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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.