It turns out, interestingly enough, that I’m not so good with ambiguity. It will surprise none of you who have spent more than five minutes with me to hear that I like to get the facts, decide and move on. Every professional — and most of the amateurs — of whom I’ve asked life advice have given me some variation of this: You can’t always fix it, Becca. Sometimes you just have to sit with the discomfort. Often, particularly from my brother and (occasionally) my husband, it comes out: Dude. Chill out.
And yet I thought showing up on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and just, you know, like, finding a house and a school and a whole life would be fun. Or maybe not fun but an interesting challenge to get me out of my comfort zone and shake things up and show my kids how other people live.
Right now, it’s more like Wile E. Coyote knocking himself on the head with a giant Acme mallet.
There weren’t many decisions to make at the beginning of our trip. We had a single goal: learn enough Spanish to survive the rest of our trip. I didn’t even expect to like Medellin. We hired the first (and only) Spanish teacher who answered our emails for our kids. We chose the Spanish school near her house for Eric and me because that seemed convenient. We paid too much for a nearby apartment on AirBnB.com that we took on faith — after stalking it a little on Google StreetView. And it all worked out better than I could have imagined, ending with a surprisingly teary goodbye after a short six weeks.
Now we are embarking on the next phase of this adventure in Santa Marta, where we — sight-unseen — decided to spent the bulk of this trip because obviously a city on the Caribbean would be lovely. In reality, it’s more like Naxos, Greece, where we — sight-unseen — decided to stay on our last let’s-leave-it-all-behind trip: blinding bright buildings, a bit dumpy and rundown, with stray dogs, sweaty-pink B-list tourists, brown ninos swimming in their underwear, sharp-eyed hawkers and lots of yelling. And poverty.
If it were really Shangra-La — say, Kauai or St. John’s — our trip would be six days long, instead of six months, because we couldn’t afford more.
But now there are really big decisions, ones that will determine what we get from this journey. Which — obvs — is causing me no small amount of angst: What is it that I’m aiming for with this crazy trip to Colombia? When I get back, what will I have done with this precious gift of time?
We can look for a high-rise apartment with a pool near the historic center. Or one along a long strand of South-Beach-meets-rural-Mexico beaches. Or we can live in a bungalow in a tree-and-trash-filled family compound. Or we can live in a grass-roofed cabana in a fishermans’-village-turned-backpacker-mecca where pot brownies are openly for sale on the beach. I thought we could live in a house in a neighborhood full or “normal” Colombians, but those aren’t for rent, furnished, for 3.5 months.
Our kids can go to the Roots-and-Shoots inspired hippie school and work on projects like protecting (reducing?) the stray dog population and spend every Wednesday at the beach for class. Or maybe the fancy-pants bilingual school that starts (no joke) at 6:40am and for which we have to apply for an interview (still not kidding). Or one of the all-Spanish Catholic schools nearby, where Retta can wear a pleated pink plaid skirt and white knee socks and Jack can learn to sit through Mass (both equally unprecedented).
These feel like enormous life decisions right now, although the small, cynical creature who sits over my left ear keeps whispering: Dude. Chill out. Won’t they all get you something you haven’t had before?
What I want is the universe to provide the perfect option for me, one that when it is set carefully in my lap, I think, “Yes. This. This is where our life should be.” But I think the universe needs a little goosing right now, which requires me putting on my big-girl panties and making it happen.
Which, in turn, means using that dreaded instrument of torture: the telephone. The challenge of communicating with a mediocre connection without the assistance of body language is so great that it takes a whole family psych-up to make it happen. At this point, my kids are developing a pep-talk/chant to prepare me: “You can do it, Mommy! You can DO it!” But the challenge is doubled when I’m not even sure what I’m asking for yet. “Hello, I am a barely-Spanish-speaking gringa and I want to live somewhere and pay less than double what Colombians would pay for the same. Can you help me?” It’s not a promising sales pitch.
In the end, it may not matter which version of life in Santa Marta I want. Despite our bank balance and inability to negotiate, we may end up with only one reasonable option that gets us wifi, a washing machine and enough safety for me to sleep at night. I’m working on trusting the universe enough that this option is okay. You know, sitting with the $* discomfort.
The climate is hot, but the heat here is drier than Cartegena, and the evening sea breeze cools the city and makes it pleasant to walk about. — Lonely Planet Colombia
A helicopter could have landed on the roof last night and I wouldn’t have heard it. Or someone could have jackhammered out the tile in the living room — adjacent to our bedroom — and I wouldn’t hear. Why? That “evening sea breeze.”
The most dominant feature of this region and I don’t remember hearing anything besides a passing, “It’s a bit windy.”
They call it la brisa and I think I could be forgiven for translating that as “breeze” in English. “Breeze” conjures up visions of lovely tropical air wafting across my skin. But this wind is like a wild beast. All night long, the windows rattle like an army of monsters are launching an assault on the house. It sounds like a dragon is dragging its kill across the roof. It’s like sleeping on an open freight train — an old Soviet or Vietnamese one — hurtling through the countryside over bridges built too long ago with too few bolts.
And it’s not limited to nighttime. During the day, when the windows are open, papers, clothes, towels, even shoes blow across the room. Yesterday morning, the coffee pot drifted across the countertop in the wind.
My hair is permanently flapping in my eyes; the photo was taken sitting on the couch in our living room. My skirts fly up like Marilyn Monroe’s over a subway grate, but awkward and humiliating instead of sexy and adorable. Every object — inside and out — is covered with a fine dust that blows in every crevice.
Once, camping in Joshua Tree, the wind was so strong that it broke everyone’s tent poles. The REI ones, not just the WalMart ones. And my cousin’s solidly-built three-year-old kept blowing over. That was child’s play compared to this.
You know that exhibit at the science museum where you can stand in a phone-booth size room and they demonstrate hurricane-strength winds? All. Day. Every. Day.
On the upside, it makes it hard for mosquitos to land on us. And wet clothes dry in 32.7 seconds, even if they are left wadded up on a windowless bathroom floor. And it’s cooler, I guess, than still tropical air.
But “evening breeze”, my a$$…
A brief postscript: Since drafting this complaint, la brisa has all but stopped. And I find myself sitting in a pool of sweat — all of us stripped down to underwear — and hoping it comes back soon. Yet another lesson in being careful what I wish for…