Colombian Life…So Do You Get It?
In Colombia time does not really exist. There are clocks sure, to decorate the walls.
My students wander in 15 minutes after class ‘officially’ starts, and cluster in groups catching up on the multitude of events that could have happened since they last saw each other… yesterday.
In Colombia events start an hour late, and people do things based on the general feeling for what time is right – rather than the actual time being right.
If you are supposed to meet somebody at 6pm and your cousin drops by for a coffee, you can happily show up at 7pm – no questions asked. No judgement passed. No explanation offered to your amigo… who was probably only showing up at 7pm himself anyway.
In one way it’s the most frustrating thing I have experienced. In another way it’s a return to the primal; the dividing of a day based on the slow unravelling of events – the feel rather than the obligation of things.
It certainly takes some getting used to, after coming from the time-based Western society. It is certainly still driving me nuts at times…..but I am getting used to it.
Having lived most of my life as the person who is 15 minutes late (as my friend Pip will attest to), it’s probably a good lesson to get a dose of my own medicine.
The only possible way for a FOP (Fresh off the Plane) to keep calm under such circumstances is to have nail polish or a book…. or even some mail you need to reply to, in your bag.
Anyway, Colombia has so many fantastic distractions for you while you adjust to the time warp, that it doesn’t really matter.
Sitting in a plaza while you wait for your late friend/ students/ acquaintance/ Spanish professor offers up a visual smorgasbord.
The homeless man’s dog has a new puppy. It is loving life, trotting around the flower market, where its owner lives on a piece of cardboard.
Pirate puppy, one black ear flopping over one black eye, comes over to play, full of feistiness already, which will come in handy in the life that lies ahead of him.
Fat male pigeons puff their chests and fan their tails in courtship, chasing around the long-suffering ladies, much like the human scene taking place all around them.
A woman with a voice like a banshee and toes similarly blessed pushes a fruit cart, screaming her wares across the unsuspecting public. “Papayaaaaaa.”
She is wasted as a frutadora; she could have sold voice recordings for emergency evacuations or car alarms. If I had better Spanish I’d let her in on this money-making brainwave.
A little boy destroys a plastic cup with a seedpod, dancing backwards on his toes like the best of the three musketeers. He is under the impression, in that wonderful space of the imagination, that the cup is fighting back.
In Colombia if you visit the same juice lady she greets you with “Hola, mi amor,” (Hello my love), and tops up your glass for free when you’ve downed the first giant beverage.
Oscar the fruit man sells you seven limes for a mil before he knows you, and ten for a mil each time after if he decides you are ok.
As I trot off happily to work, past the sleeping dog on the red stoop, past the screaming green parrot above the clock tower – which stands witness to all who enter its yellow walls, just as it has for centuries – past Jimmy, who sells garbage bags and shakes my hand every morning, I think to myself how lucky I am to be here.
What a place! Life abounds.
The lollie vendors haven’t set up at 7am, but the man in the yellow shirt is always there, newspapers arrayed on his table.
He is usually doing an ineffective form of exercise I like to call the ‘touch your toes almost-squat.’
“Buenos dias Mon,” he says to me each day.
Mona: someone with light hair. Faded red with brown roots seems to fall into this category also.
Life has a busy feel to it sometimes, a lazy feel at others. The people enjoy life. They seem to have that elixir everyone else is chasing. They also seem to work hard for little reward.
On the buses I catch to another suburb, twice a week, I see a whole different side of Cartagena. Here it is industrial. It’s gritty. Sweat pours off the guy who jumps aboard our bus selling water.
“Agua, agua, agua frio.”
Beads run down his cheek and hit the floor. The driver swerves to the right, narrowly misses a motorbike rider, the water seller stands on my foot, a baby wobbles on a fat knee, the bus swerves again, the people slide uniformly to the left, a slither of breeze gets through the window and is quashed instantly by the heat within.
The bus driver is insane. He leans on the horn. He cuts people off and speeds up to clearly stationary things like cars, humans and carts pulled by sad little donkeys, so that we are constantly hitting the brakes; the 40 passengers pitched forward like eggs from a slingshot.
A girl in front of me is sick out the window. I hand her a lollie from my backpack, for the taste.
My spine tries to break out through my skin each time the ‘loco’ conductor hits the skids.
I think about strapping a pillow to my back like a turtle for tomorrow’s ride. For the first time in my life I crave back cleavage.
It’s hot and crowded and I love it.
It’s noisy as hell and I hate it.
That’s the thing with Colombia, you can’t choose which bits you get. It’s the whole package. To feel alive like this you have to have the heat and chaos and irrational spontaneity of it all.
In the staffroom at the other end of the bus-ride-from-hell a male professor tells me I have beautiful eyes, in front of many professors. It’s very awkward and unprofessional. Sleezeball. I narrow the ‘beautiful eyes’ to little Voldemort slits, because I don’t know how to say “shut it mate, that’s not appropriate in a staff room.”
I promptly turn away from him and begin a conversation with a pregnant female professor who wants to know when I can teach her English. I can’t…it’s above my pay grade.
Another professor is helpful and friendly in the way of many Colombians. He insists on making the cleaning lady and me a coffee, and when he finds out I have no food for the return bus-trip-from-hell (1.5 hrs in alarming traffic) he fetches a banana from his locker and wraps it in paper for me.
“For a bus,” he says in English.
Every day in this country I meet someone to restore my faith in humanity. Every day in this country a man checks me out, hisses or says something about my appearance. Sometimes he does it in the middle of a call he’s taking on his mobile, or almost crashes his pushbike. I’m not Miranda Kerr, and I find the level of built-in perversion quite surreal.
It is a strange mix of machista, romanticism and people who seem (thankfully) not bound by this incessant need to interact with the opposite sex as though we are at a meat market.
I did learn one lesson however. Don’t retaliate.
The Irish half of my blood boils. I have to bite my tongue.
At the local beach the other day (we are the only ones who wear togs there) a group of schoolboys continually yelled stuff at us. I stood to shake the sand from my towel. Whistles, woops, cries of “hey baby!” and most infuriatingly…HISSING. Like a snake. Like a pack of snakes. Like a pack of bad mannered snakes who need their bottoms smacked.
Seriously I thought? You guys are not long out of nappies.
I gave them the finger. Yep, flipped the bird their way.
First and last time!
They erupted! In delight. Cheering and laughing. It served to only make me madder.
Lesson learned……rise above.
“Qanta anos tienes niño?” I asked one who was nearby in the water.
(How many years do you have little boy?)
They were seventeen.
Sad that at that age they’ve already learned to be chauvinists from other men they see.
Good training in patience and restraint for me I suppose. Grrrrrr.
On the plus, I have met respectful men and boys over here also. So it just goes to show there’s choice alongside cultural norms. And respectfulness can be a part of any personality/character, no matter what you are raised in the presence of.
After class that day I call past our friends’ new apartment for dinner.
The traffic has died down for my return home at 8:30pm so I pay 7mil to jump on the back of a moto taxi.
The helmet he gives me is a snug fit……for someone with two heads.
Rounding a bend a huge gale blows it right off my face; it hangs behind me on its chinstrap like a bonnet. Safety first in Colombia.
I think of Ryan’s face laughing, calling me pin-head. I miss home and him. Then we scoot out of the way of a bus and I hang on and hope I make it through to 28.
The 1.5hr bus route takes 20 minutes on a motorbike, without traffic. Amazing.
I stop at Oscar’s fruit cart as I walk back to my house, to pick up the usual dinner supplies; eggplant, carrots, avocado and papaya. He gives me a warm smile as he slips an extra carrot in the bag now that we’re regulars.
Everywhere there’s colour, people socialising, too-tight pants, noise and movement. People cooking at their little restaurant stalls under the huge fig trees, with roots that remind me of the Newfarm Park treehouse playground in Brisbane.
A street clown has a huge crowd, getting one guy to walk like a prostitute, the whole crowd roaring with laughter. I’m sure I would be too if I understood Spanish better, or the imbedded cultural jokes.
The streets are busy. Families chat on the plastic chairs outside their houses, making the most of the elusive breeze. There’s that great evening buzz, and I love my new city once more.
The next day my English class is interrupted mid-way for a woman to run a presentation on HIV prevention and management. As I lister to safe-sex delivered in Spanish, she hands around condoms for my all-female class.
“One for you teacher,” she says with a laugh and plonks an apple-flavoured one on top of my notebook.
There is no prior warning for the interruption. Like most things over here. Go with the flow. It’s usually a pretty amusing one.
I think about giving my apple-flavoured condom to the homeless man to blow up and use as a pillow. The thought of explaining this to him in broken Spanish while brandishing a condom makes me laugh.
Colombia you strange, fantastic place.