On Colombia II: The Lighter Side

While life is pretty “normal” down here in Colombia, after living here the last few months I have noticed a few cultural differences and thought I would elaborate on the ones that I find most interesting and funny. Also after my depressing political blog, I figure I owe you all something a little more light-hearted.

Colombia Time

Just in case you thought Durango Time was bad… Colombia time is nearly impossible to calculate, but I think I am starting to notice some patterns. When you tell someone to meet you at a certain time “sharp” for a social outing they will usually be one very sharp half hour late. More rigorous events, like meetings, class and work seem to have 5-15 minutes of tardy wiggle room with no questions asked. At school I have been told time and time again to “relax, it’s Colombia,” in fact they warned us about it in our initial training as well.  If you are throwing a dinner party, it is in your best interest to tell people to show up 2-3 hours before you want to eat and there will still be stragglers after that who will miss dinner. I am not sure if there is a word for punctual in Spanish…

Que Pena

Translating literally to “what a pity.” This saying can initially come across as quite the disingenuous apology, however, they do not mean it that way. Here are the many uses of que pena:

  • Oops. When I order the wrong thing because I don’t fully understand the menu, que pena.
  • My bad. When you ask for a receipt from the cashier but they hit the wrong button and nothing is printed, que pena.
  • Excuse me. When you accidentally bump into someone on the street or are trying to get the attention of a waiter for a possibly annoying request, que pena.
  • Sometimes it actually is a disingenuous apology, however. A bus driver basically implied this to my friend Caitlin: Oh, I must have forgotten to put your bag in the bus even though that is one of my few responsibilities and now it is probably in a bum camp never to be seen again, que pena.


Here in Colombia it is impossible to have any social gathering without dancing. Every bar has space to dance and you are expected to know at least 4 different types of dancing. Salsa, Bachata, Reggeatón and some other variation of Salsa that I can’t even remember the name of (much less the steps). I have been trying to learn, but the rhythm for Latin music simply isn’t in my blood, the Colombians have told me personally… None the less the accept me, and laugh at me, and they try to teach the gringo the unteachable rhythm of Salsa. If you ever watch their feet while they dance you will be confused too! In fact my brain often sizzles trying to comprehend how the movement correlates with the music. Generally I will be found at the bar or on a delightful piece of furniture as I am still yet to procure anything comfy in my apartment…

Administrational Hullabaloo

I can only vouch for experience within the medical system, which is almost free, but dysfunctional as you will see below.  For something simple like a stomach ache, a typical visit to the doctor may look like this.  Go to the office and wait, probably hours. After this wait, talk to a doctor who takes your weight and chit chats to find out your basic problem. After the basic problem is discovered he sends you to a different doctor. Wait again. After this wait you are seen by the second doctor. She pokes your stomach and tells you you have gastritis. She then sends you on a pharmaceutical scavenger hunt where you procure your own syringe and medicine, all the while your stomach ache has now turned into explosive diarrhea from stress and aggravation from the very medical system you are seeking help in. Once back to the doctor’s office you start the wait again. But you have to use the restroom, which doesn’t have a lock, and you miss your turn. Wait again. Finally, you reach the doctor and she injects the self-procured medicine. All in all the doctors visit will take 13 hours and cost 35 cents. If this is the medical system, I can only imagine the inner workings of the political system.

Always bring your own TP

This lesson will be learned quickly, and by most, the hard way. There is no guarantee of TP anywhere! Restaurants, malls, schools, perhaps even some hotels. ALWAYS have some with you.

PARO (strikes)

Somehow, someone always seems to be striking about something. The most recent Paro I remember was by all taxis and busses against the illegal moto taxis who do not pay any fees.  It is obviously unfair so all the taxis and busses blocked the main roads in town to show everyone they were sick of it. Paros will usually mean school and work is cancelled so people have the day off and are left to their own devices. I am not sure if these protestors accomplished much that day, but I do know that there were quite a few drunk bus drivers milling about the park after the demonstration who were enjoying their day off. While these demonstrators celebrated, however, the only transportation available was the moto taxis… and they were busy!

No Dar Papaya

Literally, don’t give papaya. This is a warning to each other and extranjeros alike. It means don’t be flashy with expensive items or invite attention to yourself. If you do and you get robbed, it is partially your fault as you were pretty much asking for it. Basically it means to be careful, don’t tempt fate.

Cultural differences are quite delightful and sometimes funny. I hope you have enjoyed these few samples I have gleaned from my time living in Colombia.

#heartforchange #volonteerscolombia

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