Sleeping in hammocks for the first time, in the middle of the Colombian jungle, while listening to a simultaneously soothing and eerie chorus of frogs. Casually discussing the proliferation of microbreweries in the United States versus the availability of different beers in Europe with a dreadlocked Swede while very carefully descending 1,200 millenia-old, damp, and slippery steps from the Lost City of the Tairona Indians. Sitting in a bar which from the outside looked like a simple tienda, drinking $2 shots of shitty tequila and dancing merengue, and ending up with a bunch of other foreigners in a Chilean’s wine bottle-lined apartment, listening to a German chick sing La Llorona like Lila Downs herself and again, dancing. Holding on tightly, but not too tightly, to an 18-year old boy on a motorbike as he spirited me up a muddy slope in the pouring rain. Getting mugged. Twice. Sitting in a ramshackle bakery, eating corazones and dipping them in cup after cup of hot chocolate. Ajiaco. Eating bags of caramel crispetas on long bus rides. Watching my brother white-knuckle the saddle of the horse he was unwillingly riding at breakneck speed in Tayrona. Almost cracking my skull open on a see-saw, or mataculín. Sitting in an underground cathedral with an exorbitant entrance fee, cracking irreverent jokes with two of my favorite people…
These are some of the things I think about when I think about my time in Colombia. Many of them are things I will never forget, but others will be lost in the shifting sands of my memory, only occasionally resurfacing, bleached white like the skeletons of small mammals, or not at all. I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. I learned many things, about the world and about myself, both good and not so. I both realized how capable I am of taking care of myself (potential muggers beware) and how fragile and vulnerable I am. This is what is valuable to me. This is why I travel. Not to lie on a beach and drink obnoxious cocktails, wallowing in the evanescent feeling that time has left me behind, though there is a time and a place for that, but, as an essay I recently read by Pico Iyer so beautifully put it,
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed…. I travel in large part in search of hardship—both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see.
Of course, a large part of travel is seeing places very different to home, trying foods you’ve never heard of, etc., but a larger and much more important part is seeing how other people in the world live. Walking through Colombian cities and towns, watching places slide by on buses, I have seen wealth and poverty, both comparable to and vastly different from what we have in California. But taking yourself out of your own context teaches you what you value, take for granted, or never give a second thought to. I rarely stopped to consider the plumbing in my last apartment in San Francisco, but in Colombia, where you have to throw all your toilet paper in a basket next to the toilet (where it sits until someone takes it out), I find myself thinking fondly on that efficiently flushing porcelain depository. I miss washing machines and Walgreen’s, fresh greens and vegetables, the voices and embraces of my friends and family. I feel like an heiress walking around here with a laptop computer, an iPod, an iPhone, and a Kindle. The hourly minimum wage in San Francisco is equivalent to what some people here make in a week, if that.
But in spite of the fact that I am glad I came, I am also very glad that I have left Colombia behind. What I am about to say, I want you to take with a grain of salt and with the knowledge that this is my personal experience, and does not reflect on other people’s experiences of the country and its people as a whole. There was a feeling in Colombia that I could not shake off, one that had me constantly looking over my shoulder and made me want to stay indoors after sunset. I felt this before I was mugged twice in Bogotá, and I felt it after. I felt it when I was in the presence of friends and family, including Colombians, and I felt it, admittedly more so, when I was alone. It had a lot to do with the way strangers treated me. A large percentage of the men gave me looks that, frankly, chilled me. It was as though they were laying claim to me simply by looking, taking a piece of me that was not freely given. I’ve lived in Mexico, where they are notoriously flirtatious with women and catcalling is very common, but this was different. It did not feel playful to me. In general, nothing was said. I would just see them staring at me, and feel their eyes on me as I walked away, as calmly and intentionally as I could. If they did say something, it was a hiss or a bark, or they would switch to English, “Hey! HEY!” louder and louder, like they thought I would only respond to a certain decibel level in my own language. No one ever touched me, not once. But I felt as if they had, and it scared me. Many women I passed on the street or who I spoke to in restaurants or shops were also less than friendly, as if I was on their territory without permission, unwelcome. I have never felt this way in any country I’ve traveled to. Not ever. It could have something to do with all the negative things I’ve grown up hearing about Colombia; perhaps in spite of my conscious efforts to maintain an open mind, these things wormed their way into my heart like an untraceable poison, darkening my perception. In spite of this, there were many people whom I did meet who were very kind and generous, who were happy to meet someone from a different country, who took it almost as their duty to make sure I had a good time getting to know their city. I’ve already mentioned Esneider and Carlos in Medellín, but they bear mentioning again for their sheer awesomeness. Ana María in Bogotá without whom I might have let the double muggings completely spoil my time in that city. Our guide on the tour to the Ciudad Perdida, Gabriel, who practically adopted us during the hike and took it as his personal duty that none of us should pass out and be forgotten in the Colombian Sierra. The countless strangers who went out of their way to tell us what and where to avoid, the things we shouldn’t miss, and in general give good advice. I haven’t forgotten them.
But I truly did breathe a sigh of relief when I crossed the border into Ecuador. There are things that I would have liked to see in Colombia like La Guajira and the river of many colors, but time (and money) are always limited. I know that I only familiarized myself with the tip of the iceberg that makes Colombia and its people what they are. I know that there is much to be loved and appreciated about that country of so many different climates and cultures and lifestyles. Which is why I chose to name this blog after a saying I learned in Medellín from a poster of sayings that identify a paisa (a person from Medellín): La Puntica No Más, which actually means “just the tip”, though I have reappropriated the meaning, if you catch my drift.