Saturday, June 9, 2012

When In Rome

As five years in Colombia comes to a bittersweet close and I reflect back on all I have seen, experienced, learned, and accomplished here, I can't deny how I have also changed.  I know I've become more flexible, but at the same time less of a push-over.  I've allowed myself to relax and think less while speaking Spanish and dealing with time issues, while becoming more self-aware and analytical of things around me.  

The other day a Colombian colleague said I had been in the country long enough to become platanizado - literally "made into a plantain" - or localized, for lack of a better word.  Definitely a compliment coming from a native Caleño!  And while I know I still stick out like the glowing pink gringo that I am, I clearly have taken in and adjusted to some of the day-to-day nuances that makes living in Colombia special.

So, for those who will come after me and those who are new to this spectacular corner of the world, I present to you...

How To Be Less Gringo and More Colombian 
(or at least Caleño) in 14 Easy Steps

1)  Always answer your phone.  In public, in the bathroom stall, at the movies, in a work meeting: answer it!  This may mean ducking your head under the table, but still the call must not be ignored.  Also, never whisper.  Colombians don't know how to do this into their phones.  Whisper and you might as well wave your US Passport over your head like a flag on Independence Day.

2)  Learn to flap your hand and point with your lips.  Embarrassed?  Shocked?  Excited?  (Really, do you have any emotion at all?)  Then flap your hand back and forth really fast.  If you can make a hissing noise by sucking in air through gritted teeth, people may suspect you're gringo even less.  Now ask someone to pass you that glass over there with your lips; just raise your chin a bit and blow that bottle a long extended kiss.  Yes, no one suspects a thing!

3) & 4) Don't read books in public.  This is the quickest way to pick out a gringo.  Gringos read in public for fun.  Colombians are social.  Even with complete strangers.  If there is, for some strange reason, no one to strike up a conversation with, resort to flagrant staring.  Without sunglasses.

5) Think small.  Learn how to make everything diminutive when you speak.  Segundo doesn't exist for you: instead say segunditoratico, or minutico.  See that fat chick over there?  Make yourself feel better and call her gordita instead of gorda.  Is the piece of paper you need smaller than 8 1/2 x 11?  Forget it. The paper could be the size of a Mack truck: call it a papelito and move on.

6) Just dance.  Preferably salsa but that doesn't even matter.  Grab a partner and attempt to copy them and/or those around you.  You get points for effort here.  Everyone dances.  If you stay in your chair and watch, tattoo "foreigner" to your forehead now.

7) Order 'guaro without asking and just start pouring shots.*  Never say "Would anyone like aguardiente?"  Just tell the server to get a bottle; no self-respecting Colombian asks people if they want it.  No self-respecting Colombia declines a shot either; start pouring and sticking those tiny plastic shots under people's unsuspecting noses until they toss it back.
*There is the obvious prerequisite of man-up-and-learn-to-drink-firewater-like-a-champ thing that we'll just blow on past.

8) Stand in front of the doors to the MIO bus and don't move.  Ignore all the space behind you where you could be waiting patiently.  It doesn't matter that the electronic sign says the bus for your route won't be pulling up for another seven minutes; stay put.
Bonus "local points" for giving dirty looks to the people who's bus did just pull up and who had to frantically push by you before the doors slid shut.  How rude of them, right?!?  Clearly you were standing there.

9) Once on the bus, sit in the aisle seat and make people crawl over you.  Look, you got there first.  You might be getting off before this complete stranger you know nothing about.  Heaven forbid you scoot over.  Never mind that this person is huge, pregnant, carrying fifteen bags of groceries, is 105 years old with an oxygen tank, if they want a seat they have to work for it and squeeze between your awkwardly turned body and the seat in front of you.  You do this, you are instantly "local."

10) In a crowded restroom, line up directly behind someone at a urinal or in front of a stall door.  If you decide that standing at the restroom door is a better option you might as well, (a) tie a flashing neon sign above your head saying "not from here" and (b) never get to do your business as everyone will simple walk past you to assume their chosen position.

11) Repeat after me: "There is no such thing as a nasty arepa." A true Colombian loves every and all type of arepa.  Even those disgusting little dry white hockey pucks that come obligatorily on the side of everything.  Bonus points for being able to recommend a place that "has the best arepas in Cali" and offer to take the disgusted person there sometime.

12) & 13) Learn that certain places don't have lines that you need to wait in.  Like the corner bakery.  Or the pharmacy.  Even the airport if you're real ballsy.  Also, as long as you preface your cutting-in with a "peguntica" disclaimer (little tiny question...see #4), that makes it okay.

14) Always know where someplace is.  If some one - foreign or domestic - asks for directions to a place you've never heard of, pretend it is literally right around the corner and send them that way.  Repeatedly use words like "cerquita" and hope they just keep walking and don't come back.


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