A few more words from David Kalish, a writer of short stories, plays, and the new novel, The Opposite of Everything.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Awkward Situations in Colombia, Solved
Enjoying my daughter's new underwater camera
GIRARDOT, Colombia — On Christmas Day, as I lounged poolside in this hot tropical town, sweating and reading Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, an email popped up in my iPhone. It was the foreign editor of The Gringo Herald-Tribune.
He sounded desperate. Readers were barraging the newspaper with questions in response to my interview with the newspaper last week – just before I left with my family for our annual vacation in Colombia. I’d offered tips for Americans considering a similar trip, and now the newspaper’s email inbox was flooded. Readers referred to me as “The Gringo Guru.” Would I be so kind, the editor asked, to take a look and send answers via email to the GH-T,which would then publish them?
I hesitated. Here I was, a week into my vacation, full of good cheer from Christmas Eve. The night before, the nine of us – my twelve-year-old daughter, Colombian wife and her family — had spent a decent evening around the tree, unwrapping several hundred presents and dining at midnight, per tradition, on arroz con pollo. What I really wanted to do now was jump in the pool and cool off with my daughter, who in that moment was snapping underwater photos of her cousins with her new Christmas acquisition: a waterproof camera.
But curiosity gnawed at me. I read a few of the reader emails. A wave of empathy washed over me. I realized I’d become some sort of go-to guy on how to endure awkward cultural situations. And my readers desperately needed help.
Hardly realizing it, I began typing responses.
Here’s some excerpts from this morning’s edition of The Gringo Herald-Tribune:
Dear Gringo Guru:
I’m not an arepa man. I’m a Dunkin Donuts man, trying to get by as a banker in Bogota. But last weekend my Colombian co-workers took me to San Gil to an outdoor market, where one of them bought a bucketful of what looked like very dark popcorn. He told me, in broken English, it came from a special native corn. Figuring he knew, I crunched down. My co-workers broke into hysterical laughter. They blurted out the Spanish word “hormiga.” Also known, in English, as ant. I immediately spit up, grabbed the closest water bottle, gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit. My Colombian co-workers reassured me all I’d eaten were ant abdomens, since the local ant chef had snipped off the little heads and legs. I gargled some more. Spit. Gargled. Spit. Gargled. Spit.
Since then, I’ve had nightmares about vengeful insects eating me. The mere thought of popcorn makes me want to reach for the nearest can of Raid. I’m considering a transfer to another bank branch, perhaps in Miami.
– Sandbagged in San Gil
In America, we have the saying, “Don’t eat the yellow snow.” This roughly translates, in Spanish, to “Stay away from black popcorn.” So chalk it up to experience. Then reward yourself with a dozen Dunkin Donuts. Colombia has plenty of ‘em.
— Gringo Guru
Dear Gringo Guru:
Thanks for those great tips last week! Would you mind sparing one more? Here’s the thing. I’m on vacation in Cali with my Colombian girlfriend at her family’s home. But their generosity is killing me! Her family insists on cooking for us morning, noon, and night, and won’t let us eat a single meal out. Yesterday they served cow tongue, and tomorrow it’s tripe. There’s no way I can stomach cow intestine, but I don’t want to insult them. Colombia’s a polite society. What should I do?
– Bob from Kansas City
When your hosts aren’t looking, nonchalantly slide your tripe into your girlfriend’s plate, hiding it under her fried plantains. Quietly tell her she better eat it or else. It will be a valuable test of your relationship. And stop complaining about cow tongue! Once you get past the taste buds, it’s not so bad. My orthodox Jewish grandparents used to serve me tongue when I visited them in Brooklyn, and look at me, I survived.
– Gringo Guru
Dear Gringo Guru:
I’m just about at my wit’s end over the toilet situation. Every fifth bathroom stall I enter has a trashcan full of soiled toilet paper. Needless to say, I find this disgusting.
– Flushed away in Funza
Dear Flushed Away:
The Ruminator assesses the bathroom situation
Sure, the pipes in Colombia can have a tough time handling toilet paper. This happens all over Latin America. But let you in on a little secret. Even when a toilet says it can’t handle paper, it usually can. Here’s my advice, based on personal experience. Go ahead, toss toilet paper in the bowl, just less so than in America. As a general rule of thumb, don’t drop more than twelve squares of paper in the bowl. If you use three feet of paper (twenty squares) in America, I’d suggest half that amount in Colombia. Then cross your fingers and flush. If need be, flush twice. Think of it as a compromise between your needs and the local sewer system requirements. In short, learn to get by with less. That’s what adapting to a foreign culture is all about.