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5 things I've learned after 18 months in Colombia

What I've learned in Colombia

I’ve lived here on the coast of Colombia for 18 months now, which has given me enough to time to observe a few trends, customs and oddities of the Barranquilla culture. Here are a few of the Costeno-isms that I’ve noticed.

1. Walk like a Colombian. Women here walk like they’re on a catwalk – whether in a crosswalk, making the mall circuit or just cruising down a hallway, these women move. Their omnipresent heels don’t hurt either. In contrast, you can tell a gringo from a mile away – we walk like we’re in a hurry and with bad posture.

2. To the left, to the left. While you’re walking like a gringo, there’s one important thing to know: pedestrians pass on the left.If you don’t, it gets rather awkward, rather quickly. If you forget, it’s also perfectly acceptable to walk very slowly in the dead center of the sidewalk, blocking both oncoming and passing pedestrian traffic.

3. Bus entertainment. Every few minutes, your bus will be commandeered by a candy hawker, pen salesman, rapper or, my personal favorite, a two-person vallenato duo belting tone-deaf ballads and beating a makeshift drum. They jump over the turnstile and brazenly address the “senores y senoras pasajeros, first giving them God’s blessing on their travels, then peddling their products.

It’s common to have the product shoved in your face, forcing you to hold it awkwardly until he comes back through to collect either the product or your money. Sometimes you can get really lucky and there’s a mandarinas guy or, even better, the sesame sticks guy.

4. Queue up, cozy up. Any line here, whether at the bank, in the grocery store or on the escalator, is designed to take up minimal space at maximum discomfort. The closer you can be to the person in front of you, the better. There will be a senoragrazing your elbow on the left and a shopping cart touching your leg on the right. Steel up and stay your ground, because cutting in line is also a Colombian pastime.

5. Smells like Caribbean Spirit. Despite the fact that we live in a wet, sticky furnace, Colombians always smell good. Naturally, this caused me to sweat even more – what if they can smell the dirty gringa? No matter how much deodorant or body spray I applied, I was always self-conscious of smelling worse than these scented, clean-looking Colombians around me. I finally figured out two tricks: baby powder absorbs sweat and perfume (not body spray or light scents) must be applied a minimum of 467,585,746 times per day, thereby ensuring that no one will mistake you for a dirty gringa.

Those are just a few of the endless quirks and -isms of my host culture. It’s often the little things that make a cultural experience rich and engaging, and these are no exceptions to that rule. Every day brings a new chance to laugh, wonder and eat a mandarin.