“Why can’t you just go somewhere nice and safe in Spain?”
My mum wasn’t exactly thrilled when I told her that I was going to live in Colombia for my year abroad, especially as the breaking of the news coincided with our completion of Narcos series two. Nevertheless, at the end of July, laden with an under-clothes travel belt, about 12 padlocks and more diarrhoea tablets than I thought I could ever possibly need, I moved from cosy lil’ Bath to the mean streets of Villavicencio.
Not everyone is an Escobar
Primarily, Colombians love their slang and there appears to be a new word for everything. They don’t party, they rumbean; they don’t drink beer, they take a chorro of pola; and they certainly don’t coger the bus as this has some terrible connotations! In particular, the phrase no dar papaya has been drummed into me since day one and it seems to wholly encompass the true Colombian stereotype (and my mother’s persistent worries) – ‘don’t be naïve enough to flaunt your expensive possessions around… because they will be stolen’. In truth, I do feel very safe here, probably because the locals are very aware of the dangers so they try very hard to promote and provide accessible precautions. The people that I have so-far encountered are perhaps the friendliest, most approachable characters that I have ever met. I quickly learnt that although the country can be dangerous, the stereotype unfairly ignores the charming population that are thus negatively branded as thieves, kidnappers and Escobars.
They know how to let their hair down
I also learnt very quickly that clubbing is an entirely different experience in Colombia. For starters, people don’t seem to pre-drink, but they buy massive bottles of Aguardiente in the club to share around. It is worth noting here that Aguardiente is Sambuca’s evil, slightly exotic cousin which is lethal both during and after its consumption. The lack of pre-drinks is thus a struggle for me as ‘extra’ doesn’t even start to describe the dancing scene inside a discoteca. People thrust, flaunt and wiggle to the loudest and Latino-est (yes, that’s definitely a word) reggaeton music, and then continue to salsa the night away in an admirably elegant fashion. On the rare occasion that the ambiente is not energetic enough, the DJ knows with surety that even playing just the first sweet, sweet bars of 'Despacito' is enough to make all hell break loose. I am yet to see a Colombian who can’t dance, and this puts me to shame because it is only after a 2-hour pre-drinks session that I really come into my element and start to bust some moves.
The danger lies on the roads
It’s actually a miracle that I am alive to write this article at all, considering the pure fear through which I suffer every day in response to maniac drivers. Traffic lights are few and far-between, as are any visible acknowledgment for road etiquette or rules in general. Drivers seem to have no spatial awareness; even less so on motorbikes which weave in and out of the traffic often with small dogs, random objects or small babies precariously attached. Life is quite literally a (admittedly crappy) white-knuckle rollercoaster.
Perhaps everyone here drives like lunatics because they are always late. It is unheard of to actually turn up to meet somewhere at the agreed-upon time. For me, this can be especially frustrating as I sometimes start work (teaching) at the ungodly hour of 6am. So, when students start to meander into the classroom at 20 past, I can’t help but hold a grudge; “you, my dear, just cost me a 20 minute lie-in… detention to all!”.
Finally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss Colombia without touching on the cuisine. Fruit and veg markets are an array of colourful alien-looking ingredients, with avocados the size of your head and more varieties of passion fruit than you can shake a stick at. The Colombians decided that the availability of cheap, fresh and healthy food just wouldn’t suffice, so everything else is heavily deep-fried... the novelty is yet to wear off.
All in all, my time outside of work has so far been spent dancing to Latino music (…or trying to), learning new slang and swear words from my Spanish-speaking housemates (who, for some reason, think it is hilarious to teach me the language of the barrio and make me try to rap ridiculously fast songs) and dodging the kitchen in exchange for market food. I’m not complaining.
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