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Field notes from Colombia: Nostalgia

This field notes dispatch was compiled, as most honest thoughts are, through excerpts of emails to loved ones.


It was inevitable. Do not even pretend to be surprised. A few times a month, I publish a column at The Equals Record titled “Eternally Nostalgic” and this weekend I have lived up to its namesake.

A recent New York Times article asked “What is nostalgia good for?” Starting from the premise that it used to be considered “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” the article sought to debunk myths surrounding nostalgia and illuminate its positive sides. An unintended benefit of nostalgia is that it, apparently, raises your body temperature, making you feel warmer.

In search of warmth, I write to you from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I arrived in this country to find myself taken aback by the July chill of Bogotá and the coziness of outdoor space heaters. This weekend I fled to Cartagena, in search of fuller, humid air and warmth. If Cartagena were a color, it would be a warm yellow, accompanied by sweat droplets, sliced fruit, and hand-holding. As I wiped sweat droplets from my face, I longed for my hand to be held, just in the way it had been on my first journey to Cartagena three years prior.

This place requires affection, I have been telling my friends. It demands it of you. It is harsh on the solitary and the nostalgic, illuminating all the components of the latter: ‘Algos’ — the Greek word for pain. ‘Nostos,’ the Greek — Homeric — word for a return journey home. Cartagena was never a home for me, unlike the rest of Colombia. Instead, it held the extraordinary memories. Enchantment registers best when it is novel and, as such, my most magical memories of Cartagena unfolded between 7 and 8 AM on a Sunday three years ago, when it felt as though Elijah and I had the city to ourselves on that very first walk.

Nearly a half decade into this field of work, I realize the cost of distance is increasing. Even if I have developed some elementary coping strategies for my admittedly huge ‘fear of missing out’, I find that my preferred way to see is by someone’s side — be it Elijah’s or a dear friend’s. I find joy in presence, in being there, in not having to write the “sorry, I wish I could, I’m thinking of you” email from Sudan or Syria. I have always embraced solitude, craved it even. Yet, as the line between solitude and loneliness runs thin, I long for the kind of companionship that being anchored in place can afford you.

You see differently when you are alone, unshielded by the company of someone else’s presence. I am chattier with the street vendors, longing for conversation and contact. I linger in parks, observing more intently. The meals are shorter, the walks are longer and slower. I push myself to find novelty amidst familiarity, to hunt for old memories and to make new ones. As I walked past the hospedaje at which Elijah and I had stayed three years earlier, I stop to take a photo of the lion on the doorknob. As I search for my camera in my bag, a man and his daughter ride past me on a tandem bicycle, instantly flooding my world with memories of the earlier part of this same summer and with an appreciation for synchronicity and serendipity. The universe continues to wink.

Here is my Cartagena, the second time, bathed in yellow, solitary walks, and just as much enchantment.

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