What I learned from our Celador: Succeeding as an expat in five easy lessons.
1-You’re safer than you think
2-They’re on bikes for a reason
3-Different is neither worse nor better
4-Violence can be counter productive
5-Value is where you find it
The video was taken on our street in Medellin Colombia, and it will charm you with its subject matter, and inherent message. Here are five lessons on what we’ve learned as short time expats, thanks to our Celador.
1- You’re safer than you think.
The fellow on the bicycle works all night, five nights a week, 12 hour shifts. He’s called a Celador, Spanish for ‘watchman.’ His name is Edgar, and his ‘beat’ is Laureles, our barrio on the west side of Medellin. We hear Edgar’s friendly silbato every evening starting at 6. I included the video, because the Celador is as good a metaphor as any for lessons about being an expat. First, some background:
The Celador program in Medellin started during the drug-crazed eighties & nineties as a way for men (the Celadores are all men) to watch their own neighborhoods. When city authorities noticed a drop in gang and drug related crime in those barrios, they allocated money to make the Celadores official. They now receive a salary, health care bennies, and a pension. Like town criers of old, Edgar and his fellow Celadores whistle through the night, and for residents their effort is very reassuring. The lesson is that safe is relative, and perspective is everything. Are we safer living in Chicago, Memphis, or Seattle where there are no Celadores? Impossible to say. But here are lessons we’ve learned.
Being smart about when, where and with whom we travel is important. If we walk downtown in Medellin, or Memphis, or Meridian at night, while intoxicated, seeking drugs, sex and/or a good time, we’re asking for trouble. So we don’t do those things. Our Celador looks out for us, but we need to look out for ourselves as well. Fear makes people do stupid things, and it also makes us wildly overcompensate at times. We’re all much safer than we think.
2- Celadores are on bikes for a reason.
One of the most difficult transitions to life as an expat, especially in Latin culture, is getting past our need for quick and efficient service. When we moved to Panama, and then to Colombia, we heard stories about casual service, random service, no service at all. We dismissed the talk as latent prejudice, the mañana, mañana attitude that Norte Americanos hear from a young age. But there is something to it. In our experience, in restaurants, mercados, tiendas, anywhere commercial transactions occur, the pace of service seems much slower, and more laid back than we’re used to. It’s not unusual in a restaurant to wait for a meal for twenty minutes. Not unusual to receive one’s meal, then your spouse’s ten minutes later. Not at all unusual, indeed it’s standard fare, that the check must be requested. ‘La cuenta, por favor?’ This experience, as I say, extends to all manner of customer/vendor interactions. Indeed, it seems at times that the ‘customer’ part of the equation does not exist.
So what to do? Watching Edgar on his bicycle is instructive. Did we go to that restaurant because the service was rapid, and to have the waiter shove the check at us to usher us quickly gone? No, we went there to relax over a nice meal, and to share time and thoughts with our spouse or friends. Edgar could use a motorcycle, or a car. He rides a bicycle, because the pace is right. Could it be that folks here in Colombia better understand the value of a slower pace? Maybe. Could it be that we secretly envy them their ability to slooooow down? Possibly. Edgar rides a bike because it allows him to see more, sense more, to be open to more going on around him. It’s not an easy lesson, but I get the value in it.
3- Different is neither worse nor better.
As I said, Edgar could use a car, a motorcycle, or one of those Segway things to patrol the barrio. If he were a night watchman in Pittsburgh or Portland, he’d be in a car most likely. Much of what we’ve seen in Panama and Colombia is the same as we’re used to, but a lot of it is different. Folks in Medellin don’t use a dryer. When clothes come out of the lavadora, they’re hung to dry. Nowadays, once a week or so sheets, towels, undergarments and socks hang around our living/dining room on a rack. Folks wash dishes in cold water here. My wife the retired nurse and still full time germaphobe was aghast at this. But it’s not worse, just different. When we pay for things with a credit card here, we’re often asked how many payments we’d like to make on the amount. Huh? We were confused about this at first, until we realized the practice allows local folks to actually use credit cards. A $30.00 grocery bill is pocket change to us; to the folks we live among it can be a large percentage of their monthly income. Edgar riding his bike is a very efficient way to make the rounds, and a much cheaper way. Becoming aware of the wealth differential has been eye opening, and necessary.
4- Violence can be counter-productive.
Edgar is one of 3,500 Celadores sanctioned by the city of Medellin. None of these night patrolmen is armed. They wear a dun-colored brown uniform, a distinctive patch on their shoulder, and a whistle around their neck. But no gun. I’ll avoid the easy reference and contrast available here to the proliferation of firearms in certain countries, but here’s the point. The Celadores program originated back in the drug and violence crazed eighties, when many of Medellin’s barrios were unsafe during the day, and downright dangerous at night. Celadores joined up to patrol their barrios and to keep an eye on things. Twenty years ago the city of Medellin saw the efficacy in making them official. Celadores now have a salary (about $260/month at last count), health care coverage, and they pay into the Seguro Social, the pension system in Colombia for a modest retirement income.
And they’ve done it from day one without the use of violence. Their patch has their creed: Asociacion de Vigilancia Comunitaria. Their job description is to assist people in trouble.
5- Value is where you find it.
I don’t want to get all Zen Buddhist here, but watching and listening to Edgar peddling along, twittering on his silbato, the reassuring sound cuts through the rest of Medellin city noise, and I single it out for attention. Instead of the cars, taxis, motorcycles (good grief there are a lot of motorcycles in this city--more than cars, I think), and the typical noises of any big city, I hear Edgar’s whistle. When I hear it, I imagine him whisking by on his one-speed bicycle, scanning the neighborhood, doing his job as the ‘wachiman’ as local folks call the Celador.
This lesson may be the toughest for expats, that is, to consciously put aside our focus on the aggravations, irritations and random distractions that grab our attention, instead of the serene, calming, latent values lying hidden in plain sight. It’s too easy, and so typical of those of us from sophisticated, frantic, big city backgrounds to accept all the noise, chaos and battery that characterize that life. We grumble about it, of course. We complain and whine about its adverse affect on our quality of life. Indeed, it’s often what we choose to leave behind to become an expat. So listen to your own Celador. Single out whatever simple, serene message he or she delivers as they whisk by on their bicycle, and soak it in.