Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

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Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

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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

Food Friday: Granadilla!

I’d been saving this one until all of my visitors from home had come and gone, because I didn’t want to ruin the utterly unique experience of meeting (and eating) a granadilla. Now that I’m here all by my lonesome, I can finally enlighten the rest of the non-Colombia-visiting world about the very weird joys of the granadilla.

See? They look perfectly normal like this!

I’ve waxed poetic before about the plethora of amazing fruits that Colombia has to offer — the granadilla is one of these exotic delights (well, they’re not exotic here. People walk around all the time here eating them like they’re apples). On the outside, they’re pretty unremarkable — slightly oval, with a mottled orange skin that makes them look like a not-too-distant citrus cousin. Like a citrus, you can also poke your thumb right through the peel — and that’s where the similarities end. That’s where it starts getting weird.

As soon as you pop your thumb through the skin of the granadilla, you notice something peculiar about it: the peel gives way in tectonic plates of chunks, like Styrofoam. Directly under the thin peel, the inside of the rind is white, fluffy and aerated, as if it were designed to keep the innards safe on long, transcontinental journeys. But that isn’t the weird part. Those innards are what has spooked every person new to Colombia — hell, I even thought they were inedibly bizarre the first time I saw them.

grana-fingers

AHHH! Alien food!

The inside of a granadilla — the part you eat– is a slimy, dark cluster of seeds surrounded by clear goo that bears a strong resemblance to frog eyes, or what I imagine alien eggs look like. And as if that weren’t bad enough, those gooey seeds are enclosed in a layer of little white tentacles, like baby stalactites or ghost fingers, that seem to serve no biological purpose other than to freak people out. There is no way this is not alarming the first time you encounter it. It does not look like something that is meant to be consumed by humans, much less eaten in a casual fashion while walking along the street. And “eaten” is a generous description, since by necessity (unless you have a fork), it’s pretty much mandatory to stick your face into the opened shell of the granadilla and slurp out the seeds in the loudest manner possible. This is infinitely more satisfying than it should be.

People sometimes talk about things being “an acquired taste.” This usually confuses me, since they’re often referring to things that I find so revolting I don’t understand why anyone would want to acquire the taste for them. Granadillas, however, are a perfect example of an acquired taste. Once you get past the initial shock of slurping down something that looks like it’s about to spawn tiny amphibians at any moment, you realize that the gooey insides actually have a nice, light, not-too-sweet flavor that’s a refreshing break from all the rice we’re eating all the time here.

Some of us really, honestly like these things!
[photo courtesy of the lovely Jamie Wiebe, who tried a granadilla once and decided that was enough]

Plus, eating fake frog eyes is kind of fun, in a spooky, Halloween-themed-food kind of way. And then there’s the insistence of my Colombian friends that the best way to loosen the seeds (a necessary task before opening the fruit), rather than banging the granadilla against your hand a few times like I do, is to whack it against a certain, very specific spot on the back of your head — or, more amusingly, your friend’s heads. Any food that combines tasty flavor, weird appearance, the possibility of alarming my friends and family members AND the potential to hit my friends in the head is a winner in my book!

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

Colombian Weeks Have Eight Days

Cultural differences are one of those things you can’t really be aware of until they cause problems for you. That is, we take our own cultural norms for granted, and often only notice changes when they confuse or challenge us. I’m talking here about minor things, of course — not the differences that are immediately apparent, physically or otherwise. No, these are little things, like the fact that people here don’t eat much for dinner, or that 90% of the time, you’re better off saying “señora” instead of “señorita.” These are the things nobody explains to you — the trial-and-error differences you’re left to discover on your own.

There are tons of these little peculiarities hidden all over here like malicious Easter eggs, just waiting for me to discover them by screwing something up or misunderstanding someone. One of my favorite Colombianisms (and by “favorite,” I mean “kind of makes me twitch violently every time someone says it”) is their method of counting — or miscounting — days.

Let’s say it’s Friday, and you’re making plans with a friend to go out dancing next weekend. Those of us who pledge allegiance to English as our first language would usually say something like, “Let’s go next Friday,” or “in a week” (I don’t know what you folks across the various ponds say, but I’m going to assume it’s something similar for the sake of having backup, okay? Okay). These are logical, relatively clear ways to denote time — and, most importantly, they don’t involve counting.

No such luck here. Your average Colombian, when attempting to make plans in the same time frame (although let’s be honest, your average Colombian wouldn’t be planning something a week ahead of time. But give me some willful suspension of disbelief), would say, “Nos vemos en ocho días (See you in eight days).”

WHAT. What, even.

Let’s talk my least favorite subject for a moment: math. If today is Friday, there are six full days between now and next Friday. FULL DAYS. Therefore, next Friday is the seventh day, yes? We’re all still together here? One of my Colombian friends tried to defend this mathematical nonsense by explaining that the full saying is “Hoy en ocho días” (“Today, in eight days”). Disregarding the grammatical issues, I’ve never encountered any other place that counts whatever fraction of the current day is left as a full day when planning things.

And it gets better. As part of my counterargument, tentatively entitled “Where The Hell Do You Get That Extra Day?!” I tried to clarify this nonsense. If you’re doing something tomorrow, I asked, do you say “in two days?” Of course not, answered my friend. Two days isn’t the same as tomorrow.

I KNOW THIS. All I want to know is, at what point in the week, then, does that extra day show up? Because as far as I can tell, there are only seven scheduled days in Colombian weeks, just the same as at home. Apparently this illogical counting only applies in increments of weeks. And don’t even get me started on how two weeks apparently contain 15 days. I just….can’t. And I won’t. I’m going to keep counting in full weeks, thanks, because at least that’s a concept that seems to translate across borders.

I can only assume that this chronological miseducation is actually why Colombians are late so often. How can they be expected to arrive on time when they don’t even know what day it is?

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