When I first arrived in Bogotá, the experience of living abroad wasn’t new to me; I had lived in Latin America before. But I wasn’t yet ‘Bogo-smart’..! What I really needed was a Bogotá for Dummies guide!
Fast-forward two years and I am now a well-weathered expat/Bogotana; so what pearls of wisdom do I have to impart? Well, I thought that instead of giving advice, I would relate to you ten Bogotá anecdotes to learn from, to help you to anticipate what watch out for and avoid! Now, I didn’t make any of this stuff up; some of these things happened to me, and some happened to friends, in-laws and acquaintances who shall remain nameless (sorry if any of these stories sound familiar to anyone!):
1. Don’t you know who I am??
You work for a multi-national company and have just been transferred to their Colombia branch. You’re chuffed that you’ve been promoted to a position of high responsibility and are looking forward to the experience of living in a new and exotic country. You announce yourself enthusiastically upon arrival on your first day, and you see a big cartoon-like question-mark materialise over everyone’s heads as they clearly have no idea who you are. After a couple of hours of investigation, they establish that ‘ah yes, you’re so-and-so, you’re going to be working here for the next three years on this project, we weren’t expecting you today, welcome’, before everyone disperses and more or less leaves you to your own devices, which includes seeking out an office somewhere in the building, and possibly someone you can call your secretary…
2. Feeling faint
It’s been a long week and you’re finally on your way home from work on a packed TransMilenio bus, being pushed and shoved from side-to-side for most of the journey. All of a sudden, someone ‘faints’ and, as all the other passengers appear to have turned a blind eye to the poor soul, you kindly bend over to help them. 20 minutes later you stop at a kiosk by your building to buy a drink and find that your wallet is no longer in your bag.. coincidence?
You’re at Éxito supermarket and you’ve just used a 50,000 peso note to buy a bottle of water (those good-for-nothing 50s!). You receive a handful of notes and coins in your change, and you know that foreigners are often targeted for not being familiar with the currency. You count your change and find that you’re 20,000 pesos short. “Excuse me, but I’m missing 20,000.” Without the bat of an eye-lid, the cashier says “Oh, sorry.” and hands you a 20,000 note from the till with no further questions. Hmmmmm.
4. The price is ri..wrong
You go to a pharmacy to buy that medication that the doctor told you you need to take for your painfully dodgy ‘Bogo-belly’. It costs you more than you expected, but you’re new to the country and aren’t sure yet of what medication is supposed to cost. The next time you have the same problem, you buy the same medication from a different pharmacy, and instead of being charged $75,000 pesos as you were last time, it now costs you $8000. Sigh.
5. Do you take sugar [pills]?
You suffer from chronic high blood pressure, and go to the doctor to get a prescription for the medication you usually take. A month later, you go to the doctor again and your blood pressure is high, in spite of the fact that you haven’t missed a pill; the doctor tells you that the pharmacy had probably given you medication which had been ‘adulterado’ – tampered with – i.e. you could have been taking sugar pills for the last month.
6. “Taxímetro Adulterado”
“Adulterado” (basically meaning ‘tampered with’ or ‘fake’) is a word you’ll become familiar with in Bogotá. For example, you’re in a taxi, that you’ve ordered from Tappsi, on your way to a private English class that you teach twice a week. You’ve taken this route for the last two months and know how much the journey is supposed to cost, give or take 1000 pesos. You look at the taxi-meter and notice that the numbers appear to be going up faster than usual. When you arrive at your destination, it costs $4000 pesos more than it normally does. When you explain this to the driver he says “Ah, thanks for letting me know. It’s a new meter so I’ll have to have a word with the factory” and then charges you the elevated fare just the same. Hmph.
7. Delivery included (NOT)
You buy a new sofa for your apartment and are assured by the sales assistant that the $50,000 pesos delivery charge is included in the price (and it says as much on the receipt she gives you). On the day of the delivery, the manager calls you to tell you that, actually, delivery isn’t included, and then tells you to grow up when you complain about it.
8. Another iPhone bites the dust…
You’ve just arrived back in Bogotá from your holiday in Santa Marta and the airport is packed. There are long queues for yellow taxis outside the airport, but eventually you manage to get one. You’re checking the Waze app on your phone during the journey to advise the driver on which route to take to avoid heavy traffic. When you arrive back at your flat, you thank and pay the driver and are about to shut the car door when you see your iPhone on the floor of the car just in front of where you’d been sitting. You ask the driver to wait a moment while you get your phone, and with the car door still open, the driver hits the accelerator and speeds off down the street. Needless to say you didn’t have time to catch the license plate number and that’s the last you ever see of your iPhone.
9. Snatch – Part 1
Against your better judgement, you decide to make a phone call while you’re walking down the street. A couple of minutes into your phone call, the handset is abruptly snatched out of your hand and the teenage culprit goes running off with it down the street. You scream to passers-by to stop the thief, and luckily someone grabs the cad by the collar and returns your phone to you. You then call the police, only to be told when they show up that there isn’t a lot they can do as he’s a minor, and if you did want to press charges they would have to keep your phone as ‘evidence’. With a big sigh you tell them to let the boy go.
10. Snatch – Part 2
You’ve just got on the TransMilenio, and suddenly you hear a woman shout out. It turns out that a guy just behind you had jumped on the bus, grabbed the nearest handbag and jumped off again as the doors were closing.
Moral of the Story: Be prepared.. and BE BOGO-SMART!
I always found my boyfriend Javi to be such a cynic when it came to trusting people, but I understand his behaviour a lot better now, and why he is the way he is, having grown up in Bogotá. It also helps me to better understand the Bogotá mentality; it can sometimes feel as though people here show little consideration and empathy for others, but in a way, I think this is part of an internal self-defense system against being taken advantage of. There’s a saying in Colombia (which I rather detest!): “El vivo vive del bobo” which translates as “Smart people live off the dummies”. And in Bogotá, no-one wants to be ‘el bobo’!
If you have any interesting anecdotes which might help prepare people for some of the challenges of life in Bogotá, please leave a comment!