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.’
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.