Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“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:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

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Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #3: Aguardiente

Many countries have their own unique, distinctive liquor (sake, ouzo, deadly Czech moonshine, and so on), and Colombia is no different. The ubiquitous drink of Andean Colombia — the one you’ll see in everyone’s hands at a night out at the bar or club, the one that makes an inevitable appearance at every party — is called aguardiente (literally, fire water). Aguardiente (or guaro, for short, if y’all are on a nickname basis) is a clear, anise-flavored liquid made of processed sugarcane. It’s produced either with sugar or without, and typically has an alcohol content a bit north or south of 25%. It is also heinously, ferociously disgusting.

So many ways to poison yourself…

I’ve just insulted probably about 94% of the Colombians I know by dissing their national intoxicant of choice, but I’m sorry. Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is, and aguardiente is nothing but horrible. Despite the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) efforts of my friends here, my assimilation does not extend to this terrible creation. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there are only about four things I don’t like about Colombia: aguardiente is right at the top of that list.

The thing is, any relationship we could ever have was doomed from the start, as guaro made the fatal error of tasting like anise. I have never been able to understand why anyone would willingly ingest anything anise-flavored — from unappealing black licorice to the look-nicer-than-they-taste cookies a well-meaning family friend gives us around Christmas every year, it’s one of the easiest ways I can think of to ruin something that otherwise might be delicious. Want to make a cookie suddenly revolting? Add anise. Want to make me avoid a cake like the plague? Frost it with anise. Want to make me swear off drinking forever? Force me to drink aguardiente (or tequila, but that’s a different story).

My favorite is #3: “Because it’s perfect to drink alone or mixed.” OR NEVER.

So the taste is the primary hurdle, but it’s not the only one. The way drinking is done in most non-beer-based social situations here is that a group of people buys a bottle and then spends the rest of the night taking shots out of little plastic cups that are incredibly easy to accidentally crush in one’s hands. And this doesn’t just happen at bars with tables — if you go out to a club, you’ll see people strolling around passing out shots of guaro like it’s Anise Christmas. To me this seems both illogical and like an invitation for spillage, but nobody put me in charge, obviously. It’s kind of like being back in college, but instead of ending up with terrible-tasting alcohol by necessity or legality issues, we somehow get it by choice (again, definitely not mine). Having shots forced upon me is not necessarily my favorite way to consume alcohol, especially in crowded public spaces — having shots of something that seriously tests my gag reflex forced upon me is probably one of my least favorite ways.

I suspect that most Colombians have a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship with guaro — since they started drinking it when they were around 15 years old, they’re just used to it by now. Or maybe some of them genuinely like anise — after all, it’s a flavor that shows up in liquors produced in various other countries around the globe, so it’s not like Colombians are the only crazy ones. I just happen to be stuck with them.

Why drink like an adult when you could be using a 1-liter juicebox instead?

The one benefit of the existence of guaro is being able to punk people with it. When I went home for Christmas in December, I brought a few juiceboxes of the stuff (oh yeah, they sell liquor in juiceboxes here. File that under “Awesome Things Colombians Do Correctly”) back with me as “gifts.” My poor, unsuspecting friends thought it was so nice of me to bring genuine Colombian drinking material all the way home for them — until they tried it. Curses were uttered, blame was cast, friendships were called into question, I did a lot of giggling. It was absolutely worth it, but it also didn’t involve me actually consuming any of it. So I guess I’m okay with aguardiente as long as it’s not entering my digestive system.

The point is, if I ever manage to overcome my intense loathing of hot weather (unlikely) and move to the coast, at least 30 percent of my justification will be because they drink more rum there. Now that’s a liquid pastime I support.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #4: Agua de Panela

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:

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #5: Inappropriate Uses of English

I’m generally against clothing with writing or slogans on it, since 97% of them tend to be brand names (I see you, Hollister. Trust me, you only have your company name printed all over those t-shirts), Busted-Tees-style statements with an overinflated sense of their own cleverness (“Keep talking, I’m fluent in stupid”) or just blatantly idiotic or offensive things that reflect terribly on the wearer (something something your boyfriend etc). Pretty much the only acceptable words to put on clothes, in my opinion, are the names of bands, sports teams, events or geographic locations. A journalist who’s into facts, how shocking.

I recognize that this isn’t a preference I share with the majority of the American public (especially the under-18 cohort), and it definitely isn’t one I have in common with the Colombian public. People here are way into t-shirts and other clothing with words or sentences written on them. But not just any string of words — they’re almost always in English, and they’re equally as often misspelled or just lacking any grammatical sense whatsoever.

There’s the lady on the bus in a t-shirt that just says “Love Smile,” “He said he would never” scrawled across the back of a teenage girl’s hoodie (never what? he would never what?!) or, my recent favorite, the guy on the TransMilenio with a “New York” t-shirt that said “Time Square” in at least three different places. And don’t even get me started on the signs and promotional material for companies — I want to grab a paintbrush every time I pass the beauty salon a few blocks away from me named “Beauty Stile.”

I recognize that the fact that I’m a knee-jerk grammar nerd who has to bite my tongue to keep from correcting people in conversation has a lot to do with why I notice these little details, but I’m also just kind of baffled by the whole concept of it. I get that people may not notice that things are misspelled (like the TimeS Square dude) or maybe they don’t care that the sentence on their shirt doesn’t actually make any sense, but I’m sort of unclear on what the market is for clothing splattered with nonsensical English words. Why not buy a t-shirt that has an actual reasonable sentence in Spanish, or, better yet, clothing without any words at all? Better to be understood in no languages than misunderstood in two.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #6. Colombia’s Got Talent!

Yeah, yeah, talent shows are popular everywhere. The whole continent of Europe is freaking out right now about the awesomely tacky Eurovision Song Contest, the vastly more popular British version of ‘X Factor’ has survived for a baffling eight seasons and apparently 132 million people actually gave a shit about the most recent finale of ‘American Idol.’ (who the hell are you people, exactly?)

But maybe with the exception of Eurovision (which doesn’t really count anyways, since it’s an annual international event rather than just your average TV show. Also, it is a delight), these kinds of shows are not universal. That’s what knowing your audience is all about: you’ve got your middle-America housewives or whoever those 132 million people are; the nation of teenaged dancers and their moms who drool over every step on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’; and of course my former roommates and I, who religiously watched ‘The Voice’ based entirely on the fabulosity of Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe and how much we love Beverly McClellan (seriously. The lady is an American treasure). The point is, to each his own, right?

Well, maybe when it comes to preferred types of empanadas, but not regarding the monolith of entertainment that is ‘Colombia Tiene Talento‘ (obviously, ‘Colombia’s Got Talent’). I am legitimately convinced that everyone in the country, from my first-graders to Supreme Court justices, watches this show. It is inescapable in the way that soccer matches are in most Latin American countries (and sometimes here, depending on the teams). It seems to be on every single night of the week, apparently on every single channel. Everyone talks about it. And this goes beyond water-cooler chat: you’re just expected to know who they’re talking about when they mention “that girl who sang the opera song” or “those brothers who are acrobats.” I’m a little skeptical that a country the size of Colombia actually has enough talent to keep the show viable like this, but I guess everyone does define talent differently.

I personally don’t have much use at all for reality competitions, with the notable exceptions of the aforementioned ‘Voice’ (some rad ladies and essentially an excuse to stare at Adam Levine for two hours), ‘Top Chef’ (straight-up food porn and the occasional Bourdain snark) and the barely-controlled madness that is the judging panel of ‘America’s Best Dance Crew,’ but if I stay here long enough, I may just have to start pretending to care about some little 10-year-old from Caldas and her spot-on J. Lo impression.

Or, worse, I might actually start caring. Get the intervention banner ready for me, just in case.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #7. Horrifying Jeans

Okay, so I’m a bit biased in this regard, since I’m kind of a jeans purist. My ideal denim is dark, doesn’t make me look like a child trying to wear her mother’s too-long pants, and doesn’t have any weird shit on the pockets. They’re pants, not a decoration — or so I thought until I came to Colombia. Here, jeans look less like serviceable, utilitarian pants than an overactive jewelry or tattoo designer’s rhinestone dreamscape.

Now, I’m not saying that Colombians have cornered the market on inadvisable jeans. I’ve seen a lot of poor denim choices in my life. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve walked past bebe stores. I lived through the ’90s, for god’s sake. But the “styles” here really go above and beyond normal tackiness. Looking for acid-washed, light blue jeans ripped in like five places? Trying to bring back the bad old days with whiskered creases on the unflattering part of your thighs? How about pants with pockets so bedazzled it probably hurts to sit down? Or, better yet, let’s just make most women’s jeans without any back pockets at all, because being able to put shit in your pockets ISN’T THE MAIN POINT of these pants and really the best reason for the existence of jeans. It is almost impossible to locate a pair of normal, non-floral, non-sparkly, 5-pocket pants in this country — in fact, the only places I’ve been able to find them are international chains like Zara or Bershka, which is kind of cheating.

Now normally we ladies are the ones who have to suffer the indignities of unreasonable denim designs, but here they are equal-opportunity offenders. In fact, I think the worst jeans I’ve seen may have been men’s. They do, at least, have pockets, but they apparently have taken all the pockets that were supposed to go on the back of the women’s designs and stuck them on the men’s in the strangest possible locations: near the knees, in front, stacked on top of the back pockets that are already there. Men’s jeans here add zippers in the oddest places, like they wanted to be those zip-off cargo pants that turn into shorts but lost the courage at the last moment and decided just to zip about four inches diagonally across the thigh for no apparent reason. I don’t think I know a single person who’s ever bemoaned the lack of a conveniently-placed thigh pocket on his or her pants, but clearly I haven’t spent enough time here. And let’s not forget those trousers clearly influenced by the Ed Hardy School of Design, with multicolored birds of prey, weird tattoo-style lettering and yes, even the occasional bedazzlement.

Usually I’m glad that I’m a poor volunteer primarily because it prevents me from constant shopping and the subsequent constant debt. Even if I had all the money in the world, though, it wouldn’t convince me to buy a pair of jeans at most stores here. My broke ass has been proudly sparkle-free for 23 1/2 years now, and I fully intend to keep it that way, thank you very much.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #8. Malls

If you’ve never been to Colombia, you might be forgiven for thinking that Americans have cornered the market on global mall-worship. After all, we’re responsible for the Mall of America, the very phrase “strip mall” and the international scourge that is Hollister. Yeah, we’re pretty good at malls in the good old U.S. of A, but I promise you, we’ve got nothing on Colombia.

Malls here are not a few stores tacked on to a massive Target or Macy’s. No, malls here are insane piles of 50 stores all selling the exact same style of shirts, more pizza and ice cream places than one could ever hope to conquer and a critical mass of shoes. As if the stores themselves weren’t enough, the larger malls are also packed with stands where vendors hawk everything from obleas (sweet flat crepe-like pastries that can be filled with various condiments) to baseball caps. There are malls specifically devoted to the sale of electronics, housewares or shoes, and others housing superstores like Carrefour (sort of like the foreign version of K-mart) and Home Center (Colombian Home Depot, obviously).

But malls aren’t just for shopping — they’re centers of social life, too. Most of the major malls have movie theaters — always on the top floor for some mysterious reason, possibly related to popcorn and/or gravity — and many include gyms, pools, karaoke bars and even small amusement parks for children. Colombians don’t just go to the mall to shop — they go for the experience, and when they do, they bring the whoooooole family. One of my friends here tried to go to a nearby mall to run some errands, and her host family refused to let her go alone, because apparently, to quote my awesome great-grandmother, some things are just not done.

In all honesty, spending more than two hours in an enclosed space full of stores and people who walk so slowly it seems to defy physics is pretty close to my personal idea of hell, but apparently this is not a sentiment shared by most Colombians. If I ever want to assimilate, I’d better start learning to enjoy eating ice cream surrounded by bright lights and teenage couples making out on benches because they can’t do it at home. On the bright side, though, at least I dont have to deal with Wal-Mart. Yet.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All The Time

Despite the fact that, yes, I own at least 20 pairs of them, I firmly believe that heels are some sort of sadistic device invented by men back in the day when they were brainstorming ways to prevent ladies from fleeing their manors, carriages and other dignified, claustrophobic locales (for the record, the same goes for hoop skirts, corsets and foot-binding. Except that only one of these things is still popular). I accept wearing heels in exactly three situations: 1. For job interviews/other important looking-like-an-adult moments; 2. For fancy parties and/or theater events; and 3. That one time every month or so that I feel like getting way too dressed up, going out dancing and getting drunk enough that I don’t notice how much my feet hurt.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why I would be a terrible Colombian. Women here wear heels everywhere. To work, to commute, to the hair salon, to the fucking grocery store — if a place exists in Colombia, I guarantee you that there is at least one woman there wearing heels. I seriously can’t explain this phenomenon, since I can personally think of few better ways to torture oneself than insisting on wearing heels everywhere. However, many people in Bogotá do tend to dress more formally than what I’m used to, and they definitely pull out the stops when they dress up to go out, especially in the nicer parts of town. Still, it doesn’t explain the woman I saw this morning, wearing heels to walk her dog.

The upside of this seemingly masochistic custom is that Bogotá is like paradise for anyone with a shoe shopping problem habit. Since everyone wears heels constantly, and the weather is here is so destructive toward footwear that it almost seems deliberate, I can only assume the women of Bogotá constantly need to replace their shoes. And luckily for them (and for future me, when I someday get over my fear of falling out of high heels), there are shoes sold all over the place, from tiny neighborhood shops to bright neon-lit mall stores. There are whole neighborhoods known for having good shoe shopping, and they even have Payless! Score!

Some of my friends here have told me they primarily wear heels to be taller, which I guess is the best explanation I’ve heard so far, since Colombian women generally tend to be fairly short. As an exactly average-height American woman, statistically speaking, being “tall” is not a normal experience for me, but I’m told at least once a week here that I’m tall (to which I usually respond that no, I’m normal, it’s just that everyone else is short. Which is so considerate. Ten assimilation points for me!). Although this is still weird for me, it does mean I can get away with not wearing heels most of the time, since the corollary to most Colombian women being shorter than American women is that many Colombian men are also shorter than American women. Heels would only exacerbate the situation, so I use that as my excuse.

I will say I’m definitely a bit of a weirdo at school for wearing my boots every day — because I am a logical person who refuses to wear heels when I have a twenty-minute walk each way back and forth to school. Besides, who am I trying to impress? My ninth-graders? Pretty sure I stopped trying to impress ninth-graders when I was halfway through ninth grade. Still, it’s amazing how much social pressure, or not even pressure so much as overwhelming social norms, can influence a person. At least twice in the last week, I’ve actually considered wearing heels to work, for no other reason than the fact that everyone else does it. Luckily, both times I’ve come to my senses and remembered that the only thing worse than walking home in rain every afternoon is walking home in rain in shoes that might betray me at any moment.

But check back in with me in a few months. It’s possible this place will work its magic on me and convert me into some strange being capable of walking in heels without falling on my ass. The Catholics do believe in miracles, after all.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to Colombia. I noticed it when I was in Argentina, too, but I’m here now, and it’s amusing and widespread enough to merit a mention.

People here just love bad (and some good) ’80s music. Don’t get me wrong — I am a huge proponent of a large portion of ’80s music. I’ve watched the Breakfast Club more times than anyone without a recurring case of mono should, I have been known to dance around my room singing The Cure, and last week when my co-workers peer pressured me into doing karaoke with them, what did I sing? That’s right: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I have no doubt that I would’ve been awesome at the ’80s, and I have a healthy amount of respect slightly embarrassing love for synth-based pop tunes. However. I draw the line at hair metal.

this axl looks better than the real-life one

Welcome to the (Colombian) jungle.

My students — my sixteen-year-old students — listen to Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Iron Maiden. People wear these band t-shirts, unironically (heaven forbid!). The favorite band of my best friend at school is Guns N’ Roses. This is admittedly part of what makes her so awesome, but let’s be serious here: I don’t even know if Guns N’ Roses (whatever the current iteration may be) like themselves anymore. My bus driver the other day sure likes them, though — he had a GNR logo painted on the roof of the driver’s section of the bus.

Personally, I think it’s kind of great, since the ’80s are a chronically-underappreciated era in gloriously terrible music, but I can’t help laughing when one of my 8th-graders tells me how much he loves “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Just wait ’til you finally catch up with the ’90s, I want to tell him. There’s no way you’re ready for what EMF can throw at you.

(seriously, though, it’s worth your 4:00 to watch that video. It is rather, dare I say, unbelievable?)