Medellín and Moving On

Dear Readers,

It’s been so long since I’ve written to you, and so much has changed since then, that it’s hard to know where to start. Well, maybe not that hard. For one, my husband, three year-old son and I moved to Medellín at the very end of July.

Public transport here takes many forms.

Public transport here takes many forms.

It’s a move we made for various reasons, including potential work opportunities, but mainly because we fell in love with the city. Medellín has turned itself around brilliantly since its darkest days in the 80’s and 90’s, and the city’s innovation and level of community involvement are remarkable – so much so that the UN’s World Urban Forum was held here just a few months back. Medellín’s “eternal spring” climate isn’t too shabby either.

We expected this move to be a relatively easy – nothing compared to the stress of making the leap from Miami to Barranquilla – and in some ways it was. Although paisa and costeña cultures are different, they’re not “different country different”. Daily life in Medellín still bears the hallmarks of the Colombian lifestyle we came to love in Barranquilla. While getting approved for an apartment wasn’t exactly easier – more on that in a moment – this time we knew what to expect. But there were circumstances surrounding this move that we didn’t see coming, as I suppose there always are with any major transition.

Richard Durrett, cousin, husband, friend, sports reporter, and above all, dad.

Richard Durrett, cousin, husband, friend, sports reporter, and above all, dad.

We didn’t expect the approval process for the apartment we selected to take nearly a month – enough time for the owner to receive offers to buy, which he decided to accept. We didn’t expect my cousin Richard Durrett, only 38 years old, to pass away unexpectedly during one of our short but intense apartment-hunting trips from Barranquilla. (This beautiful interview with his wife Kelly speaks to the heartbreak.) We didn’t expect to find out that I was pregnant in the weeks leading up to the move. We didn’t expect to find out that the pregnancy was ectopic, and for me to have to undergo emergency surgery to remove it, only six days before we had to be out of our apartment and on the plane.

We also didn’t expect, given that this move was our choice, to miss our friends and family in Barranquilla quite as much as we do. Friends and family, even if you don’t have time to hang out together all that much, are like money in the bank. It’s a constant reassurance to know they’re there if you need them. And after all that has happened, knowing they’re there is a feeling I miss.

Nope, can't complain about this view!

Nope, can’t complain about this view!

Interestingly, the apartment that we’re in now, which I love, backs right up to the building with the apartment that was sold before we were able to complete the paperwork to rent it. I don’t regret losing that apartment at all; the one we’re in is much better, which brings to mind the Spanish saying, “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” (“There’s nothing bad from which some good doesn’t come.”) But sometimes I sit in the green space at the bottom and look at the other building and think about how much happened between the time we found that apartment and the time we ended up in this one. Only about a month’s time, and yet somehow I see everything differently than I did before.

All this being said, we continue to be excited about this latest leap. Medellín has much to offer. Just within the past week, my husband and I went to one of the most amazing live concerts we’ve ever seen (Chick Corea and the Vigil, this shout-out is for you), took Marcello to the Buen Comienzo (“Good Start”) festival with countless interactive — and free! — exhibits for kids, toured a private castle-turned-museum, and visited with old Florida friends. (One friend just moved here herself, one was here for a fellowship, and two more simply came to visit – all confirming our hope that we would be a little more accessible here.) Plus, I made my first post-surgery foray into running with the Maratón de las Flores 5K, which was fantastically well-organized and fun. (Hello there, 42K, I’ll be seeing you next year.)

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We are looking forward to this new adventure, which brings me to the following question for you: What should this site be called going forward? Those of you who have followed this blog over the long haul know that leaps of faith, along with all the experiences and emotions that come with them, have been a near-constant theme. I’d like to create a website that continues that thread while still allowing for the place-based experiential travel writing – and of course, the humor – around which “Barranquilla or Bust” was centered. I’ve never been good at titles, so will you help me out? Please send me your suggestions. I have missed writing to you and for you, and look forward to retrenching with a bang-up new brand and site.

Thank you for reading – and in advance for sending me your ideas.

Yours in the journey,

Courtenay

P.S. If you send a website/blog name that I use, I will give you credit and a hyperlink on the site’s home page (pending editorial control to ensure appropriate content) for the first six months, and on the “About” page for the first year!

The Divided Life of the Modern Day Expat*

I used to dream of writing a novel called Halfway to India. I envisioned the book as a stylized version of the life I was leading at the time – a life married to a quintessentially American guy who had lived in the US for decades, but whose ties to his country of birth remained very strong. The “halfway” part alluded to my frustration that I could never work out the opportunity to actually go to the place that exerted such a powerful, pervasive influence on my everyday life. It was definitely a case of so close and yet so far.

Today, the tables are turned. I am not in India, though I eventually did visit.

Borders, identity cards, and legalities fail to convey a more complex reality.

What does moving to another country really mean in the age of the internet?

Instead, I am very happily in Colombia, the home turf of another culture that I love. But in many ways I am still only “halfway here”, in this country that I have made my home by choice. This is the blessing and the curse of the modern day expat: the ability to live with one foot in your country of birth and the other in your country of residence.

This divided – or integrated, depending on how you look at it – life that my husband and I lead is definitely a product of our technology-driven lives. Continue reading

Five Facts to Know About Road Races in Barranquilla

It’s National Running Day in the US, and even though I have mixed feelings about “minor” holidays like this (I just read on Facebook that it is also apparently National Hug Your Cat Day – maybe you should run and hug your cat), I figured there would be no better day than today for a quickie blog post on the do’s and don’ts of running road races in Barranquilla.

Running Medals and Numbers

Proof!

I have run five road races in Quilla since I moved here almost two years ago. That’s not a high number (hey, I did run a 26.2mi/42k during that timeframe, albeit in Argentina!), but it’s enough to learn a few things about how these events happen here. If you plan to run a road race in Barranquilla, know someone who does, or simply want to be prepared for variances in races place-to-place, these tips are for you!

1. The listed start time is… what’s the word?… aspirational.

Do not – I repeat – do NOT arrive at your race an hour early, or even a few minutes early. Continue reading

Ten Things I Kinda, Sorta Don’t Much Like About Carnaval

Hate is a strong word. There’s really nothing I hate about Carnaval, especially given that there’s so much to love. But at times, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of a trip I took to New Orleans (I love New Orleans) one year right after Mardi Gras. The plane was full of NO natives returning home after skipping out on the madness.  I thought I could relate, but it wasn’t until I experienced Barranquilla’s Carnaval that I understood the true depth of the complicated relationship that hometowners can have to events like this. Is it possible to look forward to something intensely while also wishing for it to be over? Yes, yes it is. Is it possible to value an event for the cultural treasure and/or economic engine that it is, while also complaining vociferously about the disruptions to daily life? You betcha.

As you hopefully know by now from my other posts, I’ve got mad love for Carnaval. But, in the interest of keeping it real, here are ten things that really get my goat as this weeks-long season progresses.

  1. Espuma. Did I say there’s nothing I hate? I take it back.
    This espuma war is still at a fairly acceptable level.

    This espuma war is still at a fairly acceptable level.

    This shaving-cream-like foam is sold on the street in big spray canisters. The kids love it, as do some adults who should be called names I can’t say. It was outlawed last year, and it’s still prohibited this year, not that you can tell. Continue reading

(Fotos) Biggest Children’s Parade on Earth? Maybe!

Carnaval - not just for the big kids.

Carnaval – not just for the big kids.

This year, I took my two year-old son Marcello to the Desfile del Carnaval de los Niños, or the Children’s Carnaval Parade. Last year, being the clueless expat that I sometimes am, we totally missed it. I realized my lapse when we went over to a friend’s house later that same day and everyone — parents and kids alike — had on Carnaval attire. (There is a definite dress code to Carnaval events; the more screaming-loud colors involved, the better.) When I asked why, their incredulous stares clued me in to the fact that the Children’s Parade is a big deal. But until this past Sunday, I had no idea just how big a deal it is. Continue reading

(Video) A Taste of Pre-Carnaval in Barranquilla

Living in Barranquilla at this time of year, you never know when you might turn a corner and walk into a parade or party. That’s exactly what happened one night last year, when my husband and I heard music from our apartment. We wandered halfway down the block and were treated to a thorough sampling of the traditional costumes, dances, music, and cultural traditions that are part of Barranquilla’s Carnaval. Consider the 4-minute video below your “time lapse” Pre-Carnaval parade experience. If you live here, you may already know that there’s a big parade tonight, the Noche de Guacherna. Que lo disfrutes!

Want more? Here’s a very colorful photo essay and a little more about Carnaval’s history. Enjoy!

(Friday Fotos) Now THIS is a Rock – El Peñón de Guatapé

La Piedra, as seen from the Embalse Peñol-Guatapé (Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir).

La Piedra, as seen from the Embalse (Reservoir) Peñol-Guatapé.

Medellín is perfect for day-tripping, with several great destinations within easy reach. But be forewarned — if you take one of the standard tours to El Peñón de Guatapé, you are probably in for a bit of exercise! Our driver dropped us off at the base of La Piedra de Peñol (the Rock of Peñol), as the freakishly pointy rock is also known, and then informed us that he’d wait while we ascended the 740 steps to the viewing platform on the summit. That we had a two-year-old on our hands did not seem to change our driver’s expectations. My husband, ever the good sport and fortunately boasting admirable upper body strength, was up for the challenge. I did a bit of toddler-hauling myself, and we made it to the top. The good news is that the climb was worth it.

La Piedra is a natural rock formation with a total height of 2,135 meters above sea level. The prominently visible portion rises 200+ meters from the surrounding terrain. The locals told me it may have been a meteorite, though other sources state that it emerged as part of the region’s natural rock bed. Regardless, it’s no surprise that the rock was treated as sacred by the indigenous people that used to inhabit the area. La Piedra was first ascended in 1954 by local admirably-crazy guy (I have deemed him such) Luis Eduardo Villegas López and a couple of others. The masonry steps, squeezed into one of the Stone’s few natural crevices,  were built in subsequent years by a visionary family that supposedly still maintains them today.

Visible on the rock are two giant painted letters — a “G” and what looks like an “I”. Legend has it that they’re remnants of a dispute between the towns of Guatapé and Peñol, between which the rock sits. The story is that Guatapé residents started painting their town’s name on the side of La Piedra until folks from Peñol mobilized to stop them. Only the almost-GU remains. Personally, I kind of feel for Peñol, seeing as how the original town of Viejo Peñol was flooded in 1978 and relocated to create the Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir. That being said, another account I read seems to imply that the letter-painting was halted because of La Piedra’s designation as a national monument by the Colombian government. I choose to believe the more fun mob story.

In any case, El Peñon is definitely worth the pain in your calves and shakiness in your quads. Take a look and enjoy for yourself! Click on a photo to open a slideshow and see captions.