It is as hot as the Colombians warned you in the embassy
In the UK we perceive the whole of Colombia to be a tropical paradise, although with a turbulent history, so the fact that Barranquilla is very hot doesn’t come as much of a surprise. However, when every Colombian in the embassy in London dramatically remarked “Pero qué calor!” on finding out where I was heading, I realised I was in for something special.
It isn’t just us Brits who are obsessed with the weather, but also Barranquilleros. When not working in a freezing cold building with a/c (they like extremes here), most people seem to be in a constant pursuit of brisa (a windy breeze). Whereas the temperature often peaks around 35’C/95’F (with 80% humidity this feels more like 40’C/104’C), it only drops to about 24’C/75’C in the middle of the night – making it very hard to cool down at the best of times. It is therefore advisable to avoid any strenuous outdoor exercise (even walking more than a few blocks) between the hours of 8am and 5pm if you wish to remain in a socially acceptable state.
I once decided to go running at 4pm before catching a flight to Bogotá later that evening. Despite taking a cold shower afterwards and standing in front of my fan until the taxi arrived, I was still bright red in the face and sweating when I landed in the capital four hours later – like a real Brit abroad.
In spite of all this, many locals seem to be immune to the stifling heat. No-one seems to wear shorts here, but jeans are very common (mine have been gathering dust since I arrived), and girls are constantly immaculate with perfectly straight black hair down to their ankles. Don’t let this fool you. If you take a bus to work which isn’t the public Transmetro, you’d be wise to carry a spare top to change into when you arrive. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for it later.
I once saw a girl wearing a cardigan and a woolly hat. Yes, a woolly hat. I’m sweating now just thinking about it.
Bathe yourself in mosquito repellent
Make sure it’s tropical jungle strength and make sure you have lots of it! As foreigners here we are often told we have sangre dulce (tasty blood), making us prime targets for mosquitoes. During the day it’s generally ok, but if you go out at night and there isn’t much brisa (especially after it has rained) they will come for you! My flatmate already had zika, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes which is ‘muy de moda’ (‘very fashionable’) at the moment according to the strangely chirpy doctor we eventually managed to see.
The main disease to be aware of, however, is chickungunya – a word that strikes fear into the hearts of Colombians like Voldemort does to wizards. Usually characterised by fever, skin rash and chronic joint pain/swelling, there isn’t a known cure and those affected can only lie in bed and wait until it eventually passes. In some cases the joint pain can last for several months and is very disabling, so it’s definitely worth being overzealous when applying repellent – even if this means repelling more than just the mosquitoes themselves…
Learn to whistle… loud
Whilst in England this might have been an important skill in the times of Oliver Twist, it is still pertinent in Barranquilla today. Firstly, many buses don’t have a ‘Stop’ button to press when you want to get off, so grabbing the driver’s attention is key. However, my inability to compete with the vallenato music whilst shouting “Aquí señor, porfa!” in a distinctly foreign accent not only means I end up going way past my house, but it’s also rather embarrassing. On several occasions other passengers have pitied my cries and whistled on my behalf, smiling empathetically as if to say: “Don’t worry my friend, one day you’ll learn.”
It also seems to be an acceptable way to get bar staff attention. In true British style, I could sit in a bar for days here timidly trying to catch the waiter’s eye whilst muttering under my breath about the poor service. A Brazilian friend once tried to call the waiter by hissing at him. I was mortified, and he didn’t like this. “Mi nombre es Juan”, he retorted – i.e. “treat me like a human being”. The line can sometimes be quite blurred regarding what is acceptable!
Even if you don’t want to dance, you will have to
If you go on a night out in Barranquilla, dancing is a big part of it that you cannot escape from. This is, however, quite different to what we call ‘dancing’ in the UK. Rather than half-heartedly fist pumping whilst shouting the words to top 40 pop music, occasionally sidestepping if we’re feeling really daring, people here seem to glide across the dancefloor like they came out of the womb gyrating their hips.
The first time I went to a nightclub in Barranquilla my friends were already shouting “Baila!” at me before I’d even passed the bouncer. They are often both fascinated and concerned by our inability to move our bodies like they can, yelling “Suelta las caderas, por Dios!” (“Loosen up your hips for God’s sake!”) whilst studying me like the subject of a wildlife documentary. Even their simplest moves can prove impossible for our wooden frames, to the extent that I often claim to be lacking a bone or joint that Colombians have in order to awkwardly diffuse the situation.
The often random variation in music styles – from Vallenato to Reggaeton, Merengue to Electro – can also leave you totally lost, as once you’ve mastered an acceptable move for one song it soon becomes clear that it is horribly inappropriate for the next. But locals generally love it if you make an effort and won’t mock you for trying (at least not to your face). Most Barranquilleros also believe themselves to be excellent teachers (simply telling me to copy you doesn’t count!), which can be a great way to meet people and get involved.
Everything is negotiable
Haggling is a sport here and, no matter how reasonable the asking price for something, people will refuse to pay it (except obviously in places like supermarkets). This is very dangerous, as I often find myself tempted to buy all kinds of rubbish I don’t need (pencil holders, lamp covers) simply because I’ve managed to negotiate a better price. As a foreigner, however, this is an extremely important skill because people will try to tumbarte (rip you off) if you look like a ‘gringo’.
In my experience, there are two important linguistic things to note. Firstly, regalar (usually translated as ‘to give away for free’ or ‘to give as a gift’) is used in a very loose sense here. Whilst a street vendor might offer to regalarte one of their arepas, they will still charge you for it once you’ve already started eating it and can’t give it back. Secondly, if someone says pesitos (‘little pesos’) instead of pesos when giving you a price, especially in taxis, you know you are being robbed blind. Saying pesitos doesn’t make the number smaller that comes before it!
When I first arrived and went to buy a Colombian football shirt, the salesman’s eyes lit up as he saw me approaching – I’d hardly shown an interest before he was forcing a shirt over my head and telling me how great it looked on me. After asking where I was from and avoiding any questions about price, he eventually said: “As it suits you so well and we are now friends (are we?!), it would pain me to see you leave without it. So for you, my brother (getting creepy now), I will give you the shirt of the best team in the world for just 50,000 pesitos”. 50,000?! I’m sure it was a very ‘special’ price, especially given how cheap and fake this one looked. “I only have 15,000”, I said, taking it off and giving it back to him. “20,000 and it’s already in the bag” he said, ramming it in as if the plastic bag was a deal breaker.
It was a horrible fit and had a strange flappy collar that I hadn’t seen on anyone else’s shirt before. When I asked why this was, he said: “it’s the new one, not even James has it yet”. Both shocked and impressed by the sheer dishonesty of this unprincipled salesman, I handed over the 20,000 and was on my way. To this day I still have the worst fake football shirt out of any I have seen here, but I feel like I received a 30,000 peso discount… Bargain.