Category Archives: Culture


Something sad happened a few days ago that has all of Latin America mourning: Roberto Gómez Bolaños passed away, famously known as Chespirito (little Shakespeare, a reference to his prolificness, talent, and short stature). Chespirito had a variety show where he played several different characters, but he’s most fondly remembered for the show El chavo del ocho, as well as El chapulín colorado. El chavo del ocho was and still is an absolute phenomenon throughout the region: though the show’s heyday was in the 70s, tens of millions still tune in daily to watch reruns.

If you spend time in Latin America and even halfway embed yourself into the culture, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across references to El chavo del ocho, whether you realize it or not. I remember that my first year here in 2009, I went to a Halloween party (dressed as a gypsy) whose costume contest was won by a guy dressed as El chavo del ocho. I had no idea who he was supposed to be: he just looked like a hobo to me. I was so confused, as well as a little indignant that such a shabby costume could take top prize. Saying that he was el chavo del ocho made no sense to me! What the heck was a chavo, and from the eighth what? Here are a few general pointers to know about the show, with no need to actually watch it. If you ever have an hour to spare, though, I definitely recommend catching an episode or two. Think of it as an infusion of culture.

The show was Mexican, and chavo in Mexico means boy. Ocho refers to the apartment number of where he supposedly lives, though I’m told you never actually see the apartment. El chavo is an orphan, and we mostly see him on the patio of an apartment complex. He spends a lot of time in a barrel on the patio.

Main characters: El chavo (orphan), La Chilindrina (friend), Quico (friend), plus several adults.

I think that most of the current love for the show is based on nostalgia. It gets a few laughs out of me, but El chavo is just too woebegone and pitiful for me to really enjoy myself. When it was being shown during the seventies and eighties, many countries only had one or two channels, and much of Latin America was under dictatorships. Something about the perpetual down-on-his-luckness of the beloved underdog and the working-class cast really spoke to people. Trying to describe its almost inexplicable success and appeal to Americans, one Internet commenter described it as The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and Charlie Brown all in one show.

In El chavo, the kids all speak in these very whiny voices (and I think the Mexican accent can be a little chillón to begin with), so I sometimes find it a little hard to make out what they’re saying. If you ever catch an episode on TV, though, watch it a for a few minutes at least–it’s good language practice, and you’ll get a healthy dose of Latin American culture in you. Actually, a fair amount of the humor revolves around language: misunderstandings and double entendres, and then the meanings will be spelled out with plastilina for the slow-witted characters who didn’t get them. Great for a Spanish learner to eavesdrop on.

¡Uno de cuatro (el último) no está mal!

¡Uno de cuatro (el último) no está mal!

I watched part of the first episode of El chavo del ocho that came up on Youtube and loosely transcribed an interaction centered on language.

¿Quieres por favor poner las petacas en la escalera? [El chavo then goes and sits on the stairs.] (petaca = suitcase in Mexico; petacas = buttocks in Mexico and the Caribbean) (Could you please place the suitcases/buttocks on the stairs?)

¡Estoy hablando de mis petacas! (No, my suitcases/buttocks!)

¿Qué quiere, que le empuje pa’ que dé un sentón o qué? (What, do you want me to push you so you fall on your butt or what?)

Estoy hablando de las maletas, ¿no sabes lo que son maletas? (maleta = suitcase; idiot, good-for-nothing) (I’m talking about the suitcases/idiots–don’t you know what suitcases/idiots are?)

Ah, sí, los árbitros de futbol, dice Don Ramón. (Oh, right, soccer refs, according to Don Ramón.)

Mira, estas son maletas, [points at his two suitcases on the ground] o petacas, son sinónimos. (Look, these are suitcases, or luggage: they’re synonyms.)

¿Son sinónimos? (They’re synonyms?)

Claro. (Of course.)

Ah, o sea que [walks over to the suitcases] este es un sinónimo chiquito y este es un sinónimo grande. (Oh, OK, so this is a small synonym, and this is a big synonym.)

Voy de nuevo, eh. Esta es una maleta. (Let’s try this again, OK? This is a suitcase.)

Ah bueno, sí, también. (Oh, OK, that, too.)

¿Tú sabes si Doña Florinda ya hizo su maleta? (Do you know if Doña Florinda already packed/made her suitcase?)

No, las compró ya hechas. (No, she bought them pre-made.)

Me refiero a si ya preparó su maleta. (I mean whether she packed her suitcase.)

Ah, pues no sé. (Oh, I don’t know.)

¿Quieres echar un ojo a las maletas? (Could you keep an eye on/throw an eye into the suitcases?)

Ay no, quedo tuerto! (No, then I’d be a one-eyed man!)

Pues, por favor si quieres vigilar mis maletas mientras yo voy a hablar con Doña Florinda. (Look, just watch my suitcases while I go talk to Doña Florinda.)

Ridiculous? Absolutely. All of the humor here centers on words with more than one meaning, as well as expressions taken literally. Great practice for learners, though, and de paso you can learn some very colloquial and Mexican Spanish.

El chavo and Chespirito in general also have left a great legacy on the Spanish language. Here are some phrases you’re very liable to hear in day-to-day life.

From El chavo del ocho
Fue sin querer queriendo. (It was accidentally on purpose.)
¡Se me chispoteó! (Whoops, it just slipped out!)
Es que no me tienen paciencia. (I just can’t get a break.)

From El chapulín colorado (The Crimson Grasshopper)
¡No contaban con mi astucia! (They never saw it coming!)
Calma, calma, que no panda el cúnico (Pobody nanic.)
Lo sospeché desde un principio. (I smelled a rat from the beginning.)


These shows are really near and dear to most Latin Americans’ hearts, so I recommend that you at least have a cursory knowledge about who their beloved Chespirito was! The comedian made generation after generation laugh, and people will always be grateful for how he brought so much cheer and love to their lives. Que en paz descanse.

Beautiful women in Medellín

It seems like a lifetime ago, but I used to live in Medellín. And, yes, as you might have gotten wind of, the women are beautiful there. (And so are the men, which is why I found myself there in the first place.) But I think the women are also beautiful in Bogotá, as well as gorgeous in the other parts of Colombia I’ve visited. And I think that American women are very pretty, Polish women are charming, Mediterranean women are stunning, Indian women are ravishing, Kenyan women are lovely, Asian women are knockouts, etc. I’ve never felt there was any scarcity of feminine beauty in the world, nor any exclusivity. Beauty is generous and abundant, and with an endless variety that’s fascinating.

Medellín and the department of Antioquia seem to have many elements, though, such as poverty, extreme regional pride, and narco culture (both current and leftover from its height in decades past) that have combined to create a particular subculture of beauty and vanity. The women I knew and spent time with in Medellín were probably the last people to ever do something like get plastic surgery or dream about competing in a beauty pageant, but I can’t deny that that cult of beauty is very strong in that region. It manifests itself in a lot of ugly ways, and it also not infrequently has tragic consequences. My dance instructor there died shortly after I left following a botched series of at-home injections of liquid silicone to give him a more shapely butt.

I’m grateful that the city is becoming much more proactive and aggressive about sex tourism and child prostitution–the kerfuffle caused by a recent controversial newspaper article calling the city the biggest brothel in the world seems to have spawned deeper reflection after the initial defensive backlash. I’m also encouraged that there are government campaigns that insist that our [their] women are not a tourist attraction–when people ask you what’s so great about Medellín or what you liked about it, please stop talking about how hot the women are. Seriously, think of a better and more respectful answer that doesn’t reflect so poorly on you. Are the women just more beautiful scenery to gaze at? Boosts for your ego? Cheap investments? I’m not so sure that Medellín is quite ready to position itself as a top tourist destination (I feel the same way about Bogotá), but, believe me, it has a lot going on and is headed in what I feel is a very positive direction. Even if you couldn’t help but appreciate the attractiveness of the women in Medellín (even Rihanna did at the World Cup), was there not anything else? Many Medellineans are tired of this shallow characterization of their city (beautiful women and cocaine), and they’re seeing that this kind of publicity makes their city a destination for many unsavory types whose dollars they’d rather not be courting.

I read an article this morning titled Las ‘reinas’ que no quieren cetro y corona (had to look up cetro: scepter) and also found it to be incredibly heartening. When the current governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo, was mayor of Medellín (2003-2007), he cut off the city’s sponsorship of the beauty pageant part of their annual Feria de las Flores; he also saw to it that Antioquia’s support for the departmental beauty pageant dried up. His wife, Lucrecia Ramírez, a psychiatrist who specializes in body image issues for women, headed these initially controversial initiatives. Many in Medellín’s society apparently had gotten fed up with women only being exalted for their looks, and the profligate amounts of money spent on the contests also caused concern. Then there was the embarrassing fact that the city was quickly becoming almost exclusively associated abroad with drugs and beautiful women. Another person cited the fact that the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery also made these pageants more than a little pointless.

But they didn’t just cut off support and then move on. Instead, they rechanneled those same funds into the creation of a Miss Talented Pageant (Concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento), having women compete based on their merits in academic excellence, artistic and athletic skills, and community leadership. Apparently 80 municipalities in the department have replaced their beauty pageants with Miss Talented Pageants. While some ephemeral kind of hope and distraction from the decades of violence and displacement in Antioquia might be found in the glorification of beauty, it’s just sad when you think ab0ut how fleeting, ineffectual, and arbitrary beauty really is. What does it accomplish, again? Whereas the promotion of leadership and skills in youth is the only true hope for any society. I think Medellín’s example here is so awesome that . . . well, I just had to write a blog post about it. Forgive me if Spanish learning is minimal today.

There was one word in the article that got the ball rolling in my mind for this post, though. That word was cosificación.

La psiquiatra había atendido en su consultorio varios casos de jóvenes afectadas por la obsesión de ser delgadas, y había encontrado un efecto claro de los reinados en las mujeres: “la cosificación”, cuando una persona ubica su cuerpo por fuera de sí misma y lo convierte en una cosa, “y como las cosas se venden y se compran, se exhiben, carecen de valor humano, se tiranizan y se modifican al antojo de quien las compre”, dice Ramírez, inevitablemente este efecto baja la autoestima de cualquiera.

The psychiatrist had seen several cases of young women affected by the obsession with being thin, and she witnessed one clear effect of the beauty pageants on women: objectification, which is when a person locates their body as being outside of him- or herself, turning it into an object. “And just like things that are bought and sold, they’re put on display, they lack human value, they’re oppressed, and they’re custom-fitted to please whoever purchases them,” says Ramírez. “This effect would inevitably lower anybody’s self-esteem.”

I didn’t know the word cosificación; to objectify someone is cosificar. In addition to the objectification of women, the terms are also used in the contexts of animals and workers.

Here are the four most talented (and, I would say, beautiful) women in Antioquia in 2014. Each of their stories moved me deeply. And I loved the woman who was certain that it’s only a matter of time until more people tune in to watch this talent pageant than to watch the traditional beauty pageant in Cartagena!

Daniela Guarín, 23 años, ganadora en la categoría Deportes del concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento.

Sandra Milena Santa, 22 años, ganadora en la categoría Arte y Cultura del concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento.

Ana Milena González, 23 años, ganadora en la categoría Liderazgo Social del concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento.

Natalia, 21 años, ganadora en la categoría Excelencia Académica del concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento.

Uy, ¿quién pidió pollo?

The list of so-called Colombian phrases goes on, and today’s entry is one I find particularly fun and with a fascinating backstory. Not to be read on an empty stomach!

4. Uy, ¿quién pidió pollo? (Knew it. Uniquely Colombian.)

Literal translation: Ooh, who ordered chicken?
Translation: How did we get so lucky to have this attractive person grace us with their presence?
Meaning: What a babe! Ooh, sexy! What a stud! What a hunk!

¿Quién pidió pollo? is said when a really attractive person walks into a room. Ooh, who ordered chicken? Why chicken and not chorizo? Why meat and not asparagus? Why are we comparing people to food at all? It’s kind of a long story.

So, chicken used to be a luxury food for Colombia’s middle-class city dwellers. Sure, it was frequent fare in the countryside, but its high price (due to high production costs and inefficient production methods) made it a treat for special occasions city-side. Chicken was for the well-off, and to be able to eat chicken regularly meant you had elite status. Elite families could splurge on chicken on Sundays, and non-elites had to wait until the December holidays to savor the delicacy.

As chicken was so expensive, it became common for a diner in a restaurant to jokingly screech Y eso, ¿pero quién pidió pollo? when the check arrived, indicating their faux shock at the high price, one that could only be explained by someone at the table having ordered the opulent dish. Either to identify the prodigal person and stare them down, or to ironically point out that as no one had ordered chicken, there was no justification for such a sky-high bill. But, really it was just a joke, a meaningless line to gripe about having to fork over the payment and to elicit a chuckle or two. Basically, good grief! You’ve got to be kidding me! Though maybe funny at first, the line is now considered by many to be the height of tastelessness and low-class behavior, eliciting only groans. Dude, you ate the food; just pay what you owe and don’t be stingy. No need to be a drama queen about it. Oh, and the eighties called; they want their joke back.

Sometimes the phrase is used to express that a bill for anything is expensive, not necessarily chicken. It’s when you do a double take when the bill comes, incredulously asking yourself, how can that be?

Recién llegado a Colombia, me comí unos patacones con pollo y queso en un restaurante del centro comercial Santafé. Allí me cobraron la módica suma de U$ 12. ¿Cómo? ¿Quién pidió pollo? Bueno, yo pedí pollo, pero me pareció costoso.

I’d just gotten to Colombia, and I ordered some patacones with chicken and cheese at a restaurant in the Santafé mall. The bill came for the totally reasonable amount of a whopping $12 USD. Excuse me? But, who ordered chicken? OK, I ordered chicken, but it still seemed crazy expensive to me.

Times have changed, though, and chicken is now the cheapest meat in Colombia. Whereas before chicken would have been unreachable for the lowest strata, it’s now a food for the masses. To be pertinent today, the phrase would have to be: Who ordered beef? Or, who ordered pork? Not to mention who ordered lobster, Waygu beef, or caviar. The phrase lost its punch and has largely disappeared from Colombia’s lexical landscape, after its peak during the 50s and 60s. Well, with this meaning anyway. ¿Quién pidió pollo? is still alive and kicking, after being reborn in an entirely different environment. From being used to describe a luxury food, it’s now used to describe a luxury person. That is, when an attractive man or woman walks into a room, catching people off guard.

How to reconcile this new usage with the old one? This gringa‘s guess is that the “chicken” (the luxury item) has arrived, luscious and mouth-watering, and now people want to know what they did to deserve such over-the-top eye candy. Like, people walk in and out of a room or an office constantly, and they’re just rice and beans or a plate of lentils. Filling but nothing to get excited about. But, chicken? And nobody even ordered it? It just walks in to freely bestow us with such attractiveness? Yessiree, count me in. It’s a phrase of admiration. The question also seems redundant to me–it’s not really asking who does this “dish” belong to? It’s more like, um, nobody here ordered such a gourmet dish, but we’ll take her/him! I’d love to hear the perspectives of others–like I said, these are just my speculations.

Some people think the phrase is used because an attractive woman is similar to a chicken: legs, bronzed skin, and what have you. I don’t really buy it, though. And, as noted, the phrase is also used for men.

So, you might hear this when someone (or even you, you stunner you!) attractive walks into a room, or you might just hear it used as a piropo when someone who’s a looker passes someone on the street. It’s like, would ya look at that . . ?

Eh ave maría, ¿quién pidió pollo?

This was bizarrely enough one of the first Colombian phrases I learned when I arrived five years ago. Family members of the people I first stayed with put on some clips of Antonio Sanint’s classic standup comedy routine, ¿Quién pidió pollo?, going on and on about how it was the funniest thing ever, oblivious, I guess, to how iffy my Spanish was. Yeah, funniest thing ever, I’m sure, except when you only catch or understand every tenth word. So, that was a bomb, but I listened to the routine on Youtube years later while working a boring desk job. Much, much funnier that time around. I listened to the routine again last night while making dinner for, um, research. Here’s the part about the phrase, and Sanint touches on both meanings and uses of ¿Quién pidió pollo?

Pero la reina de todas las frases, las que no podemos evitar decir, es cuando uno está en un restaurante y le llega la cuenta y uno mira a los amigos y aunque no se les hace cara, uno dice, uyyyyy, ¿quién pidió pollo? Yo me imagino que en algún momento fue chistoso . . . cuando el pollo era caro, creo. Pero ya no, entonces esa frase ha, ya ha montado, ya ni siquiera es con la comida, sino, uy, ¿quien pidió pollo? Con esa pierna, ¿pa’ que la otra? Así me la recetó el médico, ¿sí o qué?

But the king of all the phrases, those ones that we can’t help saying, is when you’re in a restaurant and you get the check, and you look at your friends, and even though they don’t even think it’s expensive, you say, oooooh, but who ordered chicken? I imagine that was funny once . . . back when chicken was expensive, I guess. But it’s not anymore, so that phrase has, it’s taken on, now we don’t even use it with food, but, oooooh, check her/him out! With a leg like that, what do I need two of them for? Just like the doctor ordered–am I right?

chicken lady

I’m pretty sure this phrase is as Colombian as it gets. For better or worse, you’ve just stared right into the Colombian psyche. Food, money, sex, culture: this slice of language encapsulates all of them. What else needs to be said?

Change we can believe in

In the last real post we covered change as in small bills and change (change for a 20, for example), and in this one we’ll look at the change you get back after paying for something. Or not–the accuracy of your change not infrequently depends on the “size” of the bills you paid with, at least in Colombia. Here’s some vocabulary so that if you have to be short-changed, at least you can be sure it has nothing to do with you speaking unfluent Spanish.

Far and away, the most all-purpose and universal word for this kind of change is cambio. Super easy.

Then there’s vuelta and vuelto. Vuelta is said in Spain; vuelto is said in most of Latin America.

As I read about vuelta and vuelto, beads of sweat started forming on my forehead, and I felt mildly ill. Vuelta? Vuelto? I’d never heard the words before. How could I be a Spanish blogger and be utterly unfamiliar with these basic words? Because, me? I’ve always said vueltas. I was starting to feel like a crock.

And then I confirmed that vueltas is how you say change in Colombia. Whew! Just one more reminder of how Colombian my Spanish is. Here, we say vueltas, even devueltas. Also devuelta. As well as vueltos. (They obviously delight in being contrarians.) I’ll do my best to drop the s in other countries, but I can’t make any promises. I just don’t see decolombianization in my cards.

If you want to tell someone to keep the change, the most common verb to use is quedarse, followed by guardar.

Quédese con la vuelta. Quédate con el cambio.

Guardá el cambio. Guarda el vuelto.

While researching this, I learned that, at least in Spain, the preposition in the phrase quedarse con algo is often dropped. So, quédate con la vuelta can become quédate la vuelta, or quédatela. Is this construction used anywhere else? (For all I know, it’s used everywhere, and I’ve simply never noticed.) I’m on the case.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

As I wrote about in the last post on change, it can be somewhat problematic here in Colombia. An article in yesterday’s El Tiempo stated that Colombians prefer cash as much as they did 70 years ago, at a rate of 48%. Plastic just hasn’t caught on like it has in other developed countries. From the article, I learned the phrase dinero contante (y sonante), which means cold hard cash.

The article mentions piggy banks as a common mode of saving money, and my experience bears that one out. They’re a rather common sight here in homes, so alcancía is a surprisingly useful word to know. If someone doesn’t have enough money for something, they might half-joke about having to romper el alcancía or romper el chanchito. Like many Spanish words that begin with al-, alcancía comes from Arabic. From what I read, the word alcancía has disappeared in most parts of Spain, replaced by hucha. (Hucha means butt crack in many countries, and se te ve la hucha or even se te ve la alcancía means, I can see your crack. Daily parlance for plomeros.) Alcancía is the only word used in Latin America, though. The piggy banks here, at least the ones I’ve seen, tend to be made of clay. I’ve never been so indiscreet so as to turn one over and contemplate its underbelly, but my impression is that they don’t have a plug; you have to smash them to access your money, so it doesn’t make sense to do so before you’ve got a nice little stockpile of funds accumulated. Poor piggies.

alcancías de barro colombia

I have an update on the last post’s story about me going head to head with an Éxito cashier about my change. Last week, I had another run-in with her. I think I paid in sencillo, but not with exact change. She asked if I had the 400 pesos or whatever, and I said that I didn’t. (I’m kind of fuzzy, but I think I genuinely didn’t have it this time.) And, then, what do you know, she actually gave me my vueltas in such a way that I was given 110 pesos or so above what I was owed. It’s common knowledge that it’s always the customer who gets the short end of the stick in these complicated sencillo situations, but now I see that it’s tit for tat in the larger stores. At least with steely-eyed Lady of the long braids. (Lady is her name–common here.)

Change or no change, at least Colombian money is relatively pretty to look at. I’ll blog about it at some point. And, rich or impecunious, at least you’re now loaded with Spanish vocabulary for talking about change. Don’t forget: BESO! (Billetes en sencillo, ¡obtuso!) That is, don’t forget your change at home. Hell hath no fury like a Colombian taxi driver scorned, i.e., paid with a large bill.

Colombia: A simple country

You know that famous acronym KISS? Keep it simple, stupid? Well, I feel that it could easily be Colombia’s slogan. Manténgalo sencillo, imbécil. MSI–no, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ring or no ring, this is a country where simple is the name of the game. Cash is king in the U.S.–or at least was in our grandparents’ day–and simple is king in Colombia. Ah, maybe you see where I’m going with this now. Flinging around simple like a noun, when I’m really referring to its Spanish counterpart: sencillo. In Colombia and many other countries, sencillo means small bills and change. A must-know word because I can almost guarantee that you’ll have to carry and pay with cash here far more than you’re used to in your home country for a plethora of reasons. Credit and debit cards aren’t yet the common, well, currency that they are in many other parts of the world, so you need to make sure to have bills and coins on you at all times. But not just any dirty money will do. No, it needs to be small. It needs to be sencillo.

Yesterday I bought some things at Éxito, a huge supermarket chain here. They came to 30.650 (around 15 dollars), and I handed the cashier a 50-thousand peso note (around 25 dollars). She then asked if I had the 650 pesos- the coins, that is. I could only find about 200 pesos, so I said no, all the while still rummaging around in my purse. I eventually found one more coin, and then another, and then another. But several of them were just tiny 50 peso coins—I really didn’t think I had 650 pesos, and in any case I just wanted to finish my transaction, get my change from her, and leave. She kept waiting, though, eyeing my accumulating pile of coins feverishly. When I finally rooted out all the metal from the bottom of my purse, I silently noted that the seven or eight coins did miraculously add up to 650. But you know what? I didn’t feel like giving her my every last coin and then remaining coinless in the sencillo-obsessed country I live in. It’s a free country, er, world, right? I’m not under any obligation to hand over my sencillo. That’s why she has a huge till full of money. I wasn’t going to be a pawn in her sencillo game.

I told her to go ahead and just give me the change from the 50,000 peso bill. How much do you have there? she asked n0sily. I don’t know; it doesn’t really matter, I answered, feeling flustered. What I was doing was so un-PC, practically against the social law. But, how much do you have? she insisted. To be honest, lady, I’d really just like to pay with the 50. She probably hated me, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my finest moment. Lo and behold, she gave me my change with a heaping handful of coins. There was no shortage of sencillo on either of our ends, it turned out. I get it, though–it’s the principle. Better to get as much sencillo as you can and hoard it for a rainy day, a complicated sencillo drought. (A rainy day and a drought? Yes, in Colombia you need sencillo 24/7. As well as an umbrella and sunscreen.) In the morning’s sencillo battle, Vocabat: 1, World: 0. A KO.

I felt like a selfish jerk. How could I not give her sencillo when I had it right there? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the customer and she represents the multibillion-dollar company. Hardly to be pitied. I always pay with sencillo and regularly make unnecessary purchases on the street or at the corner tienda just to break “large” bills and make sure I have sencillo for the bus driver, the taxi driver, and everyone else. But that’s because I’m nice, and I know how life works here. It’s not my problem (in theory) if you don’t have the right change and certainly not if you’re simply loathe to give up your change. Except . . . sigh . . . it inevitably always becomes the customer’s problem. Oh, why don’t you buy one of these cookies so I can then have the right change for you? Sorry, I’m just under, but it’s close, so please just consider it a small tip and skip off. ¡Te quedo debiendo! I’m X pesos in your debt! Yeah, like they’re going to track you down and repay those pesos later! The best way to prevent this from happening is by being armed to the teeth with–you guessed it–lots and lots of sencillo. Such a misnomer! Simple, my foot.

¡Eso!                     ¡Jamás!

¡Eso!                                                                       ¡Jamás!

I wasn’t trying to lie to her or even hacerme la pendeja–play dumb–but who’s brave enough to say, yes, I have sencillo, but I don’t want to give it to you? I have just as much of a right to it as you do. Read: you ain’t gettin’ any. The social contract here basically requires that you fork over your sencillo if you have any, though. All right, cough it up, mister! If you choose to slyly omit the fact that you’re in possession of sencillo, you may find that the establishment really doesn’t have change. And then you’re in the awkward position of magically “finding” the sencillo you were so sure wasn’t there just a few seconds ago. It’s really uncomfortable, trust me. Or maybe both sides will act tough, and then it’s just a matter of who calls whose bluff first. What would they do if they found out about those little Take a Penny, Leave a Penny change trays that are so common in the U.S.? You mean . . . they leave sencillo there for anyone to just take?! In broad daylight?! But in Colombia’s defense, you can often fiar things at your little neighborhood store (pay on credit, or they’ll let you bring the money by later if you’re short a few pesos). Why doesn’t the government make things genuinely simple for everyone and stop producing non-sencillo denominations? All I can think of when I get stuck with a 20,000 bill is when and how I can break it; a 50,000 bill feels like a curse.

Who tells that story about the kid who had a fifty-dollar bill, but he exchanged it for two twenties, and then three tens, then four fives, five ones, then six quarters, seven dimes, eight nickels, nine pennies, all because he thought he was getting richer with each transaction as the number of units increased? Sometimes it feels like that here! I feel like a king, the cock of the walk, when I have a pocket full of jangling coins, and practically a pauper with large bills. What good do they do me?

Another common way of saying sencillo is suelto. Which means loose. We talk about loose change in English, but not so much loose bills. It works for both in Spanish, though. (There appears to be a rapper named Loose Bills. I’m sure he’s a favorite of taxi drivers.)

I did some research, and here are different ways of saying small change and bills in Spanish.

Monedas (just coins), menudo, cambiocalderilla (Spain, just coins), chatarra (Spain, just coins), morralla (Mexico, just coins), feria (Mexico), chauchas (Chile, just coins)

For my money, I’d stick to sencillo or suelto when traveling around.

This Actualidad Panamericana article (a Colombian The Onion) exposes a bar where Bogotá taxi drivers go to indulge in their peculiar fetish: massages with small bills sensually rubbed all over their bodies. It would explain a lot.

How do you ask for sencillo? How do you beg someone to break a bill? This was one of my very first questions when tagging along with Spanish goddess Eva my first week in Colombia. Well, you don’t say romper. Let’s just get that out of the way. What you do say is cambiar.

¿Me puedes dar cambio para un billete de cinco?

¿Me podrías cambiar un billete de mil?

¿Tienes cambio de cien pesos?

¿Me cambias este billete?

¿Tienes sencillo para (un billete de) 20 mil?

As you can see, you have lots of wiggle room to play around with the word order.

Now, what about the change you get after a transaction? Or telling someone to keep the change? Ay ay ay, this book–I mean, post–is getting long. I’ll write about that in the next post.

Also, I gave the KISS acronym a few vueltas, and I came up with an equivalent for the Spanish BESO that fits the topic.

BESO: Billetes En Sencillo, ¡Obtuso!

Keep it BESO, keep it sencillo, and carry on!