The last Colombia episode
I’m back where this Colombia chapter of my life began, sweltering in Santa Marta wishing the neighbours would keep their music to themselves.
After 4 years and 7 months in Bogota, and a total of 5 years and 3 months in Colombia, I’m heading back to Australia, back to where I came from, downsizing from a city of nearly 10 million inhabitants to a tiny speck on the map with maybe 200 people living there. I’m going back to a country where I know how things work, where I can communicate in my native tongue and to a place where there is peace and quiet.
I’m not going alone; Edwin and D are migrating with me as they have permanent residency visas as a result of the incredibly detailed partner visa application we submitted in December 2016. However this time, the shoe will be placed on the other foot. They will be the ones seeking my help to interpret and navigate interactions with institutions. They will be the ones grasping for the correct words and tone to use for the situation. They will be the ones missing things they love the most, apple flavoured soft drink, street food like empanadas and salchipapa, being a short walk from a corner store, not having to remember anyone’s name as you can call them amigo/a, vecino/a or Señor/a and being a long, expensive series of flights away from family.
It’s going to be a new experience for all of us, as certainly these past five years immersed in another culture, another language and with a family have changed me. I’m reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race to try and learn what life in Australia is like for people with brown skin, so I can be prepared for what D might find at school and in the street. At the same time I’m desperately hoping that my part of rural Australia is more welcoming than I fear them to be and that D’s Colombian nationality and chocolate coloured skin won’t elicit bullying taunts from others.
I’m still excited, even if it is a hard road ahead.
Now that I’ve finished work and the stress of moving out of our apartment, deciding what will go with us in the nine suitcases we are taking to Australia, selling off furniture and giving away things and finally selling the car, has passed, in addition to my curiosity about the move for my boys, I’m free to think about the things I’m most looking forward to. Family outings on the Murray River, teaching Edwin and D to waterski, renewing old friendships and getting involved in my community, camping trips and being more involved in D’s school and extra curricular activities.
When I think about these things, I feel like my life has sort of been on hold – despite living half a decade in Colombia, having a great, career-oriented job, making wonderful friends and travelling to amazing places. I never came here indefinitely. I always knew I would return to Australia, or go somewhere else. So perhaps with that always in the back of my mind, I never truly put down the type of roots you do when you’re planning on staying. I barely have any female Colombian friends, I’ve never once looked at apartments or houses to buy. I always said no to D’s pleas for a dog because getting a pet to Australia from Colombia is an exhausting process that takes a long time and a lot of money. When my last visa expired, I was eligible for permanent residency, but instead renewed for a temporary visa only.
Ever since my first day in Colombia, surrounded by suitcases full of belongings with which to start a new chapter, the suitcases have been kept at the ready for this day, the end of the chapter and my return to Australia.
Edwin delights in telling people, usually after they’ve made some comment about me speaking Spanish well, that I even break out in typical costeño speak “no joda, que vaina” being one of them. But a few local idioms parroted out don’t mean that you belong there or are comfortable. I’m sure Edwin will feel the same in Australia, however the move is more indefinite and there’s a greater purpose to the move for him. It’s an opportunity to receive a fair wage for the work he does, but importantly, it’s for D to have more opportunities in his life. One thing all parents do is make sacrifices for the sake of their children.
Coming back to the coast from my little third floor ivory tower in the north of Bogota I’m once again surrounded by sad things. People without work struggling to feed their families and get proper health care, people with jobs who are woefully underpaid and exploited, young women without children who stay at home just to cook lunch and wash their men’s clothes, pregnant underage girls, cheating partners, grisly close up photos of murdered people on the front page of the newspaper, hearing that people I know have met with violent deaths, people who have to flee their homes because their own neighbours threaten them and so on. In Bogota I was shielded from most of this, or was at least at a very long arm’s length away. In Santa Marta, the whiff of danger and stench of depravity manifests in fearfulness.
My Bogota experience is such a polar opposite, that if I only had that to go on, everything would be amazing and incredible (except perhaps the traffic). But a fancy suburb of Bogota is not representative of the whole country, it’s just the cosmetic enhancement on the surface, whereas here in Santa Marta, I’ve punctured the skin.
Edwin is happy to be here, although he’s feeling sentimental and nostalgic because our departure date is just around the corner. But I’m happy to be going because I’m too delicate for this perpetual onslaught of a human condition that I don’t want to accept.