Be it taxi driver, hairdresser, relative-in-law, or friend of a friend at a party, when meeting new people in Colombia there is an awkward moment when they ask the same questions: “Do you like Bogotá?” and then the one that bothers me: “And your parents, what do they say about you being here?”
I can’t work it out. Is this just one of the social niceties a foreigner must learn to navigate in Colombia, or is it a genuine question? What if I didn’t even have parents, or if they have actually disowned me for abandoning them? Wouldn’t that be quite awkward explain within 5 minutes of meeting someone? I am lucky to have supportive parents, but I’m sure I’d hate the question even more if the case were different.
To answer “y tus papas, ¿qué dicen de que estas aquí?” I usually stick with the neutral “they’re happy that I’m happy” but can’t stop myself from adding that I haven’t just been ripped from the warmth and safety of the nest aged 26, and thrust into the big bad city (“welcome to the chaos” the locals often say) and explain that I’ve lived in various different countries over the last eight years, as if I have to justify myself.
When an older friend asks about my family and I tell him my youngest sister has just moved out, he smiles, “ah, is she getting married?” I have to compose myself to explain that it’s not a prerequisite, that she’s been wanting more independence for years. A taxi driver tells me, after asking me the question, “Well, we do overprotect our children here in Latin America. Mind you, I don’t agree with the way you gringos do things, all so detached. That’s not right either.” I don’t disagree.
Perhaps it bothers me because I’m horrified at the thought of being ‘mummied’ and treated like a child. But with Colombian ten-year-olds talking like toddlers around family members, the idea of being ‘consentido’ or spoiled, is what every loved and adored child enjoys here, until well into adulthood.
I spent my first few weeks in Bogotá perplexed by the babies I saw being carried in the streets. On the TransMilenio, I imagine I could easily get offered a priority blue seat at rush hour by wrapping up a bundle of clothes inside a pastel coloured 100 percent polyester blanket. No one would bat an eyelid, because on the streets of Bogotá, a baby’s face is rarely seen.
I asked my friend Toño “why are the babies wrapped in thermal blankets, with their faces covered, even in 18 degree sunshine? Isn’t anyone worried about them suffocating?”
He told me: “it’s basically because of three things. People still believe that Bogotá is a cold city. They’re afraid of the ‘sereno’, an old superstition about cold humid night air at high altitude. People think it will make them ill, especially the children.
“There’s also still a belief that if the wrong person looks at your child in the wrong way, they’re putting bad energies, or a kind of curse on your child.” That wasn’t an answer I was expecting, but it makes a lot of sense. Parents want to protect their children, it’s that simple. “Lastly,” Toño told me, “I still sleep with my face underneath the covers. It’s a way to be completely relaxed.”
A Peruvian friend who stayed with an English family in her teens complained, “you people are so cold.” I wonder whether it works both ways. If I was a foreigner in the UK, would people ask after my family? The question they’re asking me must be because they want to know: “If I travelled to a different continent, leaving behind the world I know and the people that love me, what would they say to me?” I’ve done it, but I’m still asking myself the same question.
Alfredo Molano, a Colombian journalist and sociologist who has dedicated his life to traversing this country’s most remote parts to tell the story of its people, has a point: “The price you pay for independence is loneliness, but independence is a link to your dreams.”