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Published: April 12th 2018
Yes, two in one day!
I don’t imagine I will have time to write something tomorrow, so here’s a couple of things from today that have cemented how nice the people are here. I went to get a custom t-shirt this morning, and the really chatty and kind young man in the trendy coffee shop which sells them took great care in explaining what I could do with each design. Turned out the t-shirt printer had broken and ‘might’ be fixed this afternoon, in which case I can have my t-shirt tomorrow before my flight. He would ask and contact me later. I thought it wouldn't be. He gave me a free coffee – yes, I spent some money on other things, but it was kind. Then I went shopping and was given a paper bag for my purchases – because of the sudden downpour (thunder, lightning etc), the bag broke as I was heading back to my apartment. I rescued everything, and then a minute later a guy yelled at me and brought me some of the stuff that had fallen out again. No, he didn’t nick it like many people might think about people in ‘dodgy’ South American countries. Although that probably says more about my shopping, actually.
This evening I actually received a message from the t-shirt guy to say the machine was fixed, and feel free to come by whenever convenient tomorrow. Reliable, helpful and very very very polite – as I’ve found with all Colombians. You know you’re not really speaking to a Colombian if they don’t say ‘con gusto’ at least three times in a conversation. Although that may be because we British say thank you a lot, and that is their natural response.
I thought I would list some other observations from over the past couple of months (apologies, but this list relates to Colombia). I don’t think Peru has had a fair chance yet!
Toilet paper, insect repellent, pillowcase…oh wait wrong reminder note. Deleting Inca Trail necessities.
Fashion: I think Colombians are fashionable. I realise this might not say much, but I will admit it did surprise me. There are an awful lot of guys with jeans/casual trousers which have elasticated ankles (like jogging pants but jeans). They work. Especially with the excellent trainers on show – always a bit different – no run of the mill Nikes or Asics (unless they’re actually running/cycling, and then there is an awful lot of lycra on show).
Dogs: There are dogs everywhere. But, and I think unusually for South America, they are not strays. They are very much loved pets and you can see how much they are part of family life when you visit the city parks.
Bad tourist signage: To be expected? Perhaps, because it’s relatively new to tourists. You get used to it, I suppose. Thankfully, there are police everywhere (see next paragraph), so you always have someone to ask the way.
Police EVERYWHERE: And not in a bad, aggressive way. They are there to help, and they are there to deter. They may be on Whatsapp a lot (there goes the deterrence), but they will always help you when you need it. When I first arrived, it was noticeable and I put it down to Colombia really wanting to change the perception of the cities. Having police on the streets and in shopping malls really makes a difference, I suspect, and I was seriously reassured.
Fried food: There is a lot of it. Colombian food is not exceptional. It mostly tastes almost but not quite nice, but you don’t have to pretend as most of the locals know that foreigners don’t love arepas. But I do still miss my menu del dia just down from the Spanish school from time to time (soup, rice, avocado, chicken, sorry-looking salad and frijoles, and a lemonade) for £2.50.
Fresh fruits: I will definitely miss (and indeed did when I was in Peru) the street sellers with their cups of chopped mango/pineapple/guanabana for 50p. It was a perfect breakfast on the go. The supermarkets and markets are full of things I’d never tried before – back to grapes and satsumas next week…
Football: Football is important. As per other South American countries. A national game brings everyone (and I mean everyone) together - I've spoken to several people about the Colombian team and they have all said it has basically no hope at the World Cup, but they are still fanatical and I know there will be such a party atmosphere when it comes around. The domestic competition game I went to was without doubt the best atmosphere I've ever seen at a football match. Unforgettable.
Timekeeping: They keep time! In fact, as I’ve mentioned, they’re often early. I get the feeling, in actual fact, they are more about pleasing people than looking at the time. If they know everyone has arrived for a bus or a train (and they know – their non-computer-based record keeping is amazing) then why wait?
Less reliance on technology: I saw very few computers being typed into, and a lot of log books for handwritten personal details. It was nice. It worked. Nobody messed up, we didn’t have to wait ages while a computer programme failed or insisted upon a mandatory yet irrelevant field being completed. Equally, exemplified by their coffee-production process – less reliance on automated machinery. More local jobs protected. While most of the rest of the coffee-producing world strip coffee beans off trees with machines (which doesn’t make the coffee any worse, necessarily), Colombian pickers are protected by their Government. No, they don’t earn much, but it’s certainly still a welcome wage.
Yet – technology used innovatively: When they do use technology, it can be at its most innovative. A friend I made at the school is working on using smart technology to enable street lights to detect levels of pollution, as well of course as better traffic control. The Metrocable in Medellin is a phenomenon. Electric cars are next, they say.
Subtle religion: Yes, it’s mainly a Catholic country, but in 1991 Colombia’s new constitution declared freedom of religion and that all religions should be equally free before the law. People may cross themselves when they go past a church, and they may have a picture on their walls at home, but religion didn’t once come up in conversations I had with Colombians. It’s hard to explain, it just feels like people are accepted because of who they are rather than what they might believe in. And if you are religious, get on with it, not everyone needs to know. Since I’m not religious, I really noticed and appreciated this.
Greener than you may think: No plastic lids by default in coffee shops: Check. Plastic bag charges: Check. Machines where you can post your empty plastic bottles in exchange for c10p on your Metro transport card: Check. Clean cities: Yes. Immaculate transport system: Yes. Is that about pride and respect? Quite probably.
Overconcerned with petty crime: As I’ve mentioned before, when you first arrive people will probably tell you to be careful with your bags on public transport. They will say this many many times. And new strangers will say it when they see you on the Metro too, for good measure. Sure, I knew I couple of people who had minor incidents, but nothing big was taken, and no-one was hurt. Just stay aware. Colombians seem to worry about things which could happen anywhere, and I expect are more prevalent in places like London (and certainly Paris). They just don’t want anyone to have a bad experience in their city.
Answers to questions are never yes or no: They are always lengthy. They are friendly people, who want to know more about this gringo who has dared to visit. Or they just want to provide you with every last detail so they can be sure you find what you need. It’s nice. It’s confusing, because you never understand the answer, but I would rather have it than just a grunt ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
More conclusions (the best stolen from other blogs): It’s not just like Narcos; the entire population is not on drugs; you won’t find guerrillas all over the place; and it is not a Third World country.
And there are probably many others, but I will bore people with those in due course. Cue lots of ‘ohhh, it wouldn’t be like that in Colombia’ moments…
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