Trust me I’m a Colombian

Colombians are not to be trusted. They don’t trust each other.

(The following is a guest post contributed to this blog by Carl Meek.)

I’m not saying this to judge the morality of an entire or to spark fury amongst the defenders of national pride. Nor am I trying to play to the gringos. I say it with love and respect. I care deeply about Colombia and her people. They are beautiful bunch who have touched me with their expressions of ‘calor humano’ (human warmth).

Carl Meek

Photos suggested by Carl Meek with which to illustrate his article.

The other day a rat faced man in an ill-fitting suit approached me on the Transmilenio. He told me in questionable English about how low-class Colombians want to be Mexican. They listen to Ranchera, wear sombreros and grow thick moustaches. (and that’s just the women)They often they rock the ‘mullet and mo’ combo.

Middle class Colombians, he said, emulate Americans. They adopt the preppy look complete with sweater over the shoulders. They understand English but can’t speak it. They vacation in Miami.

High class Colombians try to be like Europeans. They wear tweed jackets and collect antiques. They speak perfect English and go on skiing holidays.

We laughed. I told him of my affection for the Colombian people and how they have taught me so much about humility and love for family. I got off the bus at Calle 63, shook my new amigo by the hand and went about my day.

Later I reflected on Rat man’s story and came to the realization that nobody wants to be Colombian. They are all paranoid that the rest of the world judges them on Pablo Escobar. The plight of the Colombiano is preceded by his international notoriety for being corrupt and dishonest.

Although most folks experiences with corruption involve little more buying a pirate DVD, fear and denial is embedded deep within the culture. Trust is a vital element to the success of businesses and relationships. The following are some of my observations on how the subject is treated in Colombia.

Kids are taught to hustle from an early age. I discovered this the first time I visited a school in poor a neighbourhood. I took enough pens and toys for all the children but the smart ones grabbed theirs and hid them so they could come back for more. The less wily kids got nothing.

I know a girl whose pet name for her husband is ‘mentiroso’ (liar). Every other weekend he disappears turns his phone off. He returns on the Monday morning with a twinkle in the eye and an elaborate excuse. No doubt he’s making use of the numerous love motels which cater for the high levels of infidelity, but the point is that it’s culturally acceptable to call someone a liar. I’ve had countless experiences of a Colombian spinning me a load of bullshit. When I found out they weren’t being truthful they shamelessly declare ‘oh yeah I was lying’ The same casual approach is taken towards cheating. Check out the Expat Chronicles article All Colombian women cheat Colin Post references an article from El Tiempo on how Colombia leads the way in Latin America.

Colombia is famously blessed with a wide variety of beautiful women. From the nerdy converse wearing estudiante to the high-heeled prepago. (A prepago is a puta in disguise) This type of girl is common all over Latin America. In Peru it’s a ‘Brichera’ in Brazil the ‘Popozuda’ The Colombian version is known as the Interesada and she epitomizes the lying, cheating stereotype. Often from Medellin or Cali, she is an expert at taking selfies which she has strategically posted on dating sites. She wears tight jeans and has her hair painted and straightened. Silicone tits and ass are an optional extra. These women are sex machines, but enter at your own risk. She says she loves you but will never call you. She’ll ring once and hang up expecting you to call her back. She has an inability to be honest, if you arrange a date she will probably flake. She claims she is single but you can bet there’ll be a string of boyfriends funding her lavish lifestyle. There will always be a valid reason for her erratic behaviour starting with ‘lo que paso es que’ (what happened was…).

Mastering the intricacies of Colombian conversation is an art form. Entwined with excessive politeness and mitigated speech designed to impress. For example when you encounter a friend you have to say ‘So how are you?’ In three different ways before you can start your conversation. As a foreigner the first thing you’ll be asked is what do you think of Colombia. A couple of times I have naively thrown in an honest comment about food or something. BIG MISTAKE. I could see the trauma unfold across faces as I spoke. There are still folks out there who won’t forgive me for stating that don’t like arepas. I learned the hard way that Colombians prefer a white lie to the truth. Nowadays I just blow smoke up their asses and say I’m ‘amañado’.

The language here is peppered with many sayings and expressions which reference the lack of trust in society. There is one which goes ‘A fool is he who lends a book, but a bigger fool is he who gives it back’. When you want to buy something in a store you say ‘me regalas?’ which means ‘will you gift me’ This doesn’t go down so well in other Spanish-speaking countries. Similarly if you lend money to a Colombian you can ‘echale tierra’ meaning ‘bury it’ as your loan will get quietly forgotten. Even more so if the transaction is with member of your family.

When I married into a Colombian family I was unaware ware of the potential price tag. Many Colombians perceive foreigners as a free meal. I remember inviting a friend’s mum to my wedding in Bogotá. I watched as she casually went around the tables scooping up all the Belgian chocolates and putting them into her handbag.

I don’t buy this shit about if you place a papaya someone will part it. If it’s not your fucking exotic fruit don’t touch it!

I once worked as a tour guide. I used to take gringos to the street markets to try local foods (including papaya.) If you go out with a Colombian however the chances are you’ll end up at the mall. This is because they are so uptight about their country’s image they only want foreign visitors to see the developed parts. Inside the mall it’s common to have a guy check your bags when you enter and leave the stores. You’ll also be followed round by an over-eager sales assistant with dollar signs in his eyes.

This is in contrast to other commercial environments. Shop owners don’t trust employees to operate the cash register. You’ll pay the daughter who won’t even look at you as she’ll be glued to her cellphone. Otherwise you be confronted with by the sour faced wife who will shriek the ‘A la orden’ at you. This means ‘at your service’ but the irony is that there is no service. Not even a smile. Many businesses, instead of encouraging you to come back by treating you well, would rather try to squeeze an extra $1 out of you by charging you for parking or using the bathroom.

The poor standard of service is owed to the fact that tipping is not customary and that nobody ever complains. There are nearly always long queues in banks and at supermarkets and no one says a word. I find it strange that many Colombians think it’s ok to swindle your own sister but way too shameful to question an incompetent bank clerk.

If you read fluffy blogs written by gringos who are still in the honeymoon period you will be led to believe that Colombia is safe. It’s not. You can’t leave a car on the street and most people avoid being out after 8pm. This is due to the abundance of zombies who crawl around at night. These guys can be found in the day when they’ll probably just harass you for money but under the cover of darkness they have nothing to lose. I have been threatened with a knife and had the mirrors pulled of my car. Colombians live in fear because they can’t trust the cops. Nobody respects the police in Colombia as their primary concern is in extracting bribes from motorists to bump up their woeful salaries. The skinny police guys you see on the streets are estrato 1-3 teenagers working for free. Boys from higher social spheres don’t do military service.

Without proper and fair law enforcement Colombians are left to fend for themselves. This means living with bars on the windows and warding off aggressive motorists. Even crossing the road can be a high risk venture. Negotiating unruly pedestrians, buses, bikes and taxi’s is all part of the daily trial. Some maniacs will even speed up when they see you. The kind ones will just splash you with a puddle.

Sadly 200 years of cultural isolation and war have created a sick society where individuals seek cunning ways to evade responsibility and get ahead. It’s easy to purse your lips, shrug the shoulders and blame the Catholic Spanish or the Native Indians for the ‘malicia indigena’

Nowhere is perfect. I’m a fan of gringo culture but the obsessive consumerism is repulsive. North America could learn about resourcefulness from countries like Colombia. I have no desire to compare or find faults and I wouldn’t change Colombia. It just saddens me to see the place I love so much wallowing in a slimy pit of low self-esteem. I believe that people are fundamentally good, the only way to break free from collective habits is to acknowledge the past and embrace the present. But we are surrounded by greed, poverty, negative media and violence…

I’ll leave you with this Colombia inspired phrase ‘Excuses are like assholes. Everybody has one’.

Trust me I’m a Colombian!

This is a guest post submitted by Carl Meek, what is contained here are the thoughts and opinions of the author.

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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14 Responses to Trust me I’m a Colombian

  1. Proud Colombian says:

    wow. Harsh and maybe my view is very different because I'm first generation American, but I'm proud as hell to say I'm Colombian. I don't worry about stereotypes except if they mean I'm only confirming that one that says paisas are gorgeous (we are), but other than that, I'm not concerned about the "cocaine cowboys" persona or stereotype. I'm not sure why you think Colombians are any different than any other "hustlers" that you can find in the markets of Egypt, India, Greece, Mexico, and yes, Colombia. It's everywhere. It's the same mentality as those in Wall Street, with the exception of Wall Street "hustlers" are better dressed. I may need to re-read your article when I've cooled down because as of right now. I find it disrespectful and you just sound like a naive tourist.

  2. Francisca says:

    I think we need to understand that Colombia is a developing country, with a society that is evolving and hopefully learning from its mistakes. We have advanced a lot, but there is still a lot more to do. I am the first person to criticise my country and its people and I am well aware of the importance to talk about the things that we need to change, so we can grow as a society. But there are some generalizations in your post that annoys me.

    That girl whose husband´s nickname is “mentiroso” should get a divorce and a bit of self-respect. I don’t think in Colombia is culturally acceptable to call someone a liar, I have never heard of something like that. If someone is a liar, good people will never respect that person and will never hang out with them. Bullshiters will hang out with his/her own kind like in any other society/ Country. I believe you are generalizing a little too much on this one and you should not draw conclusions of a population base on a small sample (Like the people you have contact with_ a little bit of statistics literacy here will be helpful). And again, “All Colombians women cheat” how can you say this? Are you married with a Colombian? so do you think is right to place all Colombians women in the same bag? Maybe I´m reading this too literally and I’m being too picky with the words you use (Like a good Colombian you would say) I just can´t stand when people generalize in this way.
    I agree with you, if you are a visitor in a country the last thing you want to do is to go to a shopping centre (I personally hate them). But, haven´t you thought that locals would take you to those places just to feel a bit more secure, as open air plazas are more insecure and you have a lot more chances of getting robbed. Again you are in a developing country with high levels of inequality and poverty, so don´t get surprise is people tell you to be careful and never give “papaya”. And don´t worry you can go out after 8 pm, just be smart like you would be in a city like NY or Sydney and don´t go to the wrong areas.
    “Many Colombians think it’s ok to swindle your own sister” Who really thinks that!? I think you are just hanging out with the wrong people. Should consider changing friends.

    Last thing, I agree we have lots of things that we need to change, Colombia is not a paradise, it has pretty things to see, exotic places to visit, shitty areas, good people and bad ones like any other society, but please stop spreading bad stereotypes. And it is ok you don´t like arepas, I don´t like to eat bacon and beans for breakfast.

  3. GringoPaisa says:

    A gringo here, who lived near Medellin for the past year and a half. I think there are some grains of truth in some of what you said, but you inadvertently (or intentionally) painted all Colombians with the same brush. I met some that are exactly like you describe but the vast majority of Paisas, at least, are nothing like what you describe – other than being Colombian and many attractive women.

    Are lots of Colombians 'on the make'? Sure! But, as the "Proud Colombian" pointed out, there are more than enough of those in the US and elsewhere to make your general indictment of a nation a lot less credible. Might be that you need to hang out with a different crowd, or consider the fact that not everyone or every culture has to conform to that of the US (and why would they want to?).

    Observations about traffic are pretty accurate. Traffic is more 'civilized' in the US, but our road rage is more horrific.

    Word pictures such as 'wallowing in a slimy pit of low self-esteem' are grossly inaccurate for anyone I came to know in Colombia. I could criticize a lot of things in Colombia by comparing them to the US, but the reverse is also true. Colombians of all social strata are more wildly patriotic, despite all the problems the country has faced, than any but the most rabid (and likely sociopathic) group of US citizens one could pull together. Family is first, and second, and third, in Colombia with good reason – they are the only people you can really count on.

    I had a gringo acquaintance in Colombia who ranted about the locals in much the same way as you have. I only asked him one question: If it is so awful in Colombia, why are you still here? My guess his only interest was in taking advantage of the local 'pleasures' without devoting any time to getting to really know the people or culture.

  4. Miguel says:

    An interesting, if somewhat cynical perspective. Personally, I've only lived here (Medellín) for just over 5 months but I don't buy the "Colombians live in fear" suggestion, certainly not where I live and not the people I know. I also think that the "Sadly 200 years of cultural isolation and war have created a sick society where individuals seek cunning ways to evade responsibility and get ahead" line is a preposterous generalization, much like the one back in Europe that paints Colombia as lawless and infested with drugs and kidnapping.

  5. Johannes says:

    As a foreigner spending considerably time in Colombia each year there is a lot in the post I can relate to, though I find parts of it wildly exaggerated and pretty stereotypical. However, what I feel a need to comment is GringoPaisas rhetoric question “so why are you still here?”. It’s something you often hear – all over the world I guess – and it’s so stupid and off the mark. Because what is the implication? That you are only allowed to praise your adopted home country? Of course it’s sad if you only got negative impressions of the country you live in, but you can’t demand that every time a newcomer criticize something he or she needs to light it up with some praise. Quite to the contrary, I pay extra attention to foreigners opinion. They bring with them a fresh perspective. I’m a Swede and if I want to know the peculiarities of my people I don’t ask a Swede, that’s pointless, but I turn to a foreigner living in Sweden. If you got an open mind you can learn a lot, and it has definitely helped me gaining a much deeper understanding of my country and its people.

    That being said, you can object to several of the sweeping generalizations in the post. But I think that “why are you here?” is always a shitty argument, or rather a non-argument.

  6. claudia fernandez says:

    Conclusion: you’re a proper mooning english man. Sorry for the english stereotype, but it applies to your article.

    • Jason says:

      This article was conservative, not even an exaggeration…with public campaigns to ridicule the general public’s ability to form orderly lines or obey simple traffic laws, I think that speaks for itself…. To an outsider, the unsophisticated impropriety of the people of this country reminds one of the child caught stealing from the cookie jar with that chocolate mustache on their face at all times. The shame of this being that the average educated Colombian is embarrassed by this truth their people are known for. Be this as it may be, some of the stereotypes of the peoples of other nations are no less accurate. No place is perfect.

  7. GringoPaisa says:

    Johannes, I think your observations are correct, however perhaps you misunderstood my intent in questioning "why are you here?". Perhaps you're familiar with the quote, "It's better to light a single candle than curse the darkness." I found there to be much more heat than light in the post. A sparse sprinkling of accurate or semi-accurate statements tossed over a big helping of false or grossly exaggerated "facts". In other words, lots of ranting about what the author finds wrong with Colombia without anything really illuminating or informative. My comment wasn't an argument by any stretch of the imagination, but rather an observation questioning the real intent of the article. A much shorter article would simply say "Colombia sucks", as that says the same thing and be equally uninformative without taking too much of the reader's time. Misinformation is not useful. Opinions are interesting only if the person stating them has or builds credibility with reasoned arguments. Unsupported opinions are worthless except to those that already agree with them.

    Obviously, if you read all of my comment, you saw that I never said or implied that Colombia is perfect. Nor did I say that nobody could criticize it. I never said that one could only say good things. What I was trying to get across in both my comments is that an accurate picture is valuable – both the bad and good of a place. Accurate and supported by facts, not hard feelings.

    I never had a gun pointed at me in my life, but I had that happen in Colombia. I was never robbed in my life, but it happened in Colombia. Facts, not opinions. And the other fact that outweighs both of those is that the vast majority of Colombians I have met, know well, or simply interacted with, are exceptionally good people.

    Sorry that my original question caused you so much distress and offended your highly developed sensibilities. I'll try to be more considerate.

  8. The Escorts or Prepagos of Colombia are very beautiful
    We serve very well to tourists, And most importantly. We love sex

  9. Rich says:

    Without suggesting that I agree with everything else, because by and large I don't, I would specifically say that I disagree with the part about Colombians getting upset if you say you don't like something. So long as that something isn't their own, like their cooking or their town or their friend, it hasn't been a problem for me. I've gotten more quizzical responses when I say that I've liked something, really. Overall, I'd say India (which I've visited a couple of times in a non-tourist capacity) is where you really have to watch out about stating your dislike for something; compared to India, Colombia practically begs you to dislike stuff.

    As for safety and politeness and so forth, I lived in Philadelphia 25 years ago so even Bogotá doesn't seem so bad to me.

  10. Rich says:

    I should add that the idea that Colombians behave badly towards anyone they can get away with behaving badly towards, via rudeness or theft or whatever, goes back to the sociologist Eduardo Santa (maybe Orlando Fals Borda but I think it was Santa), who described a great chain of abuse going right down to the lowliest peasant, who kicked his dog.

  11. maria says:

    I agree with everything you have said. I think perhaps you've been a little easy on Colombia. There is a caste system which is more defined than India. Perhaps your most accurate observation is that everyone cheats. Everyone.

  12. Tim says:

    Dude, been living here for a long time. I am American, and I think Colombia is beautiful in many ways. However, this is the best, most honest, straight up article about Colombian culture I have ever read. I couldnt have said it more clearly or articulatly myself. Good on ya broher. Everything you wrote here is 1000% true. On spot.

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