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.
Reluctant to engage in confrontations and possibly afraid of how you’ll react, it is rare to have a local tell you something disagreeable directly or to your face.
It’s almost a given that this individual believes that it’s better to communicate something negative to you slowly and subtly, than disappointing you directly and immediately.
If a friend or significant other has a problem with something you’ve done or said, don’t be surprised if they keep it secretly bottled up inside for a long time and slowly punish you without you knowing why.
Likewise, if you’re dating someone and they lose interest or decide to end things, don’t expect them to tell you directly to your face.
Rather they’ll simply stop calling you or responding to you, assuming you’ll eventually figure it out for yourself, or they’ll create a situation in which you are obliged to end things yourself.
If your boss wants to get rid of you, expect them to make you miserable until you decide to quit, or to gradually cut down your hours until you start to question whether you’re really wanted there.
And if you receive a job offer or the hiring manager seems very interested in you, don’t believe it until after you’ve finished your first day at the job.
Ironically, when you speak to most locals about the concept of passive aggressiveness, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.
How many foreigners thought it was a joke the first time they heard that it’s not uncommon for parents to buy their daughter breast implants on their 15th birthday? Unfortunately it’s not a joke.
Not content enough to already be considered among the most beautiful women in the world, countless young (and older) women join the ranks of multitudes before them and go under the knife with hopes of “perfection.”
Numerous young girls dream of becoming a famous model someday, or grow up with a false sense of entitlement because their entire life everyone has always told them that they’re gorgeous.
They’ll be called “reina” or “princesa,” told that they’re perfect, can do no wrong, and don’t need to work or get an education because their looks will take them through life.
Women are fiercely competitive and jealous of each other for how they look or what they possess, and it’s unfortunately rare to see a paisa woman with many true female friends.
Entire generations of young men grow up striving to own the nicest clothes and flashiest car so they can obtain the perfect paisa prototype or someone who they can show off to their friends.
Parents will even have their infant daughter’s ears pierced to make them more attractive or presentable… as if babies needed accessories.
While every culture has its own concept of beauty and no one really has the right to judge what a different culture considers to be aesthetically pleasing, there’s no doubt that many a foreigner will stop dead in their tracks the first time they see a prosthetic nalga that juts out like a shelf.
Medellín is a major fashion center, so perhaps this goes with the territory.
Still, it can be very disconcerting to see how obsessed paisas are with appearance, image and one-upping each other in terms of physical beauty, and how recent generations have grown up believing that there is a connection between physical attractiveness and upward mobility.
The general inclination is to point the finger at the narcotraficantes who started lavishing riches on their surgically altered girlfriends beginning in the 80s, which then caused many of Medellín’s young women to take note and start believing that if they too could look like that, they’d be set.
A generation later, one has to wonder why so many people continue to embrace an aspect of the culture that everyone considers to have originated during Colombia’s darkest days.
I would hate to be a woman here.
Nobody would argue that Colombia is a very machista society, and the amount of respect that many men show to women leaves a lot to be desired.
From catcalls and hissing, to blatantly staring as a woman walks by, to nicknames such as “mamasita” and “bebe,” the way that numerous local men act toward their fairer counterparts is often cringe-worthy.
Retaliation or castigating the perpetrator of such blatant disrespect is imprudent, as at best it will encourage them and at worst be met with hostility.
And that’s to say nothing of the general expectation that local men will have various girlfriends at a time, or at least a mistress. And if these individuals are so “macho” and “manly,” what’s the deal with the multitude of single mothers in the city?
Is it any wonder why many foreign men often find themselves an object of desire?
Some might say it’s due to a misconception that gringos equal money.
I would argue that because in comparison to most local men, most foreign residents in Medellín treat their women better, often know how to cook and clean and will do so happily, don’t live with their parents until marriage, and aren’t nearly as likely to cheat or maintain several women at a time.
Are you Coming?
This one is for the foreign men in Medellín.
I recently underwent uncomfortable flashbacks to my own previous traumatic experiences while recently trying to coach several recent arrivals through the concepts of time, commitment and accountability, or making plans, as perceived by a large number, but by no means all, of the local women.
Even if you make a fixed plan to do something well in advance, the plan will remain invalid unless you reconfirm shortly before the meeting, and if you don’t, expect to hear that it’s your fault when you subsequently see her out with her friends or another man during your planned date time.
It is not uncommon for someone to cancel literally minutes before a reunion with no explanation, and if that should happen you should count yourself lucky, as it’s far more common for your date to simply not show up, or if she does, she might well have her cousin or friend in tow.
Perhaps she didn’t arrive because it was raining… paisa hair evidently melts in the rain.
As with many things here, a near-to-complete lack of consequences might be to blame. When a woman does this, most of the perpetrators of this heinous lack of respect have been treated like princesses all their lives and have never been told by anyone, ever, that they’ve done anything wrong.
They are raised with a sense of indemnity and a complete lack of understanding that it’s not correct to treat someone like this.
Women like this are unfortunately drawn to gringos like a montañero is drawn to chicharron, and sadly give the vast majority of women in Medellín, who are decent, hardworking, sincere and honest, a bad reputation.
Forget trying to make them understand that it’s bad class, poor education and a lack of common decency. They’ll never be convinced that they’re fallible. Seriously, they just won’t get it.
Friendships and Relationships
One has just to look at the differing definitions of “platonic” in English as being free from sexual desire, and “platónico” in Spanish, which carries the meaning of unrequited, secret love for someone close to you, to suspect that you’re in for some drama.
If you’re a woman and you have a normal male friend, don’t be surprised if he makes a pass at you after a few shots of Guaro, or secretly harbors feelings for you and sulks when he sees you with someone else.
If you’re a man and have a normal female friend, don’t expect to see her again once she gets a boyfriend because he will likely be so jealous that he won’t permit her to hang out with you.
Alternatively, don’t be surprised if your female friend contacts you to inform you that your new girlfriend is really ugly, and your girlfriend becomes convinced that you have something with your female friend.
If you’re a woman who has a female friend, likewise don’t be surprised when she turns out to be jealous (or overly critical) of your appearance or how happy you seem with your boyfriend.
If you’re a man who has male friends, be careful about whom you introduce to your girlfriend.
If you’re a foreigner with foreign friends, be prepared to say good-bye to a lot of them over time, start again and repeat.
Numerous friendships and families have been damaged by loaning money which is never repaid. There’s perhaps nothing more tragic than realizing that your friendship was worth less than 200,000 pesos ($100).
Local women are often irrationally convinced that all men will cheat on them, generally expect them to have several lovers at a time, and often use this as an excuse to do the same, resulting in a never-ending vicious cycle of mistrust and heartbreak.
Many people have a Plan B or C and keep all of them active at once due to their fear of temporarily being alone. Even in the case of men who do not have a proper mistress, there’s a huge sex industry to cater to their every desire.
It’s difficult, but not impossible, to establish healthy, long-lasting friendships or relationships here. It’s unfortunately very common for envy, jealousy and greed to ruin many friendships, relationships, and even families.
Tread carefully here.
Shoot the Messenger
Not literally of course.
I’ve experienced numerous people fervently claim that Medellín has the best weather, food, transportation and women in the world, but when it comes to the topic of violence, homicides, drugs, gangs and poverty, they switch gears and go on about how problems like that exist everywhere in the world, that Medellín is not “special” in that regard.
While it’s normal and in fact admirable for people to be proud of their city, many here take it too far and blindly claim to be living in the best city in the world while ignoring that it still has some very serious social problems and attacking those who try to bring those problems to light.
In reality a lot of people here are very sensitive and defensive, and love to dish out criticism but can’t take it themselves, even when it’s constructive.
I’ve also had numerous “friends” eliminate me from their lives or tell me off after I openly complain about how the taxi drivers here don’t respect pedestrians or other cars and drive dangerously, or trying to explain that instead of Colombians blaming Hollywood movies and foreign media for its negative reputation abroad that they need to understand and admit that the depictions of their country abroad are based on Colombia’s real track record and actual problems.
Few would argue that misconceptions presented in foreign media do a better job of harming Colombia’s reputation than do Colombia’s own newspapers, TV programs and feature films, nearly all of which focus on violence, drugs, prostitution and poverty, and are eaten up by most Colombians.
But you know what? The taxi drivers here really do lack respect and drive recklessly. And there are lots of “grillas” in Medellín and they do in fact lurk in Parque Lleras like gringo-predators.
Find me one local who would honestly disagree with these statements.
Mentioning these faults of this beautiful city doesn’t make me negative, but a realist, and I fear that until more people are capable of openly admitting that Medellín does in fact still have some serious issues to tackle that these things will continue.
But for now, woe to the unlucky traveler who doesn’t praise the City of Eternal Spring with every ounce of gringo gusto they can muster, or those who sing the praises of Bogotá, a city that every paisa will immediately claim to hate even though most haven’t even been there.
Go Home Gringo
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to suggest to a complaining foreigner that if they don’t like it here, they should leave. It happens in every country, but that doesn’t make it less ugly.
The number of foreign residents in Colombia pales in comparison to the two million Colombians in the United States, 500,000 in the United Kingdom, and hundreds of thousands more between numerous other countries. Most Colombian families have at least one member living overseas.
Like those Colombians abroad, every foreign resident in Colombia who is living and working and paying taxes has as much of a right to complain about certain aspects of the local culture which rub us the wrong way, as each of those Colombians abroad.
In many cases it’s necessary in order to maintain a good sense of humor and our sanity, and it should not be taken to mean that the individual actually dislikes living here.
And instead of immediately reacting to any type of criticism by suggesting that the individual leave, why not pay attention to what they have to say?
A different perspective on things can in fact be very valuable, and it wouldn’t hurt Medellín to hear some fresh observations.
If you should happen to experience a friend, significant other or acquaintance telling you to leave after hearing your thoughts on the challenges of living here, or find that expressing your feelings about xenophobia are falling on deaf ears, you certainly have my sympathies.
About the Author: John Knox Seagle is an English teacher and five-year Medellín resident from the United States.