Category Archives: Making the Leap

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.

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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.

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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.

Barranquilla or Bust now featured on InterNations!

Version 3A few weeks ago, I received an exciting email from InterNations, requesting to feature Barranquilla or Bust as one of their recommended blogs for Colombia. Of course, I said yes! InterNations bills itself as a global community for people living abroad, and the organization lives up to the claim. When I moved to Colombia, becoming an InterNations member was a no-brainer because of all the resources the organization offers: forums, country and city guides, online networking, plus on-the-ground events. It’s an easy way to get much-needed info and to connect with others in similar situations.

In becoming an InterNations featured blog for Colombia, I’m thrilled to join the ranks of Richard McColl (one of the editors of Was Gabo an Irishman?, in which I am lucky enough to have an essay), David of Medellin Living, Karen of Flavors of Bogotá, Naomi of How to Bogotá and other writers I respect. I also learned about some new blogs that I can’t wait to check out.

Via email, an InterNations representative who lives in Munich but is originally from Medellín (see what i mean about the global community?) interviewed me as part of the blog feature. If you’ve ever wondered why I started this blog, or if you’d like to know my top three tips for people contemplating a new life in Colombia, look no further! Plus, you can read a funny story about how I managed to get my son’s Colombian birth certificate a little faster than usual. Check it out here.

My sincere thanks to InterNations for the feature, and to you for reading. Here’s to community, no matter where in the world we find ourselves!

P.S. If you’re curious for more background, I learned just yesterday that our Barranquilla House Hunters International episode is now available in full on Amazon Instant Video in Best of South America, Vol. 1!

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