Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Happy Colombia

Recently Colombia came in on top in a Gallup poll of the happiest people in the world, and this article gives some possible reasons why we're so happy here.  A lot of the article's points probably don't contribute much to general happiness (gold and emeralds usually lead to more misery than happiness here, and I don't see how speaking a very clear dialect of Spanish would make anyone happier or sadder).  I do agree that the beautiful women, the varied climates (which means we get a wide variety of fresh food with low food miles, year-round and guilt-free), the plethora of vacation days and great trip destinations, the civic initiatives like car-free days, the delicious and varied food, the great music and art and literature, all contribute to a very enjoyable quality of life.  And maybe we're conscientious enough to derive some happiness from the ongoing peace talks between the government and the FARC, and the prospect of peace for the first time in two generations.  But most of the items on the list are rather just boosterism for Colombia. 

I don't mind this--I'm one of Colombia's biggest boosters, myself.  I obviously can't have a very objective outlook, but I really do think that Colombia is in a great moment right now.  Perhaps any country could put together a best-of list as the article does (though Colombia does have a stunning variety of things going for it).  But on top of this, right now we're at a point in our socioeconomic and demographic development in which we're enjoying relative comfort and prosperity, without losing touch with the more traditional values that give meaning to life and undergird true happiness.  We don't have 9-kid families anymore, but we're by no means old, childless, and lonely.  We are on the upward stretch of the economic growth curve, where things are still getting materially better for lots of people, though we haven't yet arrived at the doldrums where people have all the basic comforts already (food, clothes, appliances, transport), and now feel empty because what additional consumption they undertake doesn't bring much satisfaction.  In short, Colombia gets to enjoy many of the advantages of both a poorer, more family- and tradition-oriented culture, and the consumer thrills and amenities of a wealthier, modern country.

This poll appears to rely on an answer to a simple question about whether the surveyee feels happy or not, so who knows how valid it is?  I mean, anecdotally, I've known plenty of gloomy Colombians, and in the past I've written about the stern, hurried ambience of Bogota in particular, which gathers together nearly a fifth of all Colombians.  But I do think there's something to the characterization of Colombians as a happy people.  I think I have learned to be less pessimistic and gothic and cynical thanks in large part to the positive outlook and cheerful general attitude of the people around me in my adopted country.

This widespread happiness has its drawbacks, too.  In my more negative moments, I would characterize Colombians as being unconscious, even reckless and inconsiderate.  There are lots of car accidents from sheer, dumb irresponsibility; people in public spaces often act as if they're the only ones around (pushing, taking up excess space, being oblivious of others trying to get through); and many people seem not to consider how their actions affect others, even those they love, in terms of wasting their time or creating extra work or hardship for them.  Perhaps most grave is my impression that an excessive, oblivious cheerfulness prevents people from thinking about larger social problems, or the larger implications of their own actions.  Indeed, this obliviousness could be some sort of mass psychosocial response to the cognitive dysjunct of living in a country where everything can seem perfectly fine, but all the while (for the past 50 years!) there is a brutal, bloody, cruel war raging, one that can occasional even break through the placid appearance of middle-class order at any moment.  If this is so, I understand how obliviousness can serve as a defense mechanism, but it is also problematic, because it permits the continuation of a status quo underlain by violence.  This is perhaps the case in Medellin, more than anywhere else. 

Medellin is one of the country's, even the world's, most glamorous, high-class cities.  I love the urban fabric, the public art, the amazing cuisine, the daring architectural design.  But the marvels of the El Poblado neighborhood and certain parts of downtown belie what is at core a brutal, violent city.  Even in the past years of relative calm (which has been broken in the past year or two as decapitated gangs regroup and bicker), Medellin's per-capita murder rate has remained comparable to or higher than Chicago's in its worst moment of the early 90s.  And Chicago is one of the most violent large cities in one of the world's more violent countries.  I respect that Medellin has made bold moves recently to incorporate the slumdwellers into the city's general prosperity through civic infrastructure like libraries and mass transit.  But the fact is that many middle-class or wealthy people in Medellin live in a bubble, surrounded by yet totallly unaware of injustice, hatred, and bloodshed.

Anyway, I wanted to close with a few little observations about the nice little things of life in Colombia, and in particular in my small town.  First off is efficiency.  Many businesses in Colombia are far from paragons of efficiency.  The big box stores that in most countries make up for their innate lack of charm or soul with very efficient service, ascribe to a totally different model here--they aim to confuse the shopper by mislabeling things, and they so mistrust their (generally distracted, disspirited) cashiers that any problem must be dealt with by a manager, with the result that checkout takes forever.  That's why I've been so pleasantly surprised recently by the efficiency at the mid-size, locally-owned grocery store chains here in my town.  We are lucky enough to have at least three major local (that's local to our town, not even national) chains in our town, all competing for the dollar of the humble working classes.  In addition to these, there are a number of one-shot stores as well.  In any of these supermarkets, you can find all the basic items, and increasingly things like tortellini, olive oil, and high-end coffee, all at reasonably lower prices than in a Carrefour, a Carulla, or an Exito.  On top of this, checkout is efficient and lightning-fast.  There aren't a lot of employees, and I reckon that they are close enough to the owner to have to prove how good they are at their jobs.  Not like in Carrefour, where the owner is a shareholder in central France. 

My second little bit of how good life is here has to do with our health plan.  We pay something like US$250 per month between my wife and myself in health care premiums, which I guess sounds high until you consider that it's tied to a low percentage of what we earn, and it's covering five people.  Best of all, and something that makes me laugh every time I have to hand over a copay coupon, is that any procedure or appointment we have implies a copay of US$1.50!  I don't know why it's so low--there are people of a similar socioeconomic stratum to ours with $10 copays or more.  I think it has to do with the fact that we work with peasants or something.  My wife filled out a questionnaire at one point that had a question about whether or not she worked with farmers.  If we are indeed getting a deep healthcare discount thanks to our agrarian inclinations, then I have to say, God Bless Colombia!

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