9 things I’ve learned in 9 years in Colombia

In 1971 after graduating college, I left Ireland. The zeitgeist and personal choice led me to the US, first to Ohio and then to Boston before I settled for a good long stretch of years in New York City. Eventually I was drawn to the more tranquil life of Columbia County in upstate New York; at least until the effort of shoveling snow for at times 6 months of the year finally persuaded me to move to the warmer climes of Florida. But I was never a happy camper in Florida, the absence of snow and snow shovels notwithstanding. And so, looking for further change, I began to make investigative trips to Mexico and Peru. By happenstance, two discount airlines just then began to offer service from Florida to Bogotá, Colombia. The fares were less than $200 round-trip, and before long I was back and forth to Colombia for long weekends and semester breaks from my teaching job in Florida. I had a summer semester free and decided I would spend it in Bogotá teaching English. That was mid-May of 2010. By June, I had decided to move to Colombia.

My first commitment was to live here for a year. I would teach some English classes, do some writing and continue my work as a cartoonist. And I did that. I packed my Florida essentials and had them shipped to Bogotá. And as often happens, one year became two, and then two became three. And three has just now become nine. Colombia’s tourism slogan the year I arrived was the only risk is wanting to stay. And there might be just some truth to that.

Over the years, I’ve learned a thing of two about Colombia. Here are the nine most important things I’ve learned in nine years living in Colombia.

1. Patience is a virtue.

In my first year in Colombia, I befriended a psychic; we worked at the same real-estate development company. It’s so strange to me that I’m living in Colombia, I said to Mariana over lunch one day. You do know why you’re here, don’t you, she added immediately. The reason you’re in Colombia is to learn patience, she said without missing a beat. Well, she was the psychic, not me. But being in Colombia to learn patience made perfect and immediate sense to me. If there was anything I needed in my life, it was patience. New York and my own personality had instilled in me a need to go go go, and perhaps the time had come to change to slow slow slow, or at least to slow, slow, slower.

In Colombia, the opportunities for learning patience are multiple. People jump lines constantly, on the pretense that they just have a simple question to ask that will take at most a couple of seconds to answer. This is rarely the case. Not only do people jump lines, but they also interrupt your conversation when you’re with any customer service representative in any situation. Una preguntita, señorita, someone will say over your shoulder while you are earnestly and intensely trying to understand, for instance in my case, why $3000 had disappeared from my bank account. (It happened!) The common response to this type of interruption in other areas of the world might be Please Ma’am, I’m with a customer, take a place in line. In Colombia, the immediate response is for the customer service person in question to begin to interact with the reprobate who is trying to jump turn. How can I help? What happened? Let me take your details. Trust me, your patience will have many opportunities to the taxed in Colombia.

2. Buenos días, Buenas tardes

Politeness reigns supreme. Colombian Spanish is somewhat formal; its reach goes back centuries. Usted is often used instead of the more relaxed day-to-day . Boarding an Iberia flight from Bogotá to Madrid a couple of years ago, I was surprised to be greeted by the flight attendants by a simple Hola. Bogotanos are exceedingly polite, and there is a protocol of niceties that is followed at all times. The morning greeting is Buenos días. The response is Buenos días. In the afternoon, Buenas tardes is answered by Buenas tardes. My flight was an afternoon flight, and Hola just sounded wrong to my ear. In Lima, Perú, I walked into a bookstore and the woman working there greeted me with Que tal? (What’s up?) I literally looked around to see if she was addressing a friend of hers behind me. She wasn’t; she was greeting me. And again coming from Bogotá, I was surprised by the familiarity.

3. Con mucho gusto

Con mucho gusto are three words that define Bogotá, and in fact all of Colombia. With great pleasure! You will hear Con mucho gusto daily in all kinds of contexts. Paying for a coffee costing 70¢ at the phenomenally successful coffee chain Tostao, you say Thanks/ Gracias. The response is Con mucho gusto. And this is the Colombian part; the communication of Con mucho gusto is heartfelt. To me, more than With great pleasure, I always hear We’re all in this together. Leaving my orthopedist’s office this afternoon, I thanked him again for a very successful surgery. He responded with Con mucho gusto. And then getting out of the taxi that brought me home, I paid my taxi driver the amount on his meter (taxis are ridiculously cheap in Bogotá!) I said Thank you. And with a sincerity that’s hard to communicate in writing he told me Con mucho gusto.

4. Su merced

Addressing someone as Su merced goes back centuries. It has long gone out of use in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. Su merced basically translates as Your Grace. The expression communicates respect on the part of the addressee for the person being addressed. It’s an extremely formal and old-fashioned choice of words. But here’s the thing; Su merced is commonplace in Bogotá. You will hear strangers addressing one another as Su merced, but you will also hear couples addressing each other with Su merced as a token of respect. I mentioned this to a friend in Peru some years ago and his immediate response was I want to live in Bogotá!

5. Family is close to the heart.

To understand the closeness of family in Colombia, I always think of the mothers that I see daily on the streets and public transportation of Bogotá, and yes fathers at times too, bundling their newborn in handheld blankets. Strollers and baby buggies are generally for the wealthy few and perhaps even then optional. Touch with newborns is essential and closeness to one’s blood here is physical. Colombians carry their babies close to their hearts. I can’t tell you how many times Colombians have told me I could never live outside Colombia because I need to be close to my family. Of course the truth is that as a result of the history of violence in the country, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Colombians have been forced to do exactly that, to abandon their families and seek refuge elsewhere. The resulting pain is hard to quantify.

6. Getting from point A to point B is challenging.

There is no metro or subway system here. Getting around town, you are going to have to use the same major and minor thoroughfares of the city as everyone else. Technically, there are requirements for getting a driver’s license in Colombia that include a knowledge and understanding of the basic responsibilities of being a driver in a country of just about 50 million people. And yet, all of that understanding seems to go out the open car window for 95% of Colombian drivers once they get behind the wheel of their vehicle. In other countries, as drivers, we put the rights of pedestrians above all else. Not here. As a pedestrian in Bogotá, when a car slows to a stop, and this is never the case with a taxi (so watch out for taxis!) to allow you to cross the street at a legally designated crosswalk, you may just feel that you have to express a gratitudinal bow, a tip of a hat, a thumbs up, a wow am I lucky moment to the car driver in question.

Why as a driver when you pass your exit or turn-off should you continue on to the next exit to get back to where you wanted to be when you can just back up against traffic for a block (or 2) even on a freeway? Stop signs are generally understood as mere suggestions, compliance optional. The best advice when confronted with traffic, whether as a pedestrian, passenger or driver in Bogotá, is simply to keep your wits about you.

Bicycles have become more and more popular in recent years. In Bogotá, there are some bike-designated lanes. There are other sort-of-suggested bike lanes. And there are places in Bogotá now where with bike lanes, official bus stop waiting areas and age-old trees there is literally very little room left for pedestrians to walk.

The latest addition to street congestion here is scooters. Pick-up, drop-off electric scooters are everywhere. Pay by credit card; pick up your scooter and go. Drop off wherever. Wherever literally means wherever; this is often once again in the middle of a pedestrian sidewalk. On the way to your drop-off point, use the congested roadways mentioned above, helmet optional. Zip here and there through pedestrian traffic, or take your chances weaving in and out along the roadways of the city already crowded with motorcycles, buses, taxis, delivery and private vehicles trying to get from here or there. Oh and remember what I was saying about driver education. Scooter users get to play just by having a credit card, no knowledge of rules of the road required. Living here, you are going to have to interact with all of the above getting around Bogotá on a daily basis, like it or not.

7. Colombia has strata.

Colombia has a rare 6-tier stratified economic system that’s hard to get your head around. Looking for an apartment, you will be told that it’s estrato 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. The designation is mainly based on the neighborhood; the appearance of surrounding buildings and the materials used in the construction of the building you might live in suggest to a government scout the estrato of your district. The estrato of your apartment is a small but important detail in choosing where to live. Living in an estrato 6 building means your utilities will be billed at a higher rate than anyone living in any other estrato in the city. Essentially those living in estrato 5 and 6 neighborhoods pitch in to help those living in estrato 1 and 2 areas. The bottom line in terms of taxes and monthly bills is that the rich pay more, the poor pay less. The system was designed to try to balance things out. Does it? That’s hard to say. As with any system, there are abuses and ways to circumvent the original intent. UN-Habitat, a United Nations group dedicated to better urban living worldwide, believes that the Colombian system of strata over time has come to divide rather than define the glue that holds us all together. And there’s some truth to that. On dating apps, you will at times find people looking for someone in a specific estrato, 2, 4 or 6 wanting to connect only to someone in their own estrato.

8. Your cédula (national identity card) is everything.

Want to know how having a national identity works day to day? Come to Colombia. Your cédula keeps track of you wherever you go, whatever you do. Buying underwear a few years back, I was asked for my cédula. I gave it. Did Colombia really need to know my choice in underwear? I doubt it. Buying paint when I was redoing my apartment, the same thing. The government now knows that I bought white paint to renovate my apartment. The first question you will be asked at any bank, clinic, government agency, airline, pharmacy or supermarket is Numero de Cédula? The country is trying to track the use of drug money; I understand that. Did I buy three private jets within the last month? That might raise an alarm. No, I didn’t. But did I really repaint my apartment with the white paint I bought? Nobody knows that but me.

9. Gentrification. What gentrification?

I just read a post on a Smith Street, Brooklyn, NY website bemoaning the flight of essential services from a long established, but now happening, NY city neighborhood. A supermarket that had served the neighborhood for years has given up the ghost: likewise, a local hardware store. I have seen gentrification at work in various cities in Europe and the United States. Step back in time. Gentrification, per se, doesn’t exist in Bogotá. There are hardware stores, ferreterías, on practically every block. Whatever you need in terms of the maintenance or upgrade of your home or apartment is available close to where you live. Likewise, sasterías. Sasterías are tailors’ shops where you can have any modification, repair, change or enhancement done to any garment that you own within hours. There are shoe-repair shops every couple of blocks. There is a Cigarrería, where you can buy anything from wine to an onion, on practically every corner of the city. Panaderías, bakeries with in-house ovens are yours for the asking. The sense of neighborhood and the services that neighborhoods provide are very much alive and completely at the service of their communities in Bogotá. Would I trade this for Carroll Gardens, New York, or Google’s Seattle, or any neighborhood in San Francisco right now? No way. In Bogotá, I’m doing fine: all the services that I need are just a stone’s throw away. And my peace of mind, as MasterCard might say, is priceless.