Photo: Barna Tanko/Shutterstock

10 Things That Always Make Me Smile in Colombia

by Kiki Rees-Stavros Mar 30, 2017

1. Those guys that recruit people for the buses.

There are no timetables, bus stops or mapped bus routes in Santa Marta. Every bus has a small hand-painted board in the window with the main stops on it. In busy periods, a man leans out of the open door shouting destinations like a market seller. I learnt the routes through trial and error (mostly error) but still have to stay sharp and track the blue dot on my phone in case they unexpectedly change the route. I never thought I’d miss TFL’s dreaded ‘this bus is being diverted’ but regardless of the chaos, I can’t help but smile when the driver slams the brakes a few millimetres before someone’s bumper and stops the bus for someone to bring him a coffee. Or when he cranks up the volume on a speaker system from a 2002 Vauxhall Nova, and everyone starts singing along to ‘Despacito’ for the third time that day.

2. The bargain shop MCs.

Imagine you’re leafing through a basket of underwear in Poundstretcher and a man standing on a chair with a microphone starts commentating on your choices and suggesting that he’d like to see you try them on. He then starts singing along to the ever-blaring reggaeton, stopping to comment on passers-by, cat-call and occasionally pass them the microphone. This seems to be fairly normal in Colombia. And it’s brilliant.

3. The mannequins.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that mannequins lost their purpose. Initially designed to display or advertise clothes (or even to measure them) in recent years they seem to be designed purely to make women feel bad about their bodies. Not in Colombia. When shop mannequins back home have evolved beyond dangerously thin to contorted and disfigured (looking at you, Riverisland) it’s refreshing to see mannequins that are actually representative of women’s bodies. That’s right, they’ve got booty.

4. Music everywhere.

Although this is far from ideal when you’re hungover, hearing snippets of reggaeton, champeta, and vallenato from all directions almost always put a smile on my face. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when people of all ages are singing and dancing (sober) in the street. Even after you’ve heard the same song ten times that day.

5. Being called ‘mi reina’.

Cat-calling and street harassment is a problem in Colombia, especially on the coast with its Caribbean ‘macho’ culture. And to be clear, it turns my stomach when a man hisses, makes animal noises at me, or asks me if I’m ‘lost’. But I have to admit, sometimes it is pretty funny. When a passer-by says ‘buenos días, mi reina’ (good morning my queen) or a street-vendor calls out ‘a la orden mi reina’ (at your service, my queen) it makes me feel like Khaleesi, and it’s nice to finally get a bit of recognition.

6. General terms of endearment.

‘Mi reina’ is also used by women, along with other words like ‘mi amor’ and ‘mi vida’ (my love, my life) which although sounds pretty intense, are probably the equivalent of calling someone ‘love’ in the north of England. And it makes all of their interactions sound extra cute. I still can’t get on board with ‘mami’ and ‘papi’ though. It’s just creepy.

7. My students.

School is chaotic, and there are a million things that make me want to punch someone in the face nearly every day, but surprisingly the students are not one of these things. After teaching primary school kids, I honestly thought teenagers were going to eat me alive, but for a group of 13-16-year-olds, they’re overwhelmingly welcoming, friendly and polite. And they come out with the funniest shit.

8. Feigning disgust when people try and sell me drugs.

‘Hola amiga, fume weed?’ Gasp, hand on heart. ‘Claro que no!’ …Their reactions are priceless, I’ve actually had people apologize and I’ve had to laugh at how mortified they look.

9. The food.

I tried to not make this about food because there’s a full feature on food coming soon, but I just can’t leave it out. I’ll try to keep it short. Fresh fruit that I’d never heard of until a few months ago and juices on every street, set lunches for the equivalent of about £2, and a street food market that I pig out at almost every day.

10. Other gringos.

Living in a country where you obviously stand out means that you can spot other foreigners a mile off. And after a few weeks, it starts to annoy you how gringo they/you really are. Girls going out to dinner in bikini tops, and guys wandering around the street topless in flip flops. Sometimes it’s like having a mirror held up to you, and I mock them knowing that I’m essentially the same, except I have a weird unearned sense of superiority because I live here. I start wondering whether Colombians think all westerners have dreadlocks, feather tattoos, and ankle bracelets. Are they surprised when they get to the UK and find that no one there wears harem pants?

Discover Matador