Field Notes
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Field notes from Colombia: A new series

In many ways, arriving anew in a country you once called home lends itself better to processes of memory than discovery. As I wrote in an email to Elijah yesterday, “can you still count firsts if it’s a ‘first time on this trip’ as opposed to a first ever?” There are endless layers of Colombia I have yet to uncover and even more that I have yet to fully understand, so the memory versus discovery conundrum is not for lack of novelty. Rather, it emerges out of a realization that a return to the field, particularly a return to a site you once called home, inspires — almost unwittingly — a comparison of memories. Does this feel the way it used to? Are these the colors I remember? Is this how thin the air in Bogotá always was?

I had forgotten the smell of Bogotá. No, Bogotá does not smell, per se, not in the way that would have anyone pinching their nose and making a face. But it does have its own distinct smell, kind of like a sweater with remnants of a perfume of a different era. It is like walking by a stranger who smells similar to someone you once loved, and having the memories rush back to you. I pride myself on hoarding memories and at once celebrate and lament the fact that I will hold on to the smallest trinkets of a moment as a token of the era in which it unfolded. And still, I had forgotten Bogotá’s distinct smell.

I had also forgotten other trinkets. Like how, for example, the altitude of 8,629 feet above sea level causes my heart to race and wakes me up at 5.30 AM daily, longing for air. Or how the mountains look from my bed by the window at that hour. I longed for these mountains when I was away. I missed the way they ground this city. I had forgotten that Colombian dish soap comes in solid form in a tub, and not as a creamy liquid in a bottle. I had forgotten the July chill that has us sitting outdoors in the sun next to… space heaters. I had forgotten that some Colombians say “me regalas un….” when they are asking for a glass of water at a restaurant, translated literally into “would you gift me a glass of water?” When I had used that idiom in Guatemala, I was met with stares, but now I am back in the country of gifting water.

There were certain memories that were awakened quickly after I landed here. The sky seems bluer on a clear day in Colombia than anywhere else in the world, save perhaps for my own Greek homeland. The clouds look puffy and white, almost fake. All the colors here, from the fruit to the plants to the sky, look like someone edited a photograph by heightening its saturation. I remembered the affection of the language. I remembered being a ‘princesa’ in the eyes of the taxi driver, and a ‘preciosa’ in the eyes of a colleague. I have a lot of feelings about the diminutive value of calling women variants of ‘cute’ in professional settings, and yet every time someone calls me a princesa, I melt into a pile of nostalgic remembrance (don’t worry, folks, still a feminist).

Revisiting a place I once called home naturally invites some reflection over the ways in which I have changed since the last time I was here. I grew up in a culture of hugging hello and goodbye with a kiss planted on each cheek. Handshakes were considered cold and formal. There was no acceptable period for waiting before you kiss a stranger hello or nice-to-meet-you. Greeks talk with their whole bodies and give you little choice of whether to be welcomed into their lives or their bosoms. While some guidebooks will describe this as intrusive or ‘not enough personal space’, to me it is simply home.

Colombians also touch and hug and kiss strangers in ways that make it feel like home. What I realized upon arriving here after a year in New England, however, is that I was used to a cloak of invisibility in public. It is not common for strangers to lock eyes on the subway in Boston or catch each other’s attention beyond ‘is this seat taken’ and ‘sorry, I didn’t mean to stab you in the butt with my umbrella.’ A sympathetic ‘sucks that the Bruins lost’ shrug the day after the whole city wakes up grumpy is as much visible camaraderie as one can expect in public places. This is not because Bostonians are unfriendly — quite the contrary. Rather, it is because the New England I know values privacy and private space even in public settings and, to some extent, requires that we go about our days without acknowledging the strangers around us.

My invisibility cloak was burst here. People look at you — really look. ‘Mucho gusto’ after meeting someone in most informal settings is accompanied by a single kiss on the cheek. The hugs linger longer, as do the stares. And as I realize I have some newly-formed New England skin to shed in the transition, I feel at home amidst the linguistic, tactile, and social affection.

It is taking me some time for the words to roll off my tongue, for ‘thank you’ to slip out in Spanish instead of accidental Arabic. I have always harbored some amount of resentment for how slow my brain feels when it becomes accustomed to working in professional settings in another language, but I am trying to embrace this new pace of thinking. I am making space for every word and its remembrance, for every verb conjugation and every noun whose accompanying article I cannot recall. Even the little word magnets of the fridge speak Spanish now, with a particularly ironic composition reading ‘eres nuestro machisto.’

I have only been here for 48 hours, so I am still trying to record all the ‘firsts’ and make room for novelty and remembrance alike. And, as has always been the case every time I have returned to the field, I live for the little moments when it feels as though the universe is winking. On my first hour in Bogotá, an old and dear friend took me to dinner to celebrate my arrival. As I made my way to the bathroom, I found myself ping-pong staring at the initials, trying to decide which door was appropriate for my gender. M or H? My brain had not yet switched to “Mujeres” and “Hombres” and I feared choosing M only to find out it held the Men’s Room. Then I looked straight ahead and I saw a giant graffiti of Cat Power decorating the door between the two bathrooms. Cat Power has supplied so many of my field soundtracks and colored countless memories. Finding her here in Colombia anew — indeed, seeing the very same graffiti I had once photographed on a different street in Bogotá — felt like the world’s way of welcoming me home.

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