Our next venture into Colombia landed us in Bucaramanga, Diego’s hometown. Bucaramanga is nestled into a plateau within the Colombian Andes, and by all accounts seems an idyllic place to grow up. Bucaramanga’s climate hovers at 72 degrees year-round, and the city is internationally renown for its vast array of parks (one of which Diego and his band of his cohorts recently restored to usefulness from its prior state of disrepair). Bucaramanga lays beyond the well-tred backpacker circuit, known as the Gringo Trail, and because we were fortunate enough to spend our time there staying at Diego’s parent’s home, Bucaramanga offered us a rich insight into Colombian life and family dynamics.
By the time we had reached Bucaramanga our group had grown considerably. Once a sleek commando unit navigating city by city at a whim, we were now a full on U.N. peacekeeping force. Diego’s parents had the task of hosting 3 Germans, 4 Gringos, 1 Mexican, and 1 Argentinian, and did so flawlessly. Time to go to sleep? Okay, sleep in Diego’s room while he sleeps on the couch downstairs. Hungry when you wake up? Oh, here’s some scrambled eggs, cereal, fresh-squeezed juice, bread with homemade jam, and coffee. A little too hot for you? Jump in the pool while we grab you a beer. Little too cold? Hold on, the hottub is warming up. Work up an appetite in the pool? We are now serving a three course lunch with avocados the size of your head. Getting a little restless? No problem, how about a drive to the nearby canyon where we can take in scenic vistas from, what else, but a cable car. Still not satisfied? You know Bucaramanga is famous for its paragliding, let’s go. This list could continue, but we think you get the point. Diego and his family welcomed us and our other seven compatriots whole heartedly. However, there does remain one Colombian sanctuary that they did not share so graciously: the soccer field.
After dividing ourselves into Equipo Gringolandia (3 Americans, 1 German) and Equipo Latin America (3 Colombians, an Argentinian, and a Mexican) the Guerra de Americas began. We fell behind quickly, as our American brutishness was no match for the superior skill of our wiley opponents. After much frustration, swearing, and sweating on our part, and much dribbling, passing, and communicating on their part, the dust settled with the scoreboard reading 10-8.
While Diego was excited to show us his hometown, he was even more excited for us to meet his grandfather: El Gordo. Now the first time we heard this, we hesitated for a bit and thought to ourselves, wait, did you just call your grandpa “the fat one?” It turns out that Diego’s grandfather was not only referred to in passing as El Gordo, but that was how everyone addressed him, all the time, to his face. Diego’s mom when he arrived at the house: “El Goooordo! Como esta?” Lining up for another delicious meal: “El Gordo, please, go first.” Just when we had grown accustomed to El Gordo, we soon learned that Diego’s father went mostly by “Negro” inside the home. And this was our introduction into the unique mentality of Colombian self awareness. If you are overweight, your family and friends simply don’t ignore that characteristic, they embrace it. El Gordo. If you have a darker shade of skin than most everyone else in your family. Negrito. (Caveat for our readers, as Diego mentioned several times during our trip, because Colombian society is historically such a mix of cultures and people, the ill-conceived notions with regard to race or skin color found in the States, simply does not apply to Colombia). Now, at its surface level this practice of nicknaming could be written off as sophomoric, demeaning, or even downright offensive.
However, from our vantage point (which is what you are stuck with) this practice seemed rooted in endearment and affection, especially when adopted within the family context. So it’s not that you are fat, or even that we call you El Gordo. It’s that you are OUR Gordo, and we are glad to have you that way.
Of course, outside the bounds of the loving family dynamic this Colombian national past-time may turn a bit more nefarious. As Diego filled us in, “There was always one kid at school who was the best at giving out nicknames. And once he gave you one, that’s it, that was your name forever.” Whatever damage a newly branded nickname might cause to a young school kid’s self esteem, rest assured it would be quickly alleviated by the fact that EVERYONE got the same treatment, and the newly inducted would be laughing at someone else soon enough. How do we know this? Well, here is the list of nicknames Diego and his brother, Felipe, recalled from their school days and rattled off in about 30 seconds:
- Big forehead? Enjoy being called “Pantalla”(movie screen) the rest of your life;
- Round head? Hey Tomate! Get over here. Where’s your friend Cebollita (little onion)?;
- Don’t look Colombian enough? Well, now you are “Polaco
- Big ears? Take your pick: Direct TV or Dumbo;
- Happen to look like Droopy the Dog? You guessed it, Droopy;
- Nothing interesting enough about you to warrant a nickname? Stuck with boring old “Jefe”(boss). Next to “amigo” this is the most common refrain in Colombia when asking for any thing or any type of help;
- Talk too much in class? Take it easy over there Chicharra (cicada);
- Crazy hair? When is “Peluca” (wig) getting here?
And with that, Kermit and Jeneralito over here at SouthAmerWeCan challenge you to take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself, “If I grew up in Colombia, how great would my nickname be?”