Your “Ahorita” Is Not An Effective Nor Instructive Measurement of Time

Studies show that Colombians are some of the happiest people in the world. It makes sense when you think about it, considering how laid back everyone is. Also, the majority of people I’ve met here are extremely sociable. I have never known more neighbors than I do right now and I often have to factor small talk into my transportation time, knowing that it’s probable that I’ll get stopped. Greetings are long and drawn out: there are about 10 different ways to ask, “How are you?” and it’s not uncommon for people to utilize all of them in one conversation. Even strangers won’t begin conversations until proper greetings are exchanged:

Me, addressing a police officer on the street: Excuse me, how to I get to the bank?
Police Officer: Hello, good morning.
Me: (Irritated) HELLO, GOOD MORNING. HOW DO I GET TO THE BANK?

Even writing this was delayed by a shoe-shiner who frequents this coffee shop, who insisted on giving me a free shoe shine and having a conversation with me. Living in a country in which people are generally very outgoing is an opportunity to meet more people and learn stories and practice Spanish. However, it can also be a bit irritating, at times. I extremely enjoy my solitude. (To quote a friend, “Xena is a master at ‘me time.’”) I max out on social interactions more quickly than a lot of people and particularly more quickly than the average Colombian. When I decide that I’m ready to leave, I want to leave right in that moment. I’ve been known to—on occasion—go so far as to leave a gathering without saying good-bye to anyone. It’s not an excuse, but this reaction is in part because the process of leaving is so difficult, especially when in a group.

First of all, there is the aspect of etiquette. To be polite, you kiss the cheek of everyone you know. If you just met someone for the first time that night, you either shake their hand or kiss them on the cheek, as well; depending on how much you interacted with them on this first encounter. Men slap and fist bump the hand of other men, but always kiss women on the cheek. If there are a lot of people, this can be a very long process, as one could imagine. Secondly, you may have to deal with the possibility of people trying to convince you to not leave. In my case, this is a common occurrence, contributed to by the fact that I usually try to check out early: on weeknights between 10-11 and weekends between 11 and 1 (at the latest). The response is usually the same: “Xena nooooo, ¡no te vayaaas! Una cerveza mááááss…….” (No, Xena, don’t go! One more beer…) The exit is made more difficult still by the fact that all of my friends get around by bike. The common protocol is to leave in a group of other people who are traveling to the same area as you or at least plans to take a similar route. This practice is especially encouraged for female riders, who are considered more vulnerable than men, despite the fact that most stories of robberies involve men as the victims—not women. Also, the whole thing seems especially silly to me considering that every other night of the week I bike home alone at night and it’s never been an issue. So, after I say I want to leave and after trying to convince me to stay, the next move is to tell me that I should wait to leave with (Person) who leaves near me. When I ask this person when they are planning to leave, their answer is almost always the same: Ahora or Ahorita.

To all of you who’ve taken a basic Spanish class, Ahora mean ‘now.’ You also might have learned that the diminutive is frequently used either to indicate a small amount, make a word sound less harsh or to show affection; adding –ito/-ita, -ico/-ica or –cito/-cita to the end of a word. In Colombia, the diminutive can be used anywhere and any way. A tinto (cup of coffee) becomes tintico, agua (water) becomes aguita and pan (bread) becomes pancito. Names, in particular, take this form when speaking to a friend: Leo > Leíto, Juan > Juanito, Sara > Sarita. As such, it makes sense that an abrasive word like NOW would be softened by the diminutive form. Regardless, ahorita NEVER means ‘now.’ A better translation would be ‘in a minute’ or ‘in a bit.’

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As you can imagine, this makes for a frustrating combination: a girl with persistent ants in her pants and a population that is as relaxed as Rastafarian turtles. Consequently, I am left with a few options: be impolite, wave good-bye and bolt; pull an Irish exit and avoid good-byes altogether; or grit my teeth and be patient. The problem is that when I have made the mental decision that I’m done being sociable for the evening, my body slowly checks out. It’s like that warning you get that your computer is going to shut down in ten minutes to make system updates. From the time I resolve to leave, I have a limited amount of time before taking a nap on any given corner of concrete becomes the most appealing plan in the world. (We spend a lot of time outside.) Considering how popular public urination is, this is not in the best interest of anyone. The majority of the time I try to head out alone, so I don’t have to wait for anyone and so I don’t have to hop around in a desperate attempt to summon the strength of the Energizer Bunny and buy myself some extra time. On occasion, I have known “ahorita” to last as long as an hour and a half. A gal can only hop for so long until her energy and or integrity expires.

Though I get stressed about time, as many people with anxiety do, I’ve gotten a lot better at dealing with it. For example, my students never arrive to class on time and seem to have no shame about it. (Perhaps it’s because they’re always taking 20 minutes to say good-bye to people?) At first I scolded them, but realized that it wasn’t making any difference and that I was getting paid either way, so the situation is what it is. I’ve learned that everything needs to be done early, because nothing goes according to a normal timeline. Last weekend, three appointments to visit apartments (to potentially move into) cancelled. People take on a falsely apologetic tone to their voice, blame it on the traffic and go on with their business. When I expressed to some friends how frustrated I was about the matter, they simply gave me a typical response to this sort of thing: “Bienvenida a Colombia.” Welcome to Colombia. It is common knowledge that people here are consistently unreliable, never punctual and accepting of this as the status quo. Instead of thinking, “This would never happen in the United States!” It’s no one’s fault but my own to expect things to go according to plan. Surprise strikes shut down public transportation on a moment’s notice. The sky can go from blue to charcoal in a matter of an hour, which greatly encumbers one’s mobility. And people? They can have a real or made-up excuse and it doesn’t actually matter. Regardless of the place or the culture or the situation, I’ve come to realize that the world around me and its happenings are largely out of my hands. I only have control over myself: how to plan accordingly, how to not let frustrations get under my skin and how to adapt to whatever language or culture may have in store.

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Cuesta Arriba

(I wrote this a few weeks ago but forgot to post it.)

La Calera is a municipality directly to the east of Bogotá. It only takes about 30 minutes to drive up there from the center of Bogotá. It is about 3,000 meters above sea level and about 500 meters over the city.  On the way there, one of the stops is an area called, Patios, a mystical and revered place. There are a bunch of refreshment and snack places there. But that’s not why it’s mystical. From Bogotá to this point is a considerable hike at a considerable incline and it is considered a solid victory to make one’s way up this hill by bicycle.  I’ve been to La Calera by bus, but we didn’t stop at Patios, and even if we did it wouldn’t have been the same hallowed place. To say that you have made it to Patios by bicycle identifies you as a dedicated cyclist, one who enjoys participating in (and conquering) a real challenge. The reputation of this uphill trek has both excited and haunted me since I heard about it around a year ago. Recently, it has been coming up more as a topic of conversation: as a stop on the Alley Cat bike race checkpoint; as a typical Sunday morning work-out; as a night, group outing. I feared that I might be out riding with other people one day and someone suggests we go to Patios as a group, something I felt confident I was not ready to do. Not yet.

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Just two months ago I got gears put onto my bike—seven, I think—but I’ve still been learning how to use them and I’ve had to get them adjusted numerous types. My gears and I are still getting to know each other, let’s say. Plus, my bike is older and heavier than the other bikes my friend use. But I do okay. In general, when it’s not rainy season, I bike around two hours a day going from class to class. I’ve never been an athlete—more of a picked-last-in-gym-class kind of gal—and it wasn’t really until about eight months ago that I started biking more seriously. Still, being fairly newish to cycling as a way to push physical limits is pretty new to me. Hanging out with a group of cyclists who participate in races and own multiple bikes for different kinds of riding, I’ve been getting kind of self-conscious. Plus, like every sport, expertise gets you street-cred; gives you something to bond over with other people in the group; generates respect. There is a certain insecurity which also comes from being “the new guy.” I frequently am conscious of how am being received: Am I talking enough? Am I talking too much? Are they laughing at my jokes? Am I going to be invited out again? Not only am I this character, but I’m also foreign. I worry that I will tire people when I stutter and stumble to find the word I’m looking for or that my sense of humor will way miss the mark and I’ll get dubbed strange. Finally, let’s not forget mentioning the difficulty of being a girl in a cycling group. There are girls in the cycling community in Bogotá, but it is largely a male-based group. Only six out of about forty participants at the Alley Cat race last weekend, a check point-based race which spanned about 55 kilometers around Bogotá, were girls. Only two girls actually finished the race. By pushing myself to excel and be considered an equal in the cyclist community, I’d also be representing Team Estrogen, so to speak; helping to make women be considered more as potential competitors and less as the ones who are waiting for their boyfriends at the finish line. So obviously making it up to Patios is a metaphor for obtaining equality just beyond the steep incline of female injustice. Obviously making it up to Patios is a metaphor for earning the respect of my peers and rising above my insecurities. Obviously. I just recently have been able to master the hills in the city, but supposedly this pales in comparison to the acute angled inclines of the route up to Patios. In other words, GULP.

Things have been kinda tough, lately. For one, my grandfather died and I couldn’t go to the funeral because going to visit Chicago costs more than a $30 bus ticket. So I got all whatamIdoinghere-y and my camera broke and I’m broke and it has been raining every single day for about three weeks or so. This either means I must stay house-bound, take public transportation (panic attack-inducing) or bike anyways and get soaked. In general, I’ve been trying to bike every day, regardless, taking advantage of momentary parting of the clouds, though this usually, ultimately, results in getting caught in downpours. Consequently, I got a nasty cold which won’t quit and the rain got into my backpack so my mp3 player broke. Oh and one of my roommates moved out early and took all the furniture with her, including the laundry machine and fridge. On the bright side, I realized I needed bobby pins and I found two free ones on the table of a coffee shop the other day, so things are looking up.

At the beginning of last week, I had a free morning that was also sunny (gasp!) and I decided to take advantage of it. I decided to head in the direction of La Calera, not necessarily with the intention of getting there, just trying to see how far I could get. I only made it as far as La Primera, 1st Avenue, which isn’t even close. And I was completely drenched in sweat. Though this area is undeniably very steep, it’s not the same in terms of bragging rights amongst other cyclists. Not by a longshot. I decided that the following day I would try again.

The next day, early in the morning, I mentioned my interest in the area to a friend and he advised me to do that trip accompanied; that the area is known for theft. Embarrassed by my lack of ability to hold my own when it comes to this kind of terrain, I wanted to practice alone, first. To remedy this thievery business, I resolved to stay on my bike as much as possible and not talk to anyone. Plus, I took out any valuables from my backpack, including my smartphone.

I headed that way prepared with water and a hearty breakfast in my stomach. This time, however, on the way up, I changed gears at one moment and my chain got all weird and trapped/twisted in the gears while I was at an intersection at 6th avenue. I didn’t even make it as far as I did the day before! Talk about an anti-climax! After about a half an hour of trying to fix my bike on my side of the road with no avail, after realizing that without my cell phone I was unable to call for help, I felt frustrated and out of ideas. I realized I had no choice but to come up with some solution and to do it fast. At this point I had taken the back wheel off and that was stuck, too, so rolling the bicycle down wasn’t an option. I needed tools and/or help. Taxis almost never are large enough to carry a bicycle and if they are, the drivers usually don’t feel like bothering. Bicycles also aren’t allowed on public transportation. Finally, I decided to carry my bike down with it over one shoulder, to look for private parking in an apartment building and try to convince the respective guard to let me stash my bike until I could come back with tools and or help.

Long story short, I ended up walking around for a while with no luck. I talked to several parking lot attendants who all said no and were worried that storing the bike would get them into trouble. Better yet, it started to rain. (I was laughing at the awfulness of the situation at this point.)

There’s a bright side to this story, I promise. While I was standing outside trying to convince one security guard, another one from a nearby building walked past and asked what the matter was with my bike. He was a very average, humble-looking man about in his mid-forties. “A ver…” (Let’s take a look…)  he said and turned my bike upside down on the pavement. He pulled a rag out of the pocket of his nice uniform and starting working on loosening the chain. After struggling with it for a while, he managed to pull it free. He really knew what he was doing. Surprised, I asked him about it. “I’ve been using my bike for transportation for about nine years,” he said, flipping the bike over again. I thanked him furiously. “Really, it’s no problem,” he said, finally, heading back to the apartment down the road where he worked so fast I couldn’t even catch his name.

Having lived here for a little over a year now, I have made friends and acquaintances, but even so I experience plenty of moments when I feel completely alone. As a result, I am often inclined to hibernate in my room, distracting myself with fictional characters conjured by the powerful sorcerer known as Netflix. However, this is only comforting for as long as I’m in front of the screen, closed off from real challenges and real growth. The best way to remedy these feelings of loneliness, I’ve found, is to reach out to the universe and to actually be present within it. And this reaching out is impossible to do with fear.  I’m not saying that the fear of theft as a cyclist in Bogotá is unjustified: tall tales within the community have amplified our reasons to feel otherwise. Here you will find it all: thieves, schemers, and strangers who would prefer to not help you instead of potentially risking their own tail. I once even saw a man put spikes in the road to give cars flat tires, likely as a ploy to get more business for a tire store up the road. But you will also find extreme generosity from complete strangers… if you are open to it. Feelings of fear and caution are different: one can be utilized while the other utilizes you.

Things get hard sometimes. Chains get stuck in the gears when you are in the middle of an intersection. The sun folds itself under covers of gray precisely in the moments you would benefit from its light. Moving somewhere new—wherever it is—is always an uphill climb, but I am doing my best to trust that the view from the top will be that much sweeter when I manage to reach it.