Posts Tagged With: Medellin

Risky Colombia

It’s a brilliant public relations campaign and marketing strategy, and every time I see the spots on television and ads in newspapers and magazines, I must admit I get chills as the memories rush through my head like the roiling waters of the Magdalena River.

Over the past two months, I’ve experienced many of the places seen in those ads, and as my time in Colombia comes to an end, I’m feeling a bit sad.

Early readers of this blog may recall my post from January 30 titled STERN WARNINGS. In that post I wrote the following:

“…as I prepare to leave for Colombia in about two weeks, I’m not sure which Colombia I will find: one still engulfed in a raging war or one where you can travel by road and feel safe. The State Department tells Americans to avoid traveling between cities and rural areas by road and instead take commercial flights.”

Well, I ignored my government and traveled every stitch of Colombia by road, as I had planned. And with one exception, the roads were perfectly safe. The exception was somewhat of an anomaly.

It was the last day of carnival in Barranquilla and I decided to forgo the last day’s festivities by getting an earlier start to Santa Marta. I took what is known as a “puerta puerta” – a van that picks up passengers at their home or hotel and delivers them right to the door of their next destination.

In Cali, my last major city stop in Colombia, with my couchsurfing host Elena, right, and her student Sofia, whom I helped with an English project.

Because roads many roads were still blocked by carnival parade, floats and other related events, the van was forced to find an alternate route out of town. We found ourselves in a very bad neighborhood, about 15 passengers, including a woman with a newborn baby. As the driver tried to make his way out he encountered streets blocked by neighborhood youths who demanded a “toll” to allow passage. The youths blocked the road with tires, rocks, and held chains and ropes across the roadway, demanding cash. They were armed with sticks and rocks and surrounded the vehicle. The driver lowered the window ever so slightly, just enough to hand the youths the pesos – what to me looked like at least 2,000 pesos – approximately $2.  The youths dropped the chains and removed the tires and allowed passage.

The Unicentro shopping mall in Cali is not only for shopping, it's where people come to sit by the fountain and chill or have a nice time just wandering

Just a half block up the street, another roadblock. The driver again paid the cash. We drove less than a block and yet another blockade. This time the driver decided he wasn’t going to pay this bunch of thugs. He drove up slowly to the youths and when he saw an opening, he stepped on the gas and sped through. But the angry youths peppered the vehicle with rocks and gave chase, striking the vehicle with sticks, bear fists and whatever else they held in their hands. The passengers – the newborn was now stirred awake and crying – were clearly shaken and afraid. The driver, however, managed to pull away with minor damage – a dent here and there – to the vehicle. To put everyone at ease, the driver joked that it would have been worst driving through here at night. It was the only time in my two months in Colombia that I really feared for my safety. But before you, reader, go painting all of Colombia as a dangerous place, know that we had landed in a bad neighborhood because of circumstances beyond our control. Normally, none of us in that van would have been there to begin with. With some minor nonsense here and there that is to be expected, the rest of the trip in Colombia has been absolutely fantastic.

Peeking through the plants - this area is apparently lover's lane - some of you need to get a room! 🙂

Recall again, early readers:), that I wondered in STERN WARNINGS which Colombia would show up on this trip: the one painted as a very dangerous place or the friendly, beautiful and incredibly amazing one, I say now without hesitation it was the latter. So many people, so many places, so much joy and laughter.

So I say the campaign to sell Colombia to the rest of the world is indeed brilliant: face the fact that people across the world believe yours is a dangerous country and come up with a tourism campaign slogan that tackles straight on that perception. The slogan?: COLOMBIA: THE ONLY RISK IS WANTING TO STAY. Like so many, I faced that risk. Click here for more on that campaign.

So now I move on and forward. Next stop, Ecuador. Hey Ecuador, I’m won’t ask that you top your neighbor Colombia. But can you at least match?





[shameless 🙂 promised 🙂 secret 🙂 message 🙂 para Ana 🙂 en Envigado: agua CALIente…  aaahhh… 🙂 que rico. 🙂 Pero los mosquitos pican mucho y ya siento la malaria 🙂 ]

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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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Personal Space

I’ve said it before but for the record I’ll say again that there is no such thing as “personal space” beyond the United States. This notion that you own the air and a certain distance – 360 degrees around you that should not be violated – is an American invention and unwritten rule that billions of people in other countries find incomprehensible, ignore daily, and are perfectly okay with it.

Every day in Colombia, I’m reminded of this. I am standing on the train, there is plenty of space all over the place, and yet a woman chooses to stand right in front of me – face to face – and I’m screaming in my head “PERSONAL SPACE INVASION!!!” and she is seemingly not having a problem at all with the fact she’s standing practically nose to nose.

If you want "personal space" try an isolated and desolate beach, such as this one in Tayrona Park, Colombia

Sticking with the Metro for another example, I sit down and there is an empty seat between me and this man yapping on his cell phone. He decides, what the hell, the seat is empty so he’ll just stretch his free arm across it. Only problem is, as he talks on the phone he also talks with his hand laying across the back of the seat and that hand has gone way beyond my “personal space” touching my shoulder. I shift away a bit but I’m pinned in by the glass to my right. Each time I feel his hand, I look over annoyed but he doesn’t get it. Finally, I gesture for him to move his arm back to where it belongs, in his own space. Still yapping on the phone, he looks at me as if clueless of what I’m trying to say. He finally gets it and moves. We do stupid things while on cell phones, so this may just have been a function of his cell phone distraction, but still.

Next day I’m sitting in an empty coffee shop and four people walk in. Instead of choosing to sit at a table far away, they choose the table next to mine and proceed to make a nuisance of themselves by shifting the table closer to mine to accommodate more of their arriving friends. Pretty soon I’m pretty much pinned in. I guess they liked this table next to mine much better, but I who grew up with the whole personal space thing just don’t get it.

What personal space are you talking about fool? It's carnaval! The Carnavalada, Barranquilla, Colombia

On a park bench later that evening, I’m chilling, watching the world go by. Several other park benches are empty and guest which bench woman chooses? It happens on the bus. It happens in restaurants. It happens everywhere. The reality is personal space is not an issue with the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s because much of the world lives in confined spaces to start with. They are crammed into cities, share small huts with large families and must coexist in such close proximity. I’ve seen it in Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and now South America.

Truth is, like the cold showers I’ve had to endure every day, I’ve grown sort of used to giving up my personal space. Unless the person is being obnoxious like the guy on the train, I embrace the fact that people are comfortable enough with each other to stand so close to strangers. But I still in my head hum that anthem of personal space by The Police: “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…” Hmmm… those guys are Brits, aren’t they? Maybe we as American inherited the whole “personal space” thing from the Brits.

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