Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Before I fly to Colombia, some tips for gringos

Once a year, around this time, I travel with my wife and daughter to Colombia to spend the holidays with my wife’s family. On Tuesday, the eve of this year’s trip,The Gringo Herald-Tribune graciously asked to interview me about our plans. I sat down for a few hours to share my exclusive tips for other gringos considering the journey.
GHT: Thank you so much for taking time out before your flight! Honestly, Colombia isn’t a common destination for gringos. We’re dying to know more about why you’re going there.
Me: It’s my annual trip with my family, and I plan to blog all about it. We fly Wednesday to Bogota, the capital, where we stay in a small apartment with my wife’s aunt, cousins, brother, sister-and-law, niece, a big dog and several canaries. We’ll make a side excursion to Medellin, which once was Pablo Escobar’s native city, but now claims to have the most beautiful women in the world. We then drive to the tropical city of Giradot, a city with more swimming pools than Malibu, to spend Christmas together.
GHT: Interesting. What’s Christmas in the tropics like?
Me: Well, we don’t have Jack Frost nipping at our nose. But we can fry an egg on the street.
GHT:  Sounds like quite the adventure! But how does your family in the United States feel about you going? A lot of Americans worry because Colombia is still on the State Department Watch List.
Me: Fears about Colombia are way overblown. It’s a beautiful country with tons of variety and my wife’s family treats me like a king and pretends they understand my English. The country is way more secure than it was in the 1990s. Besides, when I first told my family in the United States we were going to Colombia, they thought I meant Columbia University in New York City. No, the main worry I have about Colombia is throwing out my back at the airport.
GHT: You mean, while airport security is patting you down?
Me: No, that’s not what I mean. I’m referring to the fact that some Colombians, such as my wife, take several fifty-pound bags resembling body bags when they visit their home country. These bags are filled with a gazillion items ranging from flip-flops to Lego sets to MP3 players, because to buy these imports in Colombia – where Marshalls and TJ Maxx don’t yet exist– is prohibitively expensive. After hoisting these behemoths from the rear of my SUV, I have written the heads of several airlines to lower the weight limit to something more reasonable. Say, 10 pounds. But no luck yet. I have also emailed the CEO of Marshalls asking they move ahead with plans to open one in Colombia.
GHT: Thanks for that helpful information, and good luck. While we’re on the subject, what should a typical American pack on a trip to Colombia? Drinking water, for instance, is a big concern for gringos in Latin America. Do you bring a few cases of bottled water with you?
 Me: I would, but my wife says there’s no room for that in the luggage.
GHT: Er …
 Me: No, the real thing I’m worried about in Colombia is, frankly, the crazy drivers and the air pollution in Bogota. Oh yeah, the lack of coffee lids. Outside of Juan Valdez, Latin America’s version of Starbucks, coffee lids are practically non-existent. You know how may times I scalded my hands crossing the street?
GHT: You’d think they’d have a lot of coffee lids in Colombia.
 Me: You’d think. But coffee lids could be a huge business opportunity for some smart gringo entrepreneurs.
GHT: What about the language? Can you offer any language advice to visitors?
 Me: If your Spanish is basic, like mine once was, restrain your urge to venture beyond simple statements such as Donde esta el bano? (Where is the bathroom?). Because you might accidentally ask to marry someone’s first cousin, Pedro.
GHT: Interesting!
 Me: It’s the equivalent of Latin American natives visiting the United States and saying, in broken English, “My English is good.  I just have a little problem with my bowels.” In short, don’t go beyond your ability.
GHT: Excuse me for sounding argumentative, but if people shy away from conversing with the natives, won’t they miss out on the cultural closeness one discovers by lifting the cloak off foreign customs?
 Me: Run that by me again?
GHT: Isn’t conversing with the natives the best way to feel accepted by a foreign culture?
 Me: For a newbie, it’s just the opposite. Once, many years ago, I tried to tell a group of Mexican men that I was hungry. But instead of saying, “Yo tengo hambre,” I said, “Yo tengo hombre.” Just a slight difference right? But my pronunciation made it sound like, “I have a man.” The Mexicans all moved away from me at that point. That’s how precarious the language situation is.
GHT: OK, let’s move on. Your wife, judging from the photo in one of your blog posts, is an attractive Colombian woman. Are you worried that Colombian men will hit on her? They have a reputation for romance and know how to dance.
 Me: My first time with Ingrid in a Latin country was in Dominican Republic back when I was on chemotherapy, white and hairless as a mole. As I stood in the shade of a palm tree, to avoid sun-burning my chemo-sensitive skin, I saw four shirtless buff young Dominicans approach her. I wasn’t sure, but they seemed to be flirting with her in Spanish. Occasionally they cast a glance my way. Perhaps they were saying to my wife: Why bother with that pale guy who lacks eyebrows? Come with us! We speak your first language, and we will fulfill your every dream. Ingrid, of course, admitted to none of this conversation.  But she still stayed with me anyway.
GHT: So in short, you feel secure in your relationship?
Me: Without a doubt.
GHT: Do you look forward to greeting the New Year with your wife’s family?
 Me: Quick story here. Last year, in the hot tropical town of Giradot, around 5 a.m. on New Year’s Day, loud drunk people paraded around the block and woke me from a deep sleep. They played trumpets out of tune and banged drums. Ingrid’s family also woke up, and I suggested we call the police. They laughed and pointed out that the police were in the parade. It’s a Colombian tradition.
GHT: Well, that about wraps it up. We look forward to reading your blog posts about your trip!
Me: Gracias.  
David Kalish is the author of the novel The Opposite of Everything,  which will be published in March 2014.

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