Colombia, A Land of Paradoxes

Dr Saidas M. “Sai” Ranade
Houston, Texas

March 29, 2014; Revised May 4, 2014

I have made several work-related visits to Colombia, S.A. during the past five years. They say that Colombia is the rising star among the South American countries. I agree whole heartedly with that assertion. I love the country and the professionalism and the customer service orientation of the people of Colombia. Recently, I returned to Colombia for a ten day visit after a gap of almost two years. So, I was able to observe and note changes and trends. The observations below are mine. They are not meant to be demeaning but aimed at generating a dialogue about cultures, behaviors and progress.

When I mentioned to a friend in the US that I had returned from Colombia. He thought I meant Columbia, South Carolina. What is the difference between Columbia, S.C. and Colombia, SA? There are more Colombians in Columbia, South Carolina than there are in Colombia, S.A.

Avianca is the flag carrier airline of Colombia, S.A. It is owned by Synergy, Inc a Latin American Holding company of a Brazilian Company. Its main hub is the El Dorado Airport in Bogota Colombia. The terminal in Bogota is always jam-packed and they are making money like crazy. Yet, the system is operated like a cash cow. The bathrooms at the Bogota terminal are in bad shape. I used the toilet and realized that they had a single common roll of toilet paper outside the stall for all stalls. I had to do the waddle to get to the toilet paper. Avianca’s motivation for this design is totally unclear. It could be the obsession of Colombians with paper. Another rationale is that the world is splitting in to two groups: A large number of poor and a very small number of filthy rich. May be Avianca has decided that it can make money simply by better serving the few VIPs.

Avianca airlines has one of the largest fleets of Airbus planes that unfortunately spend most of their time on the GROUND. If you are traveling between two cities through Bogota airport assume your actual travel time will be four times the actual flight time. May be the slogan for Avianca should be: “Avianca: Una de la mayor flota de aviones … en la tierra.” Every Avianca flight I took was late by at least 15 minutes. Several flights from Bogota airport were delayed by an hour. Also when things go wrong the staff do not feel it necessary to inform the passengers.

On a positive note, the ticketing clerks seemed very efficient. My bags arrived in a timely fashion and were not lost so the whole baggage handling process is very good. And, the new terminals in Cartagena, B/manga and B/bermeja are very nice.

Paper napkins: I have been to restaurants in many cities in Colombia. They bring a lot of food and then one small napkin to go with it. When you ask for more napkins they bring what looks like a small stack of napkins. However, on close examination it turns out to be a single napkin folded in a triangular shape to make it look like several napkins. The motto of Colombia should be: “Cerveza si, pero no servilletas.”

Colombia is a God’s orchard. It is a heaven for vegetarians. That is a great endorsement from someone who is borderline atheist and does not believe in traditional heaven. There is absolutely no reason for Colombians to eat meat. Fruits like Pineapple, Blackberry, Lulu, Banana, and Strawberry grow everywhere.

Colombians have cornered the culinary skills market. Many chefs in restaurants receive training and certification from SENA. They seem dedicated to their craft and service at most restaurants is very good. Pharmacists in Colombia also seem to be very knowledgeable. Again this may be due to the SENA certification process. Unlike in the US, they take their time to explain options.

Crepes and Waffle is a Colombian chain of restaurants that only employs single mothers. The menu is innovative and focused on health. I ate at a Crepes and Waffle restaurant near Hotel Rosales Plaza in Bogota and the food was fantastic. They have added new menu items like Guava in almond-milk (Guajaba en leche de Almendras) and many items with Avocado. They even have a vegetarian crepe named “Gandhi.”

I saw a homeless guy in Bucaramanga. He had a cell phone and when he asked for money I noticed he had perfect teeth. Colombians have mastered the craft of taking care of their teeth. They are obsessed with dental care. Many Colombians brush their teeth five times a day. Braces are very common.

Colombian men and women like to talk. Conversations are long, rich and soothing. So if you are trying to meet someone from Colombia better have time and learn Spanish.

The Colombian culture seems to be one of pretenses. You are what you appear to be. So, most Colombians dress up for breakfast at hotels. People with titles wear mostly Ralph Lauren shirts and talk and walk slowly like Marlon Brando in the Godfather.

Every corner in each city seems to have the same essential material elements of survival: food (comida), an ATM machine (cajero), beer (cerveza) and cellphone minutes (cellular minutos).

Dangerous Americanization: Five years ago many mom and pop restaurants offered fresh fruit juices such as Mango, Pineapple, Blackberry, Guanábana and Tamarind. Now the common choices in the same restaurants seem to be Lemonade, Orange juice and Coca Cola. The American values of “time is everything,” fast-food and preservatives is fast penetrating the Colombian culture.

There is food everywhere yet Colombian women seem to be relatively slimmer. I think it may be due to all the walking they do each day.

Colombians seem to be obsessed with upward mobility. Work gives meaning to lives of Colombians. They take it seriously and hence are committed to service and quality. Colombians, like probably many other nationalities, seem to love material stuff but I did not see many temples or churches. Spirituality does not seem to be an area of interest at least for most Colombians I met. I attribute that to two reasons. For the masses, the hardships of day-to-day living do not permit any time for spiritual discourse. As Ramdass once said: “You have to be a somebody before you can be a nobody”. Colombia has had relative stability only in the past 10 years. So, I think the first priority for many Colombians is material security.

The idea of good introductions seems to be a missing art in Colombia. Here is a scenario that has happened to me many times: I am walking with a Colombian professional. He sees one of his friends.They have a conversation and I end up simply waiting on the sides until the conversation is finished. Colombian men seem to be especially reluctant to introduce their male friends to their wives or girlfriends. In general Colombians do not like to invite foreign visitors to their homes. This is very different than say in India. Indians are eager to invite foreigners and visitors to their homes and are better at introducing visitors to their family and friends. Colombians, in general, do not seem to be generous in terms of spending money on friends. I have seen more generous (in terms of wealth) people in India which has a much higher poverty level than Colombia. A Colombian woman friend of mine confirmed for me that Colombian men and women desire money and status and are pretty open about their quest for power. For many Colombians relationships are an opportunity for upward mobility. This is not uncommon in many other cultures.

Bogota is like every major city in the world. It simply has too many people. Bogotanan’s or Rollos and Rollas struggle daily with pollution and traffic problems. In Cartagena there is big new investment in the refinery but I think the wealth has not trickled down to the poor. I saw long lines for food stamps for children in Cartagena. Most Colombians will say that there is no racism is Colombia. I think that is true relative to the United States but racism does exist in Colombia. Most of the people in the food stamps line seemed to be black. I also saw more native Indians and blacks doing menial work.

Juan Valdez Cafe is significantly better than Starbucks. The coffees are less strong. They have perfected the “Traditional Chai” recipe. I had Chai at Juan Valdez cafes in almost every city I visited and it always exceeded my expectations.

Colombians seem to lack discipline for standing in lines. I have seen that same behavior in Houston among many different cultures. I saw chaos and shoving at lines at airport gates. At a grocery store in Barranca a man stood with two items. Hoping that that the line will move faster than the others, I stood behind him in the checkout lane. However, he was only holding the spot. In minutes, he was joined by his son (hijo), his wife (esposo)and a cousin (primo)each carrying six or seven items.

In airplanes Colombians look very serious. They do not talk much with one another. On one of my flights from Barranca to Bogota, there was major turbulence and I saw the guy next to me saying a prayer and doing the sign of the cross with one exception. This guy did like 11 or 12 steps. I said “I have never seen anyone do these many steps in a prayer.” He replied: “Five are for me and the rest are for you.” I think I will need those steps to deal with the comments I receive on this blog.