The Most Annoying Thing About Colombia

In Brasil: First get your cerveja paper, then get your beer

The worst thing about Colombia is certainly not the threat of being kidnapped. With the exception of Cali, Colombia has felt very safe. It’s not the food. I like the juices, the soups, the beans. The worst thing about Colombia is that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to pay for things at a bakery or corner store.

Well, impossible is probably a dramatic way of describing the problem, but sometimes I feel disbelief, thinking, the Colombian people want to give you me bread, vegetables or a bottle of water but they do not want me to pay for them. Or, in my most paranoid moments, I wonder, do these people at the corner bakery just hate me?

In the United States and Europe, we are used being served in a line. At a bakery, the clerk attends to one client, giving her what she wants, and then rings her up. Transaction complete!

In Colombia, or to be fair, I’ve noticed this phenomenon the most in Cali, a clerk attends to everyone at once. If I gesticulate wildly enough, the clerk at the corner bakery will give me the bread made of maiz that I have grown to love for breakfast. That’s one victory. But then paying is another matter altogether. I basically feel like I have to do facial gymnastics in order to get her to tell me what I owe, and accept my money and make change, because she is giving bread products to someone else. Or just staring into space. Calenos are not closers. They don’t want you to pay them. I have mentioned this to several Colombians and they agree. You are so right, they say. We laugh.

The people who work at bakeries and corner stores don’t necessarily think in a linear way of serving one person and then the next. This all-at-once-but-not-really-closing-with-anyone thing is conceptually interesting. It’s not a very good business plan, though. I have wondered what would happen if I just walked away. But these are neighborhood establishments; for one, I would feel guilty, and number two, they would see me again. So I gesticulate, dance, do everything I can to seem not pushy, but pushiness is really the only way sometimes.

The Brazilians have another way of delivering interesting customer service. Instead of serving everyone at the same time, Brazilian stores create complicated multi-step systems for buying products. It’s quite comical. Once, for example, I went to a farmacia to buy ibuprofen. I was having menstrual pain and wanted ibuprofen asap. First I tell one woman what I want. She writes the product down on a slip of paper. She hands the slip of paper to another person to go get it on a shelf that is literally a meter away. This person hands the box to another person to ring up. With such an intricate division of labor, the farmacia seems more like a hang-out session than a job. Of course, there’s a darker truth behind the absurdly detailed assembly line. For one, jobs like these pay so little (the minimum wage in Brazil is about $250 a month) that there’s no real motivation for the employees or for the employer to create a more efficient system that relies on fewer workers. And Brazilian friends would tell me the education system is so poor that multitasking isn’t expected at minimum-wage level jobs. Still, it’s hard to believe that someone with limited schooling can’t go get the ibuprofen as well as write it down.

The multistep system applies to getting beers at bars too. First you pay for a little ticket with “cerveja” written on it, then you cash in your cerveja chip for a beer. I found the Brazilian way of creating many more steps to be inefficient, but at least they had a linear process. It was a little easier there to actually pay!

Colombians are unbelievably honest though. I must say that makes buying stuff here to be a more relaxed experience than in Brazil. One thousand pesos are about fifty cents, and ten thousand pesos are about five dollars. It’s very easy to mistakenly give a clerk ten thousand pesos when you mean to give a thousand. They always seem to correct you and give you the correct change. In many ways, the Colombians are just unbelievably amable, kind and sweet. Except for that staring-into-space-lady at my corner bakery.