Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

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.

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.

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.

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!

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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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

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