Today marks my one year anniversary in Cartagena. I am no longer an official Peace Corps Volunteer, but I continue my work as an English teacher and being an American in a foreign land. I have started a new life here and I don’t have the Peace Corps to full fill my basic needs of shelter, IDs, and bank cards. I have moved into a new apartment which requires signing leases, getting documents notarized, paying utilities, buying housewares, and putting food in the fridge. In the US, I can do all of these things with ease. However, now I need the help and patience of my Colombian friends and businesses to explain what to them is common knowledge.
In the US, getting things notarized is simple and free. You go to the bank, show your ID, sign, and leave. Here you pay for each page being reviewed and each stamp and signature they decide that they need “legally.” It is quite a lengthy and costly process. In Cartagena, the most common place to pay utilities is at the supermarket as you pay for your food. It is very convenient, until you go to the wrong supermarket to pay a certain bill. I paid my water and electricity at one supermarket with no problems, but the cashier looked at me like I was nuts when I wanted to pay the gas bill. In her face I read, “dumb gringa,everyone knows you can’t pay that here” as she gave me a strained smile. Also, you cannot be even one day late paying utilities or they will cut your service immediately. It is the only way people will pay them since, things are only done when absolutely necessary. I thought it was a good idea until I read the payment date wrong and had to run to the electric company and beg not to pay a ridiculous re-connection fee. Sometimes being the “dumb gringa” has its advantages. I don’t think they would have had the same mercy on a Colombian woman of my age unless she bribed them, of course.
All of things would be very annoying to me if I were home in Boston. I would be complaining and arguing with cashiers, notaries, and utility companies, expressing my disgust to customer service agents that robotically repeat, “we are sorry for the inconvenience, mam.” However, in Colombia, it is albeit frustrating but, also interesting to be learning the adult basics again. I finally got it down in the US, but now I am back to square one, like an 18 year old going off to college. Wish me luck as I venture to get my Colombian ID. Let’s hope it will be nothing like my first experience at the DMV in New Jersey.