When I was in Russia, my favorite folk saying was, “Don’t hang noodles from my ears.” It took the place of, “Don’t pull my leg” but provided more picturesque imagery of an obsequious bureaucrat carefully hanging strands of pasta from his boss’ ears, or what 50 years of Communism probably felt like. In Italy, they say someone has their eyes lined with ham when they can’t see what’s clear to everyone else. Of course. Because everything in Italy involves ham.
Paisas — the people from the region of Antioquia encompassing Medellin and the nearby coffee country — have a saying: No dar papaya. Directly translated, it means, “Don’t give papaya,” but metaphorically speaking, paisas mean, “Don’t make it easy for someone to take advantage of you.” They use it to remind people to hold their purses close, to wear their backpacks in the front in the city center, to use the camera strap. But also to remind each other not to be gullible or overly trustful, that someone will try and screw you if you give them the chance.
Every culture has its commandments, its rules that you can’t break without ridicule from others. The British stiff upper lip. Mexican machismo. Japanese good-of-the-whole. Here, it’s being on top of your game, in control of the situation, impervious to being duped.
The area around Medellin was originally settled by two groups: Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition and Basques, a group whose ubiquitous adjective seems to be “fiercely independent.” The region around Medellin, being inland and up high, was largely ignored for years by other South Americans, and its culture developed relatively separately from the rest of the region. They are known for their work ethic, their entrepreneurial skills and for being on time when the rest of the country moves on “Colombian time” [e.g. late to gringos]. But they are also known for being somewhat “sharp” in business dealings. Altogether, this means paisas were the ones that figured out how to grow coffee, create a railway system to transport it, and convince the world that it’s better than tea. Later, paisas controlled the cocaine trade. So — like all cultural attributes — it has it’s light and dark side.
Which brings me to the second half of the No dar papaya saying: Si te dan, partela. “If they offer it to you, cut off your part.” Or, if someone’s being stupid, go ahead and take advantage, because, really, they should know better. With every paisa we’ve met where No dar papaya has come up — and it comes up often — their reaction is a humble-brag shrug. Yes, they seem to say, we’re like that. And we’re kind of proud of it.
What’s interesting to me is that, on the whole, paisas have been among the most welcoming, friendly, genuinely helpful people I’ve met in all my travels — with Egyptians and Syrians (interestingly enough) as close seconds. So far, no one has tried to take advantage of my lack of context, Spanish or ability to comprehend numbers. Instead, they correct my change and give us free dessert and warn us to watch those costenos [people on the coast] when we get to Santa Marta because they [deep sigh] don’t always tell the truth.
Or maybe we’ve been duped the whole time.
THE TRUTH ABOUT JUAN VALDEZ
There is no coffee culture in Colombia. Every Colombian we’ve met drinks supermarket-brand instant coffee made with aguapanela [sugar cane water] so it’s teeth-crackingly sweet. And that’s only when they aren’t drinking juice or chocolate with breakfast. There are no coffee shops or coffee stands. Coffee comes at the panaderia or minimercado out of those big urns that I associated with 1970s church events. No one talks about the fruity aroma, the nutty flavor, or the “cap” on their instant Nescafe. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the original Juan Valdez was a Cuban actor.
There’s nothing like learning another language to highlight the weird quirks of your own language. For example, why, in English, do we “take” showers and photos? Where are we taking them? Shouldn’t we “have” a shower and “make” a photo? But we use “take” for all sorts of unrelated things: take a sip, take the lead, take hold, take advantage of, take the plunge, take your time, take a chance, take cover, take flight, take offense, take your place, take a turn, take a seat. Same with “get.” Get going, get up, get around, get even, get to know you, get wet, get tickets. And every single one of these has a different verb in Spanish. Oy.
In Colombian Spanish, their multi-purpose word is llevar. The first definition we learned was “to wear.” But it also means to carry, to bring, to transport, to lead and to deliver. In Colombia, it’s how you tell the cashier that you want your food to go (para llevar) and it’s what kids yell when they play tag: Lleva! At this point, when I don’t know the verb I need, I just use llevar. I figure I’ve got a 50/50 chance of being right.
One of the challenges in Medellin is the cuteness with which they speak Spanish. They add -ito and -issimo to words, making them (a) harder to decipher under the extraneous syllables and (b) sound adorable. For example, at one of the fincas we visited, the woman who cooks for the family offered me salchichitita, huevitos, pancita or arepitas for breakfast, which, to me, sounded like my options were itty-bitty sausage, cute little eggs, teeny-weeny bread or sweet little arepas. Then, a cashier at a store responded to my gracias with con muchissimo gusto [with SO MUCH pleasure] and I thought, “Dude. I just paid for contact solution. Dial it back.”