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.