It occurs to me that maybe the reason that America has wide sidewalks and Colombia has narrow ones isn’t because of the difference in the size of the people–most Americans are quite a lot taller and wider than most Colombians–but in fact, because of the differences in comfort zones. Here, we all brush shoulders and graze elbows into those curves of the human body that are usually reserved for hugs and tickles, and we turn our bodies to swing our hips and handbags around each other.
Waiting in line to board a flight to LA from Panama, the two vacationers in front of me turn periodically to check on me, despite my best efforts to not look like I am eavesdropping. Then I realize it’s not my invasion of their conversation but my encroaching into their personal space that bothers them. I am lining up like any good Colombian would, with the minimal amount of space between me and them, breathing down onto their wheeled suitcases.
My waxing lady (yes, I now have one of those) asks what I’ll miss about Colombia. The human connections, I tell her. In my country, lives are separated by fences and decorative lawns and closed up, air-conditioned bubbles. Here, we live in each other’s spaces, sharing the same experiences.
The same tiredness as we try to stay balanced in a creaky, careening bus home, holding each other’s groceries and toddlers to balance each other’s load. The the same helplessness when the rain comes and we all lose power at the same black, startling moment, and we can hear each other through the walls and open windows in the stillness that follows. The same community pride when we all press together into the main street, a sea of yellow soccer jerseys, to watch the hometown hero, Carlos Bacca, parade slowly to the plaza atop the volunteer fire department’s best rig.
My parents finally came to visit! They set aside three weeks to come and follow me around my PCV life, going to classes with me, meeting all my pueblo friends, and even tagging along to girls’ camp. It was both surreal and exciting to have my parents–my biggest support during my service, always available via Facetime or Skype to listen to my successes and challenges and to give me toilet-plunging advice–finally in Colombia. Getting to merge my two worlds for a few weeks was both stressful and rewarding, stressful because of the 24/7, two-way translating, and rewarding because it gave me a chance to see my host country through fresh eyes.
In spite of Spirit Airlines, they made it to Cartagena (only a day late and baggage-less.) They flew in and we made it into the city just in time for sunset over the historic walled city, making the cathedral domes glow. As
we walked around the enchanted city, we saw a wedding procession with cumbia drums, and watched a mapale presentation in the park. My parents tried their first arepa con queso, then jugo de mango.
When they AND their baggage both finally arrived in Puerto Colombia, I got to introduce them to my Colombian life. I took them to visit each of my favorite families, meeting the kids I’ve watched grow and hearing the stories the grandpas love to tell over and over again.
As my American parents were coming in to town, my Colombian mama was moving out, going to Argentina to be with her husband. Before she left, we had a goodbye dinner with all my “parents” present: my American parents (theonesthatbirthedme), my Colombian mama (missing my Argentine papa!) and my Colombian papa and Ecuadorian mama, all at one table! This kid felt pretty loved, all of them sharing stories and conspiring to get me married (this is a dangerous combination.) Family, in all forms and definitions, is one of the things that makes life most worth living.
I was able to introduce my parents to all aspects of my Peace Corps life, including classes at my school; my weekend class in Barranquilla; each of the families I’m closest to here in my town; the Peace Corps staff; other volunteers; my favorite Colombian foods.
At my school, they sat in on a few of Ines’ and my 10th and 11th grade classes. That week, we were working on reading comprehension and test taking skills, but before class started, I introduced my parents and made the students ask questions in English. The best part was when they taught my dad some of the local slang–he was a hit!
The last few days of their visit, I took my parents to visit two different fincas, or farms in the hills near my town, farms owned by family members of my friends. There, we took advantage of the laid-back, simple lifestyle of drinking fresh mango juice, helping to cook over the fire, and sitting around telling stories in the darkness when the solar panel electricity runs out. Some of the most special memories in Colombia happen in these moments, away from the complicated mixture of society and instead captured one savored story at a time.
Their visit was well-timed in terms of my cultural integration cycle (the PC gives us this scarily-accurate graph of a PCV’s adaptability phases) and I felt privileged to be able to introduce my parents to the Colombia that I know so well now. It’s nice to be a “local”, to understand most jokes and know how to get around. Seeing my parents interact with my host gente made me proud of the people and places I’ve grown to love. This really is an incredible place, filled with great people, and seeing it through my parents’ eyes was just the perspective I needed.
“There’s so much to be done here. The people have this capacity to invent ways to survive; I love the informality of this culture.”
Trained as a journalist and brimming with stories from Vietnam to Alexandria, Ricardo is a native barranquillero who says his work now is to report as an “observer of the peace process.” I met him in our shared favorite coffee shop, where he rotates between a Coetzee novel and a sketchbook.
“One day overseas, the US Navy base invited the press to a movie night. ‘Zorba the Greek.’ Zorba wanted to live as if he would die tomorrow.” Now, I live for today, and I meditate. The mind has to be quiet to live in the moment.
“Hay mucho que hacer. La gente aqui tiene la capacidad de inventarse sobrevivir. Me gusta la informalidad.”
Periodista de carrera y lleno de historias de Vietnam a Alejandria, Ricardo es barraquillero nativo y dice su trabajo actual es reportar en el proceso de paz. Lo conoci en nuestro cafeteria mutual, donde el da turno entre una novela de Coetzee y un cuaderno de dibujo.
“Un dia afuera, el US Navy invito a la prensa venir a ver una pelicula. ‘Zorba el Griego.’ Zorba quiso vivir si fuera a morir manana.” Ahora, vivo para hoy y hago meditacion. La mente debe estar quieta para vivir a la hora.
[ This is a post in the series titled “#carasdecolombia.” I post stories, photos and interviews using this hashtag. Please feel free to add to the collection with your own pictures and stories! And yes, shout out to @humansofny for the initial inspiration for such a project. ]
You know how you usually hate the sound of your own voice? Well, I conquered that fear recently and served as a guest on Walking the Earth podcast. Mike Margolies is a fellow traveler and has a great podcast about the travel lifestyle, doing podcasts with travelers and expats of all different walks of life. Each episode is an open conversation about traveling and wherever else the topic leads.
Our conversation, recorded about a month ago, is about anonymity, navigating cultural differences, the idea of “home” and the evolution of relationships due to technology.
Please, check out the episode and show Walking the Earth some love! Enjoy!
One of the most baffling truths of modern transportation is that in the space of a couple of hours (more precisely, two cat naps and one plane-bathroom break), one can take-off in one culture and climate and land in a completely different one. Breakfast in 90-degree Colombia, lunch in 20-degree America. Let’s call this the “cultural transition zone.”
I had the grand and slightly intimidating opportunity to guest post at my friend Bjorn Karlman’s successful global do-gooding blog, CultureMutt. Go check out my post about Countering Conventionality and living an international adventure life, and give Bjorn’s blog some love!
So when people say, “oh, you’re an expert at packing by now!” they don’t realize that there’s an eleventh hour clause. That is, the presumed packing expertise doesn’t kick in until the very last minute, when you realize your flight is at 8 am instead of 11 am and your shoes weigh more than you thought. No matter how organized the packing progress begins, it always ends with stashing and cramming (the goal is to pack the random junk tightly enough into the little nooks and crannies that you don’t have to sit on the luggage to zip. That’s the goal.) Besides, how the heck does one pack for two years in a coastal tropical zone with monsoon seasons and occasional trips to the snowy mountains, with maybe some side trips to the Amazon jungle and Macchu Picchu? Hence the perpetual feeling I’m forgetting something.
My incredible support system showed up for the fun: my parents tuned in via Skype to provide moral support I didn’t realize I needed. It’s funny how parents know that stuff. The most amazing part here is that they got on Skype at 4 am their time—and stayed with me until the end! My daddy is an incredible photographer, and he had carefully wrapped all the batteries, chargers and lenses for me—including two chargers for every electronic, because last summer I left my only camera charger in the most remote village in Argentina…oops. Live and learn! My mama has patiently called pharmacies, insurance agencies, cell phone companies and banks to help me get everything done. I don’t know what I would do without these two.
While I rolled t-shirts and stuffed Ziploc bags full of vitamins and toothpaste, my dear, sweet, unstoppable aunt packed me a lunch. She artfully applied almond butter to celery sticks, carefully arranged a beautiful bunch of grapes, chose vegetables and nuts and packed it all so that it wouldn’t die in my backpack. By the end of the packing, she had fallen asleep on the couch with a carton of Portobello mushrooms on her lap (“what can I make with these for your lunch?”) and I had eaten half the gorgeous grape arrangement. I tried to herd her to bed, but she insisted on packing a pinch of salt in tin foil and hand wipes—and guess which were the best parts of my lunch today?
Now all that junk is down below (total weight: 92 pounds, including a load of granola bars and oreos), I’m free to drink airplane coffee and blog to the Weepies.
I’m really curious about the other people in my PC group. They haven’t told us how many of us there are, or where we’re all from. I’m guessing there’s going to be a variety of backgrounds. Just among the five of us who already found each other via Facebook, we’re from both sides of the country and our degrees range from education to sociology. I wonder if most of our group is recently graduated, or if there will be people with master’s in education or even teaching careers under their belts. I wonder if anyone else is bringing a musical instrument. My ukulele sounds a lot better with something else to drown out my pickings! It’s a little bit like the first day of school. Will they like me? Will anyone sit with me at lunch? What if I know that we all have some basic things in common already: we’re all pretty dedicated to our work, we’re all travelers, we’re all going to be teachers and we’re all brave enough to leave the U.S. for two years!
I’m excited but I feel like I still need a bit of time—for what, I don’t know, but I don’t feel quite ready. I don’t have my big girl pants on…I’m more in the yoga pants stage this week.
Tonight, four of us get in at the same time, so we’re planning to meet in the baggage claim and catch a shuttle to our hotel. Tomorrow is a meet-and-greet and orientation, where we’ll introduce ourselves and talk about safety and security (again.) We’re off for the night, then we ship out Wednesday morning!