As a foreign person in Colombia, all your interactions with all people will leave a very vivid and long-lasting impression on them. This condition has a name. It is called by this author, Charlie Sheen Syndrome. This condition is best summed up by the famous saying by the actor of the same name, “…I expose people to magic, I expose them to something that they will never otherwise see in their normal boring lives, and I gave that to them. I may forget about them tomorrow, but they’ll live with that memory for the rest of their lives. And that’s a gift.”
This peak performance party mood is only sustainable for a few hours a day and there will be other times when you will be in the supermarket and all you want to do is buy some chorizo and milk, you aren’t in the optimal state of mind to explain to a casual shopper why you left Cancun to come to Bogota. There will be other times when you want to chat your taxi driver’s ear off about the latest Matthew Mcconaughey film, but he is busy text-messaging. This of course is unacceptable. As a foreigner, you should be the center of attention every second you want to be. To get the taxi driver’s attention you can say, “Parcero, parame bolas (Pay attention), I’m talking to you.” This phrase, parar bolas (stand up balls), should only be used by the most intrepid of the people who are learning Spanish because this phrase almost seems like it should be banned to me because it sounds almost to be X-rated.
This is just one of the many colorful expressions and words here in Colombia. Another I hear often is when I compliment my girlfriend each time she fills out some paperwork (mostly banking transfers or various visa related documents) for me which I have no clue how to do. “Soy una chica muy pila,” she explains to me as if stating the obvious. The literal meaning of this phrase is, “I am a very battery girl.” In Colombia, someone who is a battery (pila) is a smart and organized person.
As a fan of DVDs from dubious origins, I purchase a lot of DVDs that are not exactly of paramount quality. So, I have learned to use the following phrase when describing a DVD which is unwatchable. “Esta chiviado.” This means the DVD was either recorded in the back row of the movie theatre or the actors are speaking in Russian or some other god forsaken language. In Colombian Spanish, chiviado means false. Usually after hearing this word the vendor will immediately offer an exchange for another DVD. If he still looks at you with an expression corchado (confused), you can say, “It looks like the guy who recorded this DVD was scratching tequila (rascar tequila or getting drunk) for at least 8 hours before he brought the video camera into the movie theatre.”
Speaking of DVD sales, there is a lady in my neighborhood who has a Laundromat/DVD store who has become like a member of my family. She claims that she can get any title of any DVD within a week, all you have to do is write the title of the DVD, the year and the names of the main actors. There was one DVD in particular that I had been looking for here in Bogota but couldn’t find. The title in English is, “Being Flynn” (2013) with Robert Deniro. So, I went to my preferred DVD store and wrote down the information. “No problem, I can have that title within 2 days.” When I came back to the store 2 days later, she came to the counter and communicated non-verbally with me by putting two fingers to the side of her throat and said, “paila” (cooking pot). Basically she was saying with the word paila and the gesture that means “Game Over” for me and my DVD, she couldn’t get it unfortunately.
When my neighbor Giovanni goes shopping he always complains about “los pelados” (literally the bald people) throwing extra items in the shopping cart which costs him a lot of extra money. For a long time, I imagined a bizarre super market where bald people hang around the aisles throwing things into your shopping cart. It was until several weeks later that it was explained to me that pelados usually refers to small children. In this case he was saying that his children (and not a gang of bald people) were the ones guilty of adding the extra groceries which were costing him more money at the checkout.
As many citizens of Bogota will tell you, there is currently the problem of taxi drivers augmenting their meters by a special button inside their taxi. This button is usually on the stick shift, on the floor by the gas pedal or on the bottom portion of the seat. How you can tell is that the taxi meter under normal circumstances will go up once every 2 or 3 seconds at a constant pace like a heart beat. When the taxi driver is using this button to augment the meter, the numbers will click 3 or 4 clicks rapidly instead of the standard one click at a time. So, if you find yourself in a taxi that is overcharging you, you can say to the driver, “Se dio garra” which literally means, “You gave me claws” or in other words “You overcharged me.” He will then look in his rear view mirror and give you an innocent expression like he has no idea what’s going on. Not wanting to cause a fuss you can say, “paila” and hand over the money for the inflated cab ride.
In the case of Maria Corina Machado (The Hillary Clinton of South America and the founder/former president of the Venezuelan volunteer civil organization Súmate). In Venezuela she was repeatedly charged with misappropriation for funds by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Machado did not take kindly to these accusations. Machado has the distinction of being one of the few public figures in Venezuela who was willing to stand up to Chavez. Whenever accused of misappropriation of funds, she would yell back at Chavez, “Deja de fregar Chavez, it is you who are the king of misappropriation of funds and I am holding the proof right here in my hands,” she yelled as she displayed the paperwork in her right hand (the proof Chavez was skimming money). Deja de fregar can be literally understood to mean, “stop scrubbing,” as if Chavez was had a huge scrub brush and was working away at Machado with it. A more succinct meaning of this expression is just that it means “stop messing with me.”
When the country of Peru is mentioned, one imagines a peaceful scene of an Andean alpaca grazing along an Incan stone wall. When Ecuador is brought up, we imagine a rain forest panorama of frogs jumping off branches while butterflies mate in the background. When Colombia is mentioned, we envision a post-apocalyptic city full of overturned buses, being pillaged by men in ski masks. It is obvious which country any rational person would seek to avoid while searching for an internet bride.
“48,000,000 Colombians Can’t Be Wrong” is a true adventure story about a 37-year-old socially-awkward man who decided that the best way he could deal with a life sentence of microwavable burritos and 10-hour Facebook marathons was to look online for a girlfriend in Colombia and then hop on a flight to Colombia’s capital in pursuit of a woman he has never met.
During his first month in Bogota, Brian falls in with two white, self-assured backpackers who the author describes as, “…not the kind of guys who pump the brakes before going through an uncontrolled intersection.” He is then nearly kidnapped during an encounter with a woman he met online, almost becomes business partners with a Korean man in the “diamond business” and is forced to sleep in the DVD room of his hostel due to lack of funds.
Brian quickly regroups after his first month and auditions for the part of “congressional aide” in a Colombian feature film called “Left To Die.” He then lands a job as a writer for an English-language newspaper where his first interview is with a “suspected undercover CIA agent.” Brian then gets thrown off a TV set for refusing to take off his shirt from under his police uniform. While Brian is not getting thrown off TV sets, he marvels at all the discarded construction materials Colombians throw into pot holes to lessen their depths. Because of this strategy, a bus going over one of these open trenches (full of construction materials) will occasionally sling a chest-high brick through a group of panic-stricken pedestrians.
Brian sincerely believed this trip would put him on a track towards a life of excitement, intrigue and exotic women, far from his increasing first world debt. Instead, he unexpectedly falls into a job as an extra in a Colombian soap opera, has panic attacks, watches other gringos lose their marbles and blows half his paycheck on bootlegged DVD’s. Along the journey, he chronicles his friendships, the deranged ex-pats he meets, and his struggles/triumphs, including one fateful night in a Israeli restaurant that would change his life forever.