Sandwiches and sour grapes: Will being smart ever pay off in Colombia?

The other day my boyfriend was walking through the lobby of our building when a voice with an English accent that sounded exactly like Prince Charles said, “Good morning, how are you?” and my boyfriend started and turned around to find Juan Carlos, our doorman, grinning from ear to ear.

“I’m learning English online,” he said. “I have a lot of free time.”

I give a few lectures a week at one of Colombia’s most prestigious business schools. It has elegant red brick buildings with soft carpets and wood-panelled lecture theatres, and an extensive library with an indoor waterfall. The place has such a quaint, Hogwarts feel that I go there even when I’m not lecturing, so I can sit in the courtyard and write.

It was there that I met one of the young men who makes the sandwiches that are sold in our cafe, and we’ll call him Will because he reminds me so much of Good Will Hunting. Will makes sandwiches for students by day and studies English by night and is now so good that we have lengthy conversations about his plan to emigrate.

Last week it was revealed that being an English speaker in Colombia may be better for your finances than having a post-graduate degree and, even though I take statistics and studies like that with a pinch of salt, it does make me happy to see people who are on their way up. I have no idea whether Will and Juan Carlos will ever achieve the fluency required to experience such a boost, but let’s hope they do and that meritocracy and social mobility will come to Colombia sooner rather than later.

Before we get too excited though, at the thought that talent and hard work may one day mean more than cold hard pesos and your surname, I would like to tell you about my experience with Ser Pilo Paga, a Colombian Government-funded initiative that provides higher education scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive the highest grades. The name roughly translates as Being Smart Pays Off.

I went to a dinner party and sat opposite a well-dressed woman for whom I did not exist until I happened to mention the name of the business school where I lecture.

“Hmph,” she sniffed. “I suppose they accept kids on that awful Ser Pilo Paga programme.”

“We do,” I said and I began to eat a bit faster, conscious she was about to sour my food.

“I hate that,” she said, putting down her fork. “How can the Government pay for the education of those children while we, the middle classes, are struggling to put our kids through university?”

I looked at the woman and then I looked at the dinner party. There were two waiters serving platters of imported food and three musicians twinkling away in the corner. Then I remembered that the rich in Colombia are a bit ridiculous and they do often over-leverage themselves keeping up appearances, paying their membership at the country club and for three maids and a chauffeur-driven car, when they can’t really afford it.

I decided to give this struggling woman the benefit of the doubt.

“The whole thing is so unfair,” she continued, warming to her theme. “You should see what these children bring with them for lunch. A sandwich! They sit there, eating their sanduchito, while my daughter eats a real lunch and what is she supposed to do? Take them out for a meal every day?”

I put down my fork too, which was a shame, but there’s not much you can do in the face of sour food. I looked at my boyfriend who gave me a stern look that said, “Don’t you dare,” so I gulped my wine instead.

“And then there’s the issue of having to study with these children,” the woman said. “They come from these horrible places, miles from anywhere. How is my daughter supposed to work with one of them? It’s outrageous.”

There are two things you can do when you brush up against the coal face of evil. You can lose your temper, speak on behalf of those who have no voice and say, “Hell is filled with people like you,” to which they reply, “Oooh, you liberals, you’re all into human rights until someone disagrees with you,” (they always say that) or you can do what I now do, which is to absorb everything that is said without comment and then fall into a fit of depression at the realisation that people like that really do exist.

“And you know the worst thing?” the woman said, leaning forward with a conspiratorial whisper. “Those kind of children always come from broken homes. Who wants their child to mix with people like that?”

I gave a bark of laughter and looked at the hostess, whose generosity was paying for the fine food and the fine wine and the musicians and the waiters, and who is very much divorced. She was chatting to her housekeeper at the dessert table and missed the ‘broken home’ comment and that seemed such a sensible position to adopt that I too left the table, and was spared the rest of this woman’s take on fairness, and the like.

The following day I saw Will, who was busy making cheese sandwiches for our students and his sandwiches don’t tend to do them any harm, given that our alumni earn more money than the graduates of any other institution in the country.

“How’s the English going?” I said.

“Good,” he grinned.

“Listen, have you heard about this scholarship programme?” I replied. “It’s called Ser Pilo Paga. Maybe that would interest you?”

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


  1. Camilo

    Hace mucho tiempo sigo este blog y es la primera vez que comento uno de sus articulos que son bien estructurados y escritos pero esta historia me resulta dificil de creer a menos que te hayas encontrado alguien con poca educacion y mucho dinero….algo que se reconoce a leguas en este pais….o talvez fue en otro pais….no se….ese tipo de personas son inmediatamente rechazadas en una sociedad como la bogotana…..una cosa es ser un snob y otra muy diferente ser impoliticamente incorrecto por falta de educacion formal…..

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I wish this story were untrue. Would you believe me if I told you that the following day I woke up in tears, because I am a softie, I guess, and it upset me. Would you believe me if I told you that this was some months ago, but I have been unable to move on and forget about it? Would you also believe me if I told you that I had decided not to write about this episode, because this blog is supposed to be fun and enjoyable and not overly political and, even now, I am not sure whether I should have put this in the public domain?

      1. Gonzalez

        Unfortunately there are many people with views such as this Lady you mention, in all countries through out the world but their views make them the poorest people on earth. They lack humanity and humility something most ordinary people have in abundance. I am certain your story was a clear account of the events of that evening Victoria.

  2. rsnmccoll

    “The rich in Colombia are a bit ridiculous…” the understatement of the year! The rich are ridiculous everywhere. Unfortunately, the Ser Pilo Paga concept, while a great initiative, is seriously flawed. In Chile they have managed to assure free Uni education for 50% of students…this is worth striving for!

  3. Camilo

    Este articulo me hace recordar hace unos años una reunion de negocios que tuve en Londres donde reunidos con ejecutivos que se suponen bien educados y correctos y alguno de ellos hizo un comentario tan fuera de lugar que no lo podia creer y que me dieron ganas de estrangularlo…jejjejej…..y la reaccion de todos fue darle un largo silencio casi de desprecio y lastima….y pense…..asi se maneja una situacion asi en Bogota……y que no somos tan diferentes en el mundo como quisieramos…….Tal vez lo de “softie” proviene de llevar ya tiempo en Colombia y te tocan las cosas mas al ver tantas injusticias y perjuicios que se ven menos en paises desarrollados…..por ahora te perdono…jejejeej…y creere en tu palabra……espero puedas dormir bien……sigue escribiendo como lo has hecho siempre….cuidate…….aqui el nombre….no se sabe ni como te llamas…jejejejej…..en cuanto esa persona….acuerdate que alguien dijo: el odio( en este caso el snobismo,la ignoracia,etc) es un veneno que se toma uno y quiere que le haga efecto al otro….gracias….me despertaste porque estaba adormilado….jejejej….chao

  4. Esther Arteaga

    I am sorry, I dont believe this story. It is ridículos the way that woman is talking. I am Colombian and In my entire lite I havent encounter a persona like that.

  5. SNanda

    I do agree that the rich in Colombia are ridiculous, and that some people who class themselves as middle class really are not as bad off as they seem to think they are. There is some truth, however, in that Colombia is a country (like many others all over the world) where the high class is very well off due to their own resources, and the really humble are supported by goverment help. So we get a real middle class (the woman you had dinner with does not count) that has enough money not to classify for subsidization, but that money is also not enough to access (our very expensive) high education without having to resort to a credit system which more often than not ends in debt.

    I think there are better ways to get people access to quality education without having to pick and choose, and we have very talented individuals from all walks of life who deserve a chance at furthering themselves. However our problems with education go way beyond classism or the stratiffication of society, we need to change the way we think as a culture and as a people.

    In case it interests you, I’d be classed middle class. My job is underpaid (Colombian average salary a month for my profession is 1’700) and ironically I’d get paid the same or more just for speaking English by foreign companies in search of people for customer service. I don’t begrudge anybody who has managed to get into “Ser Pilo Paga” or similar programs, but it’s so painful how much I wish I could have access to similar programs too.

  6. Leon C.

    I suppose “the rich in Colombia are a bit ridiculous” sounds a little too much, since I’ve met so many kinds of rich people in Colombia (I’m Colombian by the way) but the character you described definitely exists; I’d say, nowadays, they’re fewer than before but they’re still around. In cases like that, I agree letting the demon out to teach her a lesson wouldn’t work (she would have diminished you), but in my case, I enjoy differing with that character big friendly smile on my face (like telling them how stupid they can be, but with a happy educated tone, without losing it); I’ve come to realise that that makes them angry and may be make them feel stupid. The more relaxed you are while telling them you think they’re wrong, the more confused they feel about their comment. Well, at least it has worked for me when dealing with a situation like this one, but I don’t pretend to teach a lesson or say this is how things work, it’s just my view according to my experience. “Ser pilo paga” has many flaws but I think it’s a great initiative and I’ve heard that there are more “rich” students learning from the experience than being against it; but there will always be people against it, we’ll just have to deal with it and try to make them think.

  7. Camilo

    Gracias Esther….pensaba que era el unico que pensaba que esa conversacion era descabellada……..para mi que esa comida fue en la clinica Monserrat de la calle 134…jeje

  8. zarifisk

    @esther y @camilo: Lo siento, de verdad, pero no solo soy amiga de la autora y sé que ella nunca publicaría una historia inventada, menos cuando trata un tema tan delicado. además, llevo 6 anios viviendo en colombia y les puedo decir que los comentarios de la mujer que le tocó no son ni muy raros ni muy extramos: he escuchado cosas peores – tambíen de gente con excelente educación académica.
    ahora, gente boba hay en todo el mundo, obviamente, pero ese tipo de discusiones son más frecuentes en colombia por la fuerte polarizacion en la sociedad.

  9. Miguel Camacho

    I have always said that stupid should hurt. I relate very well to what you write having grown up the son of two sociologists among a very privileged group of “middle class” Colombians. I heard similar ramblings on many occasions, particularly coming from women, and men, whose own socioeconomic origins were modest and unprivileged, and wanted to hide them and show they “belonged” at any and all costs, including spewing out such stupidity.

    If there is one thing I adore about living in Switzerland now is precisely the fact such ridiculous “class conciense” does not exist and people are substantially more egalitarian in their mindsets, which makes for a lot less violent efforts not to jump at people’s throats and soured lunches or dinners.

  10. travellingjorge

    @esther + @camilo: sorry to say that this type of conversation is quite common. have sat through many of these,- sometimes arguing back, somtimes resignig into depressed silence.
    at any rate; while I have no doubts about the author´s creative writing skills, this one is not a product of her imagination.

  11. tjherman

    Seems like there’s middle ground between being silent and being offensive in response to offensive perspective… ;-). I have moved, in the USA, to full throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Lots of people seem afraid to be so openly positive about her, but I try not to do it in a jerky way. I’m just clear, she’s talented, dedicated, imperfect, and the best candidate for President of the USA that we’ve ever had in the history of our country. Who IS perfect?

    This woman you ate across from might have benefited from a gentle nudge toward sensible perspective.


  12. Rai

    Sadly, most Colombians i teach don’t have any interest in learning English. As a native English teacher you would think they would take advantage but alas no. My classes are quite energetic so was sad to see a sleeper. Sent her out immediately with a recommendation she freshen up.

  13. Susan

    I have no trouble believing this story, and I’ve only lived here for six years. I have close ties with one of the wealthiest schools in the city, where parents (and some teachers) actively opposed a localised, school-centric Ser Pilo Paga-style scheme a couple of years ago. They employed similar arguments to your dinner party “friend”. It’s incredibly depressing – and frustrating. Universal education is the key to EVERYTHING, from nutrition to women’s rights to environmental issues to economic prosperity. Why the hell would you oppose that?

  14. Alberto Valenzuela-Rocha

    Victoria was far too polite with this specimen. Of course the story is true…and then we wonder why we have the longest guerrilla movemente in the continent.Keep on Victoria, that sometimes colombians don´t deserve people like you…but in the long run those bad colombians will end washing dishes in a “civilized” country.

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