Featured in Women’s Adventure‘s Spring issue “On the Map,” 22-year-old Brittany Bilderback shares this story of her adventures in Colombia. While she’s only been in-country a few months, Brittany says she’s sure that “Colombia doesn’t deserve its mala fama—bad reputation.”
There is a saying in Colombia: No dar papaya. Literally translated, this means, “Don’t give papaya,” which makes no sense in English, but carries a special meaning locally, basically: “Don’t make yourself an easy target.” Don’t leave your purse dangling at your side, or your cell phone in your back pocket, or wear fancy jewelry in lower-income neighborhoods.
Since arriving to Colombia in January, I have been instructed over and over not to “give papaya” on the bus, in the airport, on crowded city streets. This advice, combined with stern warnings from family and friends back home, made me pretty paranoid for my first few weeks here. I vice-gripped my purse whenever I left my apartment, darted my eyes around outside my front gate looking for sketchy strangers, and I continuously cased my neighborhood for the potential dangers surely lurking around every corner.
I soon realized that I had much underestimated this country and its citizens. Despite its mala fama—bad reputation—Colombia and my new home-city of Cartagena feel remarkably safe. The costeños, as the coastal people are called, have a way of life that is laid back and comforting. Women fry sweet dough over wood ovens in street-side stalls. Men sit and talk in the shade of awnings and porches. Street vendors peddle dish towels, window-cleaning services, and fresh fruits with shouts and smiles. On my daily bus ride to the university where I work, I see barbers giving front-yard trims to schoolboys, high-school girls in Catholic-school style uniforms sipping juice out of plastic bags, and workers shiny with sweat strapping lumber to their donkeys. The ‘drug war’ that Americans are constantly informed about seems far away. Costeños, while cognizant of their country’s reputation, are not obsessed with it, and are not afraid. After spending two months here, neither am I.
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Barranquilla, another coastal city about two hours northeast of Cartagena, is internationally famous for its Carnaval. This party is reputed to be second in size only to Rio’s. Taking place for the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, Colombians and international tourists flock to the city to watch the masquerade parade, dance, drink, and in general have a good time.
Given my proximity, there was no way I was going to miss out on the festivities. So, last Saturday morning, I packed a backpack and hopped on a bus. Two hours later, I was jammed shoulder to shoulder between people wearing masks, wigs, black body paint, and spraying insane amounts of foam from aluminum cans.
Fighting my way to the front of the crowd in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the passing floats, I was suddenly foam-attacked. My unknown sprayers aimed for my face, and I was instantly covered. I couldn’t see a thing—eyes, ears, nose, and mouth were full of sticky blue bubbles. Spitting, snotting, and wiping the mess away, I didn’t even think about my purse hanging idly at my side. I’d overcome my fear of robbery and had let my guard down—foolishly. As soon as I could see again, I inspected my purse. Sure enough, wallet gone. I never even saw the foam-culprits.
My first instinct was rage. How could I have been so naïve as to bring a purse? But rage soon gave way to awe: as soon as the crowd surrounding me realized what had just happened, I was cocooned by Colombians clamoring to help. One man offered his cell phone for the international call to my bank to cancel my credit cards. Another woman helped me out of the fray and into her private, gated-off viewing area (and didn’t charge me the entrance fee). Still a third man offered up his apartment, close to the parade route, for me to take a shower and clean up. A group of five young Colombians personally escorted me to that apartment, where I was given a fresh towel and a cold beer. An hour after the incident, I was clean and dry and back out on the parade route. With the help of one stranger’s cell phone and another stranger’s internet, I had already taken all the necessary steps to get my cards and my IDs back.
The existence of pick-pockets in a crowd is nothing unique to Colombia. I should have known that, even though I’ve become comfortable and feel secure here, places like Carnaval are going to present a risk. But this risk is no greater than a New York subway or a California night-club. In crowds of any size, you still can’t “give papaya” and expect to come home with a full wallet. However, the way that those strangers-turned-friends reacted to help me reconfirmed what I have learned about Colombians, and is what truly makes this country remarkable: they are the most incredibly generous and kind-hearted people I have ever met during my travels!