Written by: Byron Edgington
Date: March 21, 2017

My wife and I lived in western Panama for almost a year. Serendipity led us to travel across the border to Colombia. We visited Medellin  and fell in love with it. Medellin is not the drug-infested, mortally dangerous, violent and unstable city a lot of folks think it is. It’s a beautiful, green, foliage-crowned city at the foot of the Andes, home to 3 million hard-working, friendly souls who seem to understand how fortunate they are to be living here in Medellin. (Pronounced Med-Ah-Sheen, BTW). Come to think of it, Medellin is a lot like Columbus, with much better weather. Temps vary between 60 and 80 F year-round.

For us the lure of Medellin was like the drugs the city had once been famous for. We indulged, dropped any reservations we might have had, and almost overnight were hooked on Medellin. What did we do? We folded our tent in Panama in late February, and moved to Medellin, Colombia.

During my first week here, I enrolled in the nearby college to better my still weak Spanish skills. In Panama, many folks speak English. In Colombia, not so much. In Medellin, communicating in Spanish is a necessity. My wife and I feel like we’ve been tossed into the Spanish sea without a life raft. This is okay; we welcome it. Classes started, and my teacher (a fellow named John Byron oddly enough), teaches Español in context, weaving cultural nuances and background into each class. In a very short time I’ve learned a few ‘fun facts’ that any potential expat to a Spanish speaking country needs to know to avoid embarrassment…or laughter.

There’s the old language ignorance story, possibly apocryphal, involving the Chevy Nova. General Motors, it’s alleged, had no idea why the mid-size car, which sold briskly in the U.S., had such dismal sales numbers in Latin America. A simple language check revealed that in Español, No Va means, “don’t go.” Would you buy a car named “don’t go?”  Not me.

Señor Byron provided a list of other such ‘fun facts’ about Spanish, and various cultural differences, beginning with linguistic subtleties.

  • ‘Embarazada’: Not the word to use, especially by men, when you slip up, or make a boo-boo. In Spanish, the word means ‘pregnant.’
  • ‘Caigo’: I fall. Pronounced Caw-EE-Go, not Cah-go, which means, ahem, a human activity best accomplished in the bathroom.
  • The verb ‘Coger’ (Co-Her), to grab or take, in Mexico means to literally ‘take’ a woman, yes, for improper and salacious purposes. Don’t tell someone in Mexico City ‘Yo cojo’ un taxi.’ They might chuckle, because you just said ‘I molest a taxi.’ Hmmm…
  • If you see a Colombian person tap their elbow with one hand, it means they’re calling you a cheapskate.
  • Proud of your Spanish skills? Heading to Rio? Guess what? They don’t speak Spanish in Brazil, they speak Portuguese. Yes, they are different languages.
  • Latin American people go out of their way to avoid shaming someone, or themselves. Instead, they’re masterful at passive advisories. Señor Byron offered an example. Instead of ‘No llegue tarde a la clase otra vez.’ (Don’t be late for class again), a teacher might say ‘Es costumbre estar a tiempo por la clase.’ (It’s customary to be on time for class). This extends to the third, sixth, or tenth time a student is late.

Here are some nonlinguistic idiosyncrasies in Latin countries:

  • It’s common to greet people with a kiss on the cheek.
  • Get used to having less personal space, and don’t step back when a local person leans in to you. It’s considered rude.
  • Don’t toss anything to someone, hand it to them. Again, rude.
  • Along these lines, it’s rude to point at someone.
  • In a restaurant, you must ask for the check, ‘la cuenta, por favor,’ because the waiter will not bring it without being asked. That would be considered rude. Also, if they ask ‘tarjeta o efectivo,’ it means credit card or cash.
  • The ‘come here’ gesture, palm up, fingers curling back, is a romantic solicitation.
  • In some Latin countries it’s considered offensive for a woman to offer to buy a meal for a man.
  • It’s not considered rude to be late. Punctuality is not highly prized in Latin culture.

Here are a few general tips for anyone traveling to a strange (that is, different) culture than one’s own, especially a Latin country. Have your passport with you at all times. Here in Colombia they want to see a passport for the simplest transaction. We’ve been asked for ours at a grocery checkout line. If you’re not comfortable carrying your passport, make a copy of the picture page and latest entry stamp.

It’s rare, but it happens: Travelers get mugged. Medellin is a big city, and crime is low here, but it still exists, so we’ve taken smart precautions. I carry a false wallet, one with a few dollars, an old ID, and expired credit cards. If I’m stopped, I’ll either hand it over, or toss it aside to distract the intruder and to eliminate the hassle of replacing things.

Take a picture of your taxi driver’s placard. They’re usually on the outside of the car, and contain all the ID info you might need if there’s trouble.

Don’t flash your smartphone around in a crowd. Cell phones are the number one item stolen in big cities. If you’re accustomed to using it to check the time, buy a cheap watch.

We removed our rings when we came to Medellin, again, in an abundance of caution. Any time there’s a large wealth disparity, it’s wise not to flaunt one’s affluence with gaudy, expensive watches, flashy jewelry and exotic clothes. Also, keep cash hidden, and don’t count it in the open. (Recall the tip about smart phones.)

We love Medellin and plan to stay here a long time. A big, dynamic, very progressive city, Medellin seems to work for everybody. We’re enjoying the exploration, and having access to so many cultural, musical and social venues  Plus, it’s fun to be immersed in a new culture, and to see the differences. Many of them make us question our own assumptions and long held beliefs. I’ll write about more of them next time. Thanks for reading.

  • SoCal

    You might enjoy our new book, “At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories” Good luck to you!

    • Byron Edgington

      I’ll look it up, thanks!

  • Virginia Macali

    Byron–What an adventure you are living!