Colombians are a friendly bunch, no doubt about it. To get on their good side (which is a great place to be) brush up on your answers to these conversation starters.
“You need to be careful.”
Sometimes, one needs to be careful. In pretty much any country, there are places where it’s best to keep your wits about you, or, indeed, think twice about going. Things can happen, I’m not going to deny it; and it’s good to be aware of possible dangers. But, to be continually reminded to take care, in pretty much any situation, by a genuinely concerned Colombian, may be touching and well-intentioned, but it can also make you feel like the boy in the bubble. Is it just me, or is there sometimes a greater emphasis on safety than is necessarily called upon in some instances?
“I’m twelve years old!! I can walk to school by myself, Mummy!”
*Gasp* “Hablas español!”
It’s to my eternal pride and dismay that, when meeting a Colombian, the first exchange usually goes like this:
Colombian: “Hola, ¿como estas?”
Me: “Bien gracias, ¿que mas?”
Colombian: “Uuuyyyy pero hablas español muy bien!”
And there, at once, my new Colombian friend will begin to speak indecipherable, rapid Spanish.
I’m proud that my first four words would give someone the impression that I speak Spanish very well but “que mas” is kind of a no-brainer here. As soon as you arrive from Gringolandia you’re taught to say it, even if you can’t quite grasp why on earth you’re saying it and what it actually means.
My dearest new Colombian friend, please assume – until it becomes clear otherwise – that “que mas” is just a mumbling, nervous cover up for an inability to speak Spanish fluently. Grarsyarse.
(The alternative to this conversation is, of course, that you do speak Spanish, but it’s assumed that you don’t. So despite your years of learning the language, you end up in an English conversation anyway).
“How about Colombian food, eh?!”
Fact: No foreigner can escape a conversation without being asked about Colombian food.
Fact: Confusion will ensue unless you claim it to be some of the best you’ve ever tried.
Fact: For many Colombians, no matter where you come from, your food won’t be as good as theirs. Don’t get involved, it’s not worth it.
Fact: The conversation will swiftly move to arepas.
Fact: If you say you don’t like them, prepare for every Colombian in the vicinity to ask, in turn, but have you tried the arepas from X region of Colombia?
Fact: You won’t have tried the arepas from every region, so at least one person there will smugly come away from the conversation convinced that, since you haven’t tried their region’s arepa, that they’re the best.
Fact: They’re probably not the best.
“How about Colombian Women?”
Now, this isn’t only asked by Colombian men. Colombians of any gender have been guilty of this stumper of a question. To answer this, one has to steer between the Charybdis of being impolite and the Scylla of feeling like a creep. Is it better to reply, “Oh, I think women of this nation are quite nice, but I’m not interested,” and risk coming across as unappreciative of half an entire population; or to say “I think they’re very good,” and feel like you’ve just come from watching a porno flick alone in a seedy girly cinema while wearing a leather trenchcoat. What exactly is your modern-day Odysseus meant to do in such perilous waters?
“Where do you know in Colombia?”
Colombians are, without fail, very interested in where you’ve been in their country. Thanks to decades of being completely off the tourist path, there remains an interest and surprise in what exactly foreigners are up to, where they’re going and what they’re enjoying as they travel Colombia.
The conversation will inevitably go as follows:
You: “Uhhhh, Cartagena…”
Colombian: “Uyyy, rico, no?”
You: “Yeh it’s great. Umm, Bogotá, Medellín, the Coffee zone…”
Colombian: “Wow, you know a lot!”
You: “Haha (sheepishly) yeh. Errr, La Guajira, Taganga, Santa Marta, San Gil…”
Colombian: “Uufff! You know more of Colombia than I do!”
You: “Yeh… I guess that’s the advantage of travelling…”
And you tail off there because mentioning El Cocuy, the Amazon, Sapzurro, El Chocó, Capurgana and the rest just seems rude now.
“You should be dancing. Yeah.”
Although, after an eternity and a half, I have learnt the very basics of Salsa, I’d have to say that it wasn’t particularly easy for this rhythmless white boy to stumble his way to his current level of humble expertise. I’ll admit that I’ve had plenty of phenomenally patient, accomplished assistance from concerned Colombians, but then there is another breed of local advice, too.
(1) “Just relax.”
(2) “Just listen to the beat.”
(3) “Feel the music.”
Let me deconstruct these little gems from my perspective.
(1) One of the worst things you could ever tell a disoriented, nervous, and clumsy gringo after you’ve forced them onto a dance-floor crowded with graceful, effortless Colombians moving in beautiful yet incomprehensible steps, is to relax. For the simple reason that this brings attention to the fact – the fact you’ve been desperately trying to hide – that you’re not relaxed.
(2) I could listen to the beat til the cows came home. That doesn’t mean that my stiff back or self-conscious hips are going to know what to do about that.
(3) To tell you the truth, being told by a person who has most likely been blithely salsa-ing since birth in an environment saturated with music doesn’t really inspire you with much confidence, or, indeed, good will. Sorry, would-be partner: I think I need to go the bathroom. To sulk for half an hour.
“Oh! You’re from (insert country here)?!?!?
This conversation can take many manifestations. It could be simply a baffled look of incomprehension when you say you’re from New Zealand. If you admit you’re from, say, Boston, the reply could be: “Ahhh Boston! My cousin was two years in England!” Being Australian, the response is often: “Ahhhhh Australia! Kangaroos!”
I only know of two options for continuing this conversation. One either gets quickly involved in an in-depth conversation concerning the population distribution and anatomical features of said marsupial, which in turn leads to a declaration that we ride kangaroos instead of driving cars.
The other option is: “Ahhhh Colombia! Sloths!”
Hilarity and/or confusion to follow.
“Why are you in Colombia?”
This is usually asked with incredulity, and possibly even suspicion. Why would anyone outside of Colombia come here, when all the reports and media continually drive home how dangerous it is?
If you reply, truthfully, that it’s because you love this friendly, diverse, unique, and – let’s face facts here – completely awesome place, you may well be met first with genuine shock that a gringo would ever dream of saying this.
This will then be followed by said Colombian having to almost shamefacedly admit that they know how completely awesome their country is. You probably should know that they’re right. And there are 500 reasons why.
By Paul Fowler and Paul Giles
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