Tag Archives: Medellín

So you’re thinking about moving abroad…

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Photo Credit: The amazing Exit the Cave Studios!

Now that I’ve lived in Colombia a few years, friends in the US sometimes ask for information as they contemplate whether an international move might be right for them. When I think back to my own decision process, I remember how hard it was to know what to expect and, later, to figure out logistics – finding movers, getting an apartment, lining up childcare, etc. My then-husband Gio and I probably relied a little too much on House Hunters International… no kidding!… but then again, we did end up on “Best of South America: Season 1“!

In spite of our TV fun, we would have benefited greatly from a website like ExpatFinder, dedicated to providing the information needed when preparing to make the leap abroad. In addition to helping you organize your move, ExpatFinder also gives you first-hand accounts of what to expect, via interviews with people living in various countries. I’m honored to be among them. Here, you’ll find my take on moving to and living in Colombia. Enjoy! And thanks, ExpatFinder, for this opportunity!

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The In-Between

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Thank you, Andrea!

We humans consistently underestimate how much we’ll change in the next 10 years, according to a 2013 study. If we envision the world around us a decade from now, I think we’re likely to underestimate the changes there, too – with respect not only to technology, but also to the people around us.

As a foreigner living abroad, I sometimes feel like I’m a slow-moving planet orbiting a stationary sun while other planets whizz by. Medellín is popular with digital nomads, people attending Spanish immersion courses, adults on sabbatical, etc., which means many foreigners are here for a few months and then gone. Meanwhile, the city in general is known for families and social circles dating back decades, cemented by the mountains’ isolating geography and the city’s enduring appeal. With 5.5 years in my pocket, I find myself in the in-between. It’s not a bad feeling, just somehow different.

The feeling has been more intense lately because a round of foreigner-friends all left in succession. These friends were made over brief periods of time, but nonetheless had significant impacts. Upon leaving, some of them generously gave me miscellaneous items – from clothes to plants to makeup remover – that they did not want or weren’t able to take back. So now, I write with Andrew’s pens (a serious upgrade from mine!), wash my hair with Megan’s shampoo, cook with Shruti’s spices, and water Andrea’s weird but beautiful little fruit tree. This jetsam is a daily reminder of how each person enriched my life. The growing web of contacts I have all over the world is my consolation for the immediate vacancies.

If I don’t underestimate my own rate of change, I’ll probably decorate next Christmas with garland left to me by a friend. For now, I accept my place in the middle – still a newcomer to my local friends (who never quite trust that I won’t jump ship), a long-term expat to my foreigner ones, and a sometime-connector between the two. It’s a weird place to be, but it’s home.

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.

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