Of the 36 countries I have visited in my life, Colombia is hands-down the friendliest. A close second was Egypt, a country where (at least in 1998) strangers would lean out of upper story windows to welcome us to their neighborhood, take us by the hand to lead us where we needed to go, and invite us in for a glass of mint tea and a good chat about how crazy our governments were.
But Colombians win for just sheer happiness. They are thrilled that we speak a bit of Spanish. They think our children are gorgeous. They love that we enjoy their food. When a rule imposes a burden on us, they try to coach us in how to get around it. I have yet to have an interaction — including with bureaucrats, mind you, a profession typically marked by its fiercely can’t-do attitude — that didn’t end in smiles, laughter and best wishes. Unlike in the US, when a Colombian behind a counter smiles, it reaches all the way into their eyes.
However, three months here has taught me that there is a vast chasm between personal friendliness and actual customer service. In Santa Marta, there seems little to no attention paid to the comfort or convenience of a customer’s experience. Why post hours or prices when you can just show up and be surprised? Why pay online when there are so many friendly bank tellers happy to help you when they are done with the forty people in line in front of you? Why announce holidays in advance when all locals know that the city will completely shut down for a day? What’s weird about waiting around for a couple hours to see if the person who can help you shows up? Grab an empanada and hang out!
Russia also lacks the customer-service cultural gene, but it felt very different there. In Moscow, the three lines and lack of signage seemed designed to mess with me. “I’m going to share the pain of enduring a lifetime of this dark and dreary culture with you, you miserable worm,” Russians seem to say. Here, the wonky systems are simply part of the landscape, something that just is, like the unrelenting heat or the Caribbean Sea.
However, as someone whose current career focus is on patient experience (how to tailor the systems and processes in health care to the needs of, you know, the people using the system) and who suffers from an a over-developed appreciation for efficiency (also apparently a culturally relative value), this Colombian attitude is perplexing. I vacillate daily between re-designing their systems in my head while I stand around waiting, and marveling at the party atmosphere surrounding their completely f*’ed-up processes. The music blares, the fruit vendors gather, and everyone smiles. And you almost forget that it has taken two hours to pay your cell phone bill.
Everything in Santa Marta is just a little too for me. It’s just a little too hot; I can feel my brain start to soften and melt around the edges around 11am, and it doesn’t firm back up until after dark. The colors are ever-so-slightly too bright in the sunshine — the men all in the bright yellow futbol jerseys of Colombia’s national team, the women in neon green halter tops and hot pink shorts. The fruit juice and the coffee are delicious, but served a bit too sweet for me. There is a constant smell of fish guts and salt air and sweaty people and garbage and sometimes urine. And the noise. From 6am to 8pm I can hear the shouts and pounding of ubiquitous construction, the “Papaya papaya papaya” and “Aquacate aquacate aquacate” and “Tamale tamale tamale” cadence of street vendors, often through electric bullhorns. And honking. Honking as, “Notice I’m running through this stop sign or pulling out randomly in front of you.” Honking as, “Need a taxi?” Honking as, “Hey, there.” I have yet to be in a vehicle that goes more than 97 seconds without honking. Every roving ice cream vendor has jangling bells. Every tienda has thumping bass. In the center of town, men with PA systems announce what’s for sale in their store. As if we can’t see that the fabric store sells fabric.
The local restaurants all have televisions blasting futbol games or dubbed American movies. In the middle of the night, locals pull their cars out onto the beach below our windows, open the doors and windows and crank their reggaeton during a 2am swim. Sometimes it’s drowned out by the wind howling around our building, sounding like baby dragons calling to each other.
But as I get used to it, I wonder: will my US life seem flat, bland, stultifyingly beige after this interlude in Santa Marta?