Of God and Gabriel García Márquez

Sunday Mass at Barranquilla's Buenavista Mall

Sunday Mass at Barranquilla’s Buenavista Mall

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my nearly three years in Colombia, it’s that you can go to church almost anywhere. And I’ve learned this despite my non-church-going ways. How? Because it’s obvious. In Colombia, church very nearly comes to you.

There’s Mass in the mall. Big services occur every Sunday morning in the same place you go to see a movie on Saturday night, bringing new meaning to an old Jimmy Buffett song lyric: “There’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.”

People crowding in for Sunday Mass at Santafe Mall in Medellín

People crowd in for Sunday Mass at Santafe Mall in Medellín

There’s Mass at the water park. I can’t show you photos because Continue reading

Land and Sky, Sun and Seas

I am not a great photographer. Wait, you already knew that? Oh well. Perhaps the real confession is that for the longest time I refused to carry a camera when I traveled (yes, this was before the cell phone/camera mash-up). My boycott began after I left the first nice camera I ever owned at the top of the ski jump in Lillehammer, Norway. (I wasn’t jumping off the thing. I know you’re shocked. Instead, I was on a summer tour of the 1994 Winter Olympics site.) After I lost that camera, I decided the extra worry wasn’t worth it.

The advent of digital photography made me reconsider. No more calculating the value of a potential shot versus how much film is left, no trips to get the photos developed. I started taking pictures again, usually to my disappointment. They never capture what I see. And as creative as I may be in other areas, I fail to achieve the unique perspectives or stark beauty of great photography. The best I can hope is that my photos play a decent supporting role for my writing.

All this makes it strange that I’m participating in the Thomas Cook Explore the Elements photo contest in which contestants enter four photos representing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. I’m entering out of community spirit: through a nomination process, this contest lets you learn more about different people’s viewpoints. Banana Skin Flip Flops nominated me, and I really enjoyed her photos. I’m passing the torch by nominating Sarepa, Everywhere All the Time, All Over the MapAn Adventure Abroad, and Traci Carver. It’s good to glimpse the world through others’ eyes.

The Little Guy
A rock stands strong amid stream and mountains.
Yosemite National Park, California, USA
(Earth)

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Fabric of Fire
A woman’s dress blazes beneath the heap of sticks she carries.
Akbar’s Tomb, Sikandra, Uttar Pradesh, India
(Fire)

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Who Says You Can’t See Air?
Children reach toward clear plastic bags floating untethered,
like sky lanterns or jellyfish.
Reykjavik Art Museum (I believe), Reykjavik Culture Night, August 22, 2009
Reykjavik, Iceland
(Air)

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Unfinished Business
Fort Jefferson, the construction of which began in 1846 or ’47 but was never completed, was intended to be a fort but instead served as a prison before becoming a coaling station for the US Navy. Now it’s a sometimes landing point for persons migrating from Cuba and a surreal tourist destination. It stands silent amid Caribbean waters known for their beauty and their danger.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida Keys, USA
(Water)

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What message does your city send? This is Medellín’s.

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As 2015 rolls on, Medellín is still enjoying its reputation for innovation and urbanismo social (social urbanism)–an inclusive form of urban development famously manifested here in the use of cable cars and outdoor escalators as public transit and the placement of major public works like the España Library in poor areas. The city exudes an inspiring insistence on making sure that the tide of urban development lifts all boats.

But a question that comes up on occasion is whether Medellín’s reputation is based on reality or is merely the product of great marketing. (That Medellín resuscitated itself after years of violence toward the end of the 20th Century is not a subject of debate.) This Next City article, “Latin America’s New Superstar: How Gritty, Crime-Ridden Medellín Became a Model for 21st Century Urbanism“, and this This Big City piece, “Medellín: Miracle or Marketing Ploy?” provide a point-counterpoint.

As a new resident of Medellín, I’ve come to see the debate as a little beside the point, as long as the marketing is accompanied by sincere actions and significant progress. Living in a city that holds good values and repeatedly asserts them in a visible, pervasive way matters. Messaging can’t take the place of hard work and actual successes in helping people out of poverty and designing communities with a decent quality of life for all; the marketing would be downright offensive and frightening (nobody wants to be brainwashed or feel like they might be) without efforts in those areas. But, as the author of the “Medellín: Miracle of Marketing Ploy?” article alludes to toward the end, city leadership that expresses real concern about the needs of all its residents and acts on it, even if insufficiently and imperfectly, is better than city leadership that isn’t concerned at all. Besides, the good marketing ideally helps create a positive cycle in which saying the right thing and doing the right thing–at both the leadership and grassroots levels and on the individual and collective planes–feed each other.

For me, nowhere is Medellín’s messaging more notable than in the small text that appears just below the vast majority of billboards in the city (sponsored I assume by the Alcaldía, the Mayor’s Office). Continue reading

8 Ways that Medellín and Barranquilla Differ

Not too long ago, a reader considering a move to Colombia wanted to know more about the differences between Barranquilla, where I lived previously, and Medellín, where I live now. As I told her, in many ways the two cities could not be more different. Prior to my own move to Colombia, I heard from others that the cultures of the country’s four major cities – Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla – are very distinct. So far (without having visited Cali – that’s on my list!), I’ve found that to be true, though I’m only qualified to talk about two.

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For others who may also be wondering how Barranquilla and Medellín line up, here are a few key differences to consider:

1. As Colombia’s second largest city (after Bogotá), Medellín feels like a big metropolis.

Continue reading

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