Today marks one week after our return from Colombia, and I don’t feel used to it yet – to being home again. I don’t feel unsettled, either, but without a workplace or school to set the pace, getting back into “the rhythm” is slow and a little strange. Maybe it just won’t happen. After all, how do you get back into the rhythm when the rhythm is your household and 2/3rds of that was away, being re-set?
Hubster says he feels that life is back to normal, but Kidlet and I are still “adjusting.” People keep asking “Are you feeling back to normal? Are you feeling adjusted?” The answer is no, and I’m okay with this. Isn’t that why I left, in part, to have a shift in perspective, to see things a little differently? I think so.
One thing is I’m very relaxed! Part of it is Hubster being home (he took a week off work to spend time with Kidlet after being apart for so long), and part of it is the relative ease and comfort of life after all the work of the past two months. The things I fretted about most – keeping tabs on our belongings, acquiring food, locating safe lodging, transportation, and understanding what people were saying – are no trouble at all in Seattle, where we are fortunate enough to have a home, a car and food security.
How long can this feeling of riding the gravy train last? At some point the relativity of it all must wear out? I don’t know, but I’m savoring it and learning from it. One thing I took away from our trip to Colombia was the belief that it is possible not to be anxious about what’s going to happen next. I observed people living in such a way that they didn’t talk about things not-yet-done as symptoms of a personal problem or even an economic problem, but simply a fact of life.
There will always be things that need to be washed, put away, dusted, repaired, replaced, discarded, learned. Always. So what do I get out of feeling guilty or angry about that? The guilt and the anger don’t need to be present for me to do the work. I keep going back to what that Seattle monk said, “What is the difference between having a problem and having something to do?”
During a conversation over lunch the other day, I mentioned this to a friend who said he really did need those ugly feelings of inadequacy to be motivated. But shame and inadequacy have never been quality fuel for me. We’re all different! This is what makes the world the way it is.
Early this morning I went to the boathouse and coxed an 8 – last night I was apprehensive and studied my coxing manual to refresh my memory. The water was good, the practice was light, and coach and my teammates were sensitive. It all worked out, and I look forward to resuming my sport. I’d wondered if maybe it wouldn’t feel the same when I returned. But I still wanted to be on the water.
Later in the morning, Kidlet and I watched a ten minute film by Yori Norstein called Hedgehog in the Fog. She loves hedgehogs so I figured she’d like it, but I didn’t expect to be so enchanted. In addition to being a beautiful little film, the story – specifically the ending – touched me. It made me think of all the times we go away and have a lasting experience, and then return to our loved ones who simply haven’t had that experience. Anyway, if you have ten minutes, I think this animated story would be a good use of your time.
This morning I woke up on the edge of a dream. In the dream, I was falling out of a hostel bed in a sunlit room, but instead of hitting the floor, I just kept falling. The sheets unfurled furiously as an endless roll, their energy holding my body aloft through some kind of physics. When I opened my eyes, it was pitch-black. Where am I? Then I heard Kidlet, who was cuddled against me, talking to a stuffed doll and sounding very awake. What time is it? My body told me it must be the middle of the night, but my cell phone said it was 5:30am.
I lay still for a moment. I’m home. The sun doesn’t rise in Seattle until almost 7:30am, hence the darkness. It was my second morning home but everything still feels strange. I look around and am struck by how unreal it seems. How cold it is – Seattle is in the midst of an “arctic blast”, as it was when we left -, how white the walls are, how much stuff there is in our flat, and how it’s all mine. Nothing here seems to have changed, it’s been like stepping into a showroom of memories.
Hubster did a great job of housekeeping – coming home to steam-cleaned carpets and a mildew-less shower is wonderful. Kidlet has latched on to Hubster as playmate and companion, freeing me up to unpack and run laundry. I spent much of yesterday taking out my braids while watching the live streaming video coverage of the Seahawks’ post-Super Bowl championship celebration. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Seattle to observe the parade. We live just 2-3 miles away but after 16 hours of travel, I was not ready for that kind of outing – especially not with a windchill of 18 degrees. I enjoyed watching the festivities in warmth and comfort.
On Being Comfortable
The incredible thing about modern day travel is the speed, of course. And, compared to the last time I traveled internationally, there is wi-fi and social media that can make it feel as though you haven’t quite left home. Initially, I’d planned to abstain from social media for the most part, wanting to feel truly immersed in Colombia. That lasted a few weeks, until I couldn’t resist the siren call of connection to the familiar.
I have mixed feelings about it, and am not sure it was a good idea to use social media so much. On the one hand, it helped me keep sane with a young child; on the other hand, I looked at backpackers spending an hour or more in the evenings, logged into their FB pages, doing video chats with friends back home, and otherwise “connecting” and saw the reflection of myself. To connect with fellow travelers – the people we’d traveled thousands of miles to encounter – took a lot more effort. And at the end of a long day of stretching your mind with a foreign language, testing your patience with foreign customs, and aggravating your stomach with foreign food, “more effort” isn’t always appealing.
One thing about our 56 days in Colombia is that I felt like so much happened, yet I’d wanted so much more. We didn’t go to the Amazon (I’m okay with this because BUGS), we didn’t make it to the desert, and we didn’t make it to a white sands beach (this I truly regret). My Spanish, though it improved dramatically, did not improve as much as I’d wanted – because I didn’t study the way I’d planned. I’d underestimated key things, like the amount of time it would take to travel around the country; and overestimated other things – like how well we’d handle the heat.
There were days I thought, “I give up; I just want to go home.” And if I’d had the ability to instantly transport us back, I’d have done it. There were nights with scary bugs, and frightening rural animals, and vomit, and sickness and discomfort. There were days when Kidlet and I would literally be standing in the street, glaring at each other; if we possessed horns, they ‘d be well-worn by now. And yet, as easily as one might turn a page, the next day we’d be smiling together in the sunshine, hands swinging together, feeling like the most fortunate pair of people to have each other and this experience.
It was always remarkable, the way things turned around. By the end of the trip I’d begun to anticipate that experience of dawn after the night. A horrible, lousy experience would seem to be followed by an especially wonderful one. A case of comparison, or was it objectively the case? It’s hard to say, and I can’t claim objectivity. On this trip, state of mind accounted for almost everything.
Parenting on the Road
I took Kidlet on this trip for many reasons: I missed traveling; I wanted to improve my Spanish; I wanted to introduce her to Spanish; I wanted her to see the world; I wanted her to understand that life is different in other places, and not to take her cushy life in Seattle for granted or assume it was the same way for everyone everywhere; I wanted her to develop patience, learn to do without so many things and get used to schedules and plans that didn’t revolve around her. But as is often the case when I, as her parent, try to “teach” Kidlet anything, I discovered that my determination for her to learn certain “lessons” was a cosmic joke. Two weeks into the trip and I was constantly and miserably aware of my hypocrisy. After hearing myself irritably and even aggressively tell Kidlet, “I need you to be patient!” over and over, I began looking at myself with the same wary look she was giving me..
Kidlet, to her credit, met me head-on with obstinate, outspoken and downright rude behavior the likes of which I had no idea she was capable of. It was a struggle. Traveling solo for two months with a five year old was far more challenging than I’d imagined. There were days when I resented her so much, right alongside feeling that she was the saving grace of the entire experience.
Night after night I’d lay in bed feeling like a failure, as a traveler and as a parent. But day after day, the sun rose and I could try again. We began to start the mornings off with the words, “Today, let’s love each other and be kind to each other.” A futile exercise? It felt so, at first. I tried so many manipulative methods to get Kidlet to do what I felt I needed her to do, methods I’d barely entertained at home – bribery, threatening, intimidation, guilt-tripping; bribery with threatening and guilt-tripping, etc!
Kidlet threw them all back in my face. She gobbled up my bribes and then demanded more while refusing to do what I’d “asked.” She repeated my threats to me at the most embarrassing, ridiculous times. She started saying horrible things about herself that I’d originally said about myself in useless attempts to elicit sympathy from her. There was no escape. Whatever one of us threw out, the other would be hit with, and it would just continue back and forth like a ball bouncing between two walls placed irrationally close together.
The whole while I kept waiting for a breakthrough, an epiphany, that tremendous a-ha! moment – in part because I’m writing a book about the experience, and that kind of thing is convenient. But I should have known by now that in my life things don’t happen like that. There is no sudden storm, relief from the drought – there is no drought! There’s just one not-too-dissimilar day after another, lined up like beads on a string. And so finally, towards the end of our eight weeks on the road, I began to surrender to the reality of moving forward one half-step at a time. Some moments or hours I wanted to throw a fit, “I just can’t anymore! Why do I have to be kind! Why do I have to work so hard to be the parent!”
But eventually I was able to get to the point where I could surrender with dignity. I could refuse to say something cruel or manipulative, I could abstain from churlish demands for “respect,” I could resist the urge to throw my weight around. I could just say, “That is NOT okay,” and leave it at that for the moment. One foot in front of the other. And I apologized more, and when I apologized I found she would often immediately apologize for her actions. And by the end I was very amazed, and very proud of Kidlet for pushing me to parent smarter and demanding better of me than what was easy.
When I was her age, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude or self-regard to withstand the badgering she suffered from me for weeks on end. I was a good little girl, who never caused anyone any trouble; I had no guts at all. It’s become apparent over the last two months that my daughter is very different from me. She is already starting off on her own path, and the influence I have over her is more and more about what she observes me doing on my path.
Was it a good experience? Yes, obviously. (Is it obvious?) Would I do it again? Well, that’s like asking me right after I gave birth to Kidlet if I would “do it again.” I’m glad it happened, and I don’t regret it, but I’m not ready to do it all over again right now. It was a lot of work, and there’s still a lot for me to reflect on and collect from the experience.
I have had issues with wi-fi on my laptop for a while, so I am behind in updates. This will be a brief update.
We are back in Bogotá for just one night after visits to Cartagena, Barranquilla and Cali. Kidlet and have flown four airlines so far here in Colombia! Flying domestically is quite pleasant, easy and stress-free.
Cartagena’s historic core is fantastic and so romantic. It is hot there but evenings are perfect with the night breeze. I would love to return again for a get-away with Hubster or some girlfriends. Unfortunately, when I left the core – which we did to go to the local’s bus station – I saw that much of the surrounding area is, as a Colombian resident described, “fifth world.” Not all of what I saw outside the core is that way, but the contrast is stark. But I did love Cartagena, as did Kidlet. I even managed to locate the most famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez literary locations, and kidlet visited her first castle.
Next we went to Barranquilla – out of cost concerns, actually. We couldn’t afford to stay in Cartagena any longer and Kidlet wanted a beach.
Unfortunately, Barranquilla didn’t deliver on beaches and we couldn’t make it to Santa Marta or Tayrona due to Kidlet’s bus ride intolerance and flight schedule limitations. We stayed at a family hostel in Barranquilla and visited the zoo but mostly we just tried to stay cool. The humidity on Barranquilla was so overbearing for me I dreaded leaving the hostel during the day.
We spent two nights there with an Italian-Colombian household full of travelers and then took the 6am flight to Cali, where my friend’s mother invited us to stay near her finca/holistic day spa.
Cali is the second largest city in Colombia, and like Cartagena, has a large visible Afro-Colombian population. I felt pretty comfortable there, even though of the six days we spent there, only two were really spent in the city. We visited the Cali Zoo which was quite good (far superior to Barranquilla’s), the archaelogical museum, and the museum of gold of Calima, as well as a few other sites.
Our guide, Noemi, works for my friend’s mom, and she took us around on a hilarious-in-retrospect transportation adventure! And also, we danced with hundreds of other people in a popular Thursday night plaza dance party.
We ate healthy food in Cali and enjoyed the rural life, which included walking dirt roads in the dark, many many many ranging dogs (and chickens), countless bug bites, swimming in the river and a rustic cabin in the woods. (Okay, I did not much enjoy the dogs or the bugs.)
Now we are in La Candelaria neighborhood, which is beautiful and close to the bus station (I think). We found a lovely hotel that I wish we were staying at for another night, but alas. Reservations await us at another farm in Villa de Leyva. I enjoy farms but I like having easy access to the town. We’ll see if our place in Villa de Leyva offers that.
Nine days to go in Colombia! And for now, good night.
One month into our eight-week trip of traveling in Colombia and Kidlet’s homesickness has kicked in. We’ll be riding along in a mototaxi or sitting together and suddenly she’ll whimper, “I miss my Dad! I’m homesick!”
Helping Kidlet deal with her homesickness got me thinking about the things that I miss. This is the longest I’ve traveled abroad, but, like a turtle, I carry my world around with me, so homesickness hasn’t troubled me much in the past. (Culture shock has been more my bag.) But after a month here, there are definitely some things I wish I had easy access to – things that would make Colombia feel more like “home.” Like Kidlet, I miss Hubster, but he’s not a thing, so I won’t put him on this list! (Will save that for another writing.)
Here’s a rundown of six things I miss while traveling in Colombia.
This is huge. I had grand plans when I first arrived, and began each day with a short, do-able regimen of 100 squats, 20-40 pushups, crunches, yoga stretches, leg lifts, etc. Then the altitude sickness in Bogotá got the best of me after six days and I simply couldn’t bring myself to do them anymore. Then we hit the road and were staying in hostels where there was no place I could perform these exercises with any degree of privacy. I fell out of the habit. And I get sweaty doing these exercises so I like to do them first thing in the morning, before my shower. Difficult.
My back-up plan had been to go on hikes with Kidlet on my back, but her carrier was in the suitcase that was lost in Bogotá, so even though we walk several miles a day, it’s at Kidlet pace. The only time my heart race is elevated nowadays is when I’m on horseback and afraid I’m going to fall off and be kicked in the head! There’s still time for me to figure out how to work in my morning regimen again, though it may not be daily and it may not be in the morning. Re-evaluating the situation is a must or I will suffer a LOT when I get back to the boathouse!
2. Non-Meat Proteins
Seattle is one of the top cities in the US to be a vegan, so I’ve been spoiled by the variety and availability to non-meat proteins at restaurants, cafes, food carts, and of course grocery stores. I miss chick pea salads, quinoa, lentils, veg*n Thai food, tofu, Field Roast, baked beans and other staples of my Seattle diet. In Colombia, we eat meat.
3. Non-Dairy Milk Options
Colombia’s milk consumption boggles my mind. I don’t even have the context to identify the varieties of milk I see on the shelves here. Powdered, concentrated, sweetened, in bags, lactose free, and many more, judging from the packages and labeling. Some milk products are refrigerated, most are not. If you love milk and milk loves you, come to Colombia! If milk doesn’t love you, be prepared to resist it. Yogurts and smoothies abound. Tortas soaked in milk, puddings, and caramels are the most popular desserts I’ve seen here, along with homemade ice cream popsicles (sold everywhere!) and scooped ice cream.
Kidlet, who loves ice cream, is tortured by the sight of grown men and children eating ice cream popsicles at just about any time of day. Frozen fruit juice popsicles are available, but these are all artificially flavored with artificial dyes, which she reacts to. It’s pretty sad for Kidlet. I allow her an artificially flavored (and sometimes dyed) popsicle every few days and she eats a slice of cake to satisfy her sweet tooth. Her skin is not great, but her eczema is controlled.
Breakfast and lunch are often served with blocks of queso – cheese – even if you specifically say “no queso.” or “sin queso.” Dairy can upset my stomach and I’ve avoided all but cream (cooked into things), butter (same), and some queso out of solidarity with Kidlet.
Again, we’ve been spoiled in Seattle with its offerings of vegan ice creams, cakes and cookies alongside regular desserts in most shops. Servers in the restaurants we frequent are familiar with the concept of dairy free and can prepare meals or guide us to meals without dairy. I wish we could eat cereal or the delicious granola they have here, but except in Bogotá where I bought soy milk in an upscale grocery store, I haven’t seen non-dairy milk available. It’s possible to avoid milk, but if you are severely allergic to cross-contamination, I advice caution here.
4. Big Salads
Colombia is known for the variety of its fruits. But vegetables, so far as I’ve seen, are mostly treated as an afterthought. Potatoes are ubiquitous – if you’re a meat and potatoes kind of person, come to Colombia! However, if you thrive on leafy greens, prepare yourself for disappointment. I have only seen broccoli once; kale, collards and chard do not appear to exist here at all.
In a large, upscale grocery store in Bogotá, the vegetable aisle was a single aisle, and the vegetables stocked there looked like basic vegetables you could find just about anywhere in the USA: carrots, onions, potatoes, celery, a few beets, a bit of cabbage, lettuce, maybe a red pepper, some really sad button mushrooms and garlic. Compared to half a dozen fruit aisles!
I miss salad bars, stir fries, vegetarian protein salads, and being able to order salad as a meal. I gobble up whatever napkin-sized salad I’m served here (often with pineapple or strawberries as a main component, along with the iceberg lettuce I wouldn’t bother with in Seattle), and am always left wanting more. The thirst for fresh, raw veggies is real in these Colombia streets! I’ve met other North Americans who’ve expressed the same sentiment.
My friend in Bogotá, X-, warned me in my first days here: “Colombian food is kind of bland.” No problem, I thought. I’m not a picky eater, I enjoy food but I’m not a foodie. And I’m the kind of person who can eat the same meal for lunch or dinner every day for a week and not get tired of it. But, man. X- was not joking! Salt and pepper seem to be the main seasonings here, along with chicken and beef broth packets loaded with sodium (probably MSG). Tip: Be sure not to salt anything you’re served until you’ve tasted it first!
I ordered a “Mexican style” burrito in the hopes of getting some fresh flavors, and it had a curry sauce – the mildest, least spicy yellow curry you can possibly imagine. The burrito wasn’t served with green onions, or salsa of any kind. Like so much Colombian food I’ve eaten, it was completely inoffensive, it just lacked flavor. The most flavorful food I’ve had so far has been at X’s house, where she cook using a variety of fresh herbs and spices (which she may have purchased in the US and brought back with her!). Also, I’ve had a few, good, imported chorizos that had some kick. I’ve been told that there are exciting restaurants in trendy neighborhoods of Medellín and Bogotá, but these places are not inexpensive to our budget. I may have to splurge on one of these later.
6. Clothes Dryer
Hanging clothes out to dry is charming and energy efficient, and would probably not be a problem if I had all my clothes. But I don’t. Kidlet and I are living out of a suitcase, and when it takes 3 days for our clean underwear to dry (because some days are cloudy or it rains), I get antsy. I spend far too much time keeping track of our clean clothing situation! I have even planned my travel around how long it will take me to get my laundry washed and for it to dry. I definitely miss my janky old clothes dryer.
Hope you enjoyed my list, hope to write again soon.
This is my first video from Colombia. I’d like to try to make more, specifically in Spanish. The idea to do this came from Benny Lewis, AKA The Irish Polyglot over at his website, Fluent in 3 Months. Maybe it was one of his posts or videos that recommends this, but I cannot find it exactly at the moment.
In any case, while I’m not super keen on being in front of the camera, I made this short little video on the word “Ciao” and how it’s used in Colombia in lieu of “Adios.” Kidlet video bombs most of it, by the way.
AND, if anyone has suggestions for future topics, let me know here in the comments Also, if you have a question you’d like me to answer, let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to make a video answering your question (in Spanish!).
A child in waders from one of the neighboring fincas is at the gate this morning. I walk down the driveway eating a mandarina, and meet him there. Qué necesitas, niño? He is looking for a lost duck. I let him in. Muchas gracias, says he. I tell him it’s nothing, then turn back - Cuando salgo, cierra la puerta. The boy, already circling the little lake on the property, nods. I resume my walk back to the house, tossing the last of the orange pith into some bushes. This place is not like Seattle.
We are nearing the end of our first month of travel in Colombia. We are still in a small town in Colombia, in the department of Antioquia, and I love it. Despite the bug bites. It’s not the mosquitos, which have never seemed keen on me, but the little red flies; I believe they’re called biting midges. They left me (mostly) alone for the first six days but several days ago they suddenly took a strong interest. It’s not fun.
But subtract the bug bites and this place is a kind of paradise. I’ve lived all my life in cities and suburbs, so small town life is new to me, and it appeals to me more than I thought it would. In the United States, I wouldn’t want to raise my child in a small town; namely because I wouldn’t want her to be one of the few children of color. Also, cities are full of cosmopolitan adventures, historical buildings, art, diverse culture, culinary experiences. But traveling in them abroad with a child is slow, stressful and difficult. This town is great because it’s leisurely and pretty safe – children play in the street here, and run errands alone; and the pace of the traffic is slower and more cautious. There are no signs here cautioning car drivers to “share the road” – it’s a given. The roads here, including the dirt roads that you find just outside of the town center, are used equally by cars, motocarros (tiny taxis smaller than golf carts), horses, motorcyclists, bicycles, and pedestrians.
We walk to town every day. Yesterday Kidlet and I went yesterday afternoon. I had the vague notion of finding the library, which I’d passed by a few days ago when it was closed. We walked pretty far south into the town and encountered some amazing views, ate lunch, window shopped, found the aerial cable station, played in the main square and bought Kidlet some leggings, but no sign of the library. I’ll keep looking!
It’s really easy to be shy and not speak much to people; especially when running errands. It’s easy to feel as though you’ve met your interaction quota simply by going to the grocery store and buying a few things, and saying hello to people you pass on the road, and then ordering a meal. But that’s not really conversational Spanish. Conversational Spanish is when you find yourself alone in the hostel at night with an enormous unidentified bug and a neighbor boy comes by to see if there are children to play with, and you greet him like Jesus. Then you show him the bug and he looks alarmed and retreats to another room with your child to watch YouTube videos. Then a possibly-homeless man arrives to enjoy the music playing on the stereo and see what’s going on, so you show him the bug and he dismisses it as just a cricket, and sits down and tells you all about his dreams of visiting the United States, particularly Las Vegas.
It’s nice, to stay put for a little while. To get out of travel mode and experience a bit of living mode. Yesterday I talked to two women in a toy store, a couple in a children’s clothing store, and some boys in the plaza. In Medellín and Bogotá especially, it was hard to find situations where it seemed people had time to chat, but in a small town it’s easy. People are just hanging around chatting with each other. Even the ones doing business – they are mostly talking to each other and then sell a few things.
Last night, Kidlet and I came home to a houseful of people – including the neighbor boy and the possibly-homeless man again – and interacted with all of them. At the end of days like that, my brain is tired. Practicing my Spanish is a lot of work, but I’m finding it most enjoyable in a small town.
(This post is continued from: Traveling in Colombia – With the Aid of Others, Part 1)
The lobo-looking guy lugged our bags across the street again and tried to flag down a bus, a van, a car. It wasn’t looking good. Backseats of sedans were packed with four, five, even six people.
As lobo guy’s impatience visibly grew, it dawned on me that maybe I was supposed to tip him. I didn’t know what was customary, but in Bogotá I’d given a 2,000 COP bill ($1) on a 13,000 service to a very patient waiter, and he’d gasped and shown it off to his coworkers. I rummaged in my purse and came up with 1,500 worth of coins, which I jammed in my back pocket just in case.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, lobo guy abruptly turned to me and said something in a sharp tone. I picked out the word propina, aka “tip.” “Quisiera una propina, sí?” I replied. He gave me a look like, “Obviously.” I handed him the change I’d set aside and he slipped it in his jacket without a word or glance.
Eventually he found us a ride: a Chiva bus. Except that the Chiva bus wasn’t outfitted as a bus, but was still a cargo truck filled with green packing crates. Only the front compartment had room, and it was covered with a black tarp blocking all light except what entered through the glassless window above a side “door.”
There was a very fit and alert-looking man with a handsome face strongly reminiscent of an eagle. He seemed to be coordinating everything. He was the driver’s assistant, responsible for arranging pick-ups, loading cargo and collecting the fares. While I was still pondering the wisdom of this mode of transit, he lifted Kidlet up into the beast. I had no choice but to climb in as well.
The lobo fellow was speaking a mile-a-minute to the fit Chiva man; I heard him say, seven or eight times, the name of the town we were headed to. The fit Chiva man nodded, nodded and finally repeated it back to him. At last the lobo fellow looked satisfied and let go of the truck as it accelerated. The baton had been passed.
The compartment of the Chiva truck was already occupied by a woman and her two children – a boy and a girl, ages eight and six. There were many sacks of potatoes, boxes of lettuce and other produce. Kidlet and I sat on a tall stack of potatoes against the back wall. Kidlet buzzed with excitement. Someone handed me a little black bag “para la niña.” Many drivers keep these bags on hand. There may be some small expense in buying them, but it can’t be worse than having to clean vomit out of your vehicle!
I thought, “We’re almost there, this should be a short ride.” I felt happy. Here we were having a bit of adventure! I had fond memories of riding in the back of a pick-up and taking “chicken buses” in Guatemala; now Kidlet would experience something similar.
Her mind was working overtime. “I’m riding in a potato truck,” she told me. “I’m sitting on potatoes, and they are not comfortable. It’s okay to sit on these potatoes, though.” She seemed unsure about the last part. “My shoes are on these potatoes. My butt is on these potatoes. It’s okay, though. We’re in Colombia.” She even waved off the black bag when I let her know it was available. “Mama, I can’t get carsick in a potato truck,” she said.
Her optimism was admirable, but after half an hour of turn after turn along bumpy, narrow roads, lurching and keeling in a hot truck, with the mild smell of potatoes fast becoming the permeating stench of potatoes, we were green as the sack of guavas at our feet.
The vomit took us all by surprise. Kidlet didn’t even make a noise. I just rubbed her back consolingly, wiped her face, my arm, and my pants; then scrubbed at the mesh bag of potatoes we sat on. I hope those are washed before they get sliced up. Fortunately, potatoes are typically subjected to high heat prior to consumption. Eek.
The ride went on and on. It seemed impossible. Where was this town?! The little boy’s eyes were closed as he stretched out across potatoes, limp as a towel. His sister lay like a board across her mother’s lap, her head resting as close to the window for fresh air as possible.
I marveled at the fit Chiva man’s iron guts as he sat with one leg slung over the little door to the compartment. As we careened down rough roads, he held himself upright with the outside arm, gazing straight ahead. His body was composed but his eyes were animated. He was looking for passengers among the people we passed on the highway.
We stopped a few times to pick up new riders, but all of them sat in front with the driver; our view of him and his cab was completely blocked by the tarp. At one point we all had to deboard while the fit Chiva man rearranged the produce and our bags to load in a motorcycle that had run out of gas. He tied it to the thin metal bars dividing our compartment from the one behind us. It was too long, and the little swing door couldn’t be shut, so the fit Chiva man sat on the end of it – using his inside leg as a brace – and resumed his perch half-hanging out the truck. I wondered how long he’d been doing this; he seemed completely at ease with his work.
I talked to the mother; that’s how I learned the ages of her children. They were headed to the town before ours. She was suffering quite a bit from motion sickness - called mareo. She had to use her own black bag, and her son threw up twice. She had a stash of bags in her purse. I silently admired how smart she looked in the wedge heels and pencil skirt she was wearing during this wretched ride; chances were she’d not intended to travel this way, either.
Mareo is bad enough, add to this the anxiety of your child being sick and the fear of them throwing up all over themselves or you, or someone else. Let’s not even talk about the prospect of crashing. I eyed the motorcycle warily and made sure Kidlet didn’t sit between it and the front of the compartment. My poor grasp of physics has allowed me to rationalize all sorts of ineffective safety measures for driving without a carseat or even a seat belt – par for the course here in Colombia, which does not enforce its seatbelt laws. Kidlet is currently under the impression that if I hold onto her tightly in a taxi, this will keep her from flying through the windshield should we be rear-ended.
The truck driver must have been nearing his final destination because he was now unloading passengers without picking up new ones. In the end it was just me and Kidlet, and the fit Chiva man with the handsome eagle face. Kidlet and I were moved to the enormous cabin of the truck (more vegetables there) where I finally got a look at the truck driver, a sweaty man vigorously eating an ice cream stick.
We arrived in a busy town where stealthy looking men eyed us curiously. The thing about small towns, wherever they are, is that people sitting around on the main streets doing not very much at the moment tend to keep an eye on everything. That can make you feel protected by the gaze of others, or simply subjected to the gaze of others. I felt subjected here, and panicked a little: Was this my destination? If so, I didn’t want to stay. But the fit man said, “No. It’s the next town. We’re going to drop you off here and then [lots of Spanish].”
I was supposed to turn the corner, walk down the road, and encounter local transportation. The driver reiterated this as the fit man rapidly unloaded all of our things onto the sidewalk.
The baton passing had ended, one town short. I paid the fit Chiva man 10,000 COP for our “fare” and took on our luggage: the biggish backpack X- had lent me in Bogotá, a small backpack I wore over my shoulder, Kidlet’s lightweight rolling suitcase, the tiny backpack she wore on her back, and a large umbrella I’d paid $13 for in Medellín and refused to part with until I’d used it more than once.
The Chiva truck rumbled one way down the street, and we went the opposite way. So far I’d paid 3,000 COP (jeep driver), 10,000 (private car driver), 1500 (lobo guy who got us the Chiva) and now another 10,000. About $13 so far. The bus would’ve been cheaper. Kidlet tugged at me and complained of thirst and heat.
I promised Kidlet we’d get something cold to drink before the next leg of our trip. She negotiated for something ice cream-like; I consented. Following the instructions of fit Chiva man, we walked a few hilly streets until we encountered another small bus station, occupied by a woman who looked almost identical to the woman we’d seen at the last bus station.
I explained where I was going, asking “Está lejos de aquí?” It was impossible to get a straight answer, but it sounded like not too far. I was assigned a driver, took Kidlet to the bathroom and when we came out, we had a different driver. He informed me that the original driver didn’t know the town we were going to as well as he did. I nodded wearily and bought Kidlet a bright green popsicle (limonada) that she set upon with gusto.
Our driver had a conspiratorial way of speaking, but I suspect the only secret he was sharing was that he was overcharging me - don’t tell anyone. I was so tired, I didn’t care if it cost me $3, $5 or $7 to get to this destination town, this town I had not chosen, this town I was being sent to with the promise that there was room for me. (I didn’t know it then but we were approaching the busiest holiday weekend of the year in Colombia.)
I wanted to be done with the waiting, the stomach-churning roads, the looming prospect of vomit, the risk of losing a bag, and the uncertainty. I just wanted to be where we were going, and I hoped it would be a place we could stay for a while. My intention before I left Seattle was to spend 1-2 weeks in a place before going on to another, but we were moving every five or six days, one day of which I had to spend arranging travel, researching and reserving housing, and packing. Moving around is a huge time-suck for someone like me, so unused to it.
I agreed to pay 6,000 COP ($3) for the ride. Then the driver decided he could fit in more passengers. A grinning man in his early 60s climbed into the front passenger seat and began chatting me up. In Medellín I’d conversed with a 7- year old with a speech impediment who had only two of his eight front teeth, and that child’s Spanish was more comprehensible than this guy’s.
The grinning man was very like that wizened drunkard character in old kung fu movies, the one who sits around laughing at others inanely and is cursed and literally slapped around by the rest of the cast. I was so tired. What was this man talking about? He just kept talking, laughing at his own jokes, and asking me questions that he wouldn’t allow me time to reply to. He asked me my religion, and told me he was Catholic, and how unfortunate for me that I was not Catholic. He told me that he had a cousin and nephew in Virginia, but he had never been there. He told me the taxi driver was a bit of a thief, but not too bad. And he said a lot more I gave up trying to decipher.
At last, a final passenger was located, another old man. He greeted me with a buenas tardes, then said nothing the whole time we traveled. Thank goodness. Kidlet finished her popsicle and resumed her usual position, with her head on my lap.
Twenty minutes down the road we dropped off the grinning man, at a makeshift public square that was really an empty lot between the highway and some dirt paths lined with shacks. It was a festive assembly of hillbillies. Little food tables lacking Postobon umbrellas, half-clothed children standing around, loud women and an outdoor saloon. As grinning man exited the car, I saw just how raggedy he was, but he fit in here. He headed toward a path in the distance and some other aging men drinking beers in the saloon began yelling at him, not in a friendly way. It seemed at least one of them was promising to kick his ass later, after he finished his drinking and having his good time. But later! You can count on it! The grinning man took on a sour expression and shouted back a few choice words punctuated with a vulgar hand gesture, and then loped off unfazed, waving his arm behind him as if to say Whatever, man.
A long-haired woman took his seat in the car and we were on our way again. Another ten or twenty minutes, and we reached a town. Our destination! The town had a great vibe about it and was filled with families, music and horses. There was a magnificent basilica overlooking the plaza. The long-haired woman and the old man disembarked, and the taxi driver continued. Supposedly our hostel was a handful of blocks from the plaza, but I knew better by now than to believe such things.
It turned out to be about 1.5 miles and uphill from the town center. Had I walked, I’d have despaired for not knowing how close or far I was from it. But it was more than I’d hoped, and I had the feeling it might be exactly the place we needed to be. I paid the taxi driver the 11,000 COP he asked for (!). As the he took our things from the car, I felt the journey was over, for a while at least. As we walked up the stone driveway, Kidlet turned to me, and said, “Mama. I like this place. We should stay here.”
Five days later, we are still here, and we don’t know when we are leaving!
I’m writing this on the first day of the New Year, and the 21st day we are here in Colombia. We’ve left Medellín and wound up in a small town that feels like the place I came to Colombia to be in – though it was never in my plans.
The difference between traveling and a vacation is you take a vacation seeking a specific outcome, typically relaxation, rejuvenation, a pleasurable break from the usual stresses. But with traveling you are going for the sake of going, to experience the everything, as well as the highlights. You know the highlights might be found – are likely to be found – in the places you didn’t expect, in the tedious, the accidental, even after something terrible.
Getting to where we are is a story. I’ve learned that I’m traveling in Colombia with the aid of others. By no means am I blazing any trails. Let me explain.
Yesterday we left the smallish town of Amagá, one hour’s drive south of Medellín. The eco hostel we’d made reservations to stay at was a no-go; a death in the proprietor’s family required her to take leave of the property suddenly. She told us we could stay one night, and made arrangements for us to stay at the hostel of her friend in another town – “two hours away,” she said.
The following morning, Paola called a private jeep to collect us and our too-many bags; she gave the driver specific instructions for getting us to a bus. The driver was a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned mestizo man. His head and neck were thick blocks and his profile Dick Tracy-esque, but his demeanor was pleasant, and he tossed us and our things in the jeep like we were rolled-up socks.
I expected to be dropped off at the plaza mayor in Amagá, where there is a busy bus station, but he unloaded us on the side of the road that leads into and out of Amagá. He explained why but I couldn’t decipher it. Kidlet and I settled on the grass next to a prepared food stand. We were in the second phase of our baton-act. We were the baton, and the jeep driver passed us on to the young woman tending the stand, relaying to her what Paola had relayed to him: that we were visitors, where we’d come from, and where we were going.
The young woman listened but barely nodded. The jeep driver left, and I took her closed expression as a sign that we were on our own. I knew the name of the town we were going to - no problem. As we waited, I jotted down in my notebook:
And so here we were, Kidlet and I, on the side of a busy road waiting for a bus, who knows what time it will arrive or how much it costs. We are waiting here, breathing in the exhaust fumes of a thousand vehicles with the expectation that one of them will take us where we have been told to go.
After twenty minutes of playing in the dirt and counting various sorts of vehicles, Kidlet says she is bored now. Meanwhile I cannot slip into daydreams because I have to fetch a bus. The way you do this is you stand up to see the destination placard on the front of an approaching bus, and if it is going to the right place, you hold up your fingers to indicate the number of seats you need. If the bus is full, the driver will clearly indicate “No” with broad hand and arm movements, removing his hands from the wheel, even, to express the fullness of the bus, the definitive-ness of the No. Or … he might not do anything other than keep on driving past you. I learned this by watching, by seeing other people on the side of the road do this.
As time wore on and bus after bus passed by, full, the young woman at the food stand suddenly animated and began talking to me in rapid Spanish. She was explaining to me why I was having such poor luck – the holiday (New Year’s Eve), the time of day (9:30am), and so on. Then she stood up and joined me in attempting to hail a bus. Dozens passed by. Only one stopped – a fancy coach, and she spoke to the driver, then waved him on; she indicated that he wanted an exorbitant amount.
Meanwhile, other travelers – mostly motorcyclists – began to patronize her stand. She had a small table with the ubiquitous Postobon umbrella for shade; on the table was a clear box half-filled with baseball-sized fritters. I don’t know what they were filled with – meat, cheese, platanos? They looked tasty, but I wasn’t hungry; we’d eaten breakfast at Paola’s hostel; sweet pastry for Kidlet, and granola with banana juice as milk for me. I knew from experience that it wasn’t a great idea to travel on Colombian roads with too much food – especially oily or sweet foods – in our bellies. In hindsight, this was the best decision I was to make all day.
After 45 minutes of waiting, things began to happen. A family had joined us on the side of the road, and they hailed a passing car with only a single occupant. Just one of their party needed transport; they’d done the typical Colombian thing of accompanying him until he’d boarded his ride. The baseball fritter stand woman jumped in and negotiated on my behalf a fare and an agreement – that the driver would take us in his car as far as another town that was on the way to our destination.
Having traveled to Latin America in the past, I knew this was typical … and I didn’t feel unsafe. Hitchhiking is common in places where most people don’t have their own cars. And the buses were all packed. The guest of honor took leave of his family, kissing all 7 or 8 of them goodbye, and hopped into the front passenger seat. Kidlet and I climbed into the back seat. At the last moment, the guest of honor jumped out again and snagged an old man from the side of the road as our final passenger – in moments, the car went from one occupant to five. Maximum efficiency, the car was now safely full.
A few minutes into the ride, the guest of honor, a man about my age with a wide, friendly face and a shaved head, turned to me and began talking. His knowledge of English was nothing, but he possessed the wonderful characteristic of being able to slow his pace of speech and speak in sentences that a beginner-bordering-on-intermediate speaker of his language would understand.
I’ve been told by new speakers to English that I also possess this ability to adapt my speech to the comprehension level of the non-native speaker. In every place I’ve traveled, I’ve found this to be an uncommon trait; most people respond to my broken Spanish by speaking louder, faster (!) or by exaggerating the pronunciation of arbitrary words to such a degree that they are no more recognizable than if they’d been said rapidly.
It is an interesting “talent” that – so far as I can tell – is part enthusiasm for communicating with someone of a different culture (from which arises a natural patience), and part intuition: specifically the ability to unconsciously rephrase ones thoughts before uttering them. There is a space between the thoughts in your head and the mouth from which you give them voice – an alchemic process can occur there, if you have a playful love for words. It is probably not unlike preparing food among people who love to cook; the fun is all in the challenge, and seeing what you can make.
In any case, this man was a pleasure to communicate with. And he was the latest bearer of the baton. He had received us from the baseball fritter stand woman and conveyed to the driver what needed to happen. He asked us the usual questions: Where were we from? Why were we in Colombia? How long were we here for? I explained that my Spanish was very poor, but a primary purpose of coming here was to improve it. I told him I found the accents here in Antioquía to be very different from that of Bogotá, to which he replied that the Antioquían accent was superior in both accuracy and beauty.
“The Bogotano accent is … is … well, it’s just ugly!” he said. I laughed at this, as did he and the driver, but they laughed long and hard into each others faces, and jostled at each other with their elbows. I had laughed at his good-natured regional pride, but I don’t know if there was more to it for them. People drop parts of words here and lengthen out other parts; we are out in “the country,” lots of cows and lots of horses. Maybe their accent here is similar to that of a drawl, so maybe he was making an ironic joke, as a US southerner or Texan might make about their accent being “better” than the “standard” Northern accent one hears on national broadcasts. Who knows. Humor can be tough in another language.
Eventually the man with the shaved head had to go. I believe his name was Cheve, “like Chevere” he said, which I later learned is an expression akin to “Awesome!” As we approached his stop, he passed the baton on to the driver, reiterating that Kidlet and I were to be looked after, and that he was to get us to where he’d promised. Anxious, I double-checked that we were indeed headed to my destination town.”Not there exactly, but it is on the way,” Cheve said to me in Spanish. “Tranquila, tranquila!”
Then he took his little backpack and bid us all farewell with great cheer, shaking the hand even of the old man in the back seat. He paid the driver 2,000 COP ($1), and stepped out of the car, at a Y in the road occupied by a large food stand. A dozen people stood around, eating and watching cars go by. When he turned away from us it was to greet them, smiling. I was sad to see him go.
Twenty minutes later, we approached a proper town and the old man next to us got out. He had attempted to talk to me in the car when he first got in, but was missing quite a few teeth and seemed not 100% mentally present. He kept muttering then giggling to himself – he found something about me very amusing. I could see him in the reflection of the window watching my face. He got out and paid the driver about 4,000 COP. I noticed then that he had a colostomy bag, the tube extending from the unzipped fly of his pants to an ordinary black shopping bag he held in his hand; a thick shawl – maybe a poncho folded in half – was slung over his shoulder, serving the dual purpose of keeping him warm and mostly concealing his medical apparatus.
Our driver waved to the old man and drove off, commenting to me that he was “un pescado … hombre.” I automatically agreed, “Sï,” although I had no idea what that meant. The man was fishy? He was a “fishy old man?” Was that a compliment? Was it dismissive? Like “old coot?” No idea. My little portable dictionary was of no help. Later, I was to learn that “pescado” is possibly another slang for “cool.”
A few blocks later, the driver arrived at a busy stretch in town. He beckoned a young, lean, lobo-looking guy to the car window and passed the baton. Next thing I knew, the lobo guy was grabbing all my stuff and Kidlet and I were evading motorcycles and buses to cross the road to a storefront transport station. A young woman sitting at a desk looking rather official by comparison talked with him rapidly. Kidlet and I stood there, completely at the mercy of these strangers. We were now five or so people removed from Paola, owner of the eco hostel in Amagá … would we be lost in translation?
I felt we might be pushing our luck here. And how far were we from our destination, anyway? It was only “two hours” away and we were approaching the third hour, so surely we must be close? I held onto that as faith; we could not be far, so we would be okay.