The lush leaves and bright birds are now flashes of mere memory, sharing space with all of the other visions and sounds and smells of my life. From this dark, cold place, I see crowded cities, earnest young boys, piles of plantains, piles of trash, and forgotten, dusty dioramas of capybaras and Andean condors. I hear hummingbirds calling, incessant music throbbing, and arepa stovetops being scraped. I smell exhaust. Every day, I smelled the exhaust of a million motorcycles, trapped between the buildings that I move between, always behind you, walking faster to keep up with your pace of purpose.
When asked about Colombia, words fail in my throat. I can’t bring myself to say it was wonderful, or amazing, or that I wish I had had more time there. What would it be like to tell a colleague that the poverty and lack of opportunity ground its way into my heart until I just numbed myself to it? What would it be like to tell my mom that I slipped into a deep hole in my mind and hadn’t yet climbed out? The assumption is that an experience in an exotic, tropical destination should be one of amazement, and awe, and wonder, and excitement, and appreciation.
Perhaps I should be kinder to Colombia. We were met with kindness and curiosity. We saw gorgeous, strange animals and marveled at wild jungles. Glacier-covered mountains, ancient gold artifacts, and an abundance of sweet fruit were delighted in. But for me, these were like little glimpses of light viewed from a dark, turbulent river.
Colombia, a chaotic world of pollution, poverty, plastic, and people. So many babies, their moms so young. Venezuelans everywhere, escaping their country and trying to make it somewhere else, washing car windows at stoplights and selling fried snacks that no one wanted. The man sleeping in the doorway with a garbage bag over his face, us wondering how he breathed. Staying in the Christmas shack on the mountain, hearing bats in the roof and sleeping with spiders and cockroaches on the walls, crawling around old photographs of the man’s children from long ago. Feeling my privilege so keenly, always.
Understanding that the nature we were so lucky to witness is shifting and changing and segmenting and spoiling with the influence of us. Jungles that are far out of reach of tourists and their selfie sticks and their trash are still subject to warming and climatic shifts originating from the unrelenting pump of carbon into the atmosphere. What to do? What to do after you’ve successfully fought to save a few hectares of land for an endangered orchid species? The world is warming anyway. Where to fight? Who or what should we speak up for?
I don’t have answers, I just have a wash of complicated memories: Trying to figure out how to catch our next bus. Being with you at the modern art museum. Drinking beer we were promised was “as cold as Alaska.” Holding each other at the salsa parade. The grumpy fruit seller when I told him we didn’t want the mangoes after all. Sitting around the fire in the Sierra Nevada. Reaching for your hands, over and over, seeking a warm and familiar anchor in the swarming sea of Colombia.