This week, in my other writing gig over at Only In South America, I explain chivas — Colombia’s answer to the party bus, and the cause of this one time I thought I witnessed my friend die. Don’t drink and try to step out of a moving vehicle, kids.
“Your hair looked better yesterday.”
“You should wear red more often.”
“That dress makes you look skinny.”
“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”
“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”
“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”
One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?
And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.
Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.
I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.
Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.
Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.
The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:
Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)
And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?
[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]
It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.
A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:
- Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
- Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
- Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
- FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
- Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
- Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
- Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
- Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.
A few things I still can’t do:
- Make good jokes.
- Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
- Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
- Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
- Explain American football.
So I was a wee bit MIA last week, but with good reason: I was busy hanging out with about 40 of my 9th-graders in Melgar, a very warm resort-y town about three hours outside of Bogotá, because my life is super-exciting like that. Actually, though, it was both exciting and a great opportunity to spend time with my delightful kids outside of the dark confines of school.
I didn’t just sneak onto a field trip full of 15-year-olds, I swear (okay, I kind of did. But there was a reason!). Colsubsidio, the organization that owns my school, also owns about half of the other buildings in Colombia — including a rather nice hotel in Girardot, right next to Melgar, and a water park, Piscilago, which features the longest water slide in Latin America. For some unknown but delightful reason, particular grades at the Colsubsidio schools get the opportunity for an overnight at the hotel and then a day at the water park. I was originally supposed to go with the 7th-graders about two months ago, but due to scheduling it didn’t work out, so I got shuffled to the 9th-graders instead. This actually ended up being a pretty lovely surprise, since I adore my 9th-graders and they are, on average, slightly easier to wrangle than a bus full of insane 12-year-olds. I’m not sure why anyone at my school thinks I’m a responsible enough human being to take care of a large group of other human beings, but I chose not to question it.
So instead of dragging myself through the polluted streets of chilly, rainy Bogotá, I spent two days frolicking in pools and water slides with my generally well-behaved children, shocking them with the fact that yes, I actually do speak Spanish (surprise!) and yelling at them to stay in their damn rooms and for the love of god please just go to bed (I never said that I slept at any point during this trip. I didn’t).
Being with these awesome kids for two days straight made me remember some of the things that I love so much about this work, and what a huge role my students have played in making this year such a positive experience. On Thursday night we had a bonfire outside, and we did an activity where everyone had an opportunity to speak to their peers about things that have been difficult or positive about this year. I went last, and after hearing the sweet, insightful and often very emotional things my students had to say, all I had to tell them was how much I love them and how important they are to me. They are the reason that I’m excited to come to school every day, and they’re the reason that all of the inconveniences and frustrations that come with working at this school and in this system are worth it. I’m already upset that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them in three months, but I’m trying not to think about it for now.
The two-day vacation was a fantastic opportunity for both fun (Riding the longest water slide in Latin America! Going headfirst through a dark tunnel on a water toboggan! Watching my students throw each other in the pool! Frolicking on playground equipment like a little kid! Not having to wear sleeves!) and reflection (oh my god I love these kids so much how can I ever leave them?). Even though it’s over now and I’m back in my cloudy, scheduled reality, at least I still have the memories (and 75 itchy, torturous bug bites on my legs) to remind me.
Every culture (and every individual within that culture) has its own methods for dealing with illness, or even just the common cold. Some people swear by garlic cloves, others resort to endless bowls of chicken soup or other kinds of comforting broth, while still others just pop NyQuil until they’ve convinced themselves they feel better. I’m personally terrible at being sick — my two coping mechanisms, in order, are total denial and then eating whole oranges while drinking incessant cups of herbal tea with honey until I can’t think about citrus anymore. It may not be the most medically advanced strategy, but I haven’t died yet, so I have no evidence that it isn’t working.
I’ve only had a cold once so far in Colombia, and thank god, because while I may have the constitution to deal with Colombian gripa, I’m definitely not strong enough to handle the universally accepted cure: agua de panela.
Let’s start with the basics. Panela is a solid form of sugarcane, produced primarily in the coffee region of Colombia and sold in square blocks in pretty much any market across the country. It functions as a sugar substitute, since it essentially is just a block of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s delicious in coffee, but less so when it’s the main ingredient of a drink.
Those of you who took Spanish in high school may have figured out by now that agua de panela is exactly what it sounds like: panela water. There’s nothing more to it — just a block of panela dissolved in warm water and served like a piping hot cup of sweet tea. I’m sure both Southerners and butterflies would delight in this beverage, but as someone who prefers my sweet drinks to involve fruit, it’s not really, dare I say, my cup of tea.
But that sure puts me in the minority here. Agua de panela is nationally accepted as the most effective and highly recommended cure — or preventative measure — for the common cold. It’s cold outside? Agua de panela. You’re coughing? Agua de panela. It’s 11 a.m.? Why not have some agua de panela?
Given how much soda Colombians typically consume, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the national preference for drinking sugar water at the drop of a hat. Still, the next time I start sneezing, you can find me in a corner with my tea and oranges — hold the butterfly nectar, please.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
- What it’s like to wake up every morning and legitimately need to check the weather.
- The taste of bad orange juice.
- The concept of eye contact as a direct threat.
- How much I would normally be sweating this time of year.
- Underground public transportation systems.
- The existence of Wolf Blitzer. And Maureen Dowd.
- Established, consistent bus stops.
- Avocados that exist in sizes smaller than my head.
- How to parallel park (to be fair, I was never very good at this to begin with).
- The idea of standing in line for brunch.
- Milk that comes in cartons, or yogurt that’s closer to a solid than a liquid.
- Using my debit card for anything that isn’t a plane ticket.
- Running without feeling like my lungs are considering exploding out of my chest.
- Movies without subtitles.
- Millionaire Matchmaker (and my enduring love for it).
About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.
Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.
But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January — are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.
One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!
So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:
25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá
1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.
2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.
3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.
4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.
5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.
6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.
7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.
8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.
9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.
10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.
11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.
12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.
13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.
14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.
15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.
16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.
17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.
18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.
19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.
20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.
21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.
22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.
23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.
24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.
25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.