Distinctly Colombia

I’ve lived here on the coast of Colombia for 13 months now, which has given me enough to time to observe a few trends, customs and oddities of the Barranquilla culture! I thought I’d share a few of the Costeno-isms that I’ve noticed.

1. Walk like a Colombian… women here walk like they’re on a catwalk–whether it’s a crosswalk, the mall circuit or just down a hallway, these women move. Their omnipresent heels don’t hurt the effect, either. In contrast, you can tell a gringo from a mile away–we walk like we’re in a hurry and with bad posture.

2. To the left, to the left…While you’re walking like a gringo, there’s one important thing to know: pedestrians pass on the left. If you don’t, it gets rather awkward, rather quickly. If you forget, it’s also perfectly acceptable to walk very slowly in the dead center of the sidewalk, blocking both oncoming and passing pedestrian traffic.

3. Bus entertainment…There’s a lucrative informal economy in action around: Every few minutes, your bus will be commandeered  by a candy hawker, a pen salesman, a rapper or, my personal favorite, a two-person vallenato duo belting tone-deaf ballads and beating a makeshift drum. They jump over the turnstile and brazenly address the “senores y senoras pasajeros”, first giving them God’s blessing on their travels, then peddling their products.

It’s common to have the product shoved in your face and you have to hold it awkwardly in your hand until he comes back through to collect either the product or your money. Sometimes you can get really lucky, and there’s a mandarinas guy…or the sesame sticks guy!

4. Queue up, cozy up…Okay, this is actually one of my biggest pet peeves that I haven’t adapted to yet. Any queue here, whether it’s at the bank, in the grocery store, or hopping on the escalator, is designed to take up minimal space at maximum discomfort. That is to say, the closer you can be to the person in front of you, the better. There will be a senora grazing your elbow on the left and a shopping cart touching your leg on the right. You have to steel up and stay your ground, because cutting in line is also a Colombian pastime!

5. Smells like Caribbean Spirit…Despite the fact that we live in a wet, sticky furnace, Colombians ALWAYS SMELL GOOD. Naturally, this caused me to sweat even more–what if they can smell the dirty gringa? No matter how much deodorant or body spray I applied, I was always self-conscious of smelling worse than these scented, clean-looking Colombians around me. I finally figured out two tricks, though: baby powder absorbs sweat and perfume (not body spray or light scents) must be applied a MINIMUM of 467585746 times per day, thereby ensuring that no one will mistake you for a dirty gringa. All I can say is, thank goodness Abercrombie’s signature headache scent hasn’t reached Colombian markets!!

Those are just a few of the endless quirks and -isms of my host culture. It’s often the little things that make a cultural experience so rich and engaging, and these are no exceptions to that rule. Every day brings a new chance to laugh, wonder and eat a mandarin!


3 thoughts on “Distinctly Colombia”

  1. Oh, most people didn’t give them much time of day and just continued doing whatever they had been doing before. Once in awhile, though, someone would contradict the preacher, and then a whole debate would break out between them, and others would often join in as well. Very interesting method of evangelizing…not sure how many converts they won, though.

  2. So interesting how each culture has their own quirks and differences! Definitely can relate to the part about the buses. Tanzania was much the same way in that regard. Often bus “preachers” would also get on the bus at one stop and then fervently preach to the passengers until the next stop. I much preferred the vendors…

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