
and as you can see it is eating a very large grasshopper or cicada.
This bird was seen regularly in my yard up until a few days ago. I can only assume it has moved on to other areas, perhaps after having cleaned out all the cicadas from my backyard. It was large. Easily measured eight inches from top of its head to the end of its body, before including the tail.

I miss hearing it's 'chuck-chuck' call from the trees nearby. Perhaps it is a female and is nesting after gorging on grasshoppers. What I'm hoping for is that someone reading this blog will be able to find out more about it and give me a name for it. But isn't it a lovely creature?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dogs of Barichara

This dog is often seen following its owner around much
of Barichara and is a common type of dog for the area;
medium size, mixed breed, longer hair.
The Colombian treatment of dogs is an interesting study in the difference between this country and the United States and how Colombia is changing. While this subject is about dogs, it really does relate to all aspects of both pets and agricultural animals in the two countries.

For many years, a dog in Colombia was just something that ate the scraps of food thrown down (to help deal with the issues of garbage) and were used to keep property guarded, but their scrawny, dull-hair appearance confirmed the struggle the domestic dog had (and still has in many locales) here. However the increase in rabies and mange caused some people to take a more active role in vaccinations and gradually some of the health issues for dogs are reducing.

I was invited by the owner to view the ledge
on which this dog is perched in order to keep
track of city activities, dog and otherwise.
However, the overall attitude about animals in Colombia is still very different from that of U.S. animal owners. A butcher was seen to take his extra-sharp carving knife and lay into a hungry dog that was hanging around his meats and probably snatching some when it thought the time was right. That dog still is seen in the streets, with a very nasty, hairless gash across its back. Dogs are kicked, beaten, starved, and left for dead. Neutering still seems to be a rarity.

Horses, cows, cats, dogs, really all the animals in Colombia have a tougher time than those same creatures elsewhere, except perhaps India. Just a few days ago I saw a horse tied up in a field. It had eaten everything within reach and could not get to the green grass beyond its tether. Cows, donkeys, mules, horses, goats and chickens are left on the side of the road to graze and the roads are narrow enough in some places for the creature to be at serious risk of injury or death, not to mention the hazard to the driver who hits one.

Recently the yellow Labrador at Corasoma got pregnant by a Santanderano mutt and she dropped a litter of 10 puppies. All very cute, and clearly the early ones down the chute were the biggest and best of the litter. It is not a judgment against owners with female dogs who are faced with unwanted litters or dealing with the cost of neutering. Although the cost is considerably less than in the U.S., it is still equal to - for some - a week of groceries and so it is postponed or never done, letting the female - and the owner - deal with the consequences.

One of the 10 puppies from Corasoma's Moosie, a yellow
Labrador who got mixed up with a "Santandereano."
They were all irresistably cute like this one!
I agreed to help my friends at Corasoma by making a poster for the town bulletin board showing what the puppies looked like, as it is a good two kilometer walk to the finca. There were six males and four females and within a day of putting up the poster, all the male dogs were spoken for. Easy to see why since neutering males is seldom an option in this macho culture.

The other aspect of whelping puppies is that many owners may not feed the female any specialized lactating-mother-foods, so the pups could be without sufficient nutrition to even make it to 6-8 weeks before weaning, leaving them with less-than-ideal immune systems. So the cycle of disease gets a foothold in the next generation. Fleas on dogs are a huge problem, flea collars are expensive, and most of the natural remedies don't work all that well.

There is a veterinarian in Barichara, but she doesn't get much business on a daily basis, it seems, so she started baking bread for sale. The next nearest vet is in San Gil, 24 kilometers away and taking pets on the bus is frowned upon. That means a taxi to and from the vets plus whatever the visit costs are - so for those with reduced incomes, having a pet and caring for it the way people do in the U.S. is an expensive option.

But by the same token, having a dog in Barichara is the norm. There are fewer restrictions about casa rentals allowing dogs and dogs often walk with their owners around town without leashes, running up to dog buddies and chasing each other around the park while the owners have a tinto and chat with each other. Dogs are better behaved here (they seem to know they are d-o-g-s), fewer situations of dogs attacking other dogs, and less issues about people, including children, being bothered in some way by the dogs.

When I first arrived in Barichara, I was quite surprised at the number of dogs who would accompany their owners to work, often arriving well before the worker did. It is also likely you will see on the back roads a moto with a family of three on it, or a pair of workers, and the dog(s) running along behind it to the next destination.The dog(s) who lived at the finca seemed to understand that these were dog visitors, not incoming residents to be challenged... quite fascinating.

Dogs and their owners are regular attendees in the various churches, too. It is not uncommon for the family dog to sit in the aisle during the entire service, following the owner up to the communion rail and then trotting back to the place where the family was sitting. A friend of mine takes her large Lab-type dog to all the outdoor concerts she goes to, another owner takes all four of her dogs to town whenever she goes shopping.
Dogs often lie outside the home casa simply watching the
goings-on. This one didn't move at all as the crowds of
Palm Sunday parade watchers walked past it.

The most common recognizable breeds found here are Labrador Retrievers in the colors of yellow, black or brown, along with the Rottweiler. There are just two Weimeraners here, one of whom I cared for and wrote about in another blog in January. The longer haired types like the German Shepherd, setter breeds and the Golden Retriever are either not as popular or just not found here.  I have not seen any Dobermans, either. But there are increasing numbers of Chihuahuas and Miniature Pinschers of all colors.

Some restaurants or cafes - not all - allow their guests to bring canine companions in to lie under the table while dining. Well-behaved creatures are welcomed back. I suppose if you were not, your dog could return and you would have to go someplace else.

I think the biggest challenge is that if you have a dog and want to travel around Colombia with it, the busses are not dog-friendly and I don't know how you would get from place to place without a car. But with the changing attitudes about caring for animals, albeit slow, perhaps some of the same businesses that flourish in the U.S. will be accepted here: kennels for pet care for owners going away, grooming, training-the-owner camps and more affordable neutering programs.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Who's reading this blog, anyhow?

Once in awhile I review the 'stats' on Blogger to see which articles are the most read or where the audience comes from. I started out writing this blog as a window on the world for a couple of people who were in the hospital with Multiple Myeloma (MM), a blood plasma cancer which is considerably more terminal than life itself. Some people with it have had Stem Cell Transplants (STCs) either with their own cells (autologous) or someone else's (allo) and some have had both or none and lots of chemo or medications. Knowing these treatments can create isolation for the patients (needed because of compromised immune systems) I wanted to bring in a little fresh air and fresh thoughts.

So my objective when I started was to provide some entertainment, different views of the world, and also to give my family some idea of where I was and what I was doing. I still try to meet my objectives and from some of the readers, it would appear I am doing that.
Three abandoned kittens were left in a carton near my casa.

But a couple of weeks ago when I looked at those 'stats,' I was surprised to see one (1) reader came from Burkina Faso. How many of you already know where that is? It used to be the Republic of Upper Volta when it was ruled by France in the western part of Africa, but their independence changed the name which now means "Men standing upright," or "Men of  Honor" and 'father's house,' a compilation of the two languages stemming from that country. Thanks to Wikipedia, you can find out more information on the link provided.

This was quite a surprise to me, and the reader never left a comment, so I have no idea what prompted him or her to stop by. (The statistics do not show me when the readers read a piece where they are from, only that on one day there were six or seven readers and over a week they were from five or six countries.) Was it a woman from Burkina who was frustrated with a country motto of "Unity, Progress, Justice" but finds her countryMEN less than enthusiastic about giving her a voice? I will probably never know unless that reader comes back.

What I also learned from Wikipedia is that the Burkinabes are fed up with a President who has a private plane and who has become very wealthy in 23 years of ruling the country and the people want the wealth to be more evenly distributed. Apparently there have been riots since February 2011 and as recently as April 28 when they held another protest seeking redress of their grievances. Have you read about this anywhere?

A few of my readers are ex-pats-to-be who want to know what it is like to live here, some are future travelers to Colombia realizing that it is no less dangerous than a supermarket in Arizona, USA, because there are crazy people with insane objectives all over the world and it seems to be a matter of timing as to whether or not you end up involved in that craziness.

I know I have more than a few readers who have MM, or their caregivers, people I have come to know as a consequence of a relative developing it. I have learned a lot about the disease from their blogs and become part of their blog family providing words of comfort or cheering on the sidelines when something is working and receiving the same here.

To me this audience is the most important because they have taught me that living life and writing about it is a day-to-day experience. Everyone has challenges to face and a timeline - known or unknown - in which to deal with it. 

Yesterday we had a 4.9 earthquake only 24 kilometers away. I really felt the shaking this time and so did Scott, the other artist's dog on the property. He was anxious and clingy all day afterwards.

Today I learned that Harmon Killebrew, 73, a nationally known ball player, has announced his plans to enter Hospice after a failed attempt to overcome cancer. I met this man in Boise, Idaho when I worked for a foundation that held a special event to honor native-born Idahoans. I don't really 'know' him well, not even an acquaintance. But his decision to live his life in whatever time he has left without further combat is a bold move and I can understand and sympathize with that choice. 

It was the mention of his name combined with yesterday's earthquake that caused me to reflect today on my own life and history and the importance of living... and giving what can be given. I hope my readers find the gifts offered up. And if you only like cat pictures, these are for you.

I decided to keep this little girl. Her name is "Sombra," or
"Shadow" in English. She is very small. The other kittens
were given to a pet store to find them homes.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Beginning a New Year

"La Ventana (2011)" is my first work in oil in several decades.
I celebrated my birthday recently and it seemed appropriate that I had also completed an oil painting I started awhile ago. It is view out of the window of my casa to the slopes beyond. In the blog, "On Being An Artist," I published the start of the piece and while I took pictures along the way, I never really knew when it would be done as I struggled to find my way from mid-point to the end.

In a way, The Painting, the first oil I have done in ages, is a metaphor for my life, except that I hope that mine isn't done yet! But the mid-way struggle is not unlike what we go through in the 40's and 50's trying to find the right balance of color and shape in our lives. Then as we arrive at the 60's we find a certain level of acceptance of limitations based on our experiences, health and desires, and we move on, using what we have to the best of our ability.

I am calling it "The Window" or "La Ventana" and now my next challenge is what will I paint next? Will it be "The Door?"

Last year I took this photo of a friend at her finca. Before I decided to return to oil painting, I used PhotoShop. I have worked some other photos in a similar way and actually have liked the results more than the sharp image I started with. If I could find a reasonable place to print them on canvas, I might try some them in that format as well.

So, it's a new year and I'm exploring...
I "PhotoShopped" this shot to make it a softer focus and
to eliminate the distractions of the greenery so that she
was truly the center of attention.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Getting a tourist visa extension

This is an older section of Bucaramanga, next to one of the
many parks the city has, but sadly doesn't take very good
care of them and they are dangerous after dark.
When I was first in Colombia in 2009, I had been here about four weeks when I realized I was going to be over-staying the 60-day limit by about 6 days. There are serious fines (up to $1500 USD) for failing to follow the tourist guidelines, and so I had to go to Bucaramanga, the capital of the department (state) of Santander to the immigration office or DAS.

It was all quite a blur and helped by a friend, I got through it all. But recently someone asked me how to go about getting an extension of a tourist visa. I thought since there are a number of readers who may someday decide to come to Colombia, it might be useful to explain the process and what is required in advance.

First of all, let me say that whatever it here on this date may change by the time someone reads it, so I take no personal responsibility for the information or its accuracy beyond the date of publishing. Secondly, it is the responsibility of any traveler to review the rules and regulations for travel in any country before making trip plans. Although those regulations are subject to change, and do, having the base knowledge of what WAS required before any revision is essential. I admit I was not following this advice for my first visit, but I have been more diligent since then and I hope this posting is helpful for those who are coming (or thinking about coming) to visit this beautiful country.

DAS stands for Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, a division of the Colombian agency for central intelligence and as such they are the department of the Colombian government responsible for keeping track of who is coming and going in their country. Like any government officials, they are limited in what they can do by the established rules, but they seem more willing to be helpful than my experience with the U.S. officials has shown.

The primary DAS office is in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. That is where one goes for permanent visas. But on the local level, most of the departments (states) have a regional DAS office to deal with tourist visa extensions. Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander, has such an office and that is where I went the first time. It is located at Carrera 11 No. 41-13 in the area called Centro de Governamente.

The hours of operation are supposed to be from 7-12 and 2-4, but it is not unusual for them to turn people away at 11 a.m. and tell them to come back at 2 p.m. due to the numbers of people already inside. On most days there are only three agents to provide the services. So, get there early! Also, you will have to leave DAS to go and pay the extension fee at Banco Davivienda S.A five blocks away (DAS will give you a slip of paper with the address and details before leaving their offices.) and that bank may close at 11 a.m. Believe me when I say it is critical to be among the first people going through the DAS security point early.

The listed phone number for DAS in Bucaramanga is 6-339426 if you want to check the schedule before planning to visit.

Here is what you need to have:
1) Your passport (duh!) with at least three pages free for stamping.
2) Two B+W copies of the main page of your passport.
3) Two B+W copies of the page showing your entry date into Colombia.
4) Four recent color photos approx. 1 inch tall in size. (This can easily be done near the DAS offices and they know which color background to use - critical!)
5) Two copies of your return ticket or reservation.
6) A blank deposit slip for the bank, of which you will need to get 2 copies once it is stamped at the bank.
7) At least $80,000 CPs for the extension fee. At the last visit it was $73,400 (April 25, 2011).
8) You can expect the photos and copies to cost around $20,000 depending on which tienda you use. (We used "Oscar's" which is the first one to the left of the DAS building, if you are standing on the street corner looking at the DAS sign.) This is for Bucaramanga so I don't know if other states are about the same for fees or not.

There is a form to be filled out in the DAS office which is basically providing them with the information of where you are staying in Colombia, the name of a Colombian reference and their phone number, your passport number, a phone number if you have one, and the reason for your visit. They were quite helpful to the non-Spanish speaking American, but their English is limited.

If you have a cell phone, you may NOT use it inside the DAS offices. You cannot receive or make calls except outside the gates. They did let us keep it with us, but this could change. Be prepared for that. In Bogota no cell phones are allowed at DAS or at the American Embassy; you check them at the entry point.

A United States resident (and most other nationalities) can visit for 60 days without a visa extension. When you arrive in Colombia, the DAS/Customs entry official stamps the passport for the first 60 days. If you don't go to DAS for an extension BEFORE that expiration date, you had better have a very valid reason and proof as to why you did not or you could be facing a serious fine. They will usually give you another 30 days without any issue and sometimes 60 days, but that is rare. Tourists may only be in the country for a total of 6 months per year. That can be in segments of days or all at once, which is why some people travel out of the country to another one for a period of time and then return.

As of this date, all travel to Venezuela by bus has been halted by the serious flooding, mudslides and road damage, so this was why the American had to get a DAS extension; no way to exit the country and return affordably. Airfares one way to San Cristobal were about $150 (USD) one way before the roads were closed and now, IF you can get a seat on a flight, it is more like $450 (USD) one way! The bus fares were about $50 (USD) roundtrip but no busses are even going to Cucuta (the last town before the border) at present. But given the rather disagreeable attitude of Venezueleans toward Colombians and Americans, perhaps this is not a bad outcome.

If you visit over the New Year, say from November to January, the time starts over again, I have heard on January 1. This is something you would want to check out before making travel decisions.

Upon leaving, there is a fee to be paid as well. It must be paid in cash, either CPs or USDs. If you are only in Colombia for 59 days, you can usually avoid the exit charge. Once you are here beyond that date, they will collect it. The last time I paid, it was $35 USD or about $70 CPs and it was a near crisis because the plane was about to board passengers and I was still trying to find a way to cash an American Express traveler's check in the Bogota airport to pay the fee in cash. TIP: forget about American Express traveler's checks altogether - they are a pain in the butt and useless in most of South America.

I hope this is helpful information and that it makes the tourist visa extension process easier for someone.