With the close of the school year two weeks ago came the close of four years in Colombia: an era of discovery and disappointment, growth and growing pains, experiences and memories. My relationship with the country has been like a romance that ended unexpectedly, but with mutual respect, increased maturity, and improved understanding. It was a necessary courtship, a necessary break-up, and a necessary chapter in my life.
I arrived in Barranquilla in 2005, thinking that I’d be embarking on a sensual Afro-Latino adventure in the Antilles, replete with easy friendships, easy sex, drum rhythms as constant as the Caribbean tides, and impromptu street salsa sets a la Washington Heights or Little Havana. I’d previously traveled through Latin America and had expected little order or organization, but I figured giving up these paragons of Anglo-American society was worth it in exchange for the daily hot-blooded passion of life in the tropics. I hate disagreeing with the Beloved and Most Royal Highness, Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, but life ain’t no carnival, and my own illusions vanished within a month of my arrival. The first lesson was that there is an ocean of difference between visiting a place and living there, between paying a hotel bill and paying a light bill. I learned patience.
Then, I had to face the hard realization that I was living in a society that never had an American-style Civil Rights Movement, and therefore witness systemic injustice against a group of people with whom I identified racially and culturally as a, literally, foreign and seemingly powerless observer. But as a professor, I wasn’t powerless: there is always the space and necessity for cultural education in the language classroom. I did, however, have to learn to tailor my message to my audience, because most places on Earth are not nearly as accustomed to political discourse framed by race and class as we are in the States (and even in the USA, those conversations are often limited to academic and intellectual circles or fraught with emotion and misinformation). And, begrudgingly, I learned to appreciate the US for providing the tools for success, even if those tools are hidden in waist-deep scrub and not always clearly visible; they’re there. I learned pragmatism.
I learned about the give-and-take of platonic and romantic relationships, the unexpected logistical challenges of trans-cultural and bi-lingual relationships, and the absurdity of perceived differences in interracial relationships. I learned how to keep expectations realistically low and hopes realistically high. And I started initiating the nascent beginning of the first primary part of the process of knowing when to hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away, and run. That applies to people, places, jobs, habits, behaviors, tastes, attitudes, ad infinitum: life’s too short. I learned prioritization.
Regret and Redemption
In spite of the oft-renewed resolution to take life by the horns and have no regrets, I inevitably have them. I regret not focusing more on improving my Spanish. I regret not taking more time to visit some of the more marginalized Afro-Colombian communities in rural areas of the Caribbean or on the Pacific coast. I regret not doing more volunteer work while I was in the country, besides the occasional free English lesson. I regret not maximizing my writing time, especially during my year-and-a-half in Bogota, the physical and cultural high point of my time in the country. I regret hardly ever getting out of the upper-class social milieu I was employed around (prep schools and private unis are the only teaching gigs that pay) and opening my circle to folks with less empirical experience but more profound interests and insight than the vapid wannabe gringos I found myself around (admittedly a generalization, but nonetheless true).
But in the face of all these regrets, I realize that when I chose to do or not do something, it was the decision that felt the most circumstantially prudent at that particular moment. And some of the mistakes or unfortunate choices I made in Colombia, I’ll try not to repeat in Brazil; others, I will, and hope the consequences won’t be too disastrous. I can only do my best, which I believe is better for having lived in Colombia. In the end, I’ve left the country a fuller person, with a hard-earned appreciation for a place that was my home for the last four years, for better or worse. Was I ready to leave? Yes. Would I ever move back? Not for a long while. Do I encourage everyone to visit? Abso-fkn-lutely. I’ve met some incredible people, had once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and can say I’ve been to Colombia and brought back much more than a damn T-shirt.
I brought back gratefulness.