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Strange as this may seem considering my current less-than-robust financial situation and lack of a steady income, but I have become the chief moneylender for one barrio friend over the last number of years.
It breaks with a long-standing rule of mine to not give money to anyone here. Previous experience has taught me that while some may ask for a dig-out using the verb ‘prestar’, literally ‘lend’, what they usually have in mind is the more common Colombian word when looking for something: ‘regalar’, ‘gift’. (I recall asking for a drink in the Spanish capital Madrid using ‘regálame’. The barman’s retort was that they didn’t ‘gift things’ in that establishment.)
‘I’m good for it’
Of course, it’s just an expression. Few if any people who utter it on a daily basis here actually expect to get what they want for free. Rather wishful thinking if they do. It could be argued, however, that when addressing a native of a high-income country, the more literal meaning is very much in mind for some locals. ‘These “rich” foreigners can easily afford to give things away.’
Whatever the case, actions speak louder than words. So whether my now regular client uses ‘prestar’ or ‘regalar’ when he comes looking for a loan matters little, it’s his ability to pay back that counts.
The first time I agreed to lend him a relatively substantial sum of money, my thinking was that it would double up as a way to test the strength of the friendship. If he defaulted, well I’d have to take the hit but be somewhat comforted by the fact that I’d unmasked a false friend.
Not only did he not default but he paid back the amount in full ahead of the stated due date. Punctuality is a rarity in Colombia in all walks of life, never mind doing something ahead of schedule. I was both relieved and impressed.
So the next time he asked for financial assistance I was more relaxed when handing over the cash. And yes, these are real cash transactions — notes still dominate here for the masses, something I’m not at all averse to.
Now considering I’ve known him since 2016 and for at least the last four years I’ve rated him as a trustworthy friend, I view this money-lending akin to helping out family.
One must be very selective in this regard, even if those who seek handouts aren’t in anyways shy in doing so. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me how people I barely know appear to have no reservations about asking for money.
‘I’d soon be relieved of my money-lending duties if I were employed in the House of Rothschild. Interest-free, verbally agreed loans won’t put one on the road to riches.’
OK, I’ve been fortunate enough in my life so far that I’ve never been in a terribly tight financial position but if I were to need emergency funds, it would most likely be family and/or really good, long-standing friends I’d ask first, not some person I hardly know.
The fact of the matter in most of Colombia is that other family members probably don’t have the resources to help out so it’s worth chancing the arm with the seemingly ‘flush gringo’. Nothing to lose, really.
However, I’m certainly no Rothschild or, in a more sinister sense, Shylock, for better or for worse. I’d soon be relieved of my money-lending duties if I were employed in the House of Rothschild. Interest-free, verbally agreed loans won’t put one on the road to riches. Although, I do get interest paid in-kind via the occasional meal or beer it must be said. Also, similar to those infamous Jewish moneylenders, I am an outsider in the barrio, no matter how much I feel — and am made feel — part of it.
A genuine fake
It is, somewhat paradoxically, these more substantial loans that have proved to be less risky. Getting back on-the-spot payments of up to 20,000 pesos can be next to impossible. And all those small amounts do soon add up.
There is also the issue of a fake-note swindle when dealing in cash, a fate I had the displeasure of suffering recently.
Having given a 20,000-peso note to a lad with whom I consider I have a decent relationship, he returned a few minutes later with the note ripped, telling me it was fake.
There are three possibilities here: I had a fake note of which I was unaware; my friend was tricked by the street vendor from whom he attempted to make a purchase; my friend pulled a fast one on me.
Weighing all these up and taking into account the reaction of others in the tienda bar where I gave this friend the money — including close family of his — the last seems the most likely.
That being so, no doubt many will ask how can I call this guy a friend? It basically comes down to his all-round behaviour. He may be unreliable when it comes to money yet on most other fronts he’s a likeable “marica”.
It’s why, as the old saying goes, one shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. And it’s why my “barrio banking” isn’t a business but more a case of helping out friends whose needs appear greater than mine.
I just hope I don’t end up doing some similar, desperate asking in the future.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.