Colombians: Catch me if you can?

About a year ago I took a taxi on a reasonably long journey – but one that I know well. When I arrived at my destination, via the usual route, the taxi was about 30% more expensive than usual. I argued for a bit but there is not much you can do in the face of an electronic meter.

“You know,” I said to a Colombian friend, later that day, “I am sure that driver had fiddled with his meter. It was ticking over much faster than usual.”

“Of course,” my friend replied, rolling his eyes. “Come on Vicki, how long have you lived here?”

That is the unfortunate side effect of Colombian ingenuity, of Colombian survivalism. It reminds me a bit of the bakers in my grandmother’s day, trying to slide a weight onto the flour scales to cheat some extra cash, before being thwarted by the beady eyes of women like my grandmother. As always when I am fleeced, I wonder what she and her kick-ass generation would say about it.

One of my favourite people in Colombia and a long-time friend, even though his work means I often lose him to the jungle and foreign shores, is the Colombian who helped me to stay here. We spent hours in various offices while he negotiated his way through the horror of Colombian bureaucracy before we emerged into the sunshine, clutching my life-saving papers.

I remember bumping into a foreign acquaintance on the street that day and introducing my friend as “the person who got me my visa”.

“Oh,” the foreigner replied, politely. “That’s nice. Are you a lawyer?”

“No,” my friend laughed. “I’m a Colombian.”

(Nowadays when people write to ask me how I secured a visa from the notoriously temperamental immigration authorities I still fight the urge to reply: “Just take a Colombian. They can do anything,” even though I know that is the best, and probably the only, advice I can give)

I was speaking to a friend of mine recently about an ex-boyfriend of hers, of whom none of us are particularly fond, when she laughed and said he was a total “Frank Abagnale” and, as often happens, that was a throwaway comment that stuck with me for the rest of the day.

Frank Abagnale, you will remember, is the con-artist turned security consultant played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. I was glad my friend mentioned him because he is fascinating, from the fact he faked his way into being a pilot (on more than 250 flights) a doctor and a lawyer, to the fact he made stealing money look like the easiest thing in the world to the fact that, after all that, he ended up teaching FBI agents how not to get tricked.

It was one of those little worms of an idea, a cheeky and persistent little thought that slivers into your head until you think “Shit, why did I not think of that before?” Fact is, I live in a country full of Frank Abagnales, for the good and the bad. From the people who dodge and trick and slip and slide because life has taught them they must, to the majority, the honest Colombians who use their skills to navigate and evade the endless traps and pitfalls that accompany life in this country.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever, ever heard a Colombian say: “I have no idea what to do.” Colombians always know what to do. And if they don’t, it is merely temporary. They will just stare at you silently while their mind whirrs away furiously, mentally assembling and discarding all of the available options until they choose the one that will work.

We live in a country with problems. Some of them are small and some of them are big but they are all there. And we have a pretty much collective reaction to that. We look after ourselves, our friends and our family the best we can. And we leave the big problems to the big people – the Goverments, the experts – with a sort of fatalistic despair: “You can sort that stuff out please, I have my own problems over here.”

But this is a country of Frank Abagnales. A country of ingenious, persistent, sharp, daring and determined little survivalists who think outside the box, day after bloody day, because they have to. Everything is possible, nothing exists that does not have a solution and yet it seems that everything exists in Colombia because there is no solution.

Our country is dancing on the edge of a cliff while we look the other way and hope someone else figures it out for us. That would be fine if we were a bunch of helpless, cotton wool-wrapped little dummies, who didn’t know the first thing about problem solving, but we are not – at least, Colombians are not. Take it from me, if I found myself alone at the end of the world I would be gutted until I remembered that a) Colombians would also have figured out a way to survive whatever it was and b) They would know exactly what to do next.

It is high time the poacher became the gamekeeper. The only question is: How?

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


  1. msnaomid

    The taxi meter thing has happened to me a few times, I’m sure. Last time it happened, my boyfriend and I argued with the driver mid-journey for a couple of minutes, obviously the driver vehemently denied any wrong-doing, so we jumped out at the traffic lights and into the taxi behind it! It wasn’t the safest option, but sometimes you just think “I don’t have to take this ****!”, and act accordingly!

  2. Miguel

    One of the things I have found more interesting of living in Europe is the fact people here tend to be not very resourceful, ‘débrouillard’ in French, or plain old ‘rebuscador’ in good Colombian. Problems are frequently death-traps or dead-ends, and solving small issues is a life-and-death situation. I have found that my Colombian-ness has helped me be extremely competent at problem-solving under stress, tight deadlines, and averse environment.

    It’s very interesting to see how many French will simply criticise, complain and argue things need to be different, the Brits will look gobsmacked for a while in awe of the problem and then argue it can’t be solved until they may eventually agree to find some way to work around things, but Colombians will quietly and quickly work around the problem and get stuff done in time, without complaints.

    At least my experience in a multicultural work context shows me Colombian’s ability to ‘rebuscar’ a solution is a very welcome skill, albeit the underlying disregard for rules and procedures can be a setback.

    Anyway, I am always interested and amused at your great capacity to see Colombia from the outside looking in AND from the inside looking out AT THE SAME TIME! Good job!

  3. steveh

    I loved the ´natural gas verification check´ and certificate from a guy who was not really from the gas company (but used the gas company name and seemed to have access to their database). Not realising this I paid him good money for a useless certificate.Then when another gas company tried to book another ´gas check´, I phoned them and told them to &$?@! right off…and after a long row on the phone it turned out this was the REAL gas company! (´rude bloody foreigner´ they probably thought!).

    Then a few months back i went through the whole dismal process of ´updating´ ,my Colombian driving licence… The guy at the SIM explained that this is (very expensive!) process is to clean up the licence system, ensure proper licenced drivers! Maybe he was right as it turns out my old licence (of 10 years) was FAKE! So I had to re-sit the driving course. The driving school charged a high fee but just gave me a stack of false driving course papers to sign (´you know how to drive, so why bother doing more classes?´ said the instructor.). So much for the new licences!

  4. HARRY S

    Very interesting post. Rings very true to me. I run in to this scenario all the time in Bogota. I remember my first trip when a shoe shine guy saw me coming out of centro comercial Andino and tried to sell me his shoe shine talents, at 15,000 mil pesos a shoe! That sounded high to me so I talked him down to 12,000 mil pesos for both shoes, lol. Ive learned my lessons in Colombia but I don’t feel cheated, I know that is the way it is and by Colombian standards if you let yourself get fooled then its on you. The taxi scenario is a little different obviously. Thanks again Vicky, it has become my home away from home and I love the bad and the good. You cant say that Colombians dont have character

  5. Ceri

    I LOVE the idea of a country full of Frank Abagnales. Conman or not, that man was fascinating and I love that you can call him a survivalist and say that it’s a trait most Colombians have.

  6. LeoSC

    That is right. For a Colombian, the words “it can’t be done” have no meaning. And for any situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem at first, there is always an angle to solve it; you just need to find it, to make the words have no meaning. I just found your interview in El Tiempo and from there your blog. I like both a lot.

  7. KURI

    For most of Colombia´s history the presence of the state has been little to nill. So colombians never could expect anyone to fix stuff for them and became very resourceful in overcomming adverse situations. Nevertheless I see a difference between this creative ability and the “vivo” or con-artist like Frank Abagnale. I like to think that just as colombians are very resourceful in all aspects of life, those who are con-artists are very creative con-artists. So always keep a spoonfull of healthy distrust.

  8. duendecitoboxeador

    A mí en cambio, a diferencia de morgoth, no me gusta para nada la forma tan categórica en que describes a los colombianos, y cómo todas las entradas del blog son en plan “los bogotanos/colombianos esto”, “los colombianos aquesto”. Creo que estás demasiado obsesionada con la idea de que “los colombianos” son tal cosa y tal otra, y sinceramente lo encuentro insultante e irritante. Colombia es simplemente una nacionalidad; quienquiera que nazca en el país, sean cuales sean sus circunstancias, es “colombiano”, lo que sea que eso signifique. Y, si bien es cierto, desde luego, que algunos o muchos de tus comportamientos culturales se adquieren en razón de tu procedencia geográfica o social, ser colombiano no define en absoluto tu forma de pensar o comportarte. En Bogotá y en Colombia hay gente de todo tipo, y, precisamente, las grandes desigualdades que hay en la ciudad y en el país hacen que la población sea muy heterogénea. Además, las épocas en que tu identidad se definía por tu procedencia geográfica (si es que alguna vez fue así, pues tu clase social, tu educación y tus circunstancias personales siempre fueron cuestiones tan o más importantes que tu procedencia geográfica, en términos de definir las identidades sociales), quedan más y más atrás, a medida que el Mundo se globaliza más y más. Se entiende en parte que el ser extranjera te predisponga a vernos a “los colombianos” como alienígenas extraños, pero no por ello deja de ser bastante irritante.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I disagree completely. People are all different but culture is more powerful than we admit. Look around you. How many people do you see in feathers? How many do you see in jeans? How many have bare breasts? How many women wear a bra? We are affected by culture more than we like to admit, most of the time we don’t even realise it.

      1. duendecitoboxeador

        Estoy de acuerdo, y de hecho fue eso más o menos lo que dije. Pero cultura y nacionalidad son cosas distintas, no necesariamente coinciden, y hoy menos que nunca. En un mismo lugar geográfico se agrupan muchos patrones y normas culturales distintas, y, a veces, opuestas. Concentrarse demasiado en definir la cultura por la nacionalidad de las personas es miope y simplista. Hay muchas otras variables que inciden tanto o más que la procedencia geográfica en la cultura de la gente.

        No sé qué pensarías si un asiático llegara a Inglaterra, y empezara a burlarse condescendientemente de la gente de Londres o la de Manchester, o los “Geordies”, estereotipando sus comportamientos y haciendo generalizaciones algo “osadas” sobre la gente de cada uno de esos lugares, sin ver más allá de eso, pero yo al menos lo encontraría algo insultante.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s