Colombia: Odds & Ends


Colombians...


...and the wayward tourist
By and large the Colombians I met were welcoming of tourists like me, usually interested in the current perception of their country from the outside world. They were generally proud of their country, yet embarrassed or disgusted with the past violence centering on politics or cocaine. Now with tourism had come a new opportunity to make some money, and this was especially alluring in a place where such opportunities could otherwise be few and far between.

This isn't to say that all were so welcoming. Nor was it the case that some didn't see how it could change their country and culture for the negative, with a profit motive became so pronounced. Indeed one only had to look at the most touristed city, Cartagena, to see the beautiful and ugly side of things. There it was stunningly obvious that the locals serviced a foreign tourist population in the old city.

As to what us foreigners were actually called, "gringo" and "mono" were the norm. The latter translates, not roughly but directly, to MONKEY. I was assured that this was only benign on numerous occasions when I queried its use - I still have my doubts.


...on the road
The backpacker mentality was pretty far from the Colombian mindset as of 2010. For the relatively few who could travel a distance beyond their hometown, travel meant a room for the family fitted out with a TV set and working A/C. Dorm rooms - are you kidding? Traveling as an unmarried couple, or as a single woman? Just as wacky. There was a reason why most towns had "love motels" on the outskirts of town with rear entrances.

One surprise I noted was that outdoor sports activities were more prominent in Colombia than in other Latin American countries. That said, they'd still be far the exception than the norm. And VISA difficulties would keep them doing it near home in the near term, primarily because of the ongoing drug trade. This still kept Colombians traveling mostly in-country.

Thus it was that the Caribbean beaches in particular were a place of focus from mid-December to mid-February. And once on the beach, the expectation was that there'd be a lot of beer on hand, and loud music everywhere. Once in vacation mode, Colombians would focus heavily on street food and local cuisine not available at home. They seemed content to lounge on porches conspicuously doing nothing, sometimes even placing massive speakers outside to crank up for the entire neighborhood. It wasn't odd to see a 60-year-old, balding fat man out in front of a house shirtless with a beer in his hand and salsa cranked to 11 - which he isn't paying the slightest attention to. ON VACATION the look said. Fair enough - he was!

On a side note, perhaps a majority of Colombians traveled by motorcycle. Each would be wearing the conspicuous reflective vest, often moving and darting about in unsafe ways. The reason was simple: motorbikes were much cheaper than cars, and it was easier to negotiate the many highways lacking passing lanes.


...on the bus
One thing I never would get used to were the vendors who boarded the buses to sell food, drink, a song, or a potion. Fortunately they weren't allowed aboard the nicer buses, however much they added color. For me something was just plain annoying about having greasy food shoved in my face... or being bumped with a large cooler as they made their way down the aisle. In this regard I never achieved the blasé Colombian attitude toward such intrusions.

Meanwhile I wondered if there was a trade off between vendors and shitty movies. The latter was what one almost certainly got on the better buses (they might very well be absent on the cheaper buses.) Why most movies were martial arts flicks, and almost invariably violent, I'd never know. There seemed to be no discernable censureship for the kids invariably aboard each bus, watching with wide eyes. Or maybe they saved that for the nude scenes that also entered the mix.


...at the table, looking at their plate
Most Colombians don't like spicy food, but hearty and tasty (enough) food instead. Nevertheless, a picante salsa is always available in restaurants for the more daring. The difference in mentality was that, whereas I'd dump the spices on, they'd merely dab it. So it goes - they missed out!

For the drinking palate, the liquors of choice by far were beer, rum, and aguardiente - not necessarily in that order. All were produced locally, and consumed heavily when the occasion is provided. Some of it was even good stuff - which could hardly be said about the coffee.

It was a sad fact that Colombia produced the best coffee in the world while drinking some of the worst. The best beans had for a very long time been making their way out of the country, leaving only dregs to be sold locally. By the time of my arrival, however, something of a grass roots movement was in motion to change that. Towns with any form of tourism usually had one good café, with locals slowly filtering in among the tourists. A couple of chains found in cities provided reliable joe, too (Juan Valdez cafes and Café Oma.)

Colombia was without question a meat-n-potatoes styled country. Beef on the plate, or a sausage, THAT was the most important thing. There'd typically be a salad, beans, rice, plantain, and a juice to accompany it - but those were mere window dressings. Just as important as the meat, though, the main carb vehicle of choice was the arepa. This was a bread-like food made of wheat or corn, prepared a few different ways ranging from healthy to heart attack. Many meals used it like a dipping or sandwich bread.

Some things weren't that different at all. Eggs were common for breakfast, traditionally served as huevos pericos (scrambled eggs mixed with minced onions and tomatoes). This was as typical as the homemade aji/salsa picante at each house or establishment.

On the street or at a festival, one could expect to see many versions of meat on a stick, always accompanied by a small potato or a bland arepa. Choclo (corn on the cob Latin American style) was just as requisite on festival occasions; fruit juices were in season year-long.

The variety of fruit juices in Colombia, it need be said, was no less than stunning. They were often ice-blended with milk and sugar, however - which one need ask to not have put in (if so desired.) The hero was the fruit in any case, not the additives, with popular choices being the amazing lulo (only in Colombia) and maracuja. The fruit juice stand almost always seemed to sport a large variety to choose from, of which common fruit such as oranges, mangoes, bananas and more could be numbered.
Away from the juice stand, many other fruit were ripe for the taking. These included odd beasts such as mangostin and chimoya, which could lead to a guessing game always fun to play: do I peel this, suck on it, or chew on it? Some fruit, like the pitaja, had unforeseen properties, too. (Think free colonic.)

Among fellow tourists, one thing I noticed was that it was a love/hate thing with Colombia food. The less-traveled tended to fall in the hate zone, which the more-traveled could always find something new around the corner. And as for the plastic gloves handed out when ordering chicken... well, I guessed that kinda made sense.


...looking the part
Colombians in the city by and large dressed nicely casual, with women often emphasizing their more notable features far more than in Europe or the U.S. This made sense, perhaps, in the country with about the highest use of plastic surgery to enhance such offerings. Unsurprisingly, there was a steady and growing business for such services from abroad as local surgeons had developed quite a (sometimes deserved) reputation for their art.

Adorning such bodies, traditional wear such as shawls, ponchos, and hats, were the stuff for city people only when in the countryside and showing roots. They would usually look typically western in attire otherwise. But for those who still lived the tradition life, those very articles of clothing still comprised the practical day-to-day look. The sandaled, hippie-hair, Jesus-look of the backpacker? That was indeed rare outside of the smallest hipster-styled scenes in cities like Bogotá.


...on market day
Market day still meant something in Colombia in all but the larger cities. The market was the place to get the best deals typically on small household goods, but especially produce. Produce-wise, the market guaranteed the best variety and freshness - with a price much lower almost from the start. This was where you'd go to find the weirder things, too, like twenty varieties of potato or fruit that made rare appearances.

Towns completely changed their character on market day, another attractive quality. Campesinos come from far afield in the countryside to make their one weekly appearance, sometimes dressed a little more for the occasion. For the country women it'd be mostly a shopping day, but for the men it was a chance to escape physical labor. They'd be hard at it playing billiards, singing aloud, and drinking heavily.


...behind the wheel
As is often the case in developing countries, the rules of the road in Colombia were chiefly a matter of survival and speed. It appeared that most Colombians were intent in getting to their destination in as fast a manner as possible without dying. Causing the deaths of others was perhaps not even a consideration.

On the bus this equated to hair-raising passing manoeuvres that questioned sanity. Thus one might see the following sign inside the bus with good reason: se marea? pida bolsas (Feeling sick? Ask for bags.) On at least one occasion I had the pleasure of being in a bus which crossed a jersey barrier to the other side unannounced, honking its horn until reachieving the correct side again. That was to avoid a fifteen second delay. Fun.

For the relatively few folks who own their own car, things like safety devices were jettisoned or ignored anyway. Finding a seatbelt in a car could be an onerous task, most likely to end without success. Such willful ignorance of safety implements was done in favor of such devices as massive loudspeakers placed in the trunk - usually left wide open to the outside for any and all's enjoyment. In towns with narrow streets and two-storied buildings, this entailed EVERYONE by necessity. Reggaetone was thus not a mere alternative form of music but a sledgehammer instead.

While there was still the picturesque scene of the odd mule pulling a cart, in 2010 it was already vastly more common to see someone astride a motorcycle or moped instead... in which case they'd use downhill engine cutting to save a questionable peso. This might constitute a form of admirable Latin american thrift to some, ostensibly a plus, but it wasn't thinking things through should that saved gas be needed to avoid an accident.

As a pedestrian, one needed realize that one's safety virtually always came way after a motorist's desire to shave time. If waiting at a crossing, one thus needed to note that crossing traffic wouldn't stop before or after the obvious crosspath but would block you instead. If crossing a street, and someone turns onto it later, they'd likewise ride your ass to hurry in no uncertain terms.


...building a new tomorrow, someday
In Colombia an "unfinished" look pervaded, as in most of Latin America. This was even true on some of the most finished-looking buildings in wealthy developments. It seemed that something was almost always left undone, or construction material remained years afterward immediately alongside a finished project. No one seemed to be tasked with keeping privately-held areas clear, with an end result of looking like crap.

With the ever-present random chunk of rubble or concrete in every city and neighborhood's block, it struck me as beyond a question of money. It had to be an altered sense of esthetics, too - it wouldn't take much effort to deal with many of the visual culprits. Thus various oases of beauty juxtaposed with ruin, pervading the consciousness at the most odd turns.

It should be no surprise that the state of roadside trash in Colombia was atrocious, then. Being of certain age, however, did provide me with perspective. Perhaps no worse than it was in the U.S. before the concept of ecology began to take hold. I well remembered the state of the freeways near Detroit before the refundable soda can came into existence, not to mention recycling years later. These things take time... and money.


...taking your money
You'd never think it was so hard to spend money sometimes. There seemed to be a constant lack of change in Colombia - although this often served as a means for an unbidden tip, too. If trying to use a 50,000CP ($25) note, or even often a 20,000CP or possibly 10,000CP one, one needed employ a bit of planning sometimes. It was common to see them refused, making it best to dump them in big supermarkets or bus stations where such currency was handled more daily. One had to be prepared to miss out on a purchase unless you ready to wait while the merchant left the store to go down the street.

At the ATM, a game of roulette usually ensued when requesting a typical (for me) 300,000CP withdrawal. Waiting on the chugging machine always arose the following question: Would it be distributed as all 50000s, all 20000s, or (infrequently) as four bills of 50000CP, four bills of 20000CP, and two bills of 10000CP. My entire future was at stake!


...feeling secure
Everywhere in Colombia there was a great number of police, often attired in some form of U.S. surplus gear. This begged at least ONE question: did the U.S. military still even USE canvas (proudly stamped U.S.)? Yes, security was of course THE great concern in Colombia, a country with some of the bloodiest history in the world. Yet with President Uribe, starting in 2000, the main roads of the country had all become militarized.

How'd this translate? One word: checkpoints. Another word: everywhere. With tolls on virtually all the (two-lane) highways to get anywhere in the country, it was pretty hard to move by land without running into this military presence. Camoflauge, heavy weaponry, and very bored looks abounded.

As for WHO would get stopped and searched, it seemed like buses were relatively exempt, but private and commercial vehicles were often pulled over. In the countryside it was not odd to find a military presence where least expected, either - warnings were only sometimes signposted. Indeed, even hiking a ways out of town could sometimes lead to a fully and heavily manned outpost, filled with faces looking back at you and wondering what the hell you were doing in the area. Fortunately, I found that when I spoke with these soldiers I was always treated quite well and helpfully. Then they would unfailingly follow such niceties by stressing the safe places in the area. And some not-so-safe ones, too.


Some small things I will miss in Colombia:
...the surprising number of random encounters with the past, be it a mulecart clipclopping in Bogotá, a cowboy on horseback out in the country, or a foodcart machine that looked back to the age of steam.
...the random man belting out tunes walking down the road, or just as likely on a coffee plantation. Similarly, there'd be the woman singing doing the wash, or in a singing procession making its way down a country road.
...all kids in school uniforms, walking home unafraid of the bogeyman. And playing in the streets, too.
...how the Colombian summer is our winter - usually - even though Colombia lies north of equator. To Colombians it was more important if it was the rainy season or not.
...the habit of bus drivers and other merchants saying "mama" and "papa" to older clientes, not necessarily acquaintances. They seemed to cut them slack on prices naturally, too.
...the excitement in locals when we talked about music.
...shawls, ponchos, and cowboy hats still worn without affectation but as a manner of dress.
...a market day that meant something, a true gathering of the rural community into the town center.
...chivas, those dawn-of-the-automobile-age workhorses that still carted people and goods back to 1928 on a daily or weekly basis.
...a sense of living in the now, every day.
...the lack of intrusion of the law when not necessary. For example, I doubted that any of the cows tied to the sides of the road for grazing were there by asking permission from ANYONE.

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