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.