From Alabama to Colombia: 15 Things I learned in Colombia in 2015

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From Alabama to Colombia: 15 Things I learned in Colombia in 2015


In Colombia, the letter M on a bathroom door does not mean Male. It means Mujeres, women. I promise that you, like me, will only make this mistake one time. Ever.


Movie theaters serve a surprise for epicureans—caramel popcorn. Patrons can choose regular popcorn, of course, salted and buttered, the meat ‘n taters of movie houses. But caramel popcorn? You can’t stuff enough into your face. Hot and sweet and crunchy and beyond delicious, caramel popcorn is worth a trip to the movies … even without a movie. Some nights Adela, my fiancée, and I buy a big bucket of the sweet treat and just sit in theatre lobby, crunching, as we people-watch an endless parade of fascinating creatures called Colombians.


In Colombian restaurants, no waiter ever brings glasses of water to the table in a set-up to the meal. I have visited probably 100 restaurants and coffee shops here. I have never had a free sip of water. You order—and pay for—H2O off the menu. You can order water plain or with gas (like the frijoles).


Colombians can stop rain. I attended a school event where the sky threatened, grumbling and gray. Two of the soccer moms—well, fútbol moms—resorted to an old Colombian superstition. They took compacts from their purses, opened them so the mirrors faced the sky, and set them on a picnic table. The heavens cleared. Apparently if the sky catches a glimpse of herself looking unsightly, she changes her face so she’s pretty again.


Money? Money must be dirty, dirty, dirty here. Colombians wash hands immediately after handling paper money. If they touch monedas, coins, they wash hands twice. I can’t determine if it’s a national phobia, or if money in general circulation really does breed germs for minutes, hours, months, years. Is there a hygienist in the house?


Hot dogs! Colombians love to order up a perro calienteperro for dog, caliente for hot. They’re like foot-longs in the USA, but Colombians garnish hot dogs with crushed potato chips or potato sticks. Hot dogs with papas!


When you pay with a credit card in Colombia, you hear the waiter or waitress always ask this question: Cuantas cuotas? (How many payments?) Instead of charging your full bill on the next credit card statement, Colombian merchants will divide payments out for as long as 12 months to ease your pain. For example, you can pay $50 a month (or the equivalent in pesos) instead of a single whopping $600.


Conspicuous advertisements in magazines, on billboards, on posters—everywhere—rarely portray the coffee-colored, dark-haired people that make up 90 percent of Colombia’s population. Instead, ads show white suburban-USA types, folks that could be on a golf course in Dallas or walking onto a tennis court in north Atlanta. Look at them! Picture-perfect white dads with gemmy teeth! Melt-in-your-mouth white soccer moms! Kids with shiny-dime eyes, always a boy and a girl. See a golden retriever without a single flea! In the United States, diversity advocates would take companies that advertised this way to the public whipping post.


Everyone in Bogotá wears a coat. Everyone complains what a cold city this is. At a mile and one-half in altitude, air is thin, but still … every day here ranges from 70-74 degrees high to 50-54 degrees low. Every day. How cold can it be compared to, say, midwinter International Falls or the corner of Michigan and Oak in downtown Chicago on February 1? This Colombian complaint seemed hard to understand at first … but I’m beginning to get it. At 60 degrees, a spatter of rain and a 15 mph breeze gets chilly. And here’s the kicker: no place in Bogotá has heaters. The citizens simply bundle up to stay warm. If you get a chill, you just can’t get warm again. Sometimes you wish for a roaring fireplace and toasty warm seats. Or an Alabama summer day (just one) so hot that fire hydrants roam around looking for dogs.


Women drive motorcycles here. Women hang onto the backs of motorcycles too, gripped to their guys like barnacles. Bikers dress in black leather gear. They look like Predators. Motorcycle sales have doubled in the past five years in Bogotá. And 40 percent of traffic fatalities involve motorcycles. It’s no surprise—wherever you see cars, you see motorcycles shooting between them, past them, weaving and darting among them, disregarding every basic rule of traffic safety, never mind sanity. Sometimes on the freeways a bike will fly by so fast it scares the daylights out of you. We have a name here for those bikers: Organ donors.


Colombians do not like voice mail. The communication medium of choice? WhatsApp, a mobile messaging service. (Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, more than the GDP of Iceland, as Forbes magazine reported.) Users can swipe written messages on a smart keyboard that seems to intuitively guess the right word, then they can see when a recipient has read the message, and even, yes, leave short recorded messages without entering voice mail hell. (You know: “Press one if you have a Chinese uncle, two if you use mint dental floss, three if you fantasize about stocky Dalmatians, etc.”)


In a restaurant, the servicio, or tip, will almost always be included in the bill. The amount seems paltry by US standards, only about 10 percent of the meal’s cost, but service people seem grateful every time you agree to include it. When a patron leaves a little extra, it brings an even bigger smile.


With 11 million people, Bogotá is bedeviled by transportation problems. Not even a world-class public transportation system, Transmilenio, can unravel all the problems. Thus Bogotá has pico y placa, a sort of rationing system for cars. On odd days of the month, you can only legally drive if your license plate ends with an odd number. On even days, you can legally drive only if your plate ends with an even number. The prohibition only applies during certain peak hours, but drivers of the wrong cars on the wrong days have their cars impounded and face the bureaucratic nightmare of freeing it from car gnomes deep under the city of Bogotá. Or somewhere.


Because mornings are chilly in the high Andes, you find soup on breakfast menus. You can order two main types. A caldo comes with a boiled rib, potatoes, and savory chopped onions. The other, changua, is a milk soup with eggs. It has a deserved reputation for … well, call it gooey thickness. (Once when I had a cold, I stopped on a Bogotá sidewalk to blow my nose. A kid passed by and uttered a single word: changua.)


Finally, travelers to Colombia should take time to master the difference between two Spanish words: huevos and huevas. Huevos? Those are eggs. Huevas? Those are testicles. You do not want to confuse these words when you place an order at the breakfast table in polite company.

Photo: mariusz kluzniak, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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