Colombia: No country for single people?

I moved out of home properly – as in, not a university student who returned like a swallow every summer – when I was 22. I’d split up from my first serious boyfriend a few months earlier and, for career reasons, moved to a city where I didn’t know a soul.

I found somewhere to live and, like all young people starting out alone, took myself to IKEA the very first weekend. I bought a flat pack wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a bedside table, wheeled my trolley outside then realised I had a problem. That particular IKEA – I don’t know if it’s universal – had barriers preventing you from wheeling your trolley to your car.

Considering I was alone, there was no-one to fetch my little black Renault Clio, yet I didn’t particularly want to leave my shopping. Eventually I persuaded a male worker to guard it for me. Minutes later, as we fit the packages into the car like an absurd game of Tetris, I remarked that IKEA was not particularly ‘single friendly’.

“No,” he replied kindly. “People don’t tend to come here alone.”

I remember this incident because I now live in Colombia – a country, I suspect, that has strong IKEA tendencies. Being alone is certainly not encouraged.

I recently told my Colombian female friends how my ex-boyfriend and I had ‘relaxed’ our relationship. Once they were firmly persuaded that I wasn’t just moving onto someone else, they were horrified. Being single, it seems, is not something you choose – it just happens to you by virtue of being dumped or cheated upon. “You’re very brave,” one friend remarked, hugging me.

When I lived with my ex-boyfriend’s family for six weeks, I was absorbed into their routines. This included the ‘obligation of accompaniment’ – the daily duty to be ready and willing to accompany family members on errands, anything from buying toilet roll at the corner shop to the time I jumped into the car in my pyjamas to accompany his aunt on an evening mission across town.

(Incidentally, I went with my ex-boyfriend last week to a charity auction viewing. “I’m going to the next room to get the catalogue,” I remarked at one point. “Shall I accompany you?” he replied, with the slightly bored force of habit I recognised. Needless to say, I managed this two-second errand alone)

Colombian society exhibits this mistrust of being alone at every turn. Walk into a bank on a Saturday morning and your heart will sink at the sight of 20 people in the queue ahead of you. Wait a moment though – only five of them are customers. The rest are just along for the ride.

Colombians have found a way to use this herd mentality to their advantage, of course. Generally speaking, this is a country that hates to queue. When Colombians approach the queue-ing stage in a supermarket they immediately separate, each member of the herd choosing a different line. Whoever reaches the checkout first is then joined by the others. (Yes, you can stand behind two people holding next to nothing, then suddenly find yourself descended upon by trolleys. If it happened in England, there would be a riot)

I initially refused to play – arguing that it was better to stand in a queue with friends than hope for a slightly shorter experience alone. See? That makes me a Colombian. I now crave the company.

But, like all of Colombia’s cultural differences, this is something I understand and accept – until it has a direct effect on my life.

Last weekend I decided to travel, alone, to the plains of Villavicencio to stay with a friend. It was rodeo weekend, so I arrived at the terminal at 6.15am to be sure I could buy a ticket.

It was frantic. Every operator was sold out, save for two long queues for companies who said they would only sell tickets when empty buses arrived.

I chose one queue and was followed by two young men, the second of whom was immediately dispatched to the other queue to cover their bases. “That old coconut,” I thought sourly, before I realised both queues were working entirely in tandem. I was the only person alone.

“Can you ask him to get me a ticket if they go to that line?” I asked the guy behind me. He shrugged and gave me a sympathetic look but the meaning was clear – Sorry, sweetie, this is Colombia. All is fair in love, war and queue-ing.

Bastards, I thought. This is not going to end well. I sized up the situation and switched queues. The grass is always greener.

Immediately there was a kerfuffle behind me. I refused to look. If they had tickets, I didn’t want to know. The noise continued.

“They’re shouting at you,” the man behind me said. Sure enough, they were – it was my friend from the first queue.

“They can take one more on a bus leaving now,” he yelled.

“And you’re the only person who’s here alone.”

(Hilarious. There wasn’t a seat at all. Just an upturned bucket with a cushion on top, tucked behind the driver. It was good enough for me, though, without it I never would have left Bogotá)

And so, as I took my bucket throne under the jealous gazes of the hordes around me, I couldn’t help feeling a little smug. Travelling alone had not only saved my weekend, it had surely struck a blow for independence too. Simon Bolivar would be so proud.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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16 Comments

  1. Jorge

    Hugely entertaining and hilarious as usual. The IKEA mo may be universal. I can at least testify that the one near Boston and the one near Chicago are also not set up for solo travel; a companion (or temporary abandonment of merchandise) is necessary to get your things into the car.

    As a colombian, I had always asssumed that the “obligation of accompaniment” was universal only to realize that after marrying into a gringo family everyone looks at me as if I had three heads when I started requesting that people upheld their end of the obligation. I’ve slowly come to realize that in this culture it is not mandatory. However, I have been able to convince them of the value of parallel queueing and I am happy to report no riots yet in Boston (although it could just be due to the large immigrant population of the city).

    While I have not had the pleasure of traveling on a bucket for a while, I’ve also come to appreciate the advantages of traveling alone. It has certainly allowed me to board planes in oversold flights during bussiness trips. Hope you enjoyed the llanos

  2. Tigre Hall

    Another fun and insightful post! I must admit, the fact that families accompany eachother practically everywhere here is quite endearing, and useful. For example, when my partner and I go to the doctor’s or dentist’s, it is perfectly acceptable – and almost expected – that the one not being examined is present in the room. We also play the line jumping game especially when getting TransMilienio fare and in the market – and it works quite well except when we can’t see eachother over the hordes of others in between us. However, I must say, that we never have a trolley and probably would not try that trick.

    I must give it to you – almost three hours on a bucket throne is pretty hardy! By your other accounts, it looks as though you had a great time in Villavicencio and made it back to Bogota well. Good thing, considering the road will now be closed at night until further notice. Hopefully that means the road work will be completed soon.

  3. Diego

    I´m a Colombian and I agree. I could write a guide about being alone there and feeling like the odd one out. In Portugal is sort of the same as in Colombia. Certainly when it comes to queues.

  4. uncovercolombia

    Great post (as usual). Your ability to capture and present subtle cultural differences is remarkable. As Colombians we probably don’t notice these cultural oddities, not even when we travel or live abroad. Yet, they are totally real and distinctive. Certain behavioral clues will always give a Colombian away 😉

  5. Ceri

    Hahaha. I love this. Being around people all the time bugs me. I crave solitude so I can’t imagine having that need to check up and follow people around. Eek. Well, enjoy your soloness in the country made for two. 😉

  6. Tesstastic

    Absolutely!
    I am a lone (but never lonely!) female traveler/person wanting to live in Colombia and am close to the point of giving up trying to explain that I am not fleeing anything in Australia coming by myself, nor do I have a husband/boyfriend!!

  7. julieled92

    Once more you have produce a great read! However I don’t know if it’s because you’ve been away from england for quite a bit, but IKEA has turned into a race to see who gets to the cashier first! I just happened to be there not so long ago and saw two little brothers in the line while their mum was on the other line, eventually she got there first and so they left to join her! Might be the British picking up habits! Who knows! 🙂

  8. Martha Urbina

    Hi, My name is Martha, I’m a Colombian from Bogota living at the Indian Himalayas, just read your 101 things on Bogota and started reading your blog.i’m hook and I LOVE IT!!! now i”m just home sick!!!.
    As a good example of this post I’m not alone… I married a Spanish guy that is being always in awe about just the reality that I NEED his company for everything! and that we can do two queues at the same time! but I don’t think that behavior is a matter of “herd mentality” we are not massified, just enjoy company!
    I’ll just keep reading and missing my city!

  9. hector hernandez pandora

    hola Victoria,,,,buen dia ,,eres tu la autora del libro,,,la misma de la entrevista en W RADIO?? tu dices q estas en Bogota,,,,, si eres tu por favor dejame contactarme contigo por favor. Deseo promover el turismo para lo cual he creado una marca llamada origenturismo ecologico/facebook, http://www.facebook.com/origen.turismoecologico?ref=tn_tnmn#!/origen.turismoecologico YO estoy en la union valle del cauca q es una zona muy turistica cerca al eje cafetero,,,agradezco me ayudes a contactarte

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