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The expat's guide to Bogota, Colombia The expat's guide to Bogota, Colombia
by Joseph Gatt
2019-06-29 10:00:06
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Everything you wanted to know about Bogota but did not dare to ask.

For starters

Bogota is incredibly modern for a Latin American city. There are many shopping malls, all the major brands are represented, you have parks, cinemas, the restaurant scene is excellent, you can travel around this beautiful country, and Colombia has one of the most diverse flora and faunas in the world.

bogota01_400Bogota's streets run parallel, like New York City, and all avenues (carreras) and streets (calles) are numbered. So it will be very easy to find your way in Bogota. People tend to be nice and friendly, and there are many places to hang out. Supermarkets are cheap and food is plentiful, and you won't complain about the food.

There are problems with traffic jams and safety, and there are some cultural traits that your probably need to understand.

The weather is mostly 20 or 25 degrees all year, with cool mornings and sunny afternoons. It does rain, and there are a few days when temperatures drop. But there are no “seasons” in Bogota.

Cultural traits

You need to understand that there's a wide disparity between rich people and the average guy in the streets. The average guy in the streets will mostly talk about women and football, and will use a lot of swearing when he talks. Rich people tend to discuss politics and business, and tend to frown upon any use of swear words. Hang out with your crowd wisely. If you hang out with the average guys too much, you might accidentally have slips and accidentally use “fue puta” or “marica” by accident. In the presence of rich people, such slips will cause a long silence, lots of coughing, and you probably won't be invited next time around.

Some might say rich Colombians are incredibly snobbish. They don't listen to Shakira and will prefer “Mozart” or “Opera music” (although they will listen to Shakira and Juanes in secret). They pretend not to care about football (although they all watch the game) and they pretend to have read a vast body of literature (if you want to hang out with them, read French, Latin American and British classical literature, and if they mention a book, always claim you've read it). The snobbery doesn't end there. They will discard poor people as “fools” and will expect you to know absolutely everything. Everything! So if you get asked a question, improvise a vague answer, don't claim that you don't know.

The average person in the streets will be a lot more relaxed. But the average person in the streets shares everything, namely food and money. If you buy pizza or a sandwich or an arepa, you're going to have to share it. Your friend might even take you to the café and expect you to pay. Or your friend will want a sandwich and ask you to pay for it. People in Colombia are comfortable with this.

Colombians use very, very precise language. For example, if you're going to play a football match with them, they will list all the rules very precisely, although they won't always apply the rules. When women discuss shopping, they discuss every single detail on that dress or those shoes they bought. And if they're describing their lunch, they're going to go through every detail of the food, including taste, texture, saltiness, every single ingredient and many other details.

Some safety tips

Again I like to start with the good stuff, but I'm going to have to go with safety. The most common form of crime is hold-ups and pickpockets. Hold-ups are a little scary, people will put a huge knife on your back, tell you to put your arms in the air, and someone else will start searching for your wallet. Don't carry too much money with you.

ID checks are very common in Bogota. So unfortunately you need your passport or resident card with you. Random arrests are common, so even when you've clearly done absolutely nothing, the police could ask you to follow them to the headquarters for questioning. You might even spend the night in jail for no apparent reason. If that happens, tell the police you want to remain silent and only speak in the presence of a lawyer. They'll either release you, or bring a lawyer, and tell the lawyer they arrested you for no reason whatsoever. But don't be rude or panic if that happens, remain kind at all times. If you're rude, they're going to invent a motive to arrest you.

If you witness a crime, cross the street and pretend nothing happened. Don't ever call the police, because the police will think you were involved in the crime. If you get in a car accident, and the police take you for questioning, be precise about what happened and give them every detail. Don't stop police officers to ask them questions, as they might arrest you for doing that. If possible, don't stare or look at policemen.

If there's an armed robbery, you have two options: run to the nearest exit and get out. If you can't, get on the floor. A Swat team will probably come and gunfire could be exchanged. Safety tip: if you hear a dog or dogs barking loudly, that's usually a sign something dangerous is happening. Get in a taxi and go home or drive to your destination. Avoid empty streets, the more crowded the street, the safer.

Working in Bogota

Colombian workers tend to be formal and incredibly inflexible with the rules. If there are rules or laws, they will always refuse to bend them. If work finishes at 5 PM, they will get their jackets on at 4:50 PM and the minute the clock hits five, they're gone. If you tell them to stay, they could argue with you, they will leave anyway, give you the silent treatment the next day, or even refuse to show up to work the next day.

Any breach of the work contract will anger your Colombian workers. Pay them on time, give them the exact amount, tell them to show up on time and leave on time, don't keep them stuck at work, don't give them work not in their job description.

Now the irony is, Colombians are sick and get in car accidents all the time. A lot of Colombian workers are late of very late for work, and despite that will insist on leaving on time. Colombian workers take an incredible amount of sick days, usually one or two days a week. So if you're smart enough you want to give them something like 10 or 15 days authorized sick days, and the rest will be unpaid leave.

Colombian workers also spend enormous amounts of time on the phone chatting with their friends when they're supposed to be working, and they will quit or refuse to come of you call them on that. So the general idea is, if they're getting the work done, don't take it too hard on them.

Going out in Bogota

Everyone in Bogota owns a bicycle. There are several paths you can bike in, and on Sundays, the entire carrera septima (7th avenue) is reserved for biking. Many people ride bicycles in their free time.

There's a huge concentration of swimming pools in Bogota, most are very clean, and in most cases swimming caps are mandatory for hygiene reasons. Lots of people swim laps in Bogota.

A lot of people in Colombia play basketball and a special kind of football. They don't play on large field, but on small handball size fields, and you're not allowed to shoot inside the zone, and corner kicks are thrown with your hands like a touch, not with a kick.

There's a restaurant scene and a pub scene. Now people in Bogota love their French fries and you'll get French fries with everything. Almost every meal anywhere includes a load of French fries. Most food has a lot of pork in it, so if you keep Kosher or Halal, you're going to have trouble finding good restaurants.

In Bogota most Colombians will get you to try arepas, basically stuffed sweet bread with cheese or ham in it. And every Colombian will try to get you to eat ajiaco. Colombians expect foreigners to hate ajiaco, and I made many, many friends simply by liking it. It's soup with Colombian herbs and corn, and to me it tastes good, but to many, the herbs taste like medicine.

Pubs can be tricky and rumors have it a lot of pubs add a shot of alcohol in the beer to get you drunk faster. Night clubs are also a little tricky and all kinds of people get scammed in them. Choose your pubs and clubs wisely.

Final notes

Colombians are very patriotic and expect foreign people to be able to sing their national anthem. When the national anthem plays, everyone sings along. Always make it sound like you're having a great time in Colombia.

Always call Colombians by their first name and never call them señor or señora. Señor or señora is used only when arguing with people. In most of Colombia usted is for friends and tu is for people you're not acquainted with, as in with store clerks or with taxi drivers. Otherwise always use usted.

If you speak Spanish, you can speak really fast with your friends but slow down your pace when you talk with rich people.

In Colombia, it's better not to tell anyone where you live, perhaps not even your girlfriend. Also don't show off about anything you possess, don't discuss your pay, lie about your line of work, and when people ask you what you're doing, simply say “I've been sent here for a few months.” The switch the conversation to football and ask when Colombia is playing the next game.

Finally, try your best to learn Spanish. Speaking English is frowned upon, even among the elites. If you're American, always specify “soy gringo, de los buenos” which means “I'm a gringo, but one of the good guys.”

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