Borders of Computing: Bogota
With a Sony Style store stocked with 52-inch TVs, a cafe that takes orders via handheld PC, and a hotel that features iPod docks, it's briefly possible to forget that technology access is scarce in Colombia.
BOGOTA, Colombia--Like many cities in Latin America, Bogota is a study in contrasts.
At the fanciest hotels, you can find an iPod dock waiting for you in your room. At the tony R cafe, in the wealthy northern part of the city, the waiters take orders for cappuccinos with iPaq handhelds. A Sony Style store features flat-screen TVs up to 52 inches, provided you don't mind plunking down 13 million pesos (about $7,150).
But you don't have to go far to see a different side of the city. When I headed just a few blocks south of the central plaza, Plaza de Bolivar, the notion of an electronics store takes on a whole new meaning. There, in the working class Alto De Los Cruces neighborhood, I spotted a sign that said "Electronicas," which turned out to be for a small shop whose main business is fixing radios and televisions.
I stopped in to get a closer look and met a man picking up his television, which had been in for repairs because the remote control had stopped working. He carried the 20-inch set away by hand, but with a smile on his face.
"Twenty thousand pesos, it's cheap," he told me, after handing over what translates to a little over $10.
The reality is that although there is plenty of technology in Colombia it is concentrated in relatively few hands.
Sure, there was a teenager strumming away at Guitar Hero III inside the Nintendo store in the posh Atlantis mall here. But unlike in the U.S. where there is often a shortage of Wii consoles, here there is a shortage of people who can afford the console, which sells for 1 million pesos, or roughly $550.
In Colombia, only about 10 percent of the population have their own PC, which amounts to about 4 million PCs for the entire country. The penetration of broadband Internet access is about at the same level.
In big cities, at least, there are the loads of Internet cafes where people without a PC can get on the Internet to send and receive e-mail. Cell phones, too, are ubiquitous, with plenty of corner stores where people can top off their phones with additional minutes.
Indeed, in its wealthiest areas, I was struck by how much Bogota was like many international capitals. There were the big American-style malls, one complete with a Cinemark Theatre and Hard Rock Cafe. Dunkin' Donuts is a more familiar sight in Bogota than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of a Starbucks on every corner, though, the city is dotted with its homegrown version--the Juan Valdez Cafe.
Television, too, reminded me of home, even the Spanish channels. There was the usual complement of Sunday morning fare--cartoons, infomercials, and religious programs mingled with news and sports. Plus, the hotel had a large complement of English-language channels from names like Fox, TNT, and MTV. I even saw former CNET correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reporting live from Texas.
But the reality of Colombia is vastly more complicated than this initial view. It's about the decades of civil war with guerrillas and paramilitary groups. It's about those maimed and disabled by the conflict, the 3 million people who have been displaced as well as the challenge faced by a country still trying to forge peace even as it works to reintegrate more than 47,000 former combatants.
So far, I have gotten the merest glimpse of this part of Colombia--the banner hung near the Bogota airport urging an end to the kidnappings by FARC, the displaced woman and her child asking for money in the middle of the road as we drove through the city, or the dogs sniffing for bombs at the entrance to the mall.
In the coming days, though, I will have the opportunity to see those who have been victimized directly by the conflict as well as former combatants and see some of the technology projects that are trying to heal wounds and provide educational and economic opportunities.
I am certain that the image that will stay with me as I leave Colombia will be far different from these initial views. Stay tuned.