Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If You Build It, They Will Come . . .

And so they have! Although there have officially been four guests thus far, this is the first time that The Wandering Paisa truly feels like a hostel. A group of eight travelers from various countries arrived this evening. They came to Colombia by boat from Panama and were caught in a storm on the way, running out of food and without proper places to sleep on their unexpectedly extended journey. Talk about an easy crowd to please – as they explored the hostel there were exclamations all around: Hot showers! Laundry! Coffee! Pillows!!!

What’s amazing after all this time with only Miles and I in the hostel, is to see how all the space is being used. It’s exactly as intended with people lounging in hammocks, hanging out in the castle, reading and writing on the balcony, chatting in the reception, and cooking in the kitchen. Every area is comfortable and usable and the guests are making the most of it all. The guests are shopping at the nearby grocery stores, testing the neighborhood restaurants, and exploring the city by metro. Everything is confirmation of the reasons that Brent and Miles chose this location and the countless other decisions that have been made over the past months. Finally, The Wandering Paisa is a fully operating hostel!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Grocery Store Experience

“Could you swing by the store and grab milk on your way home?” is a phrase that you will never hear in Colombia. Not because Colombians don’t go to the store or because they don’t drink milk but because it is a near impossibility to “swing by” the store. That phrase implies a quick in and out, grab the one thing you need, make a beeline to the “under 10 items” register, and you’re out of there. Five minutes max. In Colombia, or in Medellin at least, or in my neighborhood at the very least, going to the store is a full event of a proportion that requires it be penciled into your day planner.

It’s the checkout lines that get you. There is absolutely no sense of urgency among the workers, regardless of how long the line snaking away from their register is. If you’re unlucky the shift change will happen while you’re waiting and could take up to ten minutes. Alternatively, every single person in front of you could be paying their bills as well as buying groceries, doubling the number of transactions required. And heaven help you if a manager is needed. I saw a couple the other day who had the right idea for relieving the annoyance of waiting - they were casually drinking a yet-to-be-purchased beer while in line!

There is, however, a marked difference between the service at Carrefour, Makro, and Exito. Carrefour is a French chain, I think Makro is Dutch, and Exito is Colombian. Colombia seems to have a whole different spin on CSR that is much more involved and effective than what I have observed in India and the US. They go to great lengths to improve the lives of their employees, including helping everyone to buy their own houses. It’s understandable that benefits like this would make employees much more invested in their work.

Another local chain that takes an active role in improving the lives of its employees is Crepes & Waffles. This chain of restaurants only employs single mothers and assists them with schooling, housing, and other investments that help them to support themselves and lead stable lives. The types of CSR practiced by Exito and Crepes & Waffles seem much more admirable to me than large US corporations who might organize a day volunteering at the local food bank or planting trees once every few months.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Living In and On the Minimum Salary

Miles and I are apartment hunting right now. In the $300-350 range we’ve found some amazing deals and one of the initial problems was finding apartments that weren’t about 3x the size of what we need. Obviously, by western standards, these apartments are incredibly cheap, but knowing that the average apartment we’re looking at is 650,000 pesos, which is about 100,000 more than the minimum salary in Colombia made me wonder what more affordable housing is in Medellin.

When I asked Federico how much the average Colombian living on minimum salary would pay for a house, he said about 150,000 pesos. Add in 200,000 for transport, which especially adds up if you have to take two buses to get to work. The buses are operated by private companies, meaning that you pay every time you get on a bus rather than receiving a transfer like we do in Seattle. For this reason, many people own motorcycles, but of course gas is expensive too. Now add maybe 200,000 a month for food and you’re already at 550,000, the minimum salary.

Even if both partners work and share the house with other family members, it’s very little money to live on. Then imagine throwing children into the mix – clothes, shoes, books for school, etc. However, despite the difficulty of getting by on the minimum salary, I suppose these workers are still luckier than many, given that Colombia has the interesting combination of both one of the highest minimum salaries and one of the highest unemployment rates in South America.

Limpiar: (v) to clean

It took three tries to get a hostel cleaning lady we’re happy with. The first one earned her dismissal when she was loathe to clean the kitchen because “it’s only going to get dirty again.” Wait a minute, isn’t that the point of hiring someone to clean? Especially in a hostel with a capacity of 34, it’s crucial that the cleaning staff be willing to clean the same areas everyday and sometimes twice a day. Marybel, the new cleaning lady, is a gem who proved her ability to take initiative and her understanding of the term “deep clean” when she took a garden hose to the hallway walls and ceiling on her first day. With her help, the inches of construction dust in which we have been living have been all but eradicated.

Despite my obviously inferior Spanish, each cleaning lady we’ve had insists on reporting to me rather than Miles. Clearly, as the woman of the house, it’s my responsibility to provide direction regarding the cleaning. The result is that my current flashcards consist of words like dust, stain and mop. I suppose managing housework is as good a way as any to increase my vocabulary!