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).
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.