I was in Carulla, in the ten items or less queue, behind a man with a large trolley full of goods. And you know the sort of man I mean. Smart jacket, smug face, air of self-entitlement. To the credit of the woman behind the till, she managed to overcome centuries of societal placement and stratification and tell him, very politely, that he was in the wrong place.
“There are three of us,” he snapped, pointing to his owl-faced teenage boys. “And besides, I don’t want to wait.”
If you could have seen my face, you would have wanted to paint it. I was furious. I was shaking with anger. Of course, I am from a country famous for its faith in queues and rules and red lights and litter bins but, still, I was tired and it was late and I was only buying milk. But I said nothing. It was only when the man left, that I finally spoke.
“That is disgusting,” I said. And then, inexplicably (I am sure I watch too many films) I turned to the rest of the queue.
“That is our problem,” I said, still shaking.
“That is how corruption begins. It’s the little things.
“When you think the rules are for other people.”
“You’re right,” the woman behind me said kindly, but everyone else just stared at their baskets, hoping that the crazy blonde lady would just shut up and buy her milk.
A few days later I was walking up the Septima behind two Colombian soldiers in uniform, when an idiot drove past us and went out of his way to splash us. The soldiers swore and brushed off their jackets, but I had reached my limit and, you know, God smiles on us sometimes. When I turned around, the driver had been forced to stop at the lights. I didn’t even think.
“Hey YOU!” I shouted furiously running up to the car and banging on the window.
“GRACIAS! You just RUINED my day!”
The guy in the car slumped in his seat, terrified and looked everywhere but at the crazy woman, stammering that it was not his fault. I didn’t care. If British people cannot bear people pushing in queues then bogotanos cannot bear being shouted at. They cannot handle fuss, they cannot accept public scenes. They need everything wrapped in a veneer of politeness, genuine or otherwise, simply to be able to function. That guy drenched me but I am telling you, I ruined his day tenfold. He is probably still furious about it now.
My friends are the same, they dislike anything that comes close to a breach of decorum and would have been shocked by my behaviour that day (to be honest, since the robbery, I am friends again with my vulnerability and frightened, once again, of confrontation) but that is just it. Our society warns us never to complain. It insists we see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Calling someone complicated in English makes them interesting, calling them complicada here is an insult. We are all too afraid to fight the good fight.
Of course, I am as bogotana as anyone. That is probably what drew me here. My days in newspapers, on the other hand, brought out the best in me and, of course, it is much easier to stand up for the little guy when you have a newspaper behind you and are surrounded by far braver, passionate, eccentric oddballs who, for the most part, still think they can change the world.
But who do you think they sent when someone was complaining a bit too much? And who do you think spent half her time in reception listening to the moaners and whingers, politely filling pages of my notebook with junk I knew we would never print? And who do you think sat and listened to BNP leader Nick Griffin for an hour, not once contradicting his anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-everyone diatribe but instead thinking: “Well, at least the readers will know who he really is.”
I was a bogotana before I set foot in this city and sometimes I think the more passive I become, the worse I am for Bogotá because I really believe that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing,” [thank you Mr Burke] and, you know, it is funny, because I am actually quite persuasive. I spent six years encouraging people to broadcast their deepest secrets without signing a single cheque. The best journalists in the world are British (sorry, but it’s true and not always positive) and the best work at our national newspapers and where do they begin? Out in the provinces, relying on their ability to seem nice and kind and caring and passionate and just. The sort of people you trust, because they are apparently on your side.
Of course, they then get bribed to London where their skills become obselete with huge budgets and access to private detectives, but that is not the point. The point is I was one of them and I learned that art of gentle, apparently harmless persuasion and now I think: “What crap.” Sometimes the only way to change anything is to make a bloody great ruckus.
We all do it in Bogotá, all of us. When something is not going our way, we become dangerously polite and reasonable and we convince the other person that they want to help us and then we get what we want, whether it is good for society or otherwise. The trouble is that what is good for the individual is not always good for the pack and looking after ourselves and our nearest and dearest usually just means we avoid facing our greater evils, such as corruption, and crime.
I was in full-on bogotana mode when I went to report my robbery and, unfortunately, the police were in bogotano mode too and did everything they could to prevent me reporting it (“Can you call this number? Can you do it online? Can you go to the south of the city? Can you report it somewhere else?) until I lost my temper (Again! What is happening to me?) and said: “Look, this is going to happen and it is going to happen now. If not, I am going to take the names of everyone here and…”
The policeman was annoyed, obviously and took his revenge by quoting me verbatim (“Any other comments?” he said. “People are disgusting,” I muttered, which of course turned up on the official report) But I felt good. I felt strong and powerful and brave, for once. Every hero I have ever had has been unafraid to go against the grain, to be unpopular, to insist upon change, even Ghandi – supposedly more passive than any of us – wasn’t passive at all. Nothing will ever change all the while we nod politely, lower our heads and wish it would all go away.
I promise not to turn into a shrieking nut, I still believe influence is more valuable than power and I know how to pick my battles. But I am telling you, if you take a trolley in front of me again, in the ten items or less queue, you are going to wish you had never been born.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.