FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS, Colombia has been named one of the happiest countries in the world. I’ve lived in Colombia for nearly four years, and learned a little about the secrets to their happiness. Are there some Colombian customs that we could all adopt in our pursuit for joy? Here are a few ideas:
1. Family values
Family is the most important thing in the world for most Colombians. It’s normal to see a man walking down the street with his arm around his mother. In turn, mothers will spoil their children for as long as they can, which may be why it is common for Colombians to live at home until they get married. It is rare for older people to move into care homes. Colombians see it as their responsibility to take care of their parents as they get older.
2. Dance like no-one’s watching.
During the 2014 Fifa World Cup, many people throughout the word couldn’t stop talking about Colombia’s soccer team, not just because of James Rodriguez’s incredible goals, but because the national team taught us that every goal was a reason to dance. Colombian children start dancing before they even know they’re dancing. Put on a salsa classic and there will be babies bobbing up and down in their prams and five-year-olds grabbing their nearest friend to dance. In many western countries, dancing comes with an unhealthy dose of self-consciousness; in Colombia, they dance like no-one’s watching.
3. A willingness to negotiate and offer freebies
Colombians love a bargain and if you go to a market in Colombia, you shouldn’t expect to pay the asking price for anything — and the sellers won’t expect to sell it to you for that price. If you ask how much something costs, the answer will usually be something like, “It’s $50,000 pesos, but I’ll give you a discount.” When you’re paying, don’t forget to ask for a ñapita (a little something extra for free). Buying a leather bag from a market stall? Ask for a free pair of earrings or a bracelet. Buying a mattress? Ask them to throw in a couple of pillows. Don’t be afraid to be a little cheeky.
4. Elevator etiquette
In Colombia, saying ‘goodbye’ to the people in the elevator as you get off at your floor is considered good etiquette. It feels a bit strange at first, but I like it when a complete stranger wishes me a pleasant day when they leave the elevator.
On Sundays, the main roads in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, are closed to traffic for ciclovía — until 2 PM, families and friends head out with their bikes, skates, dogs, etc. and enjoy some quality time together on the traffic-free streets. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all big cities reserved the streets for pedestrians once a week?
A festivo or puente is a bank holiday or long weekend, and Colombia has twenty bank holidays a year. This is quality time to spend with family and friends, get out of the city for a few days, or go away for a mini-break. There are also many festivals and celebrations, including Carnaval in Barranquilla, the Flower Festival in Medellin, and the Wind and Kite Festival in Villa de Leyva.
7. The ability to look on the bright side
According to a recent report from the RedLat network, which carries out research on multinational companies operating in Latin America, nearly half of Colombian workers earn the national minimum wage, which at the time of writing was $737,717 pesos (less than $250 US dollars) per month. This means that meeting the costs of everyday life is a struggle for a majority of the population. In spite of this, you’ll find that Colombians are some of the warmest, funniest, and most generous people you’ll ever meet. I believe that Colombians value what they have, and don’t get hung up on what they don’t have.