If I had to choose one word to describe daily life in Colombia it would be noisy. Every morning I wake up to the sound of a man wheeling his cart down the street yelling ‘AGUACATE!!!’ (avocado), and then I am deafened during my walk to work by constant, totally unnecessary car beeping before six hours of teenagers bouncing off the walls. I think I love and hate Colombia for this. Here in the city of Santa Marta, everything is very basic. You’re lucky if you manage to find a place to live which is furnished and even has a washing machine, buses are tiny odd looking vans with about five seats and no door and hot water is also a luxury. Not that this is a problem, before I arrived I did not realise just how hot it would be. I thought I was used to the heat after a year of living in Spain and Portugal, but apparently not. It is summer all year round and temperatures rarely drop below 30 degrees. The worst part is definitely the humidity and I even enjoy rainy days here now because it’s such a relief to cool down! I’ve also lost any embarrassment I ever felt about sweating profusely. Sweating is a fact of life and besides, it’s a good way of getting rid of all the toxins in your body and it cleans your pores too!
That being said, when it rains you know about it. At the moment it is rainy season, which means that most days I still wake up to blue skies and walk to work in sweltering heat, and most days it will be like that when I leave work too. A few times a week however, there will be an aguacero around 5pm-6pm, just in time to hit me on my way home. An aguacero is when the skies open and the heavens pour, often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Although the aguacero doesn’t last very long, it leaves its mark by causing arroyos, which are floods in the street. This is due to the layout of the city in blocks and to the fact that the guttering system is rather flawed. There are often pictures in the newspaper of cars swimming in particularly bad areas, and I’ve heard stories of people walking in water that goes up to their waist. To help combat this, I often see people laying down mini bridges to help everybody cross the road at traffic lights before scooping them back up again when the lights turn green. The problem is said to be particularly dangerous in Barranquilla, which is a two hour drive from Santa Marta.
These are the things I noticed within a few days of being in the city, but the truth is that after three months, Colombia still surprises me with peculiarities everyday which I would never find in the UK. One of the first things to startle me is the fact that you can buy water in bags. You can buy small bags, medium bags or big 5 litre bags which you carry like a baby all the way home. At first it felt odd to sit sucking water out of an airtight bag, but now it is a part of my daily routine to arrive at school, buy una bolsita and rip it open with my teeth before squeezing it empty in under two minutes.
Returning to the noisy calle, one of my favourite aspects of Colombia is its love of colour. Particularly on the coast, many houses and tiendas are small, square blocks which stand one after another but which are all painted in a variety of bold colours, and shop and business names are often written in block font. For me this gives life and character to the city, and reflects the vibrancy of its people. Moreover, even though Bogotá is renowned for its impressive graffiti tour, the fact is that throughout the country there are remarkable examples of street art on every corner, each one telling a different story. England is known as the home of Banksy, but it would seem that there is a Banksy lurking in every neighbourhood in Colombia!
Another popular mode of transport is mototaxis. At first the thought of getting on the back of a bike and diving into the chaos that is Colombian traffic frightened me to death, and it still does a little. I have however used a mototaxi a total of two times now, a fact which my mother will no doubt disapprove of, but both times the roads were quieter and the drivers were responsible and went slowly. They are a whole 3,000 pesos cheaper than a taxi and given the volunteer stipend I receive it is a saving I cannot refuse.
If you do happen to be sat in a car in traffic, you will most likely have somebody waving a cloth and mop at you trying to wash your windscreen in 30 seconds before the lights change, or try to sell you bags of water or sweets, or maybe you’ll be in luck and there’ll be a have-a-go magician throwing fire or pins in front of you. I always feel bad when I see some poor guy juggling away only to drop all his balls on the floor.
Similarly, regardless of whether it is a ten minute journey to the beach or a mind-numbing 22 hour trip to Cali at the other end of the country, if you take a bus in Colombia there will be people hopping on and off at regular intervals selling everything including coffee, plantain crisps and a whole range of fried snacks. On my way to Cali it became a source of entertainment to see what the next guy was bringing on to the coach in his basket of goodies!
But on a serious note, this is reality for many people in Colombia. People have to live and work in the heat and through aguaceros, and it is much the same for street vendors selling fruit, arepas and meat skewers as it is for the guy giving your windscreen a quick wipe. They are just people trying to make a living and for me it is one of the biggest examples of real life, it is simply how Colombia operates. No doubt I am missing a whole host of strange happenings, but it will only give me more to write about in the future. For now I can only implore you to visit Colombia for yourself, whether it be passing through as a backpacker or staying a whole year like myself. Some things will irritate you, some things will offend you, some things will seem bizarre and some things will make total sense, but everything will surprise you and that’s the fun of the adventure!