Colombia is Colombia! But it’s Colombia!
Both of the above expressions can be heard over and over again, usually accompanied by a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder and a wry smile, and used to excuse or explain away just about anything that needs an excuse or an explanation.
Poor timekeeping, bad driving, any quirk of life that occurs – all are explained away with good humour and an unlimited amount of patience.
The following are not all restricted to Colombia but here they are certainly delivered with a lot of charm and the widest of smiles.
1. The Minute Man (or woman). This is minute as in time rather than teeny tiny people. On every street corner you can find somebody holding up a cracked laminated sign or they have a cardboard notice pronouncing ‘minutos’. Don’t have a cell phone? No problem. Simply use a mobile here and pay for the respective minutes that you have used – and they are cheap. More often than not the phone is tied by a length of string to the other person so you can’t run off with it, but it is the perfect system for people who don’t want to or can’t afford to buy their own mobile. It is also indespensible for travellers who like me still haven’t bothered to purchase a Colombian sim card or for safety reasons would rather not be out and about with a phone.
man on phone – you can just see the string
2. Poor timekeeping: the longer that I spend in Latin America I have come to realise that poor time keeping is not down to rudeness or insensitivity but it is just the attitude of a nation of people who generally live life more slowly and in the moment. This is forced on them to some extent by the bureaucracy and the craziness of the rules (when any rules do exist), the transport systems, the heat and an overall laissaz faire outlook on life. Colombians enjoy the moment. They will not pass a friend in the street without a good gossip and they will stop to pass the time of day with strangers – and if that makes them late for an appointment – well the chances are that if they are meeting with another Colombian then they will have done the same and they will probably both turn up at the same time anyway. So therefore there is no problem.
all the time in the world
3. Bus travel has been described to me by more than one Colombian as an extreme sport. Drivers are recruited on their fearlessness and their ability to keep the accelerator pressed flat to the floor, even when collecting or depositing passengers. Mothers with babies in their arms, twenty school children, crinkly old ladies with a sack of beans over their shoulder or men with boxes of chickens – the bus stops for no one. If you are very lucky there will be a conductor on board who will leap off and give you a not so gentle shove up the arse or take the chickens off you so that you have two hands free, and then the bus will lurch forward again, rolling all the newbies along the aisle. No need to shout ‘move along please’ – the g-force compacts everybody towards the back with little effort, with the already seated passengers holding up willing arms to catch the babies or the beans.
one of the better local buses
4. If bus travel is an extreme sport, then the roads are the adventure playground. Is that a solid double line down the centre? Does it indicate a hazard such as a blind bend or a dangerous corner? Yes, it does, but it is not a warning sign – rather a challenge. Look – a blind bend with a two thousand metre drop down a sheer mountain side – yep – overtake. Even better if you are a bus driver and you can try to overtake a line of long lumbering lorries – on a blind corner – in the mountains – and on the busiest road in the region – it makes the challenge longer and it certainly gets the heart pumping. Bridges under repair with no side safety barriers or carriageways which have been undermined by landslides – those maximum speed signs need to be doubled and then have a zero added to them for that added zing to life.
one of the oh so slow lorries
5. Michelada – This is a beer with attitude. The Colombians drink their beer with additives. Take a beer but first coat the rim of the glass with a hefty amount of lemon juice and salt. Then put a good inch of lemon juice in the glass and more salt before pouring in the beer. This is the standard although I have had a michelada which also contains pepper and chilli – and once one arrived with Worcestershire sauce in it! It’s almost a meal.
6. Arepas are EVERYWHERE and people can’t get enough of them. They are a staple food and probably more important than bread here. They are a sort of thick tortilla made from maize which you can eat cold but are better heated up over the gas flame on a little hot plate. Unfortunately they are served up with every meal – bread, lunch and dinner and I HATE them. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like them as they are so bland and inoffensive but there is something of a vague off-putting smell about them. They come in various flavours but they are all horrible as far as I am concerned – on a par with papaya and sopa de mondongo – diced tripe soup (cow’s stomach). I give them away to people at the next table.
7. The mullet hair style is proudly sported all around the country. Gelled and spiked and a reminder of the eighties men are generally exceedingly well groomed and take amazing time and care over their hair and their clothes. I reckon Latin America has more hairdressers and barbers per head (did you get that pun?) of population than on any other continent. Shaved sides, little mohican stripes and rats tails are combed, groomed and preened in any available shiny surface. I have also spotted a large percentage of the men wearing clear varnish on their fingernails and most take an incredible pride in their physique and appearance. I like this trend.
8. Dogs are dressed up. Dogs wear clothe;, coats, scarves, hair ribbons and slides, booties and dresses. They even have football strips for dogs and like the men, they have a passion for nail varnish – well, to be honest, probably the dogs couldn’t care less but their owners do. In a place where the temperature is melting hot it strikes me as odd to add more layers to an already furry creature – although if they sold strait jackets for dogs I would buy one for the dog which tried to attack me the other week and bit the leg of my shorts.
doggie in a dress
9. Men wearing nail varnish and dogs wearing dresses are all perfectly understandable when you realise that the national obsession is looking good. This is historic and goes back to when the drug barons were the celebrities and dressed to kill (another pun there!). Now, not a man, women child or dog goes out without checking themselves in the mirror three times, full makeup is applied and clothes are always spotless and pressed stiffly to attention. Colombians nearly all sport tooth braces for that amazing smile and many women go under the knife and have cosmetic surgery. Many procedures are available in the poorer areas for free but for those who can’t afford to or would rather not add bits on to their bodies (yes they add on, they never deduct) then you can buy uplifting knickers and jeans with butt enhancing pads built into them.
doggie in a football strip
10. We were travelling in a cab late one night in Medellin when the cabbie blatantly ignored several red lights. Wondering aloud if we would actually make it to our destination in one piece or if we would be taken out by another cab doing the same, our driver explained that in Medellin it is actually legal, or at least tolerated for cars to jump red lights after ten o’clock at night. He explained that no driver wanted to sit around at a junction and run the risk of being robbed or shot and the police have enough to do without mopping up the pieces. So we decided that yes, we would rather take our chances at the junctions in the gapme of ‘Traffic Light Russian Roulette’ than that well known arcade game of ‘Shooting Sitting Ducks’.
Here are some more of my musings on the variety that is South America. Read about the street food, the security and the wheelbarrow boys in this, the second in my series of Funky Facts.
1. Wheelbarrow boys
Wheelbarrow boy for hire
At the local market there is no need to lug heavy bags home or look super-weird trailing one of those granny trolleys behind you. Here you just need to hire a wheelbarrow boy. They will follow you around for a small fee, collecting your bags of dirt cheap fruit and veg and then come to the edge of the market where you hail a cab and load everything into the back. Seemingly hundreds of them scoot about the market at top speed in their welly boots, yelling at you to get out of their way. They come in all age and sizes so you can pick one to suit – just make sure that you keep clear as they come barging through.
2. Quails Eggs
the best breakfast
One of my favourite breakfasts on the walk to work is quails eggs. Ladies sit at their carts with hot water in a pan and peel, peel, peel. For one sol (23p) they will pop six eggs into a tiny plastic bag, squirt in some eye-watering aji (chilli) sauce and hand them over to you with a cocktail stick. Totally scrummy. And guaranteed to make passers-by chuckle as you splutter on the sauce
3. Personal Space
There is a complete lack of awareness of personal space. People will crash into you on the sidewalk (OMG, I have been around Americans too long; I typed that without even thinking of the word pavement), they will stop dead and have a conversation whilst blocking your way or taxis will stop right bang alongside you on the kerb and let passengers out rather than drive on an extra metre. On buses there is no backing off to allow someone space to breathe. People are packed in, groins thrust in faces and I have even had my bottom stroked for the entirety of one journey – although that was less about personal space as somebody having a bit of illicit fun. Children and teenagers drape around each other in bundles, in classrooms they sit as close as possible and nearly everybody greets and leaves each other with a kiss on the cheek and a hug. I like it.
At traffic junctions there are no annoying people waiting to pounce with their buckets of bubbles and squeegee mops. In Peru we have jugglers and break-dancers. I have even seen a little ten year old stand and sing although quite how he expected to be heard above the incessant horns I don’t know. People are very generous and many will give a coin or two before the lights change. Jugglers and dancers at traffic lights are good.
5. My most favourite fast food EVER
I have fallen head over heels in love with Papa Rellanas. These deep fried potato treats are sold on the street for a sol or two. Sometimes they are filled with a little bit of minced meat, occasionally fish and usually with a smattering of chopped boiled egg or some shredded cabbage and an olive inside. Handed out on a tiny tray with a side of shredded white cabbage and of course the ubiquitous aji I could eat these forever and forever. You can keep your McDonalds or KFC – a papa rellana is all that I need for complete food happiness
They are everywhere. Security guards in the parks have them. Cops fondle theirs lovingly. And they all have belts of shiny bullets to go with them. You kind of get used to them although one day that I walked past the bank was rather unnerving. I had hoped to call at the ATM for some cash but a massive armoured truck was parked outside; presumably there was a cash delivery or collection in progress. There were guards everywhere and not just eyeballing the street for threats. No, these were pacing, guns drawn, fingers on triggers, daring anybody to have a go. I decided not to queue for the ATM. Not because I was scared of being accidentally shot but of looking like a complete idiot. If a passing car had backfired as often happened, I would have hit the deck. And as usual there were about thirty people in the queue for the bank along the railings by the ATM – all just waiting and watching for me to dive quivering to the floor. I walked on by that time,
an ice cold raspadilla
I have already mentioned the quails eggs and papa rellana but everywhere you look in Peru there is an enterprising vendor with a little cart, a supermarket shopping trolley or simply a cool box selling food or drink. Raspidillas – shaved ice coated in sickly sweet yummy fruit syrups drip tantilisingly coldly and attract wasps, and the similar cremoladas – slush puppies for grown ups flavoured with fruit juice are everywhere. Frozen fruit juices and fruit squash are sold in twists of plastic bags for just a few centimos to cool people down and of course melons, pineapples and mame are piled high ready to be chopped and sliced for you.
Rice puddings and jellies gleam jewel like in the sunshine, slices of pigs hearts barbeque smokily on skewers on street corners and milk sits in churns – to be ladled into plastic bags whilst people everywhere are juicing fresh fruits.
my attempt to buy a greeting card
Corner shops or bodegas have metal grills across them. Rap on the iron with a coin and the shop keeper may or may not bother to come out from their house behind. If you don’t know the word for what you want point, but even something simple like water is a pantomime. You can’t go in and browse, but need to know the correct brand, size and whether you want it chilled or not. I bought a greetings card once. They were displayed in a nice carousel at the back of the shop. I could see the carousel. Would the shop keeper bring the carousel to me? Of course not! I had to tell her what I wanted the card for and she chose for me!!!! She brought me three different cards making three different trips to the back of the shop. I gave up in the end and just bought the third one regardless.
I can tolerate spiders, snakes and beetles. I don’t mind flies or bees but I detest cockroaches. And the volunteer house was alive with them despite regular dousing with roach killer. Ceckeroches as pronounced in Spanish would jump out of a saucepan as you pulled it from the cupboard or dive at your feet as you lifted the rubbish out to the bins. Monsters would cruise along the skirting boards and baby ones would run around the bookshelf. They no longer make me scream, just shudder.
10. Wolf whistles
creamy rice puddings for sale
I remember being mortified when I had to walk past builders or the mechanics in the garage during the ‘70s and being subjected to wolf whistles or cat calls from the men. Here in Peru, the audible appreciation of the opposite sex is alive and well – some car horns have even been adapted to produce a whistle as drivers pass girls in the street. Hissing and kissing sounds are common and nobody is exempt. It is just a fact of life here. Just don’t react. Walk with your head high and do not twitch jump or snarl.
a rather cool post box
There are few rules regarding health and safety and few security issues, however you have to jump through hoops to send a parcel abroad. I needed to supply a photocopy of my passport and my fingerprints, as well as a full description of what was in my parcel. I later discovered that I wasn’t supposed to seal the parcel until the lady behind the desk had verified the contents. A shop opposite the Post Office in Trujillo does a roaring trade in passport photocopies and a kiosk inside will sell sellotape and glue so that you can reseal your package. There is a desk where you can ask somebody to sew your parcel securely inside what appears to be a pillow case – your stamps and the address are stuck on the outside of the cotton and this apparently renders your parcel tamper free. Inside the Post Office in Trujillo a lovely brass lion’s head constitutes the post box – with letters and cards deposited through his mouth and then taking four to six weeks to reach Europe
slices of pigs hearts ready for the barbeque
Everything travels by bus. From the large, rather posh luxury coaches with their full cama beds in which you can recline almost horizontally and which have individual TV screens set into the seat-back in front of you, down through the local town buses with their pumping salsa music, holes in the floor and screwdrivers jamming the gearstick into place; to the micros or combis – think a beaten up camper van which is painted in garish colours and with a conductor who hangs out of the side door calling for more passengers even when there is nowhere to physically squash anybody else, buses are the life blood of the South American transport system.
I mentioned the postal system earlier in this article, but many people use the buses to transport goods and important documents. The better bus companies will accept a document or a parcel and for a nominal fee will transport it in the belly of the bus or balance it on the roof of the combi, to be collected the other end by a nominated person.
- Papa is Spanish for potato
- Rellana is pronounced ray-anna
- Cockroaches are truly the most disgusting beasts on the planet
It crept up on me, without me realising what had happened until it was too late. The weird and wonderful things that just two months ago had seemed so alien had suddenly become normal.
Here is a Top Ten of things that you may not know about Peru
washing up ‘liquid’
1. Washing up liquid comes in solid form in plastic tubs. It looks like the 1kg margarine tubs that you would buy in the UK, although its green colour and very strong bubbly smell will ensure that you don’t ever mix the two up. To use, simply swipe the dish washing sponge over the green gloop and take care to rinse thoroughly or you will be tasting it for days. Fairy liquid eat your heart out – this stuff dissolves grease by the bucket load: – and fingernails.
2. Cute and tasty. Don’t be fooled by the cute little guinea-pigs which you see scampering around in their cages. Bubble, Sqeak and Gertrude are not pets. They are dinner. And they will arive at the table looking rather like their former breathing selves but undressed and sort of, well, flat. They sprawl across your plate with eyeless sockets and their itsy bitsy ears. It is as fiddly as hell to get the tiny morsels of meat off their tiny bones, but it is worth it, so swallow your inhibitions and get stuck in. Unless of course you are a vegetarian.
3. All babies and children and I mean ALL babies and children without exception in Peru are stunningly cute, adorable and basically all look as if they should star in the baby ads. They have the longest eyelashes and rarely cry or grizzle. The young ones are often plugged into a breast while mum goes about her daily business but why oh why are the new borns carried and covered under a blanket. It s hot here in the summer so why do they risk cooking their babies?
4. Driving could have a blog entry all to itself. In fact, I think it will some time in the future, but here for now, is a little something to consider. Many people will only have ten minutes behind the steering wheel of a car before being issued with a certificate so it is little wonder that the roads resemble scenes from Whacky Races. If you want to turn left, logic surely says that you should get in the left hand lane and if you want to turn to the right, stay on the right. If you are at a red stop sign there is no need to honk your horn and if I have just got out of a cab why on earth would I want to get straight into another one? I love that rules don’t count for anything here although I do wish that one-way street signs would be observed as that gets a little hairy.
5. Uncooked fish. I like my fish and meat cooked so cebiche was an unexpected hit for me. Raw chunks of fish are ‘cooked’ as they marinate in lime juice. The result is surprisingly unfishy as they explode in your mouth accompanied by a cloud of fresh citrus and finely shredded onions.
6. Walls. Walls are built for the sake of it and in the desert with no visible habitation for miles, somebody will have built a wall. Or to be more precise, four very long walls in a rectangular shape enclosing nothing but empty sand. And then people come and paint the walls white and often add some political slogans in red paint and three foot high letters. The amount of bricks in some of these walls could build a small hotel. I just don’t understand the time and effort put into the walls.
7. White dog poo . Only people over a certain age will appreciate this weird fact. White dog poo. Why is it white and why can it no longer to be found in the UK? No need to dwell any longer on this one. It’s white and on the Peruvian pavements. Fact.
8. Numbers. Shops and public spaces generally have two posters displayed. One shows where the safe area is should there be an earthquake. The other indicates the maximum number of people who should be inside the establishment although I don’t think that the two are linked. The old fashioned barber shop around the corner from me may contain five people. The supermarket several hundred. I don’t know who counts you in and out because the security guards just stroke their guns and try to look cool, but short of an earthquake I can’t think what harm cam come to person number six who decides to join the queue for the barber.
Numbers do not count at all however in cabs or combis. Basically you just keep on shoving until limbs pop out the windows and the conductor is hanging out of the door on the bottom step. Two in a front seat and two in the boot are quite normal in a cab and anything less than five on the back seat is luxury. In the country near Chiclayo people travel on the roof of combis (garishly coloured camper vans) and the man in front of us had a bag of live chickens (including a crowing cockerel) on his lap.
9. Puddles of Blood. Long distance buses will often play a film if they have televisons and decide to ring the changes from ear splitting salsa music,but there is often little concession for children. Horror films are avidly appreciated and blood and guts abound. The front pages of the newspapers usually display the previous night’s body count with little privacy afforded to the poor victims. Perhaps the idea is to shock and discourage crime but I reckon it is just an acceptance of life and death – and a love of the gruesome
10. Full volume. Life is conducted at full volume but nobody complains because nobody notices. From the marines who jog around the city centre at six thirty in the morning chanting marine chants as they stomp through the streets, to the fireworks which are set off at any time of the day or night – it is all perfectly acceptable. Somebody doesn’t answer the front door? Shout. Dogs bark and music blasts out from homes, buses and cars and from our next door neighbour’s ridiculously massive speakers which play all night. But I find the noise strangely comforting and I am learning to sleep through anything.
The above is by no means a conclusive list – I could have added the adult slush puppies, the complete unawareness of the concept of personal space or menus which just about everybody eats for lunch and cost just a pound. But after just two months here my senses have readjusted and this is the normal