An ode to micro-empresas


Each morning and afternoon as I walk our dog I see them, dotting the walkways along the park or on the corners of the busier streets: small wooden carts, sometimes pushed or with a bicycle seat, generally with an umbrella, each offering neat rows of snacks, sweets and cigarettes.  The fancier ones have glass cases perched at one end, where cups of fruit wait or empanadas steam up the glass.  No matter where you are in Bogotá, you aren’t far from a bag of peanuts or a cough drop.  To my eyes fresh from the U.S., these little carts and stands dotting the sidewalks in Bogotá initially seemed disorganized, unattractive and cluttering the already crowded streets.  Now, I see them as a charming part of the city’s backdrop and something I’ll miss once we leave.

A few months ago the topic came up in a Spanish class and we were all wondering what was the Spanish word or phase used to describe the folks selling breakfast or shoe shines or sunglasses.  Micro-empresas (micro-enterprises or micro-businesses), our professor explained, are an important part of the city.  He said that everyone has work in Bogotá, but not everyone has sufficient work.  A micro-empresa is an immediate way to create a job for yourself, to be your own boss and provide income.  Knowing what I now know about the displaced population, his comment stayed with me.

As I thought about this, I realized there are many more ways people use the idea of micro-businesses than the carts of snacks—clustered around construction sites or office parks each morning are small tables where carafes of coffee sit alongside plastic tubs of rolls and sandwiches.  Some even have small griddles to cook eggs and warm arepas.  I buy trash bags, flowers and strawberries outside the grocery store, from the different ladies who remember me and how I’ll only buy Alstroemeria if the blooms are still closed. Midday you’ll hear tinkling bells as men push wheeled white coolers, selling ice cream to those using their lunch breaks to relax in the park.  In fact, I see the same man everyday, parking his ice cream cart nearby so he can sit and read his pocket sized bible.

Everywhere I go, whatever I could need or want will be there waiting for me. I know that outside concerts or theater events there will someone selling canelazo (hot fruit juice with a shot of aguardiente) or someone else with a cooler of beer.   If it starts to rain, it won’t be long before a string of umbrellas appears amid a shout of “paraguas, paraguas!”.  After replacing my old phone, I stopped to peruse the stand of cases setup just outside the Claro store.  Wherever there is a need, someone will jump up to fill it.

Something novel to me was buying just one of something—one piece of gum or a single cigarette.  Even cell phone usage is available by the minute: you’ll see signs advertising minutos, followed by a price (usually a hundred or so pesos)—basically Bogotá’s answer to the pay phone.  Just make your call from the cell phone chained to the cart and then pay the owner.  From the perspective of someone from the U.S., where a package less than 20 of anything is hard to find, there is something calming about being able to buy only what you need and knowing that it’s always at arms reach.

I like the kind of inclusion that is fostered by knowing people in my neighborhood and by seeing the same faces each day.  In the past I’ve talked about how friendly and open people have been towards us, an observation that has carried over to my interactions with micro-empresarios.  I’ve purchased several things from a jewelry artisan who sets up shop outside a grocery store near our apartment.  The first time I passed by he just said please take a look and I stopped to chat.  Now, he remembers my name and will show me what he is working on or tell me about a friend who can make something else.  I lost a ring I’d bought from him, so I left him with the money and he made me a new one that I picked up a couple of days later.

Or how one morning our friend Taylor and I walked down a busy street, looking for an arepa stand and happily finding one that offered ham, cheese, egg and sausage.  As we waited for the sandwich to warm up, I was chatting with him about the neighborhood and how I’d never seen a breakfast arepa with so much meat.  Catching our gringo vibe, the owner behind the cooktop grabbed a sausage off the grill, doused it in lime and handed each of us a half.  No charge, she just wanted us to have an extra sample and said make sure you come back.  This element of community, of seeing and purchasing things from the same people each day is something that I’ve come to love.  It adds a human factor back into what often feels like a sterile business transaction.

There is another feeling that comes with all of this, that I’ve come to love about our newly adopted city and is difficult to put into words.  It’s a pride of work and a sense that no one seems to be expecting anything.  Coming from the U.S., where I sometimes worry our culture is sinking into the pit of its own privilege, the lack of entitlement is refreshing.

As we were comparing cultural differences in class one day, another of my favorite Spanish teachers commented that she’s noticed how non-Colombians are so easily upset about things and she doesn’t understand the point.  The example she used was traffic—of course it’s terrible in Bogotá, but there’s always another way through the traffic jam.  Walk around it to another street and catch a different bus, flag down a motorcycle driver and offer him a couple bucks to let you sit on the back as he zips between lanes, or just grab a snack and wait.  Her story offered a perfect example of the attitude I was trying to put my finger on: there is always another way.

The longer I live abroad, the more I feel my once rigidly held norms becoming malleable.  Even in moments when frustration bubbles up because of a seemingly silly bureaucracy or because I feel I’m being over charged because of my accent, it passes a little more quickly.  I’m learning to just shrug my shoulders and let it go.  I’m thankful to be experiencing this place and that my worldview is growing.  I’m not embarrassed at my initial dismissive attitude towards the snack carts–the embarrassing part would be if a year in, I still held those views.

8 thoughts on “An ode to micro-empresas

    1. Hi Linds!! Thank you for reading and commenting, we miss you guys too! I was looking at your instagram–I’m so jealous of your tan :)

  1. It really is the small things! I love your love of the microempresas…I remember having similar feelings of the corner shops and street vendors when I traveled. The US concept of buying things in gigantic stores and quantities has definitely drained our culture in a lot of ways. Just be careful buying those single cigarettes, that’s how they hook ya (=

    1. Ooo, I totally agree with you about the whole ‘culture draining’ thing. And hey–you know I left that dirty habit in the past!! I simply noticed the single cigarettes, I don’t buy them. ;)

  2. Oh, how I love to to read your blog! Beautifully written! Such a refreshing and uplifting sentiment….letting things go! It really is so easy to do if you think about it! It’s absolutely fantastic that this adventure of yours is stretching you and moulding you in unexpected ways and it is wonderful to share this experience through your perfectly chosen wise words. You are brilliant and I am so proud of you!

    1. Oh my dear friend, thank you so much for your thoughtful, sweet words. I am so glad you got to experience a bit of this place!

  3. Thanks for your blog! It is really interesting to see how a non Colombian sees the daily neighbourhood life in Bogota. And I’m glad you apreciate it. As an Colombian expat living in Sweden I miss those little things that add charm to your life.

    1. Hi Jairo! I love how living abroad lets you appreciate new things, but also gives you new perspective on those little things you took for granted about ‘home.’ Thank you for reading and commenting :-)

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