Life is undoubtedly different in Colombia than in the US. At times, very different. It’s not that any country is objectively right or wrong, but now that I’ve been in Bogotá for over nine months (!), I think I can pinpoint a few of the biggest cultural differences that I see in my daily life. Many of these are a bit Bogotá-specific, but you’ll have to visit for yourselves to figure out which ones.
- Good Lawd. The Driving.
A few things to unpack with this one: (1) People will begin honking at a red light, just with the anticipation that the light is going to change soon. So, you better be ready to gun it once the light hits green. (2) And, mind you, pedestrians do not have the right of way here, so no worries about running someone over. (3) If it’s a lesser crowded area or late at night, expect people to honk as they run a red light or cruise through a stop sign. The honk means to say “I’m coming, and you’ve been warned.” (4) Taxis drivers are loco, some of the craziest driving I’ve ever seen. But! Don’t you dare close their taxi door too hard, they will flip out, yelling that you’ve nearly broken it.
- Maids + Housekeeping
It’s really common to have a weekly or monthly housekeeper here, which I already find interesting. But, what I’d say is even more interesting is that the maid will stay at the same spot all day. She (usually a she) is paid a flat rate and will be at the apartment for upwards of 6 hours; one time, a housekeeper at my last place stayed a full 8 hours. They come in, they change clothes, they play catch-up with the family, they make themselves breakfast, and order-in for lunch.
- Late, Late, Late
A classic Colombian phrase is “Ya me voy!” as in, “I’m already on my way!”… even when you definitely are not. A Colombian friend has told me that she’ll send “Ya me voy!” via text– even when she has still yet to get in the shower, get dressed, and do makeup. With that cultural difference and Bogotá’s rough traffic situation, I’ve definitely gotten more accustomed to friend meet-ups running behind.
What I have not gotten used to, however, is how late conferences and lectures begin! For instance, I went to one day-conference that said on the invite it’d begin at 8:00AM (woof. early, I know). Once I got there, I found out that no one would speak before 9:00AM! Trust me, I could’ve used the extra hour’s sleep. Last semester I went to a TedX talk that said on the invite it’d start at 12:30PM. No one spoke before 2:00PM. Never before have I missed the “Doors Open @” and “Event Starts @” distinction. I have a feeling that until Colombia sorts this out, everyone will continue showing up late.
- Buenos días or Buenas tardes
In a lot of instances, especially with strangers, Colombians are uber-polite. Absolutely everyone is greeted with a “good morning” or “good afternoon.” Everyone! Interestingly, people will respond the same even in otherwise uncomfortable situations. As in, everyone on the bus will still say “buenas tardes” to a person who comes on asking for money. One Colombian I know admitted its oddity when I pointed it out, acknowledging that even if he’s listening to music on the bus, he’ll take out his headphones to say “buenas tardes” and then go back to listening to music without giving any money.
- Pushing In Line
Speaking of public transit…. one of my least favorite parts of riding the bus is all of the pushing. Even when an empty bus pulls up to the station, and everyone on the platform knows they’re going to get on, people will still push you out of the way to get on the bus firts. And beware of the abuelas; they do it too!
I’ve also experienced this while waiting for domestic flights. On one occasion in particular, Mary and I had two gate changes while waiting for our flight. People pushed and literally ran from one gate to the next; even though, the only thing we did at the next gate was continue to sit and wait and stand in line in our boarding order. I should note, however, everyone around us seemed to enjoy this mad dash. So, I may be missing something.
- Jeans for Exercise
This one may not be Colombia-specific, but people are not into what I’d consider “typical” athletic clothes here. In Colombia (and when Joe and I went to Peru, as well), women would wear jeans and a cute top to go hiking by waterfalls or rock climbing in Suesca or visit an outdoorsy spot. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine sweatily hiking Machu Picchu Mountain or properly contorting my body to rock climb in jeans.
- No Legs Allowed
And while we’re on the topic of clothes, let me say that ladies showing leg in Bogotá is a no, no, no. To be clear, cleavage and midriff are fine, but there’s something about shorts or skirts (yup, long skirts too) that increase the catcalls and odd looks exponentially. Perhaps it’s because Bogotá rarely has days warm enough to wear shorts, I’m not sure. But prepare yourself for about 7 million stares if you dare to show some leg. The coast, Bucaramanga, Barichara, Medellín, etc. is all fine with it though.
- Economic Estatus
One difference I didn’t expect coming to Colombia was the stratification system based on socioeconomic status. Called your “estatus,” everyone in Colombia knows where they fall, on a scale of 1 (being the poorest) to 6 (being the most wealthy). On one hand, designating an “estatus” to every family allows for those with less wealth to pay less for public services, like their water/gas bill or health insurance.
On the other hand, much of what determines someone’s “estatus” is arbitrary. As Fulbrights, for example, we should be in the middle for our estatus, because we’re students and live like students. But, knowing that a person is from the US or a Western European country (regardless of what’s in their bank account) puts you in a higher estatus. Even if you’ve blown all your savings on a one-way trip to Colombia doesn’t matter– not against people’s perceptions of what kind of wealth they think you have.
- Every Woman for Herself
Colombia clearly does not have the same “I’m going to sue you!” culture that is found in the US. This plays out in far more… trust? in the average citizen to look out for him or herself. For instance, the height of sidewalks switch quickly and without warning, and a patch of sidewalk by my apartment has had a huge, uncovered manhole for over a month! If you look in, you see several feet down. No caution tape marking it off, no construction signs to call attention to it. Nada. It’s on you, as an adult citizen, to pay attention. Or, last week, a contractor re-painted the inside of our apartment building. My roommate walked into the building and unknowingly, stepped in black paint. They had painted trim on the floor too! But again, no taped off area, no “wet paint” signs. Nada.