Louis and Doris have moved on to Ecuador and it is time for Partout to catch up. But before saying adios to Colombia, we can’t resist sharing a few of the more curious, haunting or memorable sights and impressions from our four weeks in the land of El Dorado.
À la David Letterman, here you go. . . .
#10 – Futbol. It’s not just for weekends.
From all appearances on bar and restaurant TVs, there is a soccer game going on somewhere on earth, every hour of every day, and you can watch it in Colombia. To experience the national obsession ourselves, we attended a futbol game in Bogota, where nobody ever sat down, everybody chanted litanies led by drums the entire game, and the Jumbotron showed commercials, not replays. Go SantaFe!
#9 – Football. The other foot-ball sport.
We were able to watch all the NFL playoff games we wanted in Medellin sports bars, which turned off futbol long enough to accommodate football for norteamericanos and assorted non-US gringos who showed up for the fun. This is what led to Louis being hosted to rum shots by a bunch of drunk Austrians who then embraced him with a rousing chorus of “Oh, Canada.” What happens in Medellin stays in Medellin – and that’s a good thing.
#8 – Breasts. AKA “chichis.”
Breasts are big in Cartagena and Medellin. Really big. Eye-poppingly big. We were told in our Spanish school the trend of melon-sized breasts began with the narcos, for whom the augmented chichis on girlfriends were a status symbol, the bigger the better. Now even the store manikins have big chichis. Women of a certain age who sport them are known as “chichibarbis” (yes, old Barbie dolls). Doris no es chichibarbi!
#7 – Love hotels. The “perfect and safe alternative.”
Dingy ones with dodgy entrances, snazzy ones that could have passed for Hampton Inns. In the words of a MedellinLiving title: “The Love Motel: A Fun & Practical Solution to Sex in Colombia. “While it is difficult for a Westerner to accept the idea of taking his/her girlfriend or boyfriend to have sex at a motel for two hours, here in South America, the notion is quite different. . . . When you are from a country where most adults live at home until they are married and there is no privacy to explore intimacy, a love motel becomes a perfect and safe alternative.” Full disclosure: We only saw them from the outside!
#6 – Sleeping dogs. More flea-bitten than love hotels.
Dogs are to South America what cats are to Arab countries and the Netherlands. Ubiquitous. Never out of sight or ear. The old saw about letting sleeping dogs lie? They have taken it to heart down here.
#5 – Sex tourism. The dark underbelly of sex in Colombia.
A multi-page spread in the nation’s leading news magazine describes the practice of recruiting and selling virgins 12 or 13 years old to foreign tourists. Nearly every hotel room contains a sign with a telephone number to report the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. Below is an airport poster warning women that if they arrived in Medellin on a free ticket with a job offer, they are at risk. #EsoEsCuento is a national campaign to stop sex trafficking in Colombia. Godspeed.
#4 – Venezuelans. A demonstrable border crisis.
The current Venezuelan crisis is rippling across South America in waves of hungry, desperate and sometimes violent refugees, perhaps nowhere more than in next-door Colombia. Athletic young Venezuelans breakdance, strum, juggle, and perform acrobatic feats in intersections to earn handouts from drivers. The less able beg, sleep on the streets and, according to locals, increasingly victimize the public. This will be another of those humanitarian crises that doesn’t reach most American radar screens, but it is already real, and it is growing.
#3 – Smiles. The universal language.
For all its violent history and current challenges, Louis’s lens found Colombia to be a land of ready and radiant smiles, even when braking a load of recyclables downhill on foot.
#2 – Cheap Ubers. Wheels have never been cheaper.
Big Colombian cities like Medellin and especially Bogota are notorious for taxi scams, but getting around on foot is not always a safe option. Though officially illegal, Uber has come to the rescue, taking root fast as the go-to wheels for locals and visitors alike. Never have we gotten around cities so cheaply. In four weeks in Colombia, we took 48 Uber rides for a whopping total of $104.52. For us budget-conscious travelers, that was a very grand total indeed.
#1 – Vive Símon Bolívar!
The liberator of six South American countries died at 47, broke and broken, convinced that the long and bloody war he waged to free the colonies from Spain and forge a United States of South America was sending him to his grave a pariah. Time has come to his rescue. A full 95% of Colombia’s central plazas bear Bolívar’s name today, streets everywhere are named for him and his generals, and it is impossible to spend a day anywhere without seeing his likeness. If there is a New Granada in the sky, El Liberador must be smiling at last.
FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
Even more indispensable than the Uber app on the road is WhatsApp. For locals all over the world, the free data-based service is the primary means of texting and talking, including video talking. As travelers, it is how we communicate with our AirBnB hosts, guides and anyone else who is not in the US with a US phone number. At home, it is how we stay in touch with our loved ones outside the continent.
TOP TIP: WhatsApp – don’t leave home without it. Don’t even stay home without it if you ever need to call a friend, hotel, guide or anyone else outside the US.
COMING SOON: A Valentine Day Bouquet