Category Archives: #Latino

Whacky Medellin

Perhaps “whacky” is too strong a word to describe some of the differences that I have observed between Medellin and the culture that I usually experience, and no doubt there are many things that North Americans do that appear whacky to Paisas, but at least the title of this blog post is kind of catchy. (People in this region of Colombia are known as “Paisas,” which is a culture that has a Spanish background, and is traditionally Catholic, entrepreneurial, hard-working, and famously hospitable). In any case, here is the whacky in Medellin:

DRIVER ONLY WELCOME. In larger parking garages, only the driver can enter … everyone else has to exit the vehicle at the entrance.

NO SITTING AT METRO STOP. There are very few seats at metro subway stations, and if you sit on the floor while waiting for a train, a nice policeman will tell you to stand up. I learned that firsthand … and the young man was kind enough to help me up when I extended my hand.

BATHROOMS. I could write entire books about this. As in much of Latin America, the bathrooms here are tiny … and most are not a bathroom, but a stall. I you are sitting on the toilet, you must sit up straight if you don’t want your head resting on the stall door. If you want to stand and pee, you’ll have to carefully slide to the left, or slide to the right of the toilet to execute that peeing maneuver because if you’re standing in front of the toilet your butt will be holding open the door. One day I went to a door marked “Hombres” and found only a urinal inside … I guess that men aren’t permitted to poop there. (I did not check what was behind the “Mujeres” door). Lastly, on several occasions I have peed into an open air urinal that is on the wall on the sidewalk or even in restaurants … but at least there are dividers on each side of the urinal so that those who are eating nearby don’t have to see everything.

SIDEWALKS. I’ve written about this on previous trips – don’t bring your U.S. expectations of sidewalk manners to Latin America because you will go crazy if you do. For example, if two people are standing in the middle of the sidewalk and see you walking toward them, they won’t budge … your job is to walk around them, including into the busy street at times. If someone walking beside you is an inch in front of you, they will cross right in front of you to make their turn instead of hesitating a moment to let you pass by before making their turn. I started writing this post at a local library, and on my way into the library a maintenance man was sitting on a bench taking a break with a rake extended in front of him blocking the sidewalk … and the rake did not move, but I did. Speaking of sidewalks, if you get distracted sight-seeing while walking there are any number of things on, above, below, and near the sidewalk that can put a world of hurt on you … such as crevices, rebar jutting out, tree limbs, utility boxes with no lid (to see how your toes or entire foot will mingle with all the electrical wires down there), poop that has been deposited, and who knows what else is down there … and since I am taller than 99% of the people here, my noggin can meet any number of tree branches, food cart awnings, ceilings, etc. To avoid a trip to the pharmacy for bandages, I’m always looking up and down, up and down, up and down …

PHARMACIES. They are very different here. Everything is behind the counter … if you want aspirin, antacids, cough syrup, vitamin C, and many things that you’ll find on the shelves in U.S. grocery stores, they will be dispensed by a pharmacist here. Moreover, you don’t buy whole bottles … if you only want to buy a sleeve of 10 ibuprofen pills, you can do that. I was offered 3 sore-throat lozenges, and opted for 6 instead. So you walk up to the pharmacist (or whoever it is that dispenses the goods from behind the counter) and you tell them your symptoms, and they will show you the medicines that they think you should take (some of which probably require a doctors prescription in the U.S.). Sometimes you can figure out what medicine you are taking (such as acetaminophen that is spelled similarly in Spanish), but other times you have no idea so you just have to trust the prescriber and go with it.

CROSSWALKS. While we’re talking about sidewalks and medical supplies, we may as well talk about crosswalks. What looks like a crosswalk here (with painted white lines on the roadway) is not actually a safe place, and if you assume that traffic will slow or stop for you while you are in the “crosswalk,” your family will be receiving a call from the local morgue. You have to look left, right, up, down, behind you, and then left and right again quickly before darting across any street here. If the light turns green a block away from where you are strolling across a quiet non-busy street, suddenly cars and trucks and busses and motorcycles will slam on the gas, dart off the line, and shoot out of the blocks to see who can hit you or narrowly miss you first. One maddening thing about Medellin (and probably all of Colombia) is that the plethora of motorcycles are permitted to ride in-between the vehicles that are in the traffic lanes. You can be going 50 MPH down the road, or navigating a 3-lane traffic circle, with motorcycles on each side of your vehicle that seem to be only inches away. And these motorcyclists and scooter drivers have no fear … they will take on cars, trucks, busses, anything, in order to cut in front and get ahead in traffic.

SCOOTER TOUR. Last week I made an appointment to see some apartments that are offered by an apartment rental agency, and a 18-year-old kid on a scooter showed up to give me the tour. He handed me what looked like a little kid toy plastic helmet to wear, complete with the severely scratched plastic eyeball shield that flapped up and down in the wind while obscuring my view. Thank God there was a metal bar behind my butt that I could hold on to for dear life while we zipped and darted and careened through town. After we looked at that first dumpy apartment, I really didn’t want to ride any longer nor see another apartment … but I thought, “what the hell … the worst that could happen is that I lose a limb, be paralyzed, or get killed” … so I went for it. After we looked at that second dumpy apartment, I thanked the young man for his time and told him that I would be walking back to town.

CHILDREN AND THE STREET. They evidently start teaching in kids in utero how to stay out of the street here. Many times I have seen children as young as 4 years old or younger meandering next to a busy street while vehicle traffic is buzzing by; meanwhile, parents are standing nearby seemingly unconcerned while they are checking text messages on their phone, looking for the next bus, ordering food at a street vendor, talking with a friend, whatever. Sometimes I will watch the scene in amazement, but other times I simply cannot watch. Fortunately, the kids seem to know just how far they can go, as if there was some invisible fence that would give them a jolt right at the line that separates the sidewalk from the street. Speaking of the street, when cars are stopped at a traffic light you will often see jugglers and other street performers putting on a show in front of the stopped vehicles in order to earn a few coins … likewise, windshield cleaners will clean your windshield without asking your permission while you are stopped at the traffic light (hoping you will give them money) … and any number of vendors will get on your bus to sell you their products, preach the gospel, promote a social service project, or play an instrument for you in order to earn some money.

FULL-SERVICE GAS PUMPS. Remember those? I suppose that somewhere in the U.S. there are still a few of those around, but no doubt you pay more to have someone pump your gas. I contrast, I have never seen a self-service gas pump here. When you pull into the gas station there is an attendant at literally every pump … you tell them how much gas you want, and after you have paid they will pump your gas.

PASSPORT. Unlike other Latin American countries where I was able to carry a copy of my passport, here you will have to show your actual passport to get into many places and/or make credit card purchases. Every university campus that I have visited here is secured at every entrance with gates and security guards who will check your passport (and sometimes take your picture) before you can enter the campus. Banks, municipal offices, libraries, casinos, high-end retailers of jewelry, appliances, etc., and many other places have armed security guards. Nonetheless, one thing nice about Colombia (in contrast to other countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, etc.) is that the security guards here are not standing around with a scowl on their face and packing what looks like a sawed-off shotgun hanging from their neck while their trigger finger is twitching … the security guards here look quite normal.

COFFEE. Sadly, in what is viewed as the Coffee Capital of the World, I suspect that almost all of the best coffee is exported (as is the case in Guatemala). The only place you’ll find the good stuff here is at very expensive coffee houses that cater to tourists. Everywhere else, when you ask for a cup of coffee you’ll receive a 6-ounce cup of coffee that is half milk. If you want black coffee, you have to specify “tinto” which literally means “tinted” in Spanish. At many of the little snack shops and small restaurants that line the streets, your cup of coffee will be served in a tiny plastic cup which seems not much larger than a cough syrup dispenser. Fortunately, your shot of coffee will only cost about 30 cents … and it comes with 3 packs of sugar.

Slow the Gringo Down

I have read that if you get impatient with a Latino service provider that you could aggravate the situation, and today I experienced that very phenomenon.

I was at the grocery store and found what I thought was the shortest checkout line, but after I had emptied my cart on the belt I learned that the family in front of me, after paying for their groceries, wanted to buy multiple gift certificates and do any number of other post-sale activities (including chat with the cashier).

What the hell do you do in situations like this?  Normally I have a book or my iPod with me for situations just like this, but alas not this day.  So you wait and watch, and wait and try to appear invisible, and wait and review the items for sale at the checkout, and wait and consider moving all of your stuff to another line, and wait …, etc.

Meanwhile, the senorita cashier (maybe 19 years old) can´t help but notice my growing impatience, and apparently, decides to stretch the process even more and Slow the Gringo Down.

Finally, after waiting for what seemed like enough time for a baby to be conceived and born, she´s just about to start scanning my items when some young hombre shows up with his few items and persuades her (without too much prompting) to process his sale before mine.  I´m standing there where the bagger would normally be standing, watching this scene.  She did not dare to turn around and look at me, and processed his sale while enjoying a chuckle with him in Spanish.  And then post-sale, she continues to chat with him like he´s an old friend and they just met on the street.

At that point I lost my cool and angrily said to her in Spanish something like, “Young Lady!  A little bit faster please!”  Then the hombre looked at me as if to say, “What the F — is the matter with you, Gringo?,” while continuing to stand in the middle of the lane.  So then I angrily waved at him to get out, and barked “Adios!”  Then he uttered a Spanish word at me that I didn´t recognize, which is probably a good thing.  It sounded like a word I´ve heard yelled at soccer games toward members of the opposing team (or at members of your team if they are playing sucky soccer that night).

Then the senorita decides that she does not know the price of the vegetables and fruits that I´ve selected, and dispatches a coworker with them to the produce department to verify the prices.  At this point I am standing in the lane where I should be, waiting to pay, and looking at her to see if she will at least look at me.  No, she continues to scan the crowd looking for the lost coworker, and, not wanting to make her feel threatened, I too scan the crowd.  After another long wait, and just before I was about to give up on the whole process, my produce returned.

When she finally handed me my receipt, I was so pissed that I was the one that could not, or dare not, look at her.  It was not my finest moment in culturally sensitivity, and I sincerely hope that in the future I will be able to get out my ego and become the observer in situations like that, to be present in the moment and not be bothered even when it seems that I am being provoked.

In any case, grace appeared in the form of Juan, the young lad who appeared to wheel my groceries out to the bus stop.  When he learned I was taking the bus, he dashed back into the grocery store to get me a huge plastic bag that would make it easier to carry all my groceries on the bus.  While we walked the 2 blocks to the bus stop, I learned that he had just arrived from Peru to start law school in Cuenca.  Maybe he should study shoppers’ rights.

Sólo en Español

Tonight we had our first Spanish conversation class at Mestizo Coffeehouse, a funky little multicultural gathering place just west of downtown Salt Lake City. At you’ll catch a glimpse of the vision for Mestizo, including the following statement:

Mestizo was created by artists, activists, community builders and private investors for the purpose of bringing a community center and gathering space to Salt Lake’s Westside. In addition to bringing great food and quality free-trade organic coffee and teas, we share space with our sister organization Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art (MICA), a non-profit arts and cultural institution. Together, we invest in community and youth. We believe in people! We believe in youth! We believe in community!

The conversation tonight was fabulous! Our teacher (“maestro”) is Carlos, a native of Guatemala who has been in the U.S. (I think) about 20 years. His wife and daughter are with him here in Salt Lake City, however his son’s family (including the grandchildren) still lives in Guatemala. I met Carlos through work, and after I told him that I was learning Spanish, he voluntarily worked with me every time he saw me to teach me a little more Spanish.

For this weekly meeting, I requested just one thing – force us to rely only on Spanish. Sólo en español. And Carlos is glad to oblige. For one hour he spoke only in Spanish (with the exception of 2-3 short statements to get us unstuck), and he required us to speak only in Spanish. Yes it was difficult, yes it was frustrating, but yes it is exactly what we novitiates need.

How many Latino immigrants show up in the United States every year not knowing a lick of English, and yet figure out a way to learn English and become assimilated in the culture? They are examples of fortitude, perseverance, and hard work to all us Gringos.

Carlos is an excellent teacher … he speaks slowly in simple Spanish, and patiently repeats himself over and over again if necessary. He’ll give you plenty of opportunities to participate, or leave you be if you just want to listen and observe for awhile. Though the focus in this gathering is on listening and speaking, he also brings handouts to help facilitate exercises and learning.

So if you are in Salt Lake City and want to stumble and bumble and fail over and over, and yet get back up over and over again in order to learn Spanish, come meet us at Café Mestizo (631 West N. Temple) at 6:30 PM on Tuesday nights.

Just remember, leave your English at the door because we are sólo en español.