I recently read a blurb about a “Happiness Barometer” survey of over 55,000 people in 54 countries which revealed that Colombians were the happiest people in the world. In fact, the study says they’re about two times happier than the global average. We discussed this in Spanish class one day and my professor said that she had a hard time understanding why foreigners get frustrated so easily, because most Colombians keep in mind that there is always someone else who has it worse and that there’s always something to be grateful for.
Looking back on my experiences these past eight months, I realized that one of the things I’ve come to love most about our life in Bogotá is the principally happy, friendly, and caring nature of the people we meet.
A quick preface—I get nervous talking about “Colombia” like I am some kind of expert and just to be honest, I try to shirk away from blanket statements. Let’s acknowledge from the get-go that there are people everywhere who are rude or looking to take advantage of others. Those people exist here in Bogotá.
Meeting other travelers and locals I’ve heard all kinds of stories—stories of someone’s phone grabbed while riding Transmilenio, a laptop stolen from under a car’s seat or cab drivers fixing the meter to overcharge you. While I haven’t personally had one of those experiences, I’ve definitely had moments where I felt like something fishy was going on and just walked away from a stranger mid-sentence.
There is a Colombian colloquialism advising you to not dar papaya—which basically means, don’t give people a reason to take advantage of you. Perhaps it’s my personal view on the world, but I think these experiences are the exception, not the rule. And that isn’t what this post is about anyway!
Now I’d like to begin with a few stories and a blanket statement about how I’ve been treated well by many strangers I’ve come across here in Bogotá.
We use a dog walking service to take Charlie out a couple of days a week and one day the dog walker called me after class. Mind you, my Spanish at this point hovered somewhere between that of an infant and laughable and so once I heard the words pelea, veterinario, and grave my adrenaline kicked in and I really couldn’t understand. I walked into the administrative office (I was still at school) and as one person immediately took my phone to find out what had happened, the other two ladies in the office held my hands and kind of patted me (which sounds weird but was so natural I didn’t think twice).
Another day a guy selling these lotto tickets (I am still not quite sure what they are) was trying to get me to buy a few and a couple interrupted him and said “no thank you, she’s with us” and ushered me away, explaining that it was a scam and he’d probably try to grab my wallet.
Another day I fell while riding my bike into a HUGE mud puddle—I was covered in mud from shoulder to foot—and a gentleman who was walking by ran across the street to lift my bike off me and help me up.
I didn’t have to ask for help, people just saw a need and helped. It’s strange and wonderful to me that when people see someone in trouble they don’t stand passively by, they act.
I’m not ashamed to say that when I am paying for a service or meal, I like to be treated nicely. I remember reading in our guidebook before a trip to London that people often find service in the UK a bit cool. Actually, I think it was more of a comment that “Americans expect to have their butts kissed” or something like that. But that being said, each time we travel somewhere new I try to adjust my expectations. Well, the U.S. has nothing on service in Colombia. In fact, service is so friendly that I’m not exactly sure how to respond when I enter a business because I am immediately accosted by friendly greetings—hello, good afternoon, how’s your day, welcome—all said in succession.
Another cultural difference that I’ve come to appreciate is that people are interested in making human connections. People (not friends, just regular folks I see every day while coming and going) ask how I’m liking Bogotá, if I miss my family, how’s my husband…it goes on. If I see someone I know, it’s expected that I kiss their cheek in greeting and ask how they are doing. Instead of the “fine, see you later” that I’m used to, they will give an honest answer. If I see someone I don’t really know, I introduce myself and continue with a little chat. In San Diego, the security guy outside the bank didn’t care who I was and I was lucky if my neighbors remembered me. Of course, sometimes I have to tell myself it’s ok to be late so that I can spend a few minutes chatting with someone because the benefits outweigh the ‘stress’ of tardiness. I like the kind of community this fosters and I think it has helped feel more a part of my new home.
From an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be much more importance on interaction with others and a politeness that I think is fading in the U.S. I especially think of this fact when I remember how we were treated by Cody’s new coworkers during our first weeks in Bogotá. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary when folks invited us out to dinner or asked how we were settling in.
However, it was surprising that this inclusion in people’s lives continued after our first month in Bogotá and I was really surprised that people were concerned with how I was feeling. In fact, people helped me find volunteer opportunities and offered connections to help me find a job.
As people consciously included us in their lives, I couldn’t help but think of culture in the U.S. and how there is a tendency to have a work social circle that is clearly distinguished from the home social circle. A person can’t help but change while living abroad and I hope to take with me this openness and culture of inclusion that I’ve encountered in Bogotá.