As someone who’s now lived on four continents, I like getting help from people when I don’t know what I’m doing. Whether it’s not speaking the language, not knowing which bus to take, or just a general ignorance as to what I should be doing, the average dude coming over to me and helping out can make a huge difference. But, as I’ve seen in Colombia, this sometimes backfires when trying to make a somewhat odd purchase.I’ve pretty much gone veggie here in Colombia because of the ridiculously cheap fruits / vegetables and watching my guest mother prepare meat a few too many times (needless to say, I’m happy she at least cooks the hell out of stuff before she gives it to me). I never cooked or was around people who cooked when I grew up, and of course college didn’t really help my cooking skills, either, so my style of preparing food in Colombia is basically stir frying with olive oil. Despite the simplicity, I absolutely love the results, and I cook once or twice a day.

To supply my new addictive hobby, I walk just a block down the street to a local tienda / vegetable store. I’ve been doing this for about the last month, using my broken Spanish to say hello and ask a question or two if I can’t find exactly what I’m looking for. I got strange looks when, at first, I would put each group of vegetables into its own bag and search through a whole bin of tomatoes or onions for the day’s best batch. I’ve adapted to the local culture (people here often buy somewhat rotting vegetables and just b0il the hell out of them) since those first days of veggie shopping.

But last week, I was somewhat embarrassed when the woman at the counter asked me if I wanted lettuce instead of cabbage. I, actually, did want lettuce (the lettuce at this tienda is always pretty bad so I just don’t buy it) but I hadn’t chosen cabbage by mistake. After living in Seoul, South Korea, before moving to Colombia for the Peace Corps, I fell in love with Kimchi (a spiced and aged cabbage that is served with EVERYTHING and at all times of the day). I don’t make Kimchi or anything close to it, but I do fry cabbage in a wok, which happens to agree with my taste buds immensely.

Cabbage Or Lettuce?

Cabbage Or Lettuce?

I didn’t think I would be able to explain this whole situation to the woman in front of me, and after a quick look at the rest of vegetables I was buying - tomatoes, onions, carrots, cucumbers, garlic - I realized how she could have thought I had made a mistake. I said that yes, I did want the cabbage I had handed her, that in fact  it was one of my favorite vegetables. She gave me a look that didn’t seem to believe what she was hearing, put the cabbage and the rest of my vegetables in a bag, and I went home feeling somewhat embarrassed.

What this moment made me realize - somewhat to my own surprise - is that Colombians have (in certain circumstances) very predetermined opinions of what kinds of things people should buy. This isn’t a great description of what I’m trying to convey, so remember this cabbage story while I introduce to other situations that demonstrate my point.

My friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Tyler lives and works in Barranquilla (the same town as me but in a much poorer neighborhood). Some months back, Tyler traveled to the most upscale mall our city has to offer in order to visit the music store I frequent for guitar supplies. He was looking for an accordion, but after he saw the prices for the full-size model, he settled on a relatively inexpensive children’s version. After playing my guitar with him, I totally get the choice; while smaller, the range of sounds are enough for our weekend jamming purposes.

But, when Tyler tried to buy his children’s accordion, the people at the cash register thought he was crazy.

Children's Or Full-Sized Accordion?

Children's Or Full-Sized Accordion?

“Yes,” he told them. “I understand it’s a children’s accordion. It’s a lot cheaper than the normal one.” And this was all in Spanish, mind you. Yet, the way Tyler explained it to me, the store’s staff didn’t seem to understand his motives, and continued to try to convince him not to buy it. He’s emphasized this point so many times that when he came to my house one day to jam, and my Colombian guest mother saw his accordion, I nearly wet myself when she exclaimed, “Ahh, an accordion. Oh, it’s a children’s accordion?” She, also, couldn’t understand.

Even at this point, before being accused of not knowing what cabbage is at my local tienda, but after hearing Tyler explain his story a couple dozen times, I wasn’t quit aware of the phenomena I’m now trying to document. It took another friend and Barranquilla Volunteer, Emily, to give me a first hand experience.

Tyler, another Volunteer named Jessica, and I had been practicing guitar together and Emily wanted to join our jam sessions. She’d never played guitar before, but as any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you, free time is never in short supply, so we encouraged her to go buy one. So, Emily and I went to the center of the city one day (reminds me a lot of markets I saw in South Korea but a lot dirtier and somewhat dangerous) to see what options and prices were available. After settling on our fourth music store we’d hit that day, I was helping Emily with a full-sized acoustic when she decided instead to go with a children’s guitar (not only a little cheaper but also fitting Emily’s smaller body size).

Emily with her children's guitar. Photo Credit: Jessica Hom

Emily with her children's guitar. Photo Credit: Jessica Hom

However,  just a moment later, the two of us fond ourselves in the same situation as Tyler; the guys at the music shop were refusing to let us see the smaller guitars. Those guitars were only “for children.” Emily speaks great Spanish, telling them that yes, she understood that those guitars were not for adults, but she was interested in buying one for herself. Now, at this point I would have figured the desire to make money would have taken over, but the guitar guys told her a second time it wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t until Emily literally showed them her small hands that they finally gave up and allowed us to take a look at what we wanted to buy.

I’ve never quite encountered this type of thing while living in Germany or South Korea, so I wanted to throw it out there and see if I got any interesting comments. Is this a result of Colombians trying to help out foreigners because they think we don’t realize what we’re doing, or is it their inability to understand someone’s counterintuitive motives?