Written By Tony Hawker
Thrown out of the Shakespeare Bar next to Victoria Station, I hobbled into the Hotel Chez Gerard Restaurant, passed the pianist, three-piece suit waiters and plonked myself on a freshly arranged table in the corner of the room. Oblivious that I had attracted the attention of the entire floor until I caught an intoxicating but riled latin accent implore, “arrre jew okay?” Management soon joined this breathtaking waitress and proceeded to throw me out but not before I could ask where this beauty was from, grab her number, and commence my infatuation with the beautiful country of Colombia.
With each date I fell for Sofia harder and harder. She didn’t have much money however insisted on paying when it was her round for drinks. She was emphatic about inviting (when a Colombian invites you it means they pay) me to a Colombian restaurant in Islington which was four times the amount she would have spent if we were actually in Colombia. Crunchy empanadas, plantains with guava and melted cheese were so foreign to my taste buds but left my stomach craving for more. I knew this girl was a keeper. With everyday my fixation for Sofia grew alongside my love for Colombia.
There were seven Colombian girls living on Seven Sisters Road, Finsbury Park, next to the fish market in a small four bedroom apartment. They were the most breathtaking women I had ever encountered. I had entered a harem. The girls, all mid twenties, highly educated, experienced, with obsolete Colombian degrees found themselves working at McDonalds, Subway and cleaning offices and toilets as a second job while studying English on a student visa. London is tough for Colombians. A bachelor degree in Colombia involves five intense years of study with no time for a part-time job. Colombians work hard or suffer the consequences, there is no welfare and minimum wage is $250 a month. Keeping this in mind, you will not find happier people in the entire world. Hence the expression, Colombia – poor but happy.
Sofia’s slanted room could not fit a second single bed so her cousin slept on skinny pullout trundle mattress. To welcome me, seven Colombians and eight invited guests cooked a lunch. The chicas (hot chicks) were from different Colombian departments (states) where typical food slightly differs due to climate. We settled on Sancocho, a slow cooked soup celebrated all over Colombia with slight variations but traditionally made with corn, chicken, many kinds of potatoes, plantains and herbs. With no lounge room I was impressed to see fifteen Colombians use a ladder to climb out of a window to fit everyone on the roof. It was summer and it was sunny meaning twelve girls were sunbathing on the roof while the three men prepared the Sancocho. I bought plenty of beers for everyone, Salsa, Vallenato, Reggaeton and Latin pop music was blaring and lunch was promptly ready by Colombian standards, at 9:30pm. Entering the kitchen I noticed a pin-board with everyone’s name, including mine. Sofia explained that the people that bought the food were owed money. My bill came to 13p for potatoes, 50p for chicken, 20p for corn and 75p for vodka. Then I noticed everyone’s list had 1.10 pounds to Tony for beer, I laughed, this is ridiculous I told her, seriously consider it a gift. In London Colombians have to be very careful with money as their Peso is incredibly weak against the British Pound.
The household was a family, sharing everything, documenting expenses and loving life in the western country. Colombians craved the company of other Colombians and when a student visa was up, there was never an issue to fill an empty bed. There was an assembly line of Colombian goddesses waiting in the wings, everyone knew a Colombian needing a bed and a job in London.
I soon learnt Colombia was the capital of plastic surgeries. Out of the seven girls five had work done from ears, nose, tits, arse to lipo. Colombians are passionate and hot blooded in every way; love, sex, fighting, dancing but especially about Colombia. They will tell you many amazing facts about their home to straighten your views about their country. In a kitchen drinking session I learnt many remarkable things about Colombia these are the five I remember.
1. Colombia is never spelled with a ‘u’.
2. Second most bio-diverse country in the world.
3. Responsible for more than 60% of the world’s emeralds.
4. The beautiful women have taken their body shape from African women, their smooth skin from Spanish settlers and their anti-aging genes from the Native Indians.
I discovered that stereotypical jokes and narrow minded views about drugs, crime and honesty were unwelcome. They are a battle Colombians face daily with everyday people as well as governments and immigration. A lesson we learnt all too well while planning our trip to Europe.
Travelling with a Colombian became a bit of a problem, they need a visa for most countries and every application is a big dent in their pay. The Republic of Ireland was even off limits so most bought tickets to Northern Ireland and snuck into the south. It’s not that Colombians can’t obtain a visa it’s just that it costs a lot of time and money. In order to apply for a European visa they have to; apply thirty days in advance, purchase return tickets and pay for accommodation. There was no guarantee their visa would be approved, meaning they could lose a lot of money. To be on the safe side Sofia applied ninety days in advance, to the Belgium embassy, paid for flights, but with her income, could only afford to book accommodation for four days. Ridiculously, the visa came through eighty five days later for a period of nineteen days. Still to a Colombian this was quiet the ticket into Europe. More accommodation and flights were booked to extend the trip to cover as much Europe as possible in the nineteen days. Unfortunately something was lost in translation, upon arrival in Brussels Sofia discovered that it was only a four day visa to be used within a nineteen day period. So much money lost and so little time to see Europe, sometimes, living poor but happy is a hard reputation to live up to.
I started to notice differences in the girls, Sofia explained some personality traits can be traced back to the department the girls were from. The house included Paisas, Rolos and Consteñas. Paisas are from the northwest region of Colombia. These girls are from the city of Medellin, they like to joke, exaggerate stories, are loud and social. The Costeñas, from the coast, loved to party, dance, drink, sing and really live life to the fullest. Rolos are people from Bogota, there is a generalisation that they are uptight and reserved because they come from a cold, busy city but I found them very considerate. Whilst in the kitchen Rolos never ate a meal in front of someone without sharing. If I hadn’t completed a shop and a Rolo was cooking they would make sure there was enough for me even if their plate was half full. It might have only been tuna and rice but the gesture was incredibly touching, and would remain off the expense chart.
Like all visas Sofia’s eventually ran out but I was not ready for this obsession to end. We tried long distance from Australia but there is a 15 hour time difference and it could not continue for much longer. I thought about our relationship daily, it seemed like a dream in London and I felt Sofia and Colombia pulling away. I couldn’t let her slip through my fingers, not when there is so much magic between us. I had witnessed how Colombians live in London but now it was time to experience how they flourish in their homeland. I booked a ticket to Bogota and told Sofia I would see her soon. It started off as a two month trip, that was all that the visa would allow, it turned out to be so much more. I thought I knew Colombia, I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what this wonderful country would teach me.
- Colombian Culture (mademan.com)