Barranquilla is an interesting city. It’s not very tourist-friendly, and generally isn’t a very beautiful place, but it has its charm. It’s the “largest port in the northern Caribbean Coast region of Colombia,” but the closest beach is half an hour away. Before arriving, I imagined you’d at least be able to see the ocean from the city… Sadly not.
Life crawls by in the coastal region of the country. Cojelo sauve. Take it easy. I quite enjoy the relaxed pace in Barranquilla, until I need to get something done. While I find it infuriating, locals seem perfectly happy to stand in line at the supermarket for half an hour, or wait in a bank queue snaking all through the mall. Colombians are always late; their current conversation will finish when it finishes, and then they will head to their next appointment. Shops open late and are then closed for two or three hours over lunch, and the whole town seems to shut down on Sundays.
Costeños are generally very welcoming and eager to show you their city, but I can’t quite agree with the “everyone is so friendly” mantra that is constantly repeated. Cat-calling and street harassment is ridiculously prevalent; my feelings on this will need an entire post to themselves.
People here are industrious and enterprising. There are very few people begging in Barranquilla, and everything is for sale. Buses stop every few metres so a vendor can hop the turnstile and peddle his wares to passengers. As he walks down the aisle – proffering bags of water, sweets, pastries, pens – he gives a practiced sales pitch, forcing his product into your hands, only to take it back later when you shake your head. Perhaps they think holding the bocadillo (a sort of guava jelly square) for a while will make you more inclined to buy it.
Cojelo sauve. A favourite local pastime appears to involve gathering with neighbours or friends, sitting in chairs in front of one’s house, and watching people as they walk by. Or, one in which we frequently take part, visiting a shopping mall to take advantage of the air-conditioning. Because it is HOT here. The average temperature is 30⁰C with 80% humidity. All year round. Maybe that’s where the coastal lethargy comes from. Most houses (ours included) don’t even have hot water, because it’s so unnecessary. I had trouble adjusting over the first couple of weeks, and could be seen scratching at heat rash like one of the many flea-bitten strays who break my heart every day.
The infrastructure in Baranquilla is severely lacking. Last week, it rained for the first time since we arrived. The light drizzle lead to a power failure, which, our building manager informed us, is a common occurrence. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like during the rainy season… We’ve also been warned about the arroyos or flash floods that plague the city because there is no real drainage system. Litter is ubiquitous. I’ve seen pigs and packs of dogs scavenging in the rubbish-filled canals flanking the road to my SENA centre. Large black vultures relentlessly circle the city or perch atop the roof of the market. It’s a rather ominous sight.
One benefit of the climate, and one of my favourite things about Colombia, is the abundance of fresh fruit and juices. On nearly every corner, there’s a colourful cart selling all manner of produce. Green mango with salt and pepper is surprisingly tasty, and jugo de mora (blackberry juice) is amazing. There are also countless stalls where you can grab an empanada or arepa as a quick (unhealthy) snack. My ‘host mom’ Lesly even showed me how to make empanadas while I was saying with her in the first two weeks.
However, the food situation here is generally rather disappointing. Restaurants are very expensive, unless you’re eating the menu del dia at one of the little “plastic chair places”. That usually includes a bowl of soup, some sort of meat, rice (everything here is served with rice), fried plantain or beans, and sometimes a small dessert of some sort for about 8000 pesos. I’m not exactly a fan of the carb-heavy Colombian diet, and my overall happiness has definitely increased since moving into our own apartment a few weeks ago, where I can cook food that makes us feel more at home.
We have moved with two other volunteers, both American, into a very comfortable new home. Our apartment is in a residential neighbourhood in the North – generally the safer, wealthier part of the city. There are a lot of trees around, there’s a bit of grass outside (a rarity in Barranquilla), and there is a little park area close by. It is ‘quiet’ by Colombian standards, although you still hear people yelling at each other from across the street, fruit vendors walking down the road with a megaphone, constant alarms that make you think a nearby bank has been robbed, and music blaring from cars and tiendas.
Public transport is quite an experience. Basically, asking someone is the only way to find out which bus you should take; there seem to be no route maps or timetables of any kind. All I know is I take the yellow Transmecar to and from work. After one rather panic-inducing incident, I now know to confirm with the driver that I’m not getting on the yellow Transmecar that takes you to Soledad. Turns out it’s one of the more dangerous areas in Barranquilla, and I’d rather not end up there again.
After seeing the crazy amount of traffic in Bogota, I’m reluctant to complain about Barranquilla. There’s not very much traffic, really, unless you’re driving through the centre at peak times. But the drivers here are insane. I’m sure there are traffic laws or rules of the road, but no-one seems to be aware of them. There are very few robots in the city (or ‘traffic lights’, for my new American friends); instead, drivers just put their foot down and hurtle through the intersection while hooting aggressively. The hooter can apparently be used to signal a variety of intentions in Colombia.
The terrible driving is best experienced as a passenger on a bus. Worse still, a standing passenger on a jam-packed bus at 6pm, desperately seeking out the slight breeze from the open window. You are squashed so tightly between bodies that your feet are barely touching the floor. The driver careers down the pot-hole-ridden roads, jerking to a halt every few minutes – narrowly avoiding collisions with donkey carts, motorcycles and pedestrians – and giving little thought to the passengers being thrown around in his sweltering oven of a vehicle.
But then sometimes, you get a window seat on a brightly coloured bus on a Saturday, cheerful cumbia music jangling while the driver sings along, and it really feels like you’re in Colombia. It’s a great feeling.