Colombians: The Pursuit of Hygiene

The other day I was in the cinema, watching a British movie, when the camera showed a close-up of an actress dropping a pill into a glass of water. She stirred it with her finger until it dissolved and everyone, everyone, around me groaned in disgust. Colombians, you see, are very particular about hygiene.

Let me give you some examples:

1) As you know, it is almost impossible to find anyone on a bus or TransMilenio who would dare to sit on a warm, recently-vacated seat. Most Colombians believe – whether it is subconscious or not – that there is something dirty or unhygienic about someone else’s body heat. Some will tell you germs can be transmitted that way. That’s funny considering that not only do most Colombians live in jeans, many of them come with padding in the, er, seat area. It would take a particularly feisty germ to fight their way through all that.

2) Most Colombians think it is gross to wash your hands and wipe them on your jeans. While I know a lot of British people who would do exactly that, I always see lines of Colombians patiently drying their hands under those weak hand dryers in public bathrooms. Drying your hands on the tea towel in the kitchen is also a serious no-no.

3) Every Colombian I have lived with (housemate, friend, boyfriend, family-in-law) has been obsessed with washing clothes. I don’t wash my jeans until they start walking by themselves, the same is almost true for hoodies etc. I have lost count of the times I have had the: “Weren’t you wearing that yesterday?” followed by the “Yes, but it’s still clean,” conversation. At least, I guess, it makes my clothes last a bit longer.

4) I would love to see statistics for the paper napkin consumption in this country. No-one does anything without a serviette. I must be handed at least ten a day (“Here’s your coffee and yes, it is obvious to me you are going to spill it, despite the fact it comes with a lid so, yes, here you go, here’s a napkin.”) I must feel a bit bad for the environment because the other day I opened a drawer and found dozens of abandoned, unused serviettes I had shoved there in a fit of guilt.

5) Not all but plenty of my Colombian friends are squeamish about the issue of food/drink sharing. “Want to try my drink?” is often followed by “Let me get you another straw,” in the same way as: “Would you like to try this cake?” is often followed by: “Can you ask the guy to get us another fork?” I never worry about these things and sometimes wonder if it is the only reason I managed to eat so much street food in Delhi, India and still remain in the best of health.

6) Today, when I was mentally writing this post, I watched one of my colleagues furiously clean his computer with a red cloth and a bottle of alcohol we obviously keep in the office for such purposes. I may previously have worked in the traditionally chaotic world of newspapers, but I never once witnessed a colleague scrubbing his computer. It should be noted that we have a very efficient cleaner who does that stuff at night.

But as with all of these crumbs of cultural difference – and there are many – I chuckle and enjoy my Britishness, because I am oh-so-different and I do things in my own peculiar way. Last week one of the guys in my office bought a mountain of arepas to work. We sat down contentedly to eat them but, half way through and without realising what I was doing, I stood and went to the bathroom sink where I washed my hands.

It was only when I sat down again did I realise what had just happened. “Am I crazy?” I thought to myself. “Did I seriously just go and wash my hands, halfway through eating an arepa?” Of course, my paws were greasy again within seconds and I only had to wash them again, for the third time, when I was done.

I may fight, I may giggle, I may remonstrate and I may resist many things here but if ever there was proof that I am slowly turning into a Colombian, that one was probably it.

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

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79 Comments

    1. Kevin G

      “As you know, it is almost impossible to find anyone on a bus or TransMilenio who would dare to sit on a warm, recently-vacated seat”

      odd then howthey can stand being in a bus with 300 other people jammed in cheek to jowl..or butt to face if you are sitting down with others standing nearby! I’d hate to be a midget o rchild on a bus there

  1. Clare

    My (Colombian) boyfriend was constantly disgusted when he had friends in the UK (none of whom were actually from the UK, but other parts of Europe), who did not shower in the morning. To this day he can’t cope with the idea, or understand it (I agree). I’m actually totally obsessed with cleaning and washing clothes. Always have been. I have embraced Fabuloso. I think I’m a weird Brit perhaps…

  2. AJCG

    I have to say… Americans (I mean people from the US) beat us, hands down, with napkin and paper towel consumption and waste. It is painful to see. I refuse to to use paper towels when I can air dry my hands, and I am one of the few Colombians who dries his hands on his jeans if air drying is not fast enough.

    On the other hand, I agree with all the statements, but there are places and times when most of those behaviors just vanish… You gotta go to a ‘picada’ with farmers or families who have recently moved to a city. It’s absolutely delicious…! (getting greasy and dirty and sharing your beer bottle)

  3. Emily C

    Very true! And I definitely agree with the comments – brushing your teeth three times a day is standard and to go a day without having a shower is considered the most disgusting thing ever!

  4. Herman

    Loved the blog. I was born in Colombia but have lived in the States most of my life. The warmrth of where you want to sit must be instinctive for us Colombians because I continue to do the required wait.

  5. Sergio

    There is something about “keeping things extra clean” that is a good business in Colombia. Just by looking at serviettes one could find: standard serviettes, decorative, canteen standard, antibacterial, deluxe, extra soft, reusable, colour coded for different house areas (they say to avoid contaminating one area with the other), anti-allergic (God knows from what…), easy to dry, with alcohol, with perfume,……

  6. Michael Wilson

    Most restaurants with foods like fried chicken, pizza, or anything else normally eaten with your hands come with plastic gloves. El Corral Gourmet have them already on the table next to the napkins.

  7. Sac-Nicte

    Jajaja, just remembering when a Canadian friend I lived with just asked me one morning…”seriously…are you gonna take a shower today?? You took one yesterday!!!”….But I’m an eco-Colombian: I barely use paper napkins… 🙂

  8. monolojikmusic

    Totally agree, except for the hand dryer, viva la drying on your jeans, I wouldnt put my hands on such disgusting germ machines. NEVERR!!!! 🙂 also viva la not washing your clothes so often, it really does make them last longer.

  9. Victor Manuel Rueda

    number 3 is my favorite. My family is obsessed with washing clothes. I am not so obsessed, but still wouldn’t wear the same clothes two days in a row!

  10. Catalina Lopez

    Im from Colombia, this is so real!
    I like to bathe 2 times a day, brush my teeth 6 times a day, wash my clothes 2 times a week. and everything, everything, everything must be clean and in order.

  11. Mike

    Colombians are hygienic until they are on the street eating an empanada and ALL SHARING THE SAME SPOON to scoop the aji’ from the communal bowls sitting out all day.

    Not that it really bothers me though, as I happily scoop.

    1. Clare

      True! I don’t get the whole ‘Eating everything possible from a street vendor’ thing, I can’t do it without feeling totally disgusted.

  12. Costeño dude

    Bitch, just for the record: BOGOTÁ AIN’T COLOMBIA. So many of the stuff you wrote applies to cachacos, but not the whole country. I should know, I’m from Cartagena. I get it, you’re this blog “celebrity”, but stop generalizing. It’s not even cute anymore.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Okay, but you do know you don´t have to read this blog? The Internet is a democracy, there are plenty of other sites you can visit. I approved your comment this time but next time I won´t… the Internet may be a democracy but this blog is definitely a dictatorship 🙂

      1. Oneris

        hahahahaha dictatorship, you made my day… BTW I’m from Cartagena too and… still dont get what bother that “costeño dude” and dont understand either why people reply generalizing about costeños to show that costeño dude is wrong for say you generalize (it’s as dumb as the sentence i just wrote) and the guy below saying “you dont know 1% of colombians” that would make at least 450.000 I’ve live my entire life here and neither do I… This fuzz makes me remember to all a post i saw on your facebook account “Keep calm and… NOJODA” LOL =D

      2. Monica

        Don’t pay attention to him or the other guy Duban Rodriguez, you blog is funny and nice. If they want a sociologic study should go to other sites; keep on writing and have fun. I’m going to do laundry now 😉

    2. Sergio

      Dear Mr. Costeño Dude, you’re not making it better for the lovely people of Cartagena. I’m sure others than you, from the coast, do worry about their hygiene (I should also know); and are respectful when providing a point of view. I hope you understand that your words don’t do any good to Colombia and even less to the Colombians, not to mention the costeño image, which you just trashed….We should be grateful that foreigners are enjoying the diversity that Colombia offers and have the freedom of speech to express it. Correctness in judgement is always a very personal matter and no person hold the absolute truth.

      Let’s invite people to visit us, and stay with us, lets show we are truly good people….(of course, I’m not expecting you to understand, so please only re-work your name…)

  13. Robert

    Just because costeño dude doesn’t shower like many of the rest of the Colombians, (including some of his fellow Cartagenans who shower like crazy), doesn’t mean he has to insult the worthy and talented. I respect your decision to publish that guy’s comments…I’m actually surprised the man can even write in a second language…if at all! (The good thing about freedom of speech is that it allows jerks to have a voice so we can recognize them). Keep up the good work!

  14. Alejandro

    Love evrything you say! We definitely have a problem when it comes to personal cleanliness, that onlly gets worse if you happen to be a woman born in Antioquia. Both my grandmas, all my 14 aunts and my mom are just nuts in terms of keeping things clean and shiny

  15. Emily C

    “Costeño dude”, there’s no need to use nasty misogynistic language. If this blog post doesn’t apply to Cartagena, why not contribute to the conversation and share some of the differences rather than getting angry and abusive.

  16. Andy

    Great post, you forgot to add eating chicken with plastic gloves! Only in Colombia.
    Also…@costeñodude no need for that kind of attitude, so rude guy…

  17. Dubán Rodríguez

    Hi

    I’m afraid you hardly know 1% of Colombian people. It’s sad (and quite stupid) that you generalise your ideas about a few of your friends. I had a nice time while reading your “ten examples”, and guess something: each of them reflects you have been to places in Colombia where people don’t even know what belonging to a lower socioeconomic stratum means (you have only lived close to riquillos, people to whom manners -money and social life- are it all). I will let you know why I consider you are wrong:

    “it is almost impossible to find anyone on a bus or TransMilenio who would dare to sit on a warm, recently-vacated seat. “… mmm, not really. You say Colombians and then talk about Bogotá. I just say wow, in Medellin it’s totally different, and it is much more different in the countryside. Not all the time, buy very frequently, people give up their sit to others. Won’t they sit only because it contains bacteria? No, sorry to say that. So please consider replacing Colombians by “the people I have met in Colombia, most of them rich, like me.”

    “Most Colombians think it is gross to wash your hands and wipe them on your jeans. ”
    I’d rather say “Most Colombians wipe their hands on their jeans because they don’t know what a fucking hand dryers “. I guess the people you see doing that are stupid enough as to be embarrassed of doing what you call “a very British practice”. Just to tell you one secret, between you and me, here at home we don’t use napkins, we use our shirt or anything else that is handy.

    I like that you say “Every Colombian I have lived with (housemate, friend, boyfriend, family-in-law) has been obsessed with washing clothes. ” At least you recognise it’s not a common thing on all of us.

    “I would love to see statistics for the paper napkin consumption in this country. ” Perhaps you mean to say “I would love to see statistics for the paper napkin consumption in the big cities of this country. ” Our cities are part of Colombia, but they’re not the entire Colombia you mean to say. When I lived at Ebejico (Google for that), i had my lunch in a rice bag. Had I had some serviettes, I would have reserved it as my seat area eraser.

    One final thing: please ask a person you know what they thing humbleness is, tell them to describe a humble person. They will probably say humbleness is lack of money (that’s why when rich people go to towns, they say people are very humble -with no money, almost stupid to their eyes, giving so much for so few). If they don’t talk of look, money or registry when defining humbleness, you consider your interrogated friend knows what humbleness means in Colombia.

    Congratulations on the interview you had on W radio. I loved it, but you are still a foreign visitor who came to one specific part of colombia and tries to make up a concept to define all of us.

    Once I knew that what you said about colombians does reflect your experience and not our reality, I realised your posts about other countries share the same crack I found in this one.

    Sorry for my bad writing. Please remember that colombia is all there is inside colombia’s borders:

  18. Silvia V.

    I’m colombian, I’m obsessed with cleanliness, order and nice smelling stuff, borderline ocd. My hands are dry from the million times I spend washing them daily.

  19. juglar del zipa

    A girlfriend left me because she considered I was “dejado”. That is, I only brushed my teeth once a day, I would use the same pants for a whole week and reuse some dish or cup. She was from Medellín, I’m from Bogotá.

  20. Julián Sánchez

    About the bus seat habit,I think many people do this not because they think it’s somehow dirty but rather because they find it uncomfortable to get in touch with other people’s body heat. I’d dare to say it has a lot more to do with Bogotanos personal/corporal boundaries than with hygiene. Even when I don’t agree with how he addressed himself to you, I do share Costeño dude’s take on the issue of generalization of Colombian culture and behaviour. In such a fragmented country, the nuances of language are a danger in terms of stereotype-building and how others perceive Colombians, even if it’s on a light subject like this one.

    What do you think?

  21. Eduardo

    the sitting down in the bus thing actually only applies to bogotá, it’s a weird behavior in most cities, i find that kinda insulting that when i give my seat to someone they act as if my ass is gonna get them some disease 😛 rolos are weird!

  22. brighidtc

    so true! My teammates in Barranquilla shower BEFORE practices and games when we’re just going to roll around in the dirt and sweat like crazy. I don’t know where costeño dude is coming from…I haven’t met anyone who showered more or washed clothes more often than the costeños I know!

  23. Flavia

    I’m from Chile and currently living in the UK… what’s been more chocking for me is the absence of napkins on the tables in restaurants and cafes (you have to ask for them), also the reaction of my colleagues when I brush my teeth after lunch as I was a kind of E.T. … And of course this nice break when someone brings a cake and people eat it with their hands! no napkins, no fork… Do not talk about shower or washing clothes… I know for british our behaviour in L.A. can be weird, but have you thought about us living among you? Really, chocking… Anyway, I love the UK and after 5 years I’ve realised I’m becoming more flexible with these things… still having a daily shower, but sometimes I wear the same cloth 2 days in a row!

  24. mónica

    LOL, you made me remember when a french guy came to stay at my flat during his short trip to Colombia, one of the first things I did was asking if he needed to wash his clothes and he said in such desperate tone “why does EVERYONE keep asking me that around here?!!!”.
    And I was like, “ok… you just had all-of-your-clothes washed on the last place you stayed, I get it…!”
    Now I understand! jajajjajaja

  25. Edder

    Hi, nice post. I’m colombian but I don’t do anything of what you mention. So, that makes me a little british? ha haha

  26. CERuiz

    I enjoy very much all of your writing….I think there is a mis-perception though regarding the Warm Seat Germs Transmission Effect ( Sheldon Cooper would love this)….I don´t think I will get germs from sitting on that seat someone just left empty, I simply don´t like to seat on his heat…I wait until it cools down a bit so I don´t have to think I am spooning with the guy …. keep it up…your blog rocks

  27. Anna

    Some of the things you mentionned in your post are also common here in Lima (among urban middle class people, to be more specific 😉 People’s homes seem to be always tip top, clothes are freshly washed and ironed (having a maid to do that helps a great deal…) and, for example, offering someone a fruit without washing it first is considered impolite. I did not really get it in the beginning why you need to wash an orange or a mandarine if you are going to peel it anyways? Nowadays I think these manners are more about the social codes and politeness, than about a hygiene. And about class distinction too, for sure.

    Personally I think that too much washing ruins your clothes and it’s not ecological. In Europe I used Indian laundry nuts as detergent for my clothes, but can’t find them here. I guess they would not have success here, as people want their clothes to smell detergent as a sign they’re clean.

    1. angelusgutmann

      Truth is, we don’t have a problem with personal space. Maybe lack of hygiene, yes, but I’m guessing who wouldn’t? Bet you had a hard time getting used to Cambodia yourself.

  28. Monica

    Thank you!! I will ask my Canadian hubby to read this and then, I hope he will understand that I’m not the only hygiene-freak (we all Colombians are). Even here in this awful winter I just can’t understand why people take showers only at night.

  29. angelusgutmann

    Sadly, I do feel stereotyped with this post. Some things are true, some things are not, and now people are going all “you Colombians should blah, blah blah”. We Colombians should nothing. And some of us hate standing up to let the seat cool off because it’s stupid and tacky and some Colombians use the napkins for something useful like keeping them in your bag just in case there’s no toilette paper in a restroom (happens more often than not). I like your blog (loved the post of the 101 reasons to love Bogotá) but this one just seems improper and stereotyped. Hope next one comes back to the funny nice style of before.

    1. I Will Travel

      This is all very interesting but to those that feel stereotyped think about something, we ALL stereotype. “Angelusgutmann”, are you going to tell us that you don’t stereotype any race, nationality, or gender? Women are always stereotyping men.

      1. angelusgutmann

        True, we all stereotype. Which does not make it better or correct or deserving of praise and joke as the comments in this post have been. And since I am right now part of the people being stereotyped I do feel that is not correct at all. Some things are better to keep to yourself. It is bad an boring enough that we Colombians cannot step into another country without lame references to coke and marihuana or Shakira and Sofía Vergara remarks. Please add “people tacky enough to let the seat cool before sitting down” to this soup.

      2. bananaskinflipflops

        I know it’s boring, but what do you expect people to say? Shakira and Sofia Vergara are Colombian and unfortunately Colombia is still one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine (although I have never heard anyone mention marijuana to me in reference to Colombia) When I go abroad people talk about Mr Bean and the Queen but I don’t find it boring, that’s life and there is at least truth in it (worse would be a reference to Chavez or Maradona or something) The day someone says to you: “Wow, you’re from Colombia, is it true you only have a 3% interest rate or that the poverty rate has fallen from 55% to 45%,” will be a very weird day. And people DO wait for the seat to cool down, I have lived here for three years and taken at least three buses a day, sometimes up to six so I feel pretty confident about that. It’s not so much a stereotype as a worryingly infectious cultural norm. Similarly we bloggers don’t keep stuff to ourselves, if we did we would have nothing to write about 🙂

      3. bananaskinflipflops

        On the subject of Shakira, do people generally realise how many millions of dollars that girl has raised to fight poverty and increase access to education, both in Colombia and beyond. She is a good role model for Colombia and the country’s image abroad as far as I can see? Far better than Mr Bean!

      4. angelusgutmann

        ainsh, what a shame I couldn’t answer (you, the blogger), but here it goes. The two replies you left me made me laugh,they were funny, specially the Mr. Bean part. Got me thinking of fish and chips! (Y). And anyway, if we ever meet in Bogotá, be assured that I am part of the wonderful minority who will not let the seat cool and make you feel like you have an infectious disease… Have a nice day!

  30. Alejandra

    Thanks for this post!! I’m a Colombian living in Australia and I always wondered if someone has written about us being so “Hygienic”, my workmates can’t help asking me why? when they see me brushing my teeth everyday after lunch,. Someone even suggested that I may have dental problems!! I just can’t stand the after taste in my mouth and chewing gum is not an option!

    thanks for your blog, really enjoyed.
    Muymuy lejano

  31. Anna

    This post seems to prompt debate…It is generally hard to discuss any societal issues without generalizing at least to some extent. The author gives detailed examples of situations and observations which made her to write this post. Some other person whould perhaps either not paid attention or would have come to other conclusions.

    Besides, there is nothing negative about being careful with one’s hygienia. I just imagine if she had stated the opposite: what kind of comments people whould leave here?

    On a different note, I don’t see why as a foreigner you would not be allowed to say anything negative about your new host country, or to criticize it. The author is a journalist, not a PR person hired by the Colombian state.

  32. Fernando

    En esos domingos lluviosos y fríos que raramente ocurren en Cali me doy el lujo de no bañarme ni afeitarme y le digo a mi esposa: “declaro que hoy es mi día europeo”.

  33. Fernando

    You (europeans) may be right. We (colombians) may be crazy.

    But, please, take in account that :

    1. during the conquest and colonization of The New World, europeans, besides religion and “civilization”, brought many diseases to America,
    2. many Americans (original Americans) died massively because of those diseases
    3. Europe was ravaged by a plague in the middle ages because plagues easily spread in disordered and dirty cities were people don’t have good hygiene practices
    3. the concept of good public health practices and organized and clean cities is real in Europe after the second world war. Before that, it was bad; in the middle ages it was worst than worst.
    4. the concept of disordered and dirty cities (similar to the middle ages in Europe) is our current reality in Latin America.
    5. we have never had the welfare state that you have had after the second world war.
    6. we have to take care of themselves because the state will not do it.
    7. one of the ways to have good health is to have all those exotic habits you enumerate in this article. It’s a matter of survival instinct.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I think you are right! I think it is part of something bigger – there is no safety net in Colombia so you constantly have to take responsibility for yourself… just one example, in England – you buy a television, you take it home and then you see if it works or not. In Colombia, you’re a fool if you leave the shop without testing it first (you know what I mean) One of the many, many things I love about Colombia is the self-responsibility and instinct for survival although it does annoy me when someone gets robbed and the first comment is: “How did you let that happen!” rather than “What a bastard!” p.s The Welfare State is one of the few things that makes me deeply proud to be British, although watch this space – we may not have it for long 😦

    2. drawing33

      lovely post Fernando, please allow me to comment:

      Let me see then: Europe came here, together with their middle age bad hygiene habits, spread diseases thanks to the fact that they were not very clean, killed everyone with this, and even helped to build smelly crazy cities (I’m happy to know now that we were not responsible of these sad buildings and streets across our country…).

      And then, (let me get this straight…) poor us, became excessively clean because we saw it happening in Europe, and because our governments didn’t offer us soap and water (naughty them…), we had to take individual immediate actions to make sure that history does not repeat itself and then suddenly kill us all. Brilliant!… I think this is a masterpiece.

      1. HArroyave

        The Europeans brought many illnesses to the Americas. That is true. However, let us remember that the native Americans gave the Europeans VD. Somewhat of a quid pro quo.
        Bottom line, we Colombians should not try to defend or justify what we do, or how we do what we do. What we should be focused on is improving what is wrong with our country while at the same time taking pride in what makes us Colombianos. Viva Colombia!

  34. Ceri

    Ha! Oh my Gosh, I have to say, Vick, I never realised how utterly disgusting Brits were until I lived in D.F. Mexico City’s supposed to be one of the dirtiest, most polluted cities in the world but I swear it’s just the air. Mexicans are the biggest consumers of soaps, deodorants and perfumes in the world and they have some crazy cleanliness habits too. Not to mention the fact that you’ll never find litter anywhere in D.F. and they have a furious habit of scrubbing the streets clean every single day.

    Once I came back to Britain, I was kind of horrified: So much litter everywhere; People leaving half-eaten take out food on trains and on public benches and tables; Floors are covered in chewing gum and cigarette butts; I’m afraid to touch the buttons of cashpoints because they’re always covered in god knows what. This country is seriously disgusting. I need to go back to Latin America!

  35. yourmung

    Jjajajajaja yeah we have a compulsion with wash things, I know it. My best friend have just arrived from a work trip from France, Holland and Switzerland. He have lived in Chicago the last 6 years and loyal to our Colombian spirit he can´t understand why people don’t take a shower at the morning even in the worst winter. For a Colombian the worst thing in the world will be maybe can´t take a shower. Even when we have spent time in other cultures is hard for us. I even carry an small pot of alcohol with glycerine in case there will be not some way to clean my hands at the street after eat something.

    Great to read you, is wonderful and enlighten to see ourselves through others’ eyes.

  36. Christian Mc Cabe

    Absolutely loved it! Came across this accidentally but had been totally seeing the exact same thing since in Colombia.

    And damn oh boy, those plastic chicken eating gloves freak me out!

  37. sryvre

    I’ll say one thing – the coast is waaaaay different than the interior if this is the case. You’re always sitting in someone else’s sweat on the bus here, no one really cares (or so it would seem). But the napkin thing is on point. So many napkins. 😛

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