They sell piggy banks on the streets of Bogotá, and I imagine across Colombia, daily. Handmade in the red clay of Rolland Garros, these piggy banks proliferate. They are cute, desirable, large to small, a great variety of piggies, and you have to smash them to pieces to access your savings. My personal piggy, bought on the street, is now very heavy, solid, and so far resistant to my desire for a new sweater from Zara! But wait, something so simple as a piggybank might just support a booming economy? Savings – what a concept. Every penny might count. From a very young age, we might encourage saving money, taking responsibility, making a connection between desire and reality. Is Colombia onto something basic?
Lest anyone think that I am being third-world biased in introducing Colombia by way of clay piggies, let me state here and now that I have never encountered a bank as sophisticated as mine in Bogotá, Helm. Entering an branch of Helm is like entering an exclusive boutique hotel. A (money) concierge greets every arriving customer. How might he or she help? A money deposit? Let me direct you to our automated deposit machine which counts (or rejects) your every bill, and provides you with a photographic record of your deposited check. A banking problem, let me seat you for our next available associate. While waiting, enjoy our ambiance of contemporary furniture, lighting, color choice – mainly very hip orange and white – and typography. Feel free to avail yourself of our free water bottles and candy. Everything communicates that your patronage is important. What a concept! We want you to know that your money means something. And Helm’s on line site savings account logo features, you guessed it – a clay piggybank.
Perhaps these two contrasting images of Colombia, are the same thing, expressed differently. Money counts. Street vendors of piggybanks want you to begin saving money. The extraordinary number of banks in Colombia are also invested in wanting you to save money. It is a very competitive world. Most people here don’t have a checking account; they have a savings account. Point made. There are an incomparable number of bank branches on block after block here, of that much I am sure, focused on savings.
I am not writing a scientific article here, numbers of penny savers in Colombia versus numbers of penny savers in the United States. How could one ever figure that out? I’ve tried, and statistics are hard to come by. Number of home or property owners per square foot or square meter in Colombia versus number of property owners in the United States, good luck.
However, one of the most surprising things about this country for me is that even the most unassuming neighborhoods here have offices, apartments, and store fronts For sale. For rent is the norm in many countries, but strikingly the number of For Sale signs in visible windows (the most popular advertising venue here by far) in Colombia is impressive. Vendo! En Venta! This country divides its municipalities into economic strata, 1 through 6 (6 being the most exclusive), hard to get a handle on. However, even in Estrato 1 (the lowest of the Estratos), in the most unassuming neighborhoods, the concept of ownership runs deep. The piggy banks of every street corner take on power. Every penny saved here is a penny saved toward destiny, toward control of destiny. Pride of ownership, even in the poorest of neighborhoods here, has value.
Now that instability in terms of property ownership has established itself worldwide, and now that the questioning of economic foundation has become mundane, savings are hardly the beacon that stand out as the road to salvation anywhere. And yet, piggy banks line the streets of Bogotá. Here, in Colombia, in a country far off the mega-dollar landscape, a penny saved is still a penny earned. The foundation of growth is still strong here. Piggy banks are as common here along the Calles and Carreras as lottery tickets are along the highways and byways of first world countries. Chance versus discipline. To buy a small or large ceramic piggybank and start to deposit change daily versus an investment in the odds of the national chance of Who WantsTo Be a Millonaire, well it seems to come down to that. Not that you can’t do both. Just, count your pennies first. And start saving.
Christopher Burke is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Bogota, Colombia. His cartoons are often in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and are always found at http://www.burkecartoons.com. His observations on daily life in Colombia can be found at http://christopherburkecolombia.wordpress.com.