Monday, 29 April 2013

More than words - Colombia's useful to know gestures

It’s not just Spanish you need to have a decent grasp of to be in a position to truly get by here in Colombia. Okay, there are lots of things outside of the language that are necessary to understand before you can attempt to ‘get it’ here. Some of those, such as relationships, we’ve discussed on many occasions and we’ll probably never figure out; but on a quirkier note we’re going to take a look at what you might call Colombia’s ‘speechless language’ (use of gestures, hand signals and facial expressions that all have special meanings) that we’ve seen used daily here. This list isn’t exhaustive but it details the ones we like the best:

Pedro demonstrating 'tacaño'
Tacaño(a) – Mr. Scrooge
This signal is done by raising one of your elbows and slapping it with your other hand. It basically describes a person who is tight-fisted with money. Of course our mantra has always been there is a big difference between being mean and wise with your cash – we like to think we fall into the latter category. Nonetheless, some Colombians don’t agree it would appear.

Paila - it ain't going to happen
Not good...

Paila – Something’s wrong
The open hand or one finger cutting to the neck gesture signifies that something is wrong or not going to happen. Well, in fact, we’ve seen it used in many circumstances, but it’s always in a negative sense, such as some place is closed so you can’t go. If it’s used for your ‘delectation’, then you need to revise your plans.

Full-up, tetiado
Italianate but Colombian

Llena/tetiado – ‘No space in here tonight buddy’
For those who follow Italian hand signals, this means something completely different – that is something is really good we believe. Here in Colombia though it means a place is packed full of people.

Ladron/ratero - a thief is on the prowl...
Watch your stuff...

Ladron/ratero – ‘Beware, there’s a thief about’
Don’t misread/ignore this one, it could save you a peso or two. When you’re on the Transmilenio* and you see a guy staring at you lightly scratching his cheek, it isn’t just that he has an itch. It’s more than likely a warning that there’s a thief about, so hold on tightly to your stuff. This is not the time – as if there ever is one – to ‘dar papaya’ (see for more on that).

'Lipping' the way...
Over there...

Why point directions when you can use your lips? It works for many Colombians anyway. They’re not being rude, they’re telling you the way to go (we’ll let the fact slip that the directions they give tend to be wrong – it’s the thought that counts, right?).

Demonstrating the height of a person
'He was this high'

‘My child is not a dog’
We never gave much thought about demonstrating the height of somebody until we got to Colombia. Etiquette exists though and if you get it wrong you might upset somebody. To show the height of a person, you put your hand out vertically; for an animal, horizontally. It’s best not to confuse the two. Regardless of the behaviour of someone’s child, you don’t want to give the impression that you think they’re not human – well then again...

Not the brighest in the world
You're stupid boy...

Tonto/idiota/gueva/marica – ‘You amadán’ (Irish language one that) or fool
Two can work for this. The first is a dumb facial expression with hands out like you’re holding a ball under your chin, slightly shaking them. The second is just one of your hands, palm side up, again waving it a little directly under your chin.

'You're not a person, are you?'

Que cagada – ‘What a b****cks!’
When you notice somebody not being very sincere with another person – being two-faced for one – you can express your displeasure (or approval as the case may be) by loosely shaking your floppily held hand at the side of your head.

Montada - back-off please
'Back-off lad'

Montada – Scissor fingers
If somebody’s in your face a bit too much or giving you hassle, use your index and middle fingers as scissors ‘cutting’ the wrist of your other hand to let them know you want them to back off and cut you some slack. If that doesn’t work, make a fist shape out of your strongest hand and aim it with force at the person’s face.


‘Feckin’ hell’
A floppy shake of the hand in front of your body is used when something happens that surprises or shocks you. We’ve got to the stage in this country where we hardly ever feel the need to use this – unless of course somebody turned up on time for an event. So no, we haven’t used it.

Marica - he's a bit gay
'He's a bit camp.'

Marica – Queer/gay
Covering your nose with your hand and gently rubbing it with your thumb and index finger signifies that you think somebody is gay or ‘marica’ as they say in Colombia. Do note that the word marica is used in an affectionate way too; you’ll hear people addressing good friends with it. It’s also used in contexts that may surprise you or for something daft as listed above. Basically it’s used for practically all situations from what we can gather (sure we’re all gay at heart) – so if you really want to point out somebody is gay, use the gesture.

*If you need reminding what the Transmilenio is, see:

 A big thanks to Pedro for demonstrating these gestures - Colombia's next top model perhaps?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Electricity 'storm'

There seems to be a bit of an electricity storm brewing in our quaint home village – one that has been replicated in many places not just in Ireland, but even here in Colombia and across the globe.
Creevy on a 'rare' grey day - but the rainbow adds a splash of colour
Storm clouds gathering in Creevy

It’s over proposals to erect electricity pylons in the area – all part of what’s being described as essential upgrading of the country’s power network by the state-owned company EirGrid.*

Those opposed to them, from what we can gather from afar, have as one of their main arguments that these pylons cause cancer. Of course, as we all know and very often with reason, any mention of the big ‘C’ sends people into hysterics.

However, studies examining the link of such pylons to an increased cancer risk are inconclusive to say the least. One published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 for example, titled ‘Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales’, had the following conclusion:

“There is an association between childhood leukaemia and proximity of home address at birth to high voltage power lines, and the apparent risk extends to a greater distance than would have been expected from previous studies. About 4% of children in England and Wales live within 600 m of high voltage lines at birth. If the association is causal, about 1% of childhood leukaemia in England and Wales would be attributable to these lines, though this estimate has considerable statistical uncertainty. There is no accepted biological mechanism to explain the epidemiological results; indeed, the relation may be due to chance or confounding.”**

Far from irrefutable and plenty of doubt still exists. Indeed, it would seem quite irrational to have the cancer link as your main argument against these pylons. Naturally occurring chemicals in the fruit and vegetables we eat could carry a more carcinogenic threat – just not enough studies have been carried out in this area.

Pylons in the hills around Bogotá
Pylons - eyesores or part of the landscape?
There are plenty of substances in the world that can give you cancer that we surround ourselves with everyday. Yet we tend not to overly worry about the majority of these – it would be illogical to do so and you wouldn’t have much of a life if you did.

Statistics from Britain show that the death rate from childhood cancer is 3.2 per 100,000 children (from about 13 per 100,000 children that actually get the disease) - that's all forms of cancer remember, wherever it was contracted from.

Now put that alongside the estimated 1 in 10,000 chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime, something which could kill you or leave you severely disabled. Also, US stats say you have a 1 in 98 chance of being killed in a car crash throughout your life, but we're not abandoning our vehicles in huge numbers just yet.

Unduly worrying about some life-threatening risks while ignoring others can lead to, not just poor decision making, but even unnecessary deaths.

Take for example the 12 month period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA. Due to the horrific images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers that we all witnessed, this persuaded many to stop flying as a means of transport. The fact that you are statistically safer in a plane – terrorist attacks considered – than in a car didn’t matter. With the extra traffic on US roads as a result of this, it has been calculated that an additional 1,595 lives were lost on America’s highways and byways in the year immediately after September 11, 2001. Lives that could have been saved had people made a rational risk analysis.***

So coming back to the pylon issue, the biggest argument we have against them – much more pressing than the dubious cancer link as far as we’re concerned – is the visual pollution that they’ll bring to the area. At a likely height of about 50 metres (from what we can gather the exact pylon type has yet to be decided), they’re not exactly going to blend seamlessly in with a landscape that has just a mildly undulating topography.

Could the cables they'll carry be put underground? It would appear that international practice is to have them over-ground – perhaps burying them in the earth could be worse for the environment and no doubt would make maintenance work more cumbersome.
'Wrong Way' gets ready to jump...
Extreme sports for Lisacul?

As for many of these often essential man-made structures for the continued development of a country, there exists the case of ‘not in our backyard’.

The experts – and we must trust that this is what they are – who work in maintaining and upgrading Ireland’s electricity supply believe the construction of such pylons to carry the high voltage cables is needed. In that case, they have to go somewhere. This time our little village is in the firing line and it seems pretty inevitable that they’re going to be built – ‘in the national interest’.

As a good friend said, perhaps we could make a tourist attraction out of them. Anyone up for a spot of bungee jumping in Lisacul?

*For more information on the project, see:

**Full report can be found from the British Medical Journal website at:

***For further information on the majority of the statistics quoted, as well as being essential reading on risk, see ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’, Dan Gardner, Virgin Books, 2009.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Playing the 'yes man'

We can be accused of many things here – and have been – but being ‘yes men’ is not one of them. If we feel something isn’t right, we normally don’t hesitate to let our feelings be known about it. This is especially (but not exclusively) so if it’s something that directly affects us.
C. Montgomery Burns of 'The Simpsons' fame
Mr. Burns - fooled by 'yes men'

Indeed we’ve always seen it as a positive thing that we can openly express our feelings without fear of obvious open retribution. Many people throughout history have fought, and died, often in vain, to gain such privileges.

However, after spending much of our adult life thus far crying foul where we’ve seen fit, at times we now wonder if things would have been much easier, in many aspects, if we’d held our fire on some of those occasions. That is, not to ‘rock the boat’ you might say.

It’s certainly mentally taxing fighting ongoing written and verbal battles; and that’s when you feel like you’re winning or at least getting somewhere. If you’re in retreat, things can be pretty demoralising, making you wonder why you bothered with your course of action in the first place.

Of course everybody gets annoyed about things at some stage, but not all of us will ‘go on the attack’ at the first sign of a slight or an alleged wrongdoing. Best practice in most cases is to, at least initially, hold fire.

Some however can bite their lip indefinitely. This is especially so when it comes to work related incidents, where you might be dealing with a ‘higher power’ or those in control of the purse strings. You could call it a tactical, smart move in a way. Stay onside with the ‘important’ ones in your work life, particularly those in the hiring and firing end of things.

We’ve seen such a strategy work for many friends and colleagues – privately they might be seething over a certain issue but publicly they put on a smiley face and get on with things. This though is something we often struggle to do. If something bugs us, we tend to let our feelings be known.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such, what you might term frankness. In fact it can be healthy in many aspects. How you go about it though can be the difference between alienating yourself and gaining respect.
The 'Great' One - George W. Bush
Best practice is to think before a hit

In general, immediately tackling an issue in an aggressive manner – in a verbal and/or written context we’re referring to here – might not win you much favour, be that in the short, mid or long term. Letting things play out a little before you respond could be seen as a good rule of thumb. In a way it’s trial and error. On some occasions ‘striking’ first is the better option – although experience says initially playing it cool tends to be the smarter choice in the majority of situations.

Outside of knee-jerk, emotional reactions usually not being the most effective, you also might need to take some time to make sure you’re ire is aimed – if it needs to be at all – at the right person. Even a nation state equipped with one of the best intelligence services in the world can get this wrong – Iraq is not Afghanistan you know.

For we all have the ability to strike a blow; the key is in knowing when and where to hit, or not as the case may be, to get the result you want. Holding steady and playing the ‘yes man’ can at times be the smarter move.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Republic of Jealousy

If there’s one emotion we’ve come to tame, for the most part anyway, it’s jealousy. Feeling envious of or resenting people because of their status, job, love-life or whatever is something we’ve realised doesn’t get you anywhere. Yes there are times we might look at others and think things are going better for them in certain contexts compared to us, but we tend not to let it occupy our minds for too long. To do so would be a waste of good energy.
Some pretty tasty Colombian ladies
The problems start in the mind

However in those very brief moments of envy, we get a feeling of what it must be like to live with jealousy practically all the time. And it is certainly not a nice place to be in mentally. Yet, from our own experiences and those of many we’ve talked to – both locals and foreigners, men and women – this appears to be a state of mind that a significant number of Colombian women (it may exist on the men’s side, but it’s something we don’t notice as much) live with on a constant basis.

Many will accuse us of wild generalising about this. So we must say that of course it’s not all Colombian women that have these traits but there certainly does seem to be a higher level of it here compared to other places we know. Yes, perhaps we’re just noticing such jealousy more in these parts than other countries, but when so many people refer to its routine existence, there must be some ring of truth to it.

Now if this is an emotion that doesn’t usually affect you, it can be difficult to comprehend why people have such feelings. Those who do strongly sense it though are, from experience,* next to impossible to reason with. No matter what you say to them or hard evidence you provide to contradict their perceptions tends to matter little. Best practice is to just wait for the emotional storm to blow over and make the most of the rare periods of calm.

The type of jealousy we’re specifically referring to is in a relationship/romance context. Indeed as a good Dutch expat friend here puts it – one who knows all about this as much as anyone – it’s not just jealousy. It comes in a ‘package deal’ along with mistrust and insecurity. All three are intrinsically linked.
A 'bunny couple'!
Happy couple (and 'Wrong Way')

To give an example, one of our best Colombian female friends, a married woman in her late 20s – somebody we would rate as level headed and easy going – openly told us that she doesn’t trust her husband**. Why? Well her ‘other-half’ works in the medical profession and one day she picked up his phone by accident to read a ‘thank you’ message from a female relation of a patient he had helped. A nice gesture we thought, but this was enough to send the ‘affair’ alarm bells ringing for our friend. An emotional confrontation with her husband followed.

When you’re a doctor that often may have to work long hours, we can only imagine what kind of heat you get and explaining you have to do when you do arrive home late to your loved one.

Here’s another over-the-top reaction told to us by an expat who brought his Colombian girlfriend back to Europe for a family wedding. At the reception, a long-standing family friend, an older lady, came over to talk to our buddy. A ‘it’s been ages since I’ve seen you’ kind of chat, normal stuff that happens at weddings. The fact though that our mate’s girlfriend wasn’t centre-of-attention and ‘her man’ was talking to another lady was enough to send the Colombian mildly hysterical. ‘How dare he speak to another woman at a family wedding?’

We could go on with similar anecdotes, but we risk putting our own sanity – and yours – in jeopardy.
When you come from a culture where such extreme mistrust/jealousy/insecurity doesn’t really exist, this kind of behaviour can be mind-blowing. We must state however, the old saying that there’s no smoke without fire does come into play among Colombians in this regard (see for more).

The important question though is which comes first, the unfaithfulness or the jealousy? You see it’s a vicious circle. There are plenty of infidelity examples and stories going about the place that only serve to raise suspicions for Colombian women at the slightest sign of potential ‘wrong-doing’ – way off-the-mark as they may be – from their partner. So the interrogation begins, which very quickly can turn into wild accusations and, yes, physical abuse. The kitchen sink and its implements in many cases are quite literally hurled at the accused.
Ted, from the film of the same name, in bed with Mark Wahlberg & Mila Kunis
There's always Ted

Thus, with very little breathing space and a frosty environment, a natural reaction for many men is to look for a break somewhere else. Some can find that by simply downing a few beers with the lads more often than previously. In this land of plenty though when it comes to exceptionally looking women, it can be very hard to resist the overtures of a nice, ‘friendly’ lady when your existing relationship has turned into an entrenched battle where you’re always under the cosh.

With that, the usually imaginary smoke that your partner initially smelled and saw becomes real and is given a source. A quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy.

So you see there are well-being reasons why we haven’t been too bothered to fully ‘commit’ to a relationship here yet.

*There are a few posts to choose from here, but a good place to start is 'Colombia's locas'.

**We don't need to explain that trust should be an essential part of any friendship or relationship. For more on that theme see 'Forever friends'.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING! For some Colombian agreement with this post, check out this short, humorous YouTube video (in Spanish, although it's pretty easy to follow without knowing the language):