Probably the best thing of speaking Spanish in Colombia is that you don’t have to learn the names of Colombian men. Instead, you can refer to any man as a maestro. In English, maestro is reserved for someone whose life work is displayed in museums or someone conducting a symphony. In Colombia, you can call someone a maestro just because you like the quality of chips he sells out of a shopping cart.
And then there are phrases such as “Hay un inconveniente.” In English, this could be used, as in the meal you ordered is going to take longer than expected. The waiter might tell you: “Sorry sir, there’s been an inconvenience, the pork sandwich you ordered is going to take an extra 10 minutes.” But if you’re in a Colombian hospital and the doctor tells you, “Hay un inconveniente” this could be interpreted as something more sinister. What you thought was acid reflux really means your kidneys have collapsed and your minutes on earth are counted.
As customer here though, you are always made to feel like royalty. Enter a corner store and the sales clerk greets you with: “A sus ordenes, su merced” (At your service, your mercy). You thank the clerk for such a warm welcome and try to explain that really you aren’t anyone important. You actually just came in to buy $1,500 pesos worth of ice cream and are not worthy of being called: “Your mercy.” To this the clerk promptly responds: “Para servirle” (At your service).
Even the old gentleman with the fleet of dogs by the bus station is always hounding me with: “Me colabora?” (Will you collaborate with me?). At first, I thought he wanted to go into business with me. I then realized by his conniving looks that all he is after, is my petty cash.
Many people complain about riding buses in Bogotá. They claim drivers are brash and the push and shove in the aisle lends itself to sexual harassment. But what you will hear constantly under these cramped conditions is: “Que pena con usted.” When a briefcase is shoved in your stomach, or you are whacked on the head by an umbrella, there follows, this disarming phrase. Essentially it sums up shame, pain and embarrassment into a single Spanish word. Although is may seem genuine, more often than not it’s just a guttural response for acute oxygen depravation.
During one of my English teaching lessons the boss of the company walked into class and made an announcement. He said that during each class, anyone who spoke Spanish would have to pay a $100 peso penalty. The proceeds would then be donated to El Señor del Semaforo. I thought to myself, I have heard of the “Lord of The Rings,” but is there a guy out there called “The Lord of the Traffic Light”? You bet. And it’s not a religion either. Any man who cleans windshields, juggles fire or sells carnations at stoplights is a Lord in the eyes (and rear views mirrors) of society.
Probably the best thing about speaking Spanish in Colombian is that you don’t have to remember the names of Colombian men. A common occurrence when talking Colombiano is trying to keep the attention span going. Often someone may start off telling a story such as: “I was at this bar and a large man with a gold chain, a leather jacket and tattoos asked if I could help give his wife…” Long pause. You then see by the look of terror on your Colombian friend’s face that the needle has slipped off his record. He politely makes eye contact and says: “Se me fue la paloma.” Translation: the dove has left me. In Colombia one’s imagination really soars.
Then you have the issue with the Chinese. You will be going to the movies and waiting in line when your neighbour claims: “Hay mucho chinos aqui!” You look at the line in front of you expecting to see film buffs from Korea, Vietnam and Hong Kong, when all you see are teenagers out on the weekend. So far, no evidence to believe there are Asians in the movie theatre. You turn and ask: “The people in line don’t look Chinese to me.” “Ah no, ‘Hay muchos Chinos aqui’ means that there are just “too many youngsters.”
Getting money out of a bank ac- count in Colombia is like squeezing water from a rock, literally. Hence, when talking like a Colombian there’s a phrase you’ll catch on to: “Me saca la piedra.” You’ll hear it often around ATM machines and mechanics. It’s the Law of Newton under duress. When something goes wrong – just once too often – it’s time to get out the stone. The important lesson here, is not to throw it at the teller, the clerks, or the Chinos. In that case, you’ll be called an “Hijo de…” and this of course, needs no translation.