Seven Things I’ve Learned About Colombia In 2 Months

I know two months aren’t enough to learn everything about a country, even if you’ve spent those two months traveling across the country talking to people from every walk of life, in small towns and big cities to rural regions. But some things jump right out at you. Those things are usually the sore thumbs – the bad – but if you are a positive thinker the good also leaps forward.

So here’s my very short take about Colombia:

1 – Colombians use the word marica way too much. The word means gay and it can take on an offensive tone depending on how it’s used. More commonly, it is used in much the same way Americans use the word “man” or “dude”, as in “hey man, we went to a fantastic party”, or “damn, dude, where have you been?”

So it is used as emphasis or exclamation. I’ve heard men, women and even children use it, but it’s mostly from young men and women. They call each other “marica” and throw about the word without even thinking about it.

La Negra Puloy: This image is everywhere during carnival. Women - and men - dress like the iconic doll

When I was in Tayrona in northern Colombia, four Colombian twenty-somethings were engaged in conversation and one of them used the word 62 times in less than 2 minutes. I quit counting at 62.  Every other word he uttered, as to emphasize his point, was marica.

My first day in Colombia, I kept hearing the word. At first I thought it was a common woman’s name – no joke – but then I realize it was not. So I asked. And that’s when the meaning of the word was explained to me. My host in Bogota, Mauricio, says not all Colombians like the word. His mother, whom I met, thinks it’s ugly speech.  But its usage in common speech has been around for a long time, I’m told, and it won’t be stomped out anytime soon. I’m still trying to find out how the local gay community really feels about the use of the word. Some say they don’t have a problem with it while others say they’re offended by it, but just ignore it. When you come to Colombia, it’s the one word you will absolutely hear every day, hundreds of times a day.

WHAT POLITICAL INCORRECTNESS?: Costumes in Barranquilla carnaval. You should have seen the ones mocking George Bush and Osama Bin Laden

2. Pedestrians have no rights. Crossing the streets here, even in a crosswalk, you will get mowed down if you think you have the right of way. Cars, buses, motorcycles – even bicycles – do not stop for pedestrians. You simply have to wait or risk your life by darting into traffic to force cars to stop. But don’t try that. You will lose that fight. Just be patient and wait for a break in traffic.

3. Are human beings really this friendly? Colombians are the most helpful, the most friendly – to each other, but especially to foreigners. Ask for directions and often they will go out of their way – write it down; draw you a map; walk with you to the location.

In some cities, such as Medellin, they are even more friendly and helpful.

Recently, I was walking home after the bus dropped me off in an unknown area. All along the way, when I asked one person for directions, it would suddenly become a group effort as others stopped to offer their input as to how best to reach my destination. And as I continued on my way still uncertain if I was headed in the right direction, I asked a couple of guys walking their dog in the opposite direction. They volunteered to accompany me to my destination. I tried to talk them out of it, as it was a good 10 blocks out of their way, but they said they were more than happy and it was no problem. “Tranquilo” they said. When a Colombian says tranquilo, they are telling you it’s no trouble at all. That’s a word you like to hear when you find yourself in a bind.

Sign in El Poblado section of Medellin says to yield, but doesn't specify to whom. Oncoming vehicles? Pedestrians? Yeah, right.

4. Rumba! Okay, this one may be unfair because all the world loves to party. But I think Colombians really love to party and drink. Their poison of choice is aguardiente, the national alcoholic drink. But beer is the popular and cheapest choice. Aguila and Club Colombia beers lead the pack, I prefer Club Colombia, costs just slightly more than Aguila, but the difference between the two beers are noticeable. Aguila to me is too light, like water.

If Colombians love to party, Colombians in Barranquilla and along the coast spend most of their lives partying. It’s become somewhat of a national joke, that people on the northern coast don’t work, are lazy, and just want to rumbiar – party. I like the people on the coast. I like their spirit. They are happy, even if they have little, and are about enjoying life. People in Bogota, however, have a more “professional”, serious approach to life, though they like to get their party on, too, every once in a while.

When I was in Supia, the woman who owned the restaurant where we ate dinner, joked with me that I was a coast person. I didn’t see it as a problem, in fact, I took it as a compliment. We laughed about it. But in Medellin, my hosts said to be referred to as a person from the coast is not a good thing, for the reasons explained above. To be sure, there are regional differences among Colombians, in much the same way there are regional differences among Americans in the United States. One country, but we poke fun at each other, some of it good natured fun, some of it a bit on the mean side.

5. Say what? Leave your political correctness at home. In Colombia and in many other countries, for that matter, political correctness does not exist. So to American ears, some things people say sound downright racist.

Several times a day in Colombia, somebody calls me “negro” – pronounced NEH-groh. It’s common for people to refer to each other by their physical attributes, including race. So a white, blonde person is known here as mono, which is also the Spanish word for monkey. A fat person is sweetly called “gordo” – and no offense is taken, unless of course it is said in anger or to inflict hurt. Some who are of mixed race are called on a daily basis “moreno” or “morena” if it’s a woman. And iconic images here with exaggerated black features are common, such as during carnival in Barranquilla when La Negra Puloy makes her annual appearance.

If you are easily offended, stay home. You will see and hear things you don’t like, but you have to realize you are not in your own country.

In Barranquilla, for instance, I went to a house party and was introduced to several people, all of them Colombian. One of them, a middle aged white woman, after saying hello, the very next words out of her mouth were: “I have a black son.” I was taken aback by her need to share that information so eagerly and so quickly, with no other conversation between us. She then added: “He’s a lawyer”.

Well, I congratulate you ma’am! 🙂

The many faces of Colombia's people, as represented here in the Museum of Gold in Bogota.

I suppose it was her way of trying to connect with me. We have something in common, I guess she was trying to say. Like all other “politically incorrect” things I see and hear, I let it go and moved on. Pick your battles, but truthfully, there’s no battle here.

6. Security! Colombia is safe, people! Two months and counting and I have not been kidnapped by guerillas waiting for me at the airport. Or bombed into oblivion. You will not see any guerilla forces unless you go looking for them. The military and police are everywhere. Security guards are everywhere. Just don’t go wandering into bad neighborhoods, like you would not do in the United States, and you will be fine. In fact, you will enjoy yourself immensely in Colombia because the people here will go out of their way to see to that. They actually want you to have a good time and leave happy. Of course, humans are humans, and there are a few bad apples, but generally speaking, you will love Colombia and Colombians. I am finding hard to leave, especially Medellin. What a great city!

7. Diversity.  Outside the United States, there is no country as diverse as Colombia. And I’m talking diversity of people, culture, geography and landscape. Colombians come in every shade and ethnicity. And the country has snow, desert, hot and cold weather, mountains and valleys, two coasts, a Caribbean flavor, jungles, big rivers, and every sort of environment you would want.

As I sit and write this in a food court in a shopping mall, I see before me a sea of different hues. I will very likely lose  that soon as I step foot in Chile and Argentina, for instance. The diversity is what makes this country so appealing. It comes in all kinds of flavors.

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