Some people might wonder what the fuss was all about when they arrive at our airport and don’t find a Carnaval party raging outside the airport gate. Instead, they’ll find a rather sad looking road. And if one were to ask what makes this city special? The answer from the general barranquillero would be, “the people.” In fact, it so happens that it’s a place of very exceptional individuals who have a distinct way of living and of finding beauty where it’s not easily found.
According to the last global poll by Centro National de Consultoria along with Red WIN (2015), 89% of Colombians state they are happy with their lives – which means that only 11% of the country is unhappy out of 48,32 million people. Meanwhile, the same study shows that Africa is the happiest region in the world. This poll states that many countries that struggle with problems related to economics, health, education, extreme poverty, war, and corruption, etc. are very much full of happy people. One could expect that having a steady job, health insurance, education opportunities, a peaceful community and even access to advanced technology would be the key to happiness – and yet here are all these people who, to the layman, appear to be in turmoil, scoring top marks for happiness.
These results could lead us to believe that happiness doesn’t come from our particular circumstances, but rather from inside the people themselves. One way to make sense of it is through the eyes of emotion. Citizens tend to describe Barranquilla through the emotion it provokes; it’s no coincidence that the motto for Carnaval, “quien lo vive es quien lo goza” makes reference to the experience and not the content of the event itself.
The people of Barranquilla are known to be very open and expressive, not a quality shared by other regions throughout the country, but more like a unique trait of this northern corner that led to Carnaval being declared a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage in Humanity” by UNESCO. One common way to make friends is by bonding over feelings, and you can do that by just going to the stadium and sitting amongst strangers. In a few minutes, you’ll find yourself enveloped in the celebration, complaining about the referee, bonding over what you like and what you don’t.
It’s not unusual to have the person next to you making comments about how long the line is taking, or how cute a baby on the bus looks. In fact, the number-one go-to comment is “que calor.” From taxi drivers to old ladies, they’ll all agree that no matter how long they’ve lived in this city, we are all suffering from the hot summer sun. Could this be the key to all friendliness and happiness? The fact that we just bond over whatever bothers us? Every year at Carnaval, we see the most despicable figures being impersonated throughout the parade. From Hitler to guerrilla chiefs, the characters come out, and people laugh and boo them. Is this perhaps therapeutic? Who knows? Still, since memes became a thing, no tragedy occurs here without one going viral; maybe this is an example of how having a huge sense of humor can help us deal with all the negativity.
North Americans are often offended beyond belief when they hear how we talk with each other. We call fat people fat, black people black, blond people blond, skinny people skinny, and friends are called gay and crazy with little to no reason. In some ways, there is a lesson to learn behind this – when a particular trait is no longer viewed as a negative thing, but more as a form of description that also can be recalled with love, maybe that is true acceptance of diversity. There is no Barranquillero without a friend called “el negro” (the black one) and it’s very common that person embraces it so much that many individuals don’t even know his actual name. It’s just one way to show love through a trait that is easily related to a person, and it is not about categorizing a characteristic between right or wrong.
That is unique; we might well be the only country in the world where men call their wives fat (gorda), and the nickname is not taken with a pan in the face, but rather, is as natural as calling someone “honey” or “sweetheart.” The extent of our colorful ways of communicating goes from making life complicated for tourists to having a Wikipedia page dedicated to “Caribbean Spanish.”
It’s true that we tend to be too loving, and we don’t always shake hands with people when first meeting them, but instead we go in for a closer greeting like a kiss on the cheek because we include feelings as part of the protocol. Emotion is such an important component of our communication that it allows us to transmit information via feelings and not words, and that’s why we tend to replace the entire half of a sentence with “aja.”
Let’s zoom in on the local way of communicating. Often, you’ll hear things like:
A – “Why did you leave early?”
B – “Because Jessica wasn’t there and aja.”
In this case, “aja” could mean “I didn’t know anyone there, and I would have felt awkward, and I wasn’t in the mood for socializing so I left.”
To Barranquilleros, “aja” makes perfect sense. It’s like a fast forward that ultimately relies on the fact that the other people are empathetic.
Of course, this way of communication doesn’t always work, so we developed two words to fix the problem and show disagreement. The first-word is “barro,” which literally means “mud,” but when used as part of a conversation, refers to feelings of discontent, sadness, disappointment, frustration, fear, pity, fiscal pain, warning, nervousness, and so on. Again, this is based on the fact that the other person is Barranquillero and so understands the context and the meaning. The second word is “eche” which is simply an exclamation of determination.
Under these circumstances, a, completely logical sentence could be “…and I told him that aja, since eche, barro, because aja you knew.”
Translated to commonly decipherable English, this would read, “I said I didn’t want him to call her again since it was making me feel sad, because who wouldn’t be jealous of your boyfriend visiting his ex on a Friday night?”
To the uninitiated, it seems ridiculous but for those who have been living here awhile, it all makes sense. On the other hand, consider the usage of “penis” – here it’s used to describe just about everything. It’s a word that very commonly comes up in discussion – in fact, it’s subject worthy of a whole book so just keep that in mind next time you overhear a conversation where people are talking about penises a lot. They might be talking about open-heart surgery but are too lazy to use the right words.