It’s almost 88 degrees and as humid as it could possibly be at 4’oclock in the afternoon in the middle of a late January afternoon … quite the change from back home in Petaluma where it’s been raining, raining, raining and the kinda cold that convinced me to move to Hawaii all those years ago. Well, I’m certainly not in Petaluma anymore and far, far away from Hawaii, too!
It’s my first full day here in Cartagena, Colombia!
As I was readying to leave, plenty of people asked me, “Why Colombia?” It’s a good question. Here’s my good answer: Colombia came onto my radar years ago when I took a several-month trip through Central America. That time, I started in Panama and made my way north to Honduras. When I was on the spectacular San Blas Islands in Panama, lots of people were headed south towards Cartagena or had just returned; and they were universally raving about how wonderful Cartagena and the Colombian people were – I should go, I should go! Since I had just started my trip, I didn’t want to change direction that quickly and dramatically, so I put it high on the list of ‘places to visit soon.’
Soon came and went, but I didn’t make it here. A relationship came and went, too, with someone not so accustomed to nor interested in this kind of traveling, and convincing him to come to a place like this was near impossible. So was staying in the relationship, but that took a while to figure out. More time passed and that meant not visiting Colombia.
Then came last year, the relationship behind me; and I went to work on researching, planning and booking a two-month trip. I was going to Colombia! Another man came along, this time one I had long ago stopped dreaming was even possible. He was everything I ever imagined wanting in a man: open, real, deep, smart, present, sexy, awake, engaged, funny, sensitive, expressive, effusive, adoring, and over-the-top smitten with me. He’s a poet, for god’s sake! We fell madly, passionately, deeply in love.
But my trip, my trip was already scheduled! He wouldn’t dare tell me not to go (“If that’s what makes you happy, I want you to go, I just can’t bear to be away from you for so long.”). I couldn’t bear it either, but I also knew I had to go. He understood. He too was a traveler. Maybe I’d shorten the trip. Even better, maybe he would meet me for some part of it. YES! I was still going to Colombia!
Then came, out of nowhere, his disappearance. Yeah, the man of my dreams left. Little explanation, many tears. He just couldn’t do it after all. The nightmare began. A day later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My world disintegrated. The least of my concerns, but still, I was very disappointed that Colombia wouldn’t happen after all. I spent that two months having radiation therapy instead.
That was then. This is now. It’s been the hardest, darkest, most grueling year of my life. But I’m not here to talk about all that. I’m here now, without him and on this side of the cancer diagnosis, in Cartagena!
I arrived in the late afternoon yesterday, almost dusk. It was a challenge at the Barranquilla airport and an instant immersion in being in a foreign place. First, I’m the only non-Colombian in sight and everyone knows it. The heat and humidity hit me like the wall of a furnace. I am far from complaining since I’ve been so damn cold, but I’m already dripping wet as I notice them sweat-free in their jeans and long-sleeved shirts. It takes some doing to find an ATM machine, not a cambio changer as I’ve already been warned about their bad airport exchange rates, but find it I do. My Charlie Schwab card does not work. Fortunately, the credit union one does. (I give myself a pat on the back for bringing them both.) With a pocketful of money, I head out to find my way to Cartagena. The taxi prices start ridiculously high. I know this game, I’m familiar with it, I even like it. I laugh and walk away, acting like I have an alternative. I don’t. Finally, after several conversations and walks around the airport, making myself only that much more noticeable and obvious in my foreigner status, a man helps me to get a taxi that will take me to the van that will take me to Cartagena for less than a quarter of the price. I call Charlie Schwab from the van and straighten all that out. I’m cruisin’ and feeling quite pleased with myself!
I settle into my hotel, take a cool shower and a lovely walk in the neighborhood. I notice the hungry dogs, the skinny cats, the wheeled carts of strange sweets and tropical fruits, the men sitting, talking and drinking out of tiny plastic bags. I sip an ice-cold beer at an outdoor cafe and have a simple dinner.
The woman in the parque on the bench next to me asks me if I am alone. “Sola?” Si. Yes. I am alone. And I am familiar with and reminded of this question and the surprise of local people since women my age traveling alone is such an oddity for them. I feel the loneliness tapping at me, wondering how different I might feel if I were here and in love, rather than here and yes, alone. I let myself feel it and I let it go. And it does go and I am grateful. I head ‘home’ to my room where I sleep and dream deeply and easily for the first night of my trip.
I’m staying in the Barrio Getsemani, in a quiet, clean, simple hotel just outside the walled city. I’ve spent the morning and early afternoon today getting my 3rd world traveling legs on – walked until I could hardly walk anymore, ate fresh pineapple and watermelon for breakfast, a pollo empanada for a snack and yet more pollo, plantains and sopa de pescado for lunch. I sat in the tree-filled parques scattered around the city, gazed at flowing bougainvillea in every shade along ancient walls, delighted in the brightly-painted buildings, met the smiling Colombian faces with a smile of my own and practiced my rusty Spanish.
Early in the day, a local man strikes up a conversation with me about Estados Unidos. “Ohhh, good place,” he says. “No,” I say. “Ahora, es terrible.” He points to a magazine stand with a photo of he-who-shall-not-be-named and says something about him being ‘my president.’ He doesn’t know what he’s said. A conversation ensues, mostly in Spanish. I say he’s not nor never will be my president. We speak of Obama and agree on how wonderful he was. (“Was?” Really? Does it have to be that tense?) He says, sadly, something about the wall this other guy wants to build. His dark face looks scared as he speaks. I am simultaneously thrilled to be speaking Spanish about something other than – ‘where is the bathroom’ and sickened that this is what we’re talking about. Again, I am experiencing the embarrassment of being an American. This time, though, there’s something about our dirty laundry being out there for everyone to see, especially after the dignity and grace of the Obama years. It’s an odd feeling that surfaces – this dirty family secret exposed that I don’t want anyone to know. And somehow him knowing, it being on a magazine cover here in a foreign city makes the nightmare all that more real.
And yet … I am happy to be here right now. Just as I am. And to be writing on my long lost blog.
And then, I go onto Facebook to let friends know about this blog and I’m greeted with a John O’Donohue poem:
When the heart is ready for a fresh beginning, unforeseen things can emerge. And in a sense, this is exactly what a beginning does. It is an opening for surprises. Surrounding the intention and the act of beginning, there are always exciting possibilities. Such beginnings have their own mind, and they invite and unveil new gifts and arrivals in one’s life. Beginnings are new horizons that want to be seen; they are not regressions or repetitions. Somehow they win clearance and become fiercely free of the grip of the past. What is the new horizon in you that wants to be seen?
What indeed are those new horizons? I am eager to explore and welcome them!
Thanks for reading!
It would be lovely to know you stopped by, so say hi if you’re so inclined! 💜