So… why did you move to Colombia?

When preparing to move to another country, no amount of info is too much! In the months before relocating to Colombia, I turned to websites, online forums, and blogs for an idea of what to expect. So when ExpatFocus.com contacted me for an interview, I said yes. The interview – read it here – gave me an opportunity to pay it forward to those whose shared experiences helped me. ExpatFocus.com also offers a lot of other destination-specific info – this Colombia landing page is an example. Thanks, ExpatFocus!IMG_1601

Advertisements

On Belonging

Author’s Note: I’m just now publishing some old essays. I wrote this post (various versions) between March 2016 and June 2016. The thoughts expressed should be associated with that time period.

When being welcomed to the table as a guest doesn’t feel like enough.

“You know what really gets me?” my friend asked. “That question – ‘Where are you from?’ I get so tired of going through that interview on a daily basis.”

While I hadn’t felt specific annoyance toward the “Where are you from?” question, I knew what my friend meant. I live in Colombia, and by any standard, I don’t look Colombian. Given my pasty appearance and accented Spanish, it’s obvious to anyone that I’m not from here. My friend, who’s Nepalese and looks nothing like me, has the same problem. But for her, the where-are-you-from interrogatory was also an issue during her years in Oregon. In both Colombia and the US, she was flagged, immediately and automatically, as an outsider.

My most blatant personal experience of this occurred a few years back in the Cartagena airport. I was returning home after a trip to the US and was excited to be able to get in the citizens/residents immigration line thanks to my newly acquired permanent residency visa and cédula de extranjería, the national ID card for foreigners. Being able to avoid the tourist-filled foreigner line would save me significant time. I eagerly entered the shorter line, only to have people tell me emphatically and repeatedly that I was in the wrong place. The protest was such that I finally doubted myself and joined the long tourist line. After about an hour, I reached the front only to have the immigration officer confirm what I already knew – I had been in the correct line to begin with.

Despite annoyances like this, in my case being flagged as an outsider often has its advantages. I’m white and blonde, which in Colombia, as in most places, seems to generate certain pleasantries or courtesies that might not come my way otherwise. When I try to accomplish bureaucratic tasks – like getting my son’s US birth registered here or getting the RUT number necessary for employment – my appearance allows me to leverage my own ignorance, sometimes resulting in sympathy that leads to assistance. The reaction to blondness is most obvious with my son, whose golden hair people love to ruffle on the street and with whom strangers occasionally stop to take photos. White privilege does not know international borders.

But for me now, advantages or disadvantages aren’t really the issue – I just want to feel part of the community in which I live. “Outsider fatigue” has begun to set in. I don’t quite long for some version of the old TV show Cheers – where everybody knows my name – but I would like to be able to get in a taxi without having to tell the story, often for the second or third time that day, of how I ended up in Colombia. Repeating it can get tiresome, particularly when one is not on vacation but is instead living the quotidian stress of normal city life. The unfortunate conundrum is that the people who are asking are almost always well-intentioned. They are trying to be friendly and welcoming; they are aiming for inclusion, not exclusion.

Nowhere was this more apparent than recently, at the yoga studio I frequent at least twice a week. I went for a special event – a meditation led by a wonderful visiting instructor whose first event in the studio I had attended the month prior. For this second event, attendance was low and I was the only foreigner. Toward the end of the meditation, the instructor said with a smile (in Spanish), “Now we’re going to sing, and Courtenay can practice her Spanish.” I smiled back, but inside my heart sank. First, my pride hurt – we’d been chanting throughout the class, and by this point I felt it should have been clear that my Spanish was pretty decent. But more than that, the group was small, and I desperately wanted to feel a part. I thought I had perhaps overcome the outsider identity in that space if not in the city at large. But here we were, at the end of the two hours and, in a friendly, well-meaning way, I’d had my difference called out in front of everyone. I’d been put back in my outsider place.

Feeling like a constant outsider has been a learning experience for me. My past jobs in the United States involved working with and assisting people from diverse backgrounds. As a result, I considered myself highly ranked on the cultural competency scale. And yet, I am now 100% sure that on occasion I have been the person who, like the meditation instructor, sought to include another but did so in a way that placed them outside the realm of belonging. I’m not sure how to avoid that problem, but maybe part of the solution is remembering that the stories we assign people based on their appearance are not the true narratives of their lives. They are our own constructs, based on stereotypes that author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED Talk entitled, “The danger of a single story”, rightly flags as problematic because they’re incomplete. Whatever our first question, our opening line, our gesture of inclusion, it shouldn’t be a product of our own assumptions.

All In

Author’s Note: I’m just now publishing some old essays. I wrote this post (various versions) between July 2015 and March 2016. It should be associated with that time period. The pic is also a throwback. I’m now approaching five years in Colombia.

fullsizeoutput_c47.jpeg

This is a blog post I’ve started writing three times – a post about what it means to be “all in”, living as a foreigner in Colombia with no plans to leave. I first began the post about a week before the three-year anniversary of my move to Colombia. For many foreigners I’ve talked to here, three years is often considered the dividing line between those who are in Colombia for awhile versus those who are in it for the long haul.  I thought it would be fun to mark the anniversary with a cheeky and hopefully insightful list of what being “all in” means – investing in furniture, buying a car, struggling through the process of getting a kid into private school here, and more. Together with my husband, I had done all those things.

And then, on July 23, 2015, the very date of my three-year anniversary here, my marriage – which had endured for years despite not being the most stable – disintegrated.

In the months that followed, I realized I had no idea what it meant to be “all in” in Colombia. The things I thought were markers of my assimilation meant nothing. It was no longer symbolic to me (how could it ever have been?) that I had ceased reverting to English when startled, that I had stopped pining for items from the US, that I no longer “translated” prices in my head. Even my apartment, which had begun to develop the layers that come from living or planning to live in a place for a long time, seemed like a shell – empty of the stability I had thought it represented. I now faced the daunting task of building a life in Colombia without a marital-style partnership and without relying on my husband’s cédula and other accouterments of citizenship. I needed to see if I could be single here, and single with a kid. I had to find out whether I could grow my business to a level that would allow me to save for a different future. I had to change everything.

My silly list of what “all in” means deserves the shredder. I wish I could tell you that my current situation is what “all in” looks like – it would be a great comfort to know that the gaming table of life has a limit – but it doesn’t. We calculate our risks (and our risk tolerance) as best we can, make our bets, and win some and lose some.

As for my writing, I have – temporarily, I hope – lost my voice, that elusive thing that is a writer’s stock-in-trade. With key pieces of my identity stripped away, my admonitions about leaps of faith – made in the belief that I had successfully made one – ring hollow. I’ve simply gone mute, the same as my one-year-old did for nearly six months when we first moved here. I find myself over open air, a child again at middle age, humbled by all I still have to learn, grateful for what may be the faint outline of solid ground on the other side.

When one door closes…

Courtenay and Marcello at trainMoving to Colombia fulfilled my long-held dream to not only travel to other countries, but to live abroad as well. But just over four years ago, when at age 37 I became a mom – another dream I hadn’t expected to come true – I assumed that living abroad wouldn’t happen. I am so happy I was wrong. Today, I’m honored and thrilled to be featured in Sarah Duncan’s Expats in Colombia series on Sarepa.com, where I share more about how I ended up first in Barranquilla and then in Medellín – and all the twists and turns along the way.

Somehow I find it oddly comforting that life has so many surprises in store for each of us. Never assume it’s over… for all any of us know, it’s just beginning! Thanks, Sarepa, for the opportunity to share my story and my love for Colombia.

Run in Peace, My Luu.

It was Sunday morning, May 11, 2008. I remember the date because I’d had a big party at my small South Beach apartment the night before. It was a good party – we’d painted favorite quotes, song lyrics, and poems all over one of my walls – and therefore my apartment was a mess. I was still in my pajama shorts and T-shirt, a mop in one hand and phone in the other (because who can resist checking for new photos after you’ve hosted a party), when a call rang in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The voice on the other end was My Luu, an old friend from college. We’d been in the same dorm and had known and liked each other, but at our 5th or 10th reunion (it’s amazing how they blur together) we connected anew over dancing and late-night pizza. Now My was in Miami via Argentina, on her way back from a trip for IBM, for which she was then a market development executive helping women worldwide gain access to affordable technology to start and sustain businesses. She had messaged me the night before, but I hadn’t seen it until after midnight. Though she was in the 305 for only 15 hours or so, I replied with my phone number in case she still had time to get together.

By the time we spoke, only a few hours remained. Before heading back to the airport, My explained, she needed to fit in a three-hour training run for an upcoming marathon. It took me a minute to wrap my head around this – spending a long layover on a three-hour run was not something that would naturally occur to me, especially when lying on the beach with a tourist drink in hand was a viable option. But knowing My, it made sense – this was not a woman who wasted any part of any day. If circumstances changed, she adjusted and continued forward.

“Where are you?” I asked. “I can’t run for three hours, but I could join you for one.” I crossed my metaphorical fingers that I’d be able to pull that off: I was mildly hung over and definitely sleep-deprived, and wasn’t sure I could keep up.

“I’m at the apartment of the only other person I know in Miami,” she said. Someone she’d worked with during her time as a State Department diplomat in Uzbekistan, I think. “On the Beach, around 16th and Euclid.”

“Wait, what? Where exactly?”

When she gave me the address, I couldn’t believe it. My was in the small apartment building just behind mine. I could step out my entryway door and see the place not even 50 yards away. Within 15 minutes, we met on the corner. My greeted me with her customary big hug, and we started jogging. Fueled by the company and conversation, I surprised myself by running more than an hour. During that time, I learned that My’s upcoming marathon – in Rio, I think – would not be her first. She already had some races under her belt and was planning to run a marathon on every continent. This was someone who knew what she was doing.

At one point during the run, My suggested we circle back to her friend’s to refill water bottles and grab a Gatorade. For some reason, the simple act of stopping briefly to fulfill a need was an epiphany for me: The best way to reach the finish line was to focus on the journey. There was a patience, flexibility and matter-of-fact practicality to My’s training that I had not understood until then. I had tried training for a marathon once before and had treated the process with such intransigent rigor that making a pit stop would have been anathema. I thought if you stopped, even to adjust to new conditions, you had failed. Not surprisingly, during my first 13-miler, I injured myself and never went further. But with My, I saw how running 26.2 was not only possible but might even be enjoyable. It was all about attitude.

I mentioned to My that I had tried and failed, and tentatively suggested that maybe I would try again. She bubbled with enthusiasm, “You can totally do it, Courtenay!” she said. “You can do it! You have to do it.”

I headed back to my still-icky apartment, leaving My to finish her three hours. But new possibilities and a new optimism had bloomed in my head. I started running more consistently, following My’s example of pacing, focusing on the present and listening to the body’s signals, and by the next January, I had done it – I had run my first marathon. It’s an accomplishment I credit to two people: my mom, who set an example for me by running her first marathon at 41, and My, who in just over an hour showed me the proper way to train and, most critically for me, the necessary mindset. I wouldn’t have done it without her.

My’s contagious enthusiasm was a gift that kept on giving. In April 2009, My emailed me with the idea of getting a bunch of Yalies together to run a race. She had the backing of the Association of Yale Alumni and had set her sights on a marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland in August of that year. She wanted to know if I’d like to go. On my nonprofit salary, and with my Miami Beach apartment, Iceland would be a stretch, but I knew I would do it. My also helped by agreeing to room with me for the whole trip, reducing costs. The days we spent in Iceland proved to be one of the most fun and enriching travel experiences I’ve ever had. The marathon itself was only one highlight, and all of it was thanks to My and her joyful energy, diligent planning and ability to make meaningful connections among everyone around her.

I ran two more marathons after that, including one in Argentina, bringing my total to four and number of continents to three. Each of them was an experience unto itself, and each a credit to my friend. She opened worlds for me. Through marathon running, travel and her own life example, My taught me a new way of being – a way that said yes to life. Yes even when it’s difficult. Yes when you’re not sure you can do it. Yes even if you might not be strong enough. Yes even when you want to quit. Yes when you don’t know what lies around that curve. Yes because deep in your heart you know the journey will be worth it, regardless of the outcome. Yes because it’s the only way to truly live. Yes.

My, I’ve never been able to embrace the yes quite as much as you, but because of you, I sure try hard. And never, ever have I regretted it. My life is so much richer because of you. Run in peace, My. Run in love. Run.

12033194_10153152711695905_4883647079243187258_nIn loving memory. On Friday, September 25, 2015, My lost her hard-fought battle with cancer, but her light was not extinguished – it lives on in all of us blessed to have known her, and in all the people around the world who have benefited and continue to benefit from her work. May My’s husband Dave and her family and friends be surrounded by love during this transition. For more on My’s story, see The New York Times write-up of her August 7, 2015 wedding.

Friday Fotos: Jardín – Antioquia’s Semi-Secret Garden

Last month, I traveled to Jardín, a pueblo just south of Medellín. Although its fame is rising, Jardín has become a destination for foreign travelers relatively recently. While it lacks the polish of a town that has honed its tourism industry to a foreign-demand-meeting perfection, it gleams radiant with an authenticity already lost or waning in other locales.

Jardín, living up to its moniker.

Jardín, living up to its moniker.

Locals and tourists alike sit in the main plaza drinking beer or coffee ’til the wee hours, often watching others show off their riding skills on horses that dance around the periphery. Shortly after the revelers turn in, the bells of the church ring at an ungodly hour – 4:00 a.m. or something – to announce the day’s  first Mass.

Jardín’s name – literally, “Garden” – is apt. It’s nestled in the mountains, surrounded by lush vegetation and waterfalls.

The road to Jardín from Medellín is less idyllic. It’s far easier to drive 45 minutes on impeccable roads to El Retiro or Guatapé than to venture three hours south on the winding, crumbly vías that lead to Jardín. Traffic due to road construction to prevent rockslides stopped us for so long at one point that I got out to walk. Later in the drive, I saw signs to Salgar, where on May 18 a flooding river triggered a landslide that killed some 95 people and left countless without homes. The buses on the route are piloted by very experienced drivers or near-madmen, I’m not sure which, who careen around blind curves in the wrong lane. The communities on the way have rhythmic names that seem out of a Spanish-language Mother Goose: Titiribí and Bolombolo, for example. The signage, or lack thereof, is terrible. But oh, the scenery. Oh the magic.

And by the way, if you do make a wrong turn, it may set you back a couple of hours as it did us, but then you get to see nearby towns like Betania, perched on the edge of the mountains, with locals friendlier than anywhere I have met in all of Colombia, which is saying a lot since this is a friendly place.

When you finally arrive in Jardín, you’ll know it was worth it. A special treat for us was a half-day at Finca Los Ángeles, where the family there taught us about coffee cultivation and the coffee market worldwide, while Doña Ángela prepared a farm-to-table lunch (for real, people) that would rival any big-city fine dining. Coffee cultivation in the region began when a caffeine-loving priest started having parishioners plant it as a penance, or so we were told by a local guide.

But enough words. Here are the pics. Click to scroll through full-size versions.

10 Tips for Talking with Someone Who’s Learning a New Language

An example of a potentially challenging environment for a non-native speaker.

An example of a potentially challenging environment for a non-native speaker.

The first call was an honest mistake – I told the girl who asked for Laura that she had the wrong number. The second call was a little more suspect. As the request was repeated, the voices of other girls – they sounded like tweens – twittered in the background. By the third call, I knew this had turned into a prank. My reiteration that they had the wrong number was followed in Spanish by, “You talk really funny,” “Where are you from?” and “We’ve never heard anyone that talks weird like you.” Much laughing ensued. I hung up and asked my husband to answer if the phone rang again.

Fortunately, when it comes to being made fun of for an accent, I’m a seasoned old-timer. I grew up in the Deep South, in a north Georgia town where monosyllabic words became two or even three syllables (I stretched my high school boyfriend’s name, Jeff, to Juh-ay-efff), certain letters were eaten or substituted (“At ‘er tree is gonna fawl,” “This war seems to be about ‘awl’,” and “Are you ‘fur’ it or ‘agin’ it?”), and colorful phrases were the norm (“My dog ain’t in that fight!”). While I could do a mean impersonation of an aristocratic low country accent, my accent was more Appalachian hillbilly. I was hounded mercilessly when I went to Connecticut for college and had to battle the age-old assumption that people with an accent are somehow dumber than those without.

Fast forward to Colombia, where I speak solid Spanish but, alas, with an accent. Continue reading