The night we arrived, a glittering canopy of stars welcomed us. Not from the sky but from the valley, as we drove down the mountain towards the glimmering city lights of Medellin. It was breathtaking. As I drifted to sleep that night, I could only wonder at what sights the morning would bring. I am not an early riser, but six a.m. found me slightly awake and very much in awe. With a soft orange glow under my eyelids and light birdsong tickling my ear canals, I awoke in a cocoon of light. While a babe only knows darkness in the womb, Medellin enfolded me in a sunrise glimpse of the warmth that permeates her people. I am a very visual learner and consider my eyes my most acute sense, but lying there in my sun-kissed room, I realized that I could see Colombia clearer with my eyes shut. In the two full days that have since passed, the rest of my senses have begun to experience a similar tuning in vision as the people of Colombia teach me new ways to see through touch, taste, and sound.
TOUCH: Physical expression of love is a defining quality of human interaction in Latin American culture. Coming from a Malaysian-Chinese family that expresses affection through non-physical gestures, I am really enjoying the novel presence of the “touch love language” in my life. The way we greet old and new friends cheek-to-cheek with a beso; the way my host father Don Enrique grasps my hand in his excitement to play chess with me; the way my host mom Doña Merce affectionately squeezes my leg or leans up to take my face with both hands to plant a tender kiss on my face - all of it speaks to me, profoundly. I came expecting to improve my Spanish, but this linguistic reality is much better. Though I am still learning to be comfortable with the language of touch, I am continually amazed at how a simple pat on my back can transcend age, speech, and culture to communicate real trust, as if we’ve always been family.
TASTE: Food holds a special place in my heart (or rather, belly). My palate is utterly satisfied by the flavorful sabor of frutas tropicales, carne, jugos, postres…everything! Beyond the gastronomic delightfulness, I see Doña Merce's love through her attention to the details, like artistically arranging the strawberries of our salads. I see how deeply the people value quality time with each other. Meals aren’t hurried, and it is refreshing to see the locals take their time to savor the food and the company. This week the girls all felt closer after sharing cathartic girl talk over pineapple juice and meatball soup; it was a beautiful bloom on our budding friendships. My appetite is learning to value food in terms of the community it fosters, and I hope to bring this appreciation back with me when I share meals with my friends at Duke.
SOUND: Even as I write this, I feel so peaceful listening to the rhythm of rain against the rustling leaves, the trills of birds harmonizing every so often with the pulsing echo of passing traffic. I cannot wait for the scene that will come after the rain, of sun rays filtering through the iridescent canopy, lush leaves rippling in the cool rain-kissed breeze. The music of the rainforest is comforting. It mirrors the ease I feel among the people I have met. During our first conversation with Doña Merce and Don Enrique over breakfast, I was so struck by the special attention they paid to me and Elena. Our host parents encouraged the both of us to speak and probed for more details as we shared stories about our families and interests. I really appreciated their insightful questions, which revealed how well they listened and cared about me. Likewise with my compañero Santiago, whose exuberant enthusiasm to get to know me enhanced our lively World Cup watch party with quality talk and quality listening. I want to grow as a storyteller, and by internalizing how others express sincere curiosity in my stories in such a way that I feel comfortable opening up to them, I hope to externalize that warmth and acceptance when I ask a family to trust me with their story too. I am grateful that the people who have entered my life in Medellin are teaching me how to see with my ears through their example.
I feel immense kinship with this plant in my host family's dining room, called un tronco de la felicidad. It dislikes direct exposure to the sun, but it thrives in light. While the weather has reminded me of my tendency to wilt like a vegetable in high humidity and heat, I have felt so joyfully alive in the warm light of Latin American community and hospitality. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two days. I know the eight weeks will pass by quickly, so I want to be present in each moment. I look forward to fully resting in the revelations of each sunrise, meal, and conversation to come!
I don't believe you can ever know what to fully expect when going to a new place whether that be another country or simply another city. You can anticipate the weather, learn about the food, or determine the best sights, but beyond that, there is little else you can anticipate. Too often we are filled with preconceived expectations of what we will find and, more often than not, those expectations are false, or at least that has been my case in the city of Medellin, Colombia.
One formative moment in my discovery of Medellin was the visit to the library in Carlos E. Restrepo. Upon entering, a security guard stored our bags for us before we were allowed into the actual venue. At home, I would have never thought to store my bag with the security at the public library. Already I could realize that the people around me took the library very seriously, which is interesting, because I cannot even remember the last time I visited a public library at home.
The library visit made me realize how much Medellin takes pride in and also acknowledges its own history. The photograph museum shows how much the city values keeping a record of what happened before, and the depiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the quote from A Hundred Years of Solitude on the absurdity of war shows their acknowledgment of the events that once deemed Medellín the most violent city in the world. That’s much more than I can say for the United States. Our society is built around the premise of “freedom” and “liberation”, which honestly just means we don’t want to deal with messes we never cleaned up from the past. Rather than looking back, we like to just look forward. But recently, I have begun to question why we do this, because the history of our country is crucial to the foundation of modern day society. And there is no way we can move forward without acknowledging the past.
For example, the question of reparations for slavery will occasionally come up among American politicians. Questions arise such as who pays, what to pay, how to pay, and who receives the payment, and because these questions are too hard to answer, no real amends are made. We fail to recognize that the disenfranchisement of an entire community can be traced back to a time period that is almost alien to us. And because it’s so alien to us, we don’t talk about it; it seemingly has no effect on our lives. Not talking about the past is pretending it doesn’t exist. But pretending it doesn’t exist does not erase the damage it has done to the community. It only invalidates the sorrow and spilled blood that happened as a result.
My friend once told me I had “too much empathy for my little body”. While this was meant to be a joke, I know that it’s often very true. I feel physically hurt by other people’s pain even just by reading it. And I hate the saying “time heals everything”, because it doesn’t work that way at all. Talking about the past, validating the events of the past – that’s really what “heals”. I think that’s why I cared so much about the library visit. I was both fascinated and saddened by the self-reflective nature of the place. While the library could not erase the damage that had been done in Medellín, it still validated the pain. And that is the first step to healing.
|My host brother and I traveling the city of Medellín.|
At breakfast the next morning, I asked my homestay mom, Doña Estella, if she followed Sathya Sai Baba. Her face lit up as she said, “El es mi guru. Estoy totalmente dedicado a él.” (“He is my guru. I am totally dedicated to him.”) When I mentioned the statue, she pointed out three other Ganesha statues around the room. She talked about Ganesha’s ability to remove obstacles, and how he has helped her.
Before coming to Medellín, I was not even aware that Hinduism was practiced in Colombia. I have noticed similarities in the Indian and Colombian cultures, from small things like the drink known as a ‘mango lassi’ in India, but ‘jugo de mango en leche’ in Colombia, to bigger things like the way that people treat each other. For example, I have always appreciated that Indian people are very generous with time, not only willing, but wanting, to spend time with/on others. Colombians are the same way. Some Indians and Colombians even look alike; my friend Ana’s family once commented (and others have agreed) that Ana and I look like sisters.
Regardless of the many obvious cultural similarities, it probably would not have occurred to me that there are Colombians who practice Hinduism if I didn’t have Doña Estella as my homestay mom. According to Doña Estella, there are Colombians who travel to India to explore spiritual and religious sites. These Colombian Hindus have helped to bring the religion to this area of the world, to people like Doña Estella. She attributes much of her spirituality to Hinduism (although she also incorporates elements of other religions), and much of her sense of self to her spirituality.
Right before I left for the airport on Monday, my mom (biological) reminded me to pray. I never would have imagined then, while I was praying to my own Ganesha statue, that I would have four others within ten feet of my room in Colombia.
|City lights at night, hi-res|
|Urban city and natural landscape, hi-res|