By: Lilliana Kowalski for Georgia Weekly Post.
We met over brunch at Serendipity on the upper East side of Manhattan, two old friends, Sarah and me.
I looked up and realized I was sitting across from this huge clock, thoughts of its historic meaning and this restaurant had my mind intertwined with its hands of time.
Sometimes we see ourselves in frozen moments trying to imagine when they still moved clockwise. Thoughts were lost when visions of people came to mind. I created stories for each person in this quiet little place, as I can hear the whispers of the memories that have taken place in this little charming and cozy nook of richness filled with colorful sea glass lamps and canvases of feelings from the artist inside a man.
There was a young college age man working on his laptop, and there was an elderly couple eating their lunch together; you can see that each was happy in their own way.
Maybe if I continue looking into this clock the answer would come to me about what life is and where it starts, just like Sarah has realized.. as she entered, my mind snapped to the reality of her silky blue dress and the sureness of her stride as she entered into my bubble of serenity.
Sarah just returned to the US after an extended trip to South America.
Excitement flowed through my veins. I could not wait to hear the details of her ventures and be allowed a small snippet of her experiences.
The smell of fresh ground Colombian coffee seemed to faintly appear as she sat down, or maybe that was my overly intensified sense of smell.
▲ ... the beautiful scenery, a tropical landscape, the beautiful skies and the vast hills of green.
One can only dream of all the food, music, people and sights she had encountered. My dear Sarah of many years, a first generation Colombian American, traveled to Colombia, searching for her roots.
As a child growing up in New York City, she was constantly surrounded by millions of multi-diverse culture.
This trip being her first step out of her comfort zone in over a decade. Sarah was excited, but somewhat apprehensive to find herself in a journey to Colombia...such that her immediate family all are US citizens, although her parents being from Colombia, had not traveled to their homeland in years.
All Sarah could picture in her mind were the stories told by her parents..stories that she wanted to share with her kids.
Thankfully she shared them with me and went into depth about the tale of how her parents met and courted. In those days Colombian parents were very strict and when Sarah heard that her father and her mother could not even hold hands on the couch, the thought was astonishing.
▲ " I looked up and realized I was sitting across from this huge clock, thoughts of its historic meaning and this restaurant had my mind intertwined with its hands of time... "
Photo by Lilliana Kowalski for Georgia Weekly Post.
To realize that these wonderful people brought her and her sisters into this world...from the very town, the ground she was finally standing on and as she tried to memorize every color, line, face she saw she could only think of her own children, she never felt more connected to anything she's ever experienced before.
All sorts of amazing, thought provoking questions come to mind, and yet Sarah's whole demeanor changed and she hangs her head in shame when she recollected what her initial impression of Colombia and its people were like. Sarah began talking, although hesitant due to embarrassment as she recalls her expectations. Her beloved Colombia she thought to be nothing but a third world country.
She believed it to be very an undeveloped area..thinking that everyone is a coke head, trafficker, producer, or a coke mule. Needless to say that she didn't encounter anyone like that. Stereotypes, whether we want to admit it or not, we all have them, everyone prejudges at some point, fairly or not. When you spend your entire life hearing how horrible things are about a group of people, or a country or a culture, its hard not to form an opinion, regardless of whether you have met those people, visited that country, or know anything about it. Even herself having to deal with being stereotyped in the US and yet, she couldn't helped it.
▲ Colombia is a fairytale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty with an impressive land of centuries of colonial stone walls, a maze of cabled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across the plaza.
When Sarah decided to visit Colombia, her kids were up in arms, they all watched the news, read the reports, they knew that Colombia is filled with nothing but drug dealing, machete wielding, machine gun carrying kidnapping violent people...right? While she is admitting being apprehensive when contemplating her visit to Colombia, Sarah is more than static that she listened to the people who had been there instead of the doom and gloom reports of the media, I can't help but chuckle at the absurdity of thinking that traveling to Colombia was going to be a bad idea.
So, check your pre-conceived notions at the door and forget everything you heard about Colombia, because she is here to break it down. Whatever might prevent you from visiting this wonderful awe-inspiring, beautiful country filled with the most delightful people she's ever met. As Sarah says, she is not going to lie, she also had a misperception of Colombians. Colombians was synonymous with cocaine ...but that is far from the truth, anymore. They hate that the rest of the world has this perception of them as drug addicts.
As she arrives in Colombia, they say the definition of culture shock is "trauma you experience when you move into a different culture, different from your own". She felt lost, alone, scared being in a different country, wanting to go back home to the States after the first twelve hours, but she said this is an experience that opened up her mind to a new way of thinking. As she finally opened her eyes and breathed in the air of her land and her people this is what hit her ...the beautiful scenery, a tropical landscape, the beautiful skies and the vast hills of green.
The happy vendor looking at her of what she hopes is admiration (being that she is American) and finally able to calm her busy mind using the sound of language, the feeling of warmth from her town and with it the amazing people she encountered ..she was ready for her journey to begin.
Sarah realized how sadly mistaken she was. Colombia is a diverse, vibrant place with a rich history and interesting culture. Although as beautiful as it was, she also knew that she had to be careful when it came to her safety.
▲ Colombians love their country, and they want the rest of the world to feel the same. This trip opened up Sarah's eyes, to travel, to understand and to appreciate where her roots began. It was something that had never occurred to her. She is now fascinated by her heritage, culture, and by the way they live their lives.
In Bogota women tend to put their credentials inside their shoes, in fear of being robbed...something that for Sarah was scary. Besides that, Sarah realized that no matter where she went, she stood out like a sore thumb, people realized that she was from the USA by the way she dressed, talked, her over all appearance gave away that she was a foreigner, making people embrace her and yet people treated her not with disgust but almost like royalty.
Colombian people seem to be fascinated with people from other parts of the world. Colombians are very friendly, warm and their hospitality like I have not experienced. Whatever they have they share with you.
Its like the warmer the weather, the warmer the people. As Sarah visited other parts of Colombia, she realized that a lot of Colombians struggle to make ends meet. She saw a lot of informal businesses on the street...like vendors selling chorizos (sausages)...so used to having regulations here in the States, that Sarah felt a little unnerved to eat from them...it was her own battle to remember that this is one of the reasons she traveled down here for not to be snobby so to speak, but to remember her roots.
Colombians would say that they are not complicated people. They go with the flow. They are not the kind to tie themselves into a knot.
Their attitudes reflect everywhere, but beware that they don't appreciate narcotic trafficking related jokes or innuendos. As Sarah recalls, one of the things that impacted her besides the landscape, was the food. Almost every state has its own traditional dish. For example; la bandeja paisa, a typical dish from Antoquia, one of the biggest states of Colombia. The variety of food in Colombia is astonishing. If you think about it, what can result from Spain's excellent cuisine, mixed with indigenous exotic ingredients and an African heritage? Its food offering like no other.
Music clearly represents the various influences. It's a very important part of their culture, as well as dancing. And know this, you will draw more attention by standing still, than hitting the floor, and don't say no, to anyone when being asked for a dance.
It becomes a challenge for any Colombian man to see you on the dance floor. Colombia is a fairytale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty with an impressive land of centuries of colonial stone walls, a maze of cabled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across the plaza. Sarah was able to recall going out dancing with her uncles and feeling like a child again.
Wouldn't you love the chance to go back in time if but for a minute and hear "now no one is going to mess with you here I am watching for you." She felt a a sense of love, protection and happiness in these few days with her family than she had in the past two years of her life.
Another big impact on Sarah was the economy of Colombia being one of the biggest problems for the Colombian people. Due to the bad economy, this country is unsafe. Some lack the priviledge to attend school, plus there are not enough jobs for everyone (if you are over 30 years of age, you are considered old...and no reputable business will hire you). One of the things that Sarah was most shocked by was the corruption - how some uniformed citizens, like police officers, will shake people down for extortion - not all of them are like that.
A great feeling of gratefulness washed over her, for her life in the US but also now and having the privilege of being with her people here drinking aguardiente, Colombia's specialty alcohol. But she couldn't shake how she longed for her life at home.
While sometimes as a tourist and a traveler, Sarah has felt not wanted and as though she was a burden to the local people, it was the complete opposite in Colombia. She was welcome with open arms, and not just because she had money to spend, they were genuinely happy to see her visiting Colombia, and a pride that was evident.
Colombians love their country, and they want the rest of the world to feel the same. This trip opened up Sarah's eyes, to travel, to understand and to appreciate where her roots began. It was something that had never occurred to her. She is now fascinated by her heritage, culture, and by the way they live their lives.
Is it the opportunity to choose to travel to a far off place, a way of letting go of all the negatives and finding oneself, or is it the fear of not feeling like you are capable of living a life you feel you missed out on the question? Going forward what matters is the way a person grows in a humble, appreciative manner in order to bring their own inner peace. Not saying no to something because you are afraid, but rather take that leap of faith to learn what kind of person you really can be, and hope to bestow that way of thinking onto others, especially my kids.