The following is Part Two of a four-part series by John Knox Seagle, an English teacher and five-year Medellín resident from the United States. Read Part One here.
The purpose of this article and series is to talk openly and honestly about the common things long-term residents of Medellín find frustrating about living here.
Not every paisa is guilty of committing one of these faux-pas, but in my experience each of the following things is fairly common. This article is in no way intended to paint Medellín and the paisas in a bad light.
In addition, like all foreigners here, I love Medellín, and I could easily write a many more words about the things that one can admire and love about this city. But that’s for a different article.
While one can expect to see people respect las filas in places like banks or government offices, good luck thinking that standing in line patiently is the best approach to be served at a bar, corner shop or bakery.
The common protocol is to circumvent the line, approach the counter to the side of the person who is being served, interrupt and order loudly. Some people do this just because they believe they can get away with it, knowing that nobody will call them out or cause a ruckus.
There is perhaps no better way to immediately frustrate a foreigner than jumping in front of them in line. I have personally seen various Northern Europeans flip out.
Which brings me to…
I Got Here First
For reasons that might seem understandable to anyone with knowledge of Medellín’s dark past, it’s very common for people here to want to avoid confrontations, as one never knows how some men will react when challenged.
You’ll experience this reticence to chastise when someone cuts in front of you in line.
The attending employee will certainly notice that you’ve been waiting longer than the person who has just circumvented the line and spoken out of turn, but nevertheless will not say a word or dare challenge this individual who urgently requires a Pilsen or buñelo.
The first person served is the one who has demanded something the loudest and ignored all other customers.
You’re better off learning to be patient than expecting this to change anytime soon, but if you’re feeling brave, these individuals are often so unused to being challenged that it sometimes works when a foreigner calls them out by saying: “señor, hay una fila, detrás de mi.”
We’re Not All Rich
Nobody comes to live and work in Colombia in order to (legally) earn a lot of money.
Ask any long-term foreign resident and they’ll report that becoming monetarily rich in Colombia was never the point. It is difficult to make good money in Medellín for anyone, much less for foreigners whose Spanish is not up to par.
Or to add insult to injury, quote us a price in dollars. Unlike Panama or Ecuador, Colombia does in fact have its own currency, and the peso is what every worker in Colombia earns. I haven’t earned dollars in years.
And while the average Colombian either lives with their family or has close familial relations and will likely be sharing their living expenses with various other employed family members, imagine living in Medellín as a solo foreigner who is only legally permitted to be employed by one company at a time, earning a living in pesos, paying into a retirement scheme that likely will never bring this person any benefit, and paying every expense alone.
At least up-charging here is not very common.
Individuals earning dollars or euros in Colombia can live quite well. If one earns a local salary then Medellín becomes quite expensive.
Criticize Our Spanish
I entered my friend’s apartment one Friday evening and greeted my friends, an international group of expats with members from Russia, Switzerland, the Netherlands… and Bogotá.
We often speak in English because it’s our most convenient common language… you know, that global language that all Colombians with an education have been required to study in school.
I saw that there was someone in attendance who I didn’t know, the new girlfriend of a friend, so I greeted her in Spanish in order to be friendly and accommodating.
She immediately began laughing and criticizing my Spanish, and pretended to not understand a word because of my accent.
The laughing stopped abruptly when I asked her if she prefers we all speak one of the other foreign languages that she knows, and gently reminded her that if she were not there, everyone would be communicating with one another in English.
Mocking the way a person is speaking is not a good way to make a good first impression, but it happens nonetheless.
Sex, Drugs… and Reggaeton?
You can’t miss them. They’re wearing shorts, plastic flip-flops, and possibly a tank top (the gringo uniform), aren’t making a much of an effort to communicate in Spanish, are walking around with a group of identically dressed plastic-bottle carrying individuals, and often emit an odor which one can only describe as a mixture of sweat, dirty socks and naivety.
While the majority of backpackers and foreigners are respectful, mindful of the local culture and customs, interested in understanding Medellín, and do not come here to go crazy, unfortunately there are is a large and increasing number of visitors to the City of Eternal Spring who have other, often more scandalous, things in mind.
Many of them seem to lurk around Parque Lleras and treat El Poblado as if it were an extension of their own countries, rarely venture into the rest of the city, and express little interest in getting to know the various faces of Medellín.
Others do not maintain the same standards of personal hygiene that they would have at home, do not care about their appearance, and smell in a way which is often very offensive for locals and other foreigners alike.
The worst of them treat Medellín as if it were Cancun and spend their days in a drunken, debaucherous, sex-and-drug fueled haze with little-to-no contact with the locals, or even worse, start their own sex-tourism businesses.
Why these often hairy individuals seem to be under the impression that they’re at the beach is beyond me, but their failure to realize that it’s uncommon to see locals wearing beach-going attire in their Andean city, or that locals are usually impeccably groomed and wear clean clothes and bathe frequently, or that their behavior and attitude is often very ugly, strikes me, many long-term foreign residents here, and many locals, as very disrespectful
These unfortunate exceptions to the rule have evidently forgotten that while abroad, an individual is effectively a representative of their own country and that their behavior can reflect negatively on their own country and other foreigners.
And to be honest, we worry that these individuals are tarnishing the image that locals have of all foreigners in general, not to mention defiling Medellín in numerous ways.
To the numerous backpackers who have walked up to me, asked me if I speak English, and then asked me where they can score some cocaine: shame on you.
To the numerous older single retirees or sex tourists one can see walking around Lleras with an 18-year-old silicone princess on their arm: you’re a joke.
To the numerous drunken buffoons who I’ve seen walk up to young women in bars and disrespect them by saying things like “hola chimba” or “me gustan tus tetas siliconas,” even in front of their boyfriends: you’re a disgrace.
To the drunken Australian who thought it would be funny to ask me in broken Spanish “oye gringo, quieres mi ___ en tu ____?” : go home.
To the two young travelers that my girlfriend and I recently stood next to in the metro at rush hour who chose to enter barefoot, filthy, and with tattered clothes, who oblivious to everyone around you decided to juggle and loudly converse with each other in English, and smelled worse than chinchurria: did you notice that in the crowded train everyone around you had given you a wide berth? What were you thinking? I, as a foreigner, was embarrassed.
Sure, it’s difficult to be a backpacker and carry your life and a few changes of clothes with you in your backpack.
But let’s try to show our paisa hosts some respect and learn a few words in their language, not walk around in their city which is one of Latin America’s fashion capitals dressed like a bum, make the decision to not indulge in the drugs that can easily be found here, not chase after the local women in a disrespectful way, not bring up Medellín’s dark past in casual conversation, and not get drunk and shout things at people in English, shall we?
That being said…
We’re Not All Like That
While there are unfortunately many older foreign retirees who treat Medellín as their personal playground and are slowing turning Colombia into a sex-tourism destination on par with Thailand and Brazil and lots of young travelers who come here to party decide to indulge in the many sins that the city has in abundance (forget about Las Vegas- in Medellín you can find anything), it would be a mistake to assume that every foreigner in Medellín is here to exploit this beautiful city.
Indeed, many of these “gringo backpackers” are genuinely interested in getting to know the paisa culture, learning some salsa, and seeing a city that everyone has been raving about for themselves.
I salute those who try to communicate in Spanish, dare to explore outside of El Poblado, are mindful about how they act and dress in public, and genuinely want to understand this complex and interesting city. Medellín needs and deserves more tourists like them.
Likewise, there is a growing community of Europeans, and increasingly, North Americans and Asians, who have decided to make Medellín their new home, start businesses, work, get married and have children.
If you are here for any of the reasons I just listed you know that not all foreigners are here for sex, drugs, and wild fiestas, and surely hope, as I do, that these bad eggs won’t tarnish the image of all foreigners here.
Milk Our Gullibility
A few weeks after arriving in Medellín, my roommate convinced me that a special gift normally given in this culture on El Día del Amor y La Amistad (The Day of Friendship and Love) is a pineapple, and so I bought a pineapple for the woman I was trying to woo.
Admittedly that was very foolish, but it certainly got her attention and got me the girl.
In my defense, that was something that could have conceivably been true, and to a newcomer to a different culture, perfectly believable. However, some things are universally understood across the world as being true or completely absurdos.
I had been dating a young woman for a few months and I was crazy about her. The relationship had become serious. We talked every day. I believed that everything was going great and had formalized a serious relationship.
One Wednesday we made plans to go out on Saturday night, and she immediately disappeared after making plans with me. No contact, no response to my calls or messages, nothing, for various days.
Saturday arrived and still no word from her. By 11 p.m. I’d been waiting at home all evening for her to appear, when a friend convinced me to join him in Parque Lleras. Sitting on the terrace of a bar with him and his friends, I thought to myself that it would be ironic to see her walk by.
Then I saw her walk by, happily holding the hand of another guy.
She finally responded to a message that I immediately sent her in which I accused her of cheating, and she claimed that he was just a gay friend who needed her help, but that if I am going to be so “mistrusting” that it would be better to terminate the relationship. I never saw her again.
Months later she admitted she had lost interest because I don’t have a TV and I don’t eat meat. Then I took a break from dating for half a year.
Many foreigners in Colombia are more inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt until they’re given a reason to mistrust an individual. We’re naturally more trusting, innocent and gullible than many locals because that’s in our culture.
Don’t be surprised if some locals will see this as a weakness and will use it to their advantage, either to get what they want or to paint themselves as the victim.
The expression “dar papaya” is a favorite among many in Medellín to cheekily tell people that they were asking for it when something bad befell them.
Robbed while in a taxi? You shouldn’t have had your phone out.
Your friend never repaid you and disappeared? You shouldn’t have lent him money.
Drugged and woke up three days later with your belongings missing? You shouldn’t have gotten drunk alone and been receptive to the advances of the three young women sitting alone across the bar.
Walked home alone at 2 a.m.? What did you expect to happen?
You essentially made it easy for people to take advantage of you, by acting like a complete fool. You gave papaya.
While there is no excuse for utter stupidity or a lack of common sense, many who have given papaya themselves — Did you know that you shouldn’t walk around El Centro on Sunday afternoons? Neither did I — have a problem on general principle with the expression, as it is often used to explain away the terrible thing that has happened with a shrug and a laugh, as if it had been OK for someone to steal from you, cheat you, lie to you or take advantage of you.
Nothing is ever anyone else’s fault, you see?
The mistake of the victim notwithstanding, in reality there is never any reasonable justification for taking advantage of someone or swindling or stealing from someone, and nobody is ever “asking for it.”
One day I was sitting in Parque Boston eating fruit bought from a street vendor when a disheveled older man approached me and asked me for some moneda because he was hungry. I didn’t have any coins but I gave him the rest of the pieces of papaya that I was eating.
He took the papaya, did not look happy nor did he thank me, but instead continued asking for money and wouldn’t leave me alone.
I’m still trying to process the irony.
Stay tuned for Part Three of this four-part series next week.
About the Author:John Knox Seagle, an English teacher and five-year Medellín resident from the United States.