Sometimes, it isn’t the famous sites or grand adventures that highlight the differences in culture, but the little, everyday things. Here is a loosely curated list of what’s different in Colombia. Some good or fun ideas, some not-so-good, and some that continue — even after almost five months — to completely baffle us…
We could learn from this!
Eggs are never refrigerated. They come in 15-packs (not dozens), or in 30-egg flats, precariously tied with twine which somehow still work. Milk is hyper-pasteurized and not refrigerated either. It comes in one-liter bags, so every house has a small pitcher that holds the bag upright after opening. Yogurt, mayonnaise, ketchup, juice, jelly, five-liter containers of water, olives and pretty much everything pourable or drinkable also come in bags, which is brilliant from a packaging and storage perspective.
9-1-1 here is 1-2-3, which is much more intuitive when you’re brain isn’t working so well.
There are no meters in taxis; a taxi ride anywhere in town costs COP$5000, or about US$2. Drivers have no incentive to take you the long/wrong way, or in circles; the rate is the same regardless of how long it takes to get there.
It is hot here. Like, hot. So workdays and school start at 6am (at sunrise) and continue until noon. Then everybody eats and naps in the shade until 2:30 or 3, when it is almost reasonable to move again. Stores and offices re-open and usually have evening hours.
When someone sneezes, you say salud [health]. When they sneeze a second time, dinero [money, since they clearly don’t have health]. A third sneeze is amor [love, since they have neither health nor money].
This close to the equator, the sun sets at almost exactly the same time all year. In the three months we’ve been here, it’s crept up from 6:05pm to 6:14pm. We watch the sun set every day, which is AWESOME.
Hey, we have a better idea….
There is no recycling yet in Santa Marta, although certain members of the family insist on separating out glass and cans before we dump it down the trash chute “just in case.”
Cell phone numbers are all a standard 10-digit length, but landlines have either six or seven digits. This causes the complex protocols for dialing. For landline to landline, you dial (9), (5) or (7) — your choice, they all seem to work — then (0), then city code, then the number. From a cell phone to landline, you have to make the number into a standard ten-digit number by adding (03) and the city code. All of this is written on a note paper posted in the kitchen, and it is also why everyone communicates using WhatsApp instead. Because, seriously…
Few places accept credit cards. Most items, even expensive ones, are paid for in cash. The largest bill available is Colombian Peso $50,000 which is about US$20. Once, we spent ten minutes in the grocery store waiting while three separate cashiers counted and re-counted the $2.5 million peso payment of the customer in front of us. The closest ATM is a ten-minute walk away and works approximately 60% of the time. Sometimes it is out of money. Sometimes it won’t accept our card. Other times there’s just no electricity to it. Colombians spend a truly dazzling amount of time standing in lines at the bank.
Toilet paper can’t ever be put in the toilet, anywhere in the country. Instead, it goes in the little (usually lidded) trashcan next to the toilet. In poorer areas and those with fewer tourists, the toilets don’t have seats and the TP is strictly BYO. But there is still a trash can.
Nothing comes “unscented”: not detergent, not soap, not lotion. Nothing. Instead, everything smells like Glade factory exploded inside a Yankee Candle store. The best option I’ve found is Johnson and Johnson’s avena [oatmeal] baby soap, which just smells strongly of sugar.
There is a single key to our apartment, which we must leave with the doorman when we leave the building. The key is the only way to get the elevator to stop on the sixth floor, since the elevator opens directly into our apartment. When we return without a key, we take the elevator to the 5th or 7th floor, walk up or down the stairs and bang on the staircase door (no key for that), hoping that at least one family member inside isn’t wearing earbuds and can hear the knocking over the waves/helicopters/fishermen/music/general mayhem outside our apartment.
Es un misterio… [It’s a mystery]
Motos are cheap and take little gas, so they are ubiquitous. The license plate number is inscribed on the driver’s helmet; our theories about why range from discouraging stealing, making the number more visible in traffic, and identifying which crash victim goes with which vehicle. Half of the drivers also wear black vests with reflective numbers on them. Three months into the trip, we figured out that these men are moto-taxis, providing a cheaper, easier way for one person to travel across town. Or that was true until a recent law banned men and boys from riding on the back of a moto because 176 murders — 15% of all homicides– in Medellin in 2012 were carried out by a shooter on the back of a moto. This new law made commuting to work more complicated for all men, and lowered my confidence in the safety of this country.
Colombia has a huge number of holidays where everything (and I mean, everything) shuts down. I honor and support frequent holidays as a cultural norm, but we never have any notice. We usually figure it out as we head out into the streets and notice we are all alone. Once, the kids showed up for school on one of these surprise holidays. And none of the six Colombians I asked had any idea what last Monday’s holiday was honoring. Is there a master list somewhere?
From 9-11am, you can buy empanadas, deditos de queso (fried dough around cheese) and papas rellenas (delicious balls of mashed potato wrapped around meat and/or hard-boiled egg) on every block. In residential neighborhoods, matrons roll a display case out to the street from their kitchen. But at 11am they spontaneously disappear, except in a few crowded markets or bus stations. Why? What if I want empanadas for lunch? Or at 3pm?
You can’t drink the tap water in Santa Marta, but everyone says you can boil pasta, wash lettuce and brush your teeth with it. The science behind this distinction eludes me.
On the 20th of every month, there is a day sin motos [without motorcycles]. There are also specific days when, based on your license plate number, you can’t drive your car. How this is compatible with a healthy economy (getting to work) and universal education (getting to school) is not obvious to me.
Everyone here apparently has a cell phone, but they don’t use them to make calls. Instead, on most street corners sits a woman with a sign declaring, “MINUTOS! TODOS LOS OPERATORS!” She has three cell phones, one for each carrier, usually chained to a table. You tell her the carrier you are calling and pay a nominal fee to call using her phone, because apparently accepting calls is something people actually use their phones for…
All easily-available clothing options are polyester, sausage-casing-tight and usually include sequins. It must be like walking around in your own personal Mardi-Gras-themed sauna. Apparently there is some magic potion in this town that allows locals to look cool and fresh in the absence of cotton, even in 100-degree heat at 2pm on a sunny street. We do not have access to that potion. (Also, most of the t-shirts have slogans in nonsensical English, obviously derived through Google Translate and usually involve statements no one would wear in the US. Example: Jack’s teacher at Catholic school that showed up one day in a shirt proclaiming, “Fighting for peace is like f*-ing for virginity.” But written out. At least the grammar was correct.)
I have never seen a newspaper for sale in Santa Marta. I learned about the teachers’ strike two weeks in, and the truckers’ strike via someone else’s post on Facebook. I have also never seen a post office, mail carrier or mailbox, including in our apartment building.
Coastal Colombians love their panela [raw cane sugar]. It gets more linear shelf space in the store than anything except milk, rice and corn flour. (They sell wheat flour, too: a single stack of bags hidden on the bottom shelf.) Panela is the main ingredient in the candies sold by wandering Afro-Caribbeans. Why never Latinos?
And just for fun, some price comparisons
- Average fixed-price lunch: $4-5
- 300ml bag of water on the street: $0.10
- Gigantic, perfectly ripe papaya: $1
- Aguila, the Corona-like national beer: $1.50 in a restaurant. It’s an extra $0.25 to make it into a michelada (with lime juice and salt), which I recommend because it makes the beer more palatable.
- Our generous cell phone plan with plenty of data: $30 per month
- Tiny block of mild cheddar cheese: $4
- Container of pine nuts at Carulla, the Colombian version of Whole Foods: $20 (there has obviously been no pesto in my life here)
- Legally mandated daily minimum wage for domestic workers: $13