Water photo courtesy of stockphotosforfree via Flickr

In Bogota, Don’t Drink the Water

“And a glass of water for each of us,” my friend requested, handing his menu back to the waiter.

I smiled at him. A glass of water. What a superb idea.

I leaned towards him and asked, “Will we get it before our breakfast is over?”

Abundance and scarcity

In a restaurant in the United States, a waiter’s first act will be to pour you or bring you a glass of water. From the dumpiest diner to the most elegant restaurant, you’ll get an oversized glass filled with ice water. It’s not a luxury. It’s simple common courtesy.

Have you had a meal in a restaurant in Bogota? Then you’ll know that a glass of water is not a common courtesy here. Water must be fought for. Although Bogota has one of the most drinkable tap waters in the region, you may never see a glass of it at a restaurant.

This happened when I visited a restaurant on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I requested my glass of water. Since the restaurant caters to foreigners, I figured the waiters would be able to handle my request for a glass of water (however bizarre it seemed to them).

They couldn’t.

The restaurant was nearly empty, the waiters bored out of their wits. But no water was coming from their hands. After several requests I got up and walked to the bar, asked the bartender for my glass of water, and carried it victoriously back to the table.

Naturally, that’s not the case in every restaurant. At times I can get one glass out of them. However, throughout a meal I rarely see more than one.

The message is clear. In Bogota, don’t drink the water. Because they won’t serve it to you.

When the customer is not always right

The reason why water – or pretty much anything else – is so abundantly provided in the United States can be chalked up to the American attitude towards the customer. American businesses go to extremes to make the customer happy. Terrified of the customer (or at least, terrified that the customer will take his business elsewhere), they not only provide water but they return or exchange goods with no questions asked. They make ridiculously complicated lattes. Chefs will leave off or add any ingredients the customer fancies. In short, they will do anything they possibly can to please the customer.

Terrified of the customer (or, at least, terrified that the customer will take his business elsewhere), businesses not only provide free water. Stores return or exchange goods with no questions asked. Cafés make ridiculously complicated lattes. Chefs will leave off or add any ingredients the customer fancies. In short, they will do anything they possibly can to please the customer.

That doesn’t happen in all countries. Not to pick on the French, but consider for a moment the notorious reputation of French waiters. Getting back to the region at hand, you won’t often see the American level of customer service in Bogota . However, there are a few glorious spots where the customer is truly king and food is prepared and served by people who understand their customers are living beings with individual needs.

The view from the other side

In writing this, I know I’ve risked sounding like a complaining American. Which I am, because I’m American and I’m complaining. However, my critical vision of customer service in Bogota comes from the other side of the coin; I provide customer service. I have a boutique coffee tour business where we give what amounts to an intensive coffee education to both visitors and locals in just three hectic hours.

I speak to my tour guides extensively about how to please the customer. We listen to our tour guests when they say they prefer a certain type of coffee. Light and tea-like coffee? Fruity and vibrant light roasts? Dark, heavy roasts? Sure thing. To the extent we can, we’re there to please.

However, we don’t just focus on the coffee. We listen to and accommodate their health concerns. Do they need help climbing stairs? Do they need to take a taxi between visits to coffee shops? Do they want suggestions about activities in the city? We help them make arrangements for the rest of their trip in Colombia and we make sure they get a taxi back to their hotel. My guides have even accompanied guests back to their hotel. I’ve found Instagram videos of my guides bouncing babies on their hip so guests can immerse themselves in their coffee experience.

And yes, we even fetch glasses of water for them. Because oddly enough, although restaurants in Bogota avoid providing drinking water, specialty coffee shops go to great lengths to provide fruit-infused iced water in delicate glasses. For free.

In other words, we make people feel at home because they are our guests and we exist for them. Not the other way around.

Good for business

Restaurants in Bogota want us to return. They want us to enjoy the meal and come back for more. After all, it’s easier to maintain a customer than gain a new one. Or it should be.

And everyone wants to find restaurants where they enjoy the meal and get treated well. A trained staff who understands the needs of a customer is a precious and rare thing to find in any country.

It’s a win-win situation. The restaurant retains business and the customer has a favorite restaurant to go back to again and again.  And much of that hinges on customer service.

The reason

Some weeks ago I settled down to a meal at a swanky restaurant in an international hotel. When I asked for a glass of water to accompany my outrageously high-priced salad, the waiter waxed poetic about the dangers of tap water, how he couldn’t allow us to be exposed to that danger, and how we should order bottled water. I wasn’t paying for the meal and wasn’t in the mood for a fight, so I shrugged and acquiesced.

However, after a few minutes I felt indignant. Why did the waiter insist I avoid tap water? Was he really so concerned for my health? I drink tap water at home and haven’t had a problem in the over five years I’ve lived in Bogota.

As I walked around the salad bar and admired the expensive treats I would be putting on my salad, I noticed the bar at one end. I casually leaned up against the counter and watched the bartender making juice.

He cut up the fruit, added some sugar, and then he filled the blender with water. From the tap. He used tap water for the juice, right from the faucet. I managed to casually chat about tropical fruits and Colombian abundance, but irritation flowed through me.

Back at the table our waiter proudly placed my bottle of water before me. But I had to ask. “Why is tap water bad for me in a glass of water but perfectly fine in a juice?”

He murmured something incoherent and escaped. Of course, the answer was clear; a glass of water is free and free is unacceptable. If you want water, you must pay for it, although we were already paying through the nose for the most expensive salad and ajiaco in the country.

A bittersweet finale

As I discussed this service dilemma with my American friends over breakfast, we agreed that it was hard to get waiters to grant such a small wish. The waitress served us coffee and tea and the arepas came…but the water didn’t.

After several reminders, the waitress finally found a moment to bring our water. Glasses of tap water. Just as we requested. And only 25 minutes into our meal.

A victory. Kind of.

*******

Please share with us any water battles you’ve had, in Bogota or elsewhere!

Lots Of Water & A Wine Glass

4 thoughts on “In Bogota, Don’t Drink the Water”

  1. A friend and I had this same conversation on the weekend. For some reason I had never thought twice about being served bottled water in Bogota, even though in Australia a glass of water means a glass of water from the tap (generally no ice unless you ask for it). Perhaps this is because I spent my first months in Colombia in Santa Marta where my mother in law used to boil the tap water before drinking. (She now buys drinking and cooking water in big plastic bags as the water quality got worse). Drinking from the tap there, and many other parts of the country, is inconceivable. So now, even though I always drink from the tap at home and agree that the water here is world-class, I still have the habit of buying bottled water at a restaurant or cafe.

    Thanks for posting this piece, I’m now going to insist on a glass of water in Bogota. I think if it never arrives without a big fight, then when they ask to include the service charge we should simply say “No”.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Camille. Like you, I’ve lived all around Latin America where we can’t drink the tap water. Something I love about Bogota is that I have that freedom to drink the water wherever I want without having to buy it. And I don’t mind if a waiter recommends that I get bottled water, but they should, in the end, deliver what I’ve asked for.

  2. Hi , I used to go to a famous restaurant in Bogota (Creps) every time I asked the waitres for a glass of tap water, she never never brought it or sometimes we were served the really expensive bottle of water they sell..then, as a result I refused to give tips, and instead of that I complained for not doing that. As you said ” It’s not a luxury. It’s simply common courtesy.”
    PD, they finally fixed it.

    1. Thanks for sharing that! And I understand that the wait staff can find it odd for us to request a glass of water, since it’s not common. But when we work in customer service we should be there for the specific customer’s needs, not simply what others request.

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