I‘ve lived in Bogotá for almost two-and-a-half years now and, although I frequently make mistakes and mess things up, I’ve learned a lot in that time. Mostly, I understand and respect that different cultures have different, often extremely subtle, ways of doing things and that Mr Darwin was entirely correct – those who adapt are those who will survive and thrive. With that in mind, here are some tips:
Bogotá drivers generally think they have a licence to hit anything in their path (if they have a licence at all) and that includes you. They may speed up if they see you crossing, just to remind you. Never use light-free zebra crossings – because the lines are obviously painted at the most dangerous parts of roads. Always wait until the cars have stopped completely for a green man and, even then, be aware of cars turning into your path. If you think I’m exaggerating, go to the cinema where they are currently running three-minute adverts to show drivers why it’s a good idea to stop at red lights.
Impatience and rudeness are highly frowned upon in this town and, equally, the Bogotá culture leans towards passive aggressive. Be abrupt with a shop assistant, for example and they will do everything they can to avoid serving you and, if forced, will just be deeply unhelpful. Don’t be fooled by the innocent if blank expression and assume the shop assistant is stupid or indifferent to the urgency of your request. They know exactly what they are doing – namely punishing you for your rudeness. And so they should, everyone knows impatience is just self-importance in a more confrontational form.
3) Your Spanish
Until recently there were huge swathes of Bogotá that had never set eyes on a foreigner and, even now, outside the traditional ‘foreigner zones’ we can be a bit of a novelty. If someone doesn’t understand you, it may be because they are struggling to hear you above the voice in their inner ear which is screaming: “WOW! This woman is really TALL! And she’s BLONDE! And she’s speaking to me IN SPANISH!” Be patient, give them a moment to recover, then try again.
Being able to invite someone to something, that is to offer them an invitation and pay for them, is something to be proud of here. It means you are doing well and are able to share that with your friends and family. If you are invited and treated to something, accept the invite with good grace. Insisting on paying or, worse, hiding 100,000 pesos in the family teapot – as we may do in England – is offensive and casts doubt on someone’s ability to pay. Instead, be effusive in your thanks and think of another way to repay the generosity.
5) Service Staff
If a drink or food is missing from your bill or you are disappointed with the food/service, think very carefully before you cheat or refuse to pay. It’s entirely possible your waiter has travelled for hours on a cramped bus to work at what’s probably an over-priced tourists’ restaurant, for a lower wage than you could possibly imagine. And, of course, the bosses will have no qualms about deducting any shortfall from said minimal wage.
Thousands and thousands of Colombians have lived through terrifying and miserable times and somehow come out the other end with a positivity and pleasure in life’s ‘little gifts’ that is simply astounding (which is probably reason number 4,592 why we love living here so much) But that means you too have to throw away your cynicism, open up your heart and find a way to delight in everything – even if, at first glance, it does just look like a mound of chicken and rice with ketchup on top. Trust me, it’s good for your soul.
7) Look after yourself
Whatever previous safety nets you may have relied upon (legal rights, the ‘authorities’ generally, the world-famous British sense of justice) put that behind you. If you want to buy something in a shop, check it works first. If you want to cross the road on a green man, check the cars have stopped first. This country is fantastic in a million ways but if something does go wrong, such as pick-pocketry, the first question will be: ‘How did you let that happen?’ rather than any railment at the thief. But look on the bright side, looking after yourself is really what you should be doing in life, how do you think people survived before the compensation culture stripped us of any need to take care?
8) Relax about plans
Even if it’s someone else’s idea, a date and time has been set and impossible amounts of enthusiasm have been expressed – if more than a few hours have passed between a plan and its making, don’t expect it to happen. Unlike the rush hour traffic in Bogotá, plans are fluid. I’ve heard some of my closest friends make four Saturday night plans before turning to me and asking which one we should choose. Again, take responsibility. Check, check and check again that something is really happening. Or, even better, just chill out and you’ll see life is a lot more fun when it’s completely unpredictable.
Yes dear ones, this beautiful city is 2,600m closer to the stars (that’s a reference to the altitude if you missed my point about relentless positivity) That means water boils at 91°C rather than the 100°C most of us expect. Your tea will never taste the same again so just get over it and start drinking coffee.
10) It’s okay to be smug
Let’s be honest. Fate has dealt you a spectacular hand here. It’s somehow conspired to send you to the randomest, most irreverently beautiful, extraordinarily contrary, changeable, interesting, opportunity-rich, humbling, inspiring, chaos-filled, utterly absorbing city on the planet. And luckily for you, fortune really does favour the bold. Good luck!
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.