Friday, October 24, 2014

Colombia 8: La Ermita at Last!

Dad, Dan and I see the city today. I need to go, I want to go -- but most of yesterday was spent away from Mom and it would be nice to stay home. I would enjoy the relaxed pace of this paradise. The cook and the nurse are so entertaining as they go about the day, discussing this and that, teasing each other, and dancing to music on the radio. But I won't have this chance again. I will sit with Mom on the veranda later.
I kiss her goodbye and this time she seems grief-stricken, as though we will never meet again. It's so unsettling I almost stay behind, but Dad assures me that as soon as we drive out of the huge gate of the home she will have forgotten again.
At least she is in good hands; this is my mantra.
I look ahead to memories that are about to come to life. I have three places I want to see: La Ermita, our house in Miraflores, and the seminary. I freely admit I'm downright childish about my list, and I will regret my demanding attitude, but I've come a really long way to be here. Lucky for me, the others aren't as "exigente" and the driver humors me. Dan, my Harley-riding brother, is mostly interested in the astounding risks the scooters and motorcycles take, zipping among the cars and buses.
After the obligatory stop at the statue of Belalcazar, we look for our old house in Miraflores, a middle-class neighborhood tucked into the Andean hills of Cali. We don't remember the address for the house but manage to find it anyway, and when I see the black metal door, balcony, patch of grass, and big windows, the memories come in a flood: reading on the porch, catching the school bus, playing with our dog Goldie, entertaining grandparents, waking up to late-night serenades for neighbors. Part of me wants to see who lives there now, but we don't even get out of the car.
We drive along Rio Cali and park downtown to walk through Cali's crowded streets, and I'm surprisingly unafraid. It's as it was over thirty years before, only now the many street vendors are selling yellow jerseys for Colombia's soccer team. Colombia is one of 32 teams to play for the FIFA World Cup, and the country is enjoying the anticipation of the games to come. I will regret not buying a jersey, but I keep our group moving; I'm on a mission to see the iconic La Ermita.
I've been working on a novel, "The Existence of Pity," and La Ermita plays a role. Having never been inside it when I lived in Cali, I fell in love with the old Catholic church on the internet. Now I'm nervous. Will it meet my high expectations?
When I finally catch a glimpse of La Ermita, it is as beautiful and otherworldly as I hoped it would be. I run ahead of the others and try the door, but it's locked. I go to the front entrance, but it won't open either. I'm disappointed, but still glad to be here, taking in the white and gray Gothic spires, amazing against the blue sky.  La Ermita is more perfect than I dared hope. We take pictures and move on.
As we walk to Plaza Caycedo, we see a young woman selling Panini. This is the official sticker book and stickers for the World Cup.  Groups of adults and children gather all over town to trade the stickers to fill up their books, talking about the great Colombian team that could finally win that cup. I want to join in, so I buy my own book. A woman with short white hair starts up a conversation with me, but she's eyeing the bottle of Coca-Cola I'm holding. It seems she wants the rest of my Coke, so I offer it to her. She gratefully accepts, and finishes the drink I had started. I am definitely far from home.   
Back in the car, we take the scenic route to the seminary. By the time we get there, we only have time to drive by, but I am content. I've honored past memories, made new connections, and am ready for some lulo and pandebono with Mom. I will sit beside her on the veranda and tell her all about our day as many times as she wants to hear it. I won't regret that.
http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2014/m=8/news=rodriguez-it-s-a-dream-come-true-2418837.html

Monday, October 13, 2014

Colombia 7: The Spice of Life


I am beginning to understand Cali better. Longtime friend John Palencia takes us on a drive and as motorcycles thread through traffic, horns honk, and overloaded buses lumber along dedicated lanes, he explains Colombia. It is an "emergent economy" and as such is making sweeping changes. Changes that sweep away my past. I find out the city knocked down blocks of houses in the neighborhood of Ciudad Jardin to build an incomprehensible amount of businesses;
perfectly beautiful homes replaced by big square buildings with neon signs hawking cars and clothing and meat and phones.
But I learn space for expansion wasn't the only reason to knock down those homes. Some of them were built with drug money, and Colombia is doing all it can to distance itself from the horrific drug wars in its past.
It's nice to understand the changes, but I can't describe my joy when I recognize the old San Fernando church. It is exactly as I remember it all those years ago, and it reminds me I truly am in the city of my youth. 
We shop some, but mostly ride around in the car and soak it all in. I love the unexpected differences between this culture and mine, choices that bring variety - the spice of life. It is lovely to be here. The people are beautiful, alive, busy becoming a country. They are improving their world, leaving my memories behind, and I am realizing I don't belong here.
After college and before I met Chris, I came back to Colombia intending to live here. But as soon as the attendant waved me off the airplane I knew this beautiful place wasn't mine. It's still true today, but that doesn't change how much I love Cali. If anything, my unrequited love is only stronger, and I'm glad Colombia is thriving.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/colombias-resurgence/ 


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Colombia, Part 6: Colegio Bolivar

To get right to the point, Cali's Colegio Bolivar is an amazing school. Anyone with the very good fortune to attend even one grade - from pre-kinder to 12th - is beyond lucky.
Today Dad, Dan, and I walk around the American school and as I sift through memories about good friends and teachers, the library and the gym, musicals and bake sales, I'm amazed all over again. Even as a child, I knew this was a special place, and it's more beautiful than ever. There's one thing they shouldn't have changed, though. The classrooms used to have only three walls, and they've added half-walls to the open side. I used to love looking outside at birds hopping along tree branches and at people walking along the center walkway, and those half-walls are really cutting down on some great distractions. 
Over the years my memories of Colombia have seemed less and less believable, and that's why I'm so glad to come back to Cali. Fellow schoolmates, you aren't dreaming. It really is wonderful here.
We take the scenic route back to Mom and Dad's house, and Mom knows us and is glad to see us all. After a delicious lunch of fish, rice, plantains, and more lulo juice, siesta is in the air. I settle in beside Mom, who's napping already. I watch her and remember that horrible day, May 17, 2012, when Dad called and said Mom didn't know who he was. I visited as soon as I could, and found her moving puzzle pieces around a perpetually unfinished puzzle. She wanted to go to her mother's house.
A part of me understood her dementia but another very stubborn part could not accept it. I drove myself crazy trying to make Mom's words true, at least in the beginning, when she was so convinced herself. I've never felt like I had such a strong grasp on reality - Lord knows reality is overrated anyway - so maybe Mom was right. Only she wasn't. Her mother was long gone, her mother's house, too, and there were no hobos in her neighborhood.
When I drove home after that first horrible visit, south on I65 from Montgomery, my heart hurt so badly I could barely breathe. But then Olivia called to let me know she was home from school and was wondering when I'd get there. I took a deep breath and assured her I'd be home soon. I didn't tell her she had just saved me. She and Natalie and Chris needed me, and for them I wouldn't fall apart.
Now I look at Mom and touch her hand. She's gone to me, safe from any lasting heartache. She opens her eyes and smiles. "Hey, darlin'," she says, like she has a million times before.
 P.S. Thank you to Jaami Clement Palacio, Sara Meneses, Carla Uribe, and Jennifer Tiffin for a lovely school visit!   http://www.colegiobolivar.edu.co/website/index.php/en/


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Colombia, Part 5: Paradise

I am awakened on my first day in Cali by the aroma of the world's best coffee. Laughter floats in from the veranda.
Through my window, I see the sun is reflecting off the Farallones - a high jagged mountain range nearby. I am going to love being in Cali again.
I walk onto the porch and can't believe my eyes. My parents live in a park! This assisted living home has a huge yard with a pool, tall mango trees and shorter palms, an umbrella table, a soccer field, and birds of all kinds. Small storks, red-winged black birds, mockingbirds. Two canaries come up to our table for bread crumbs. Dad, still a romantic after 56 years, has named them Jimmie and Marilyn.

Maria's view over the kitchen sink
The cook (Maria) and the nurse (Lysett) are friendly and fun, and are excellent at taking care of my parents. If Mom has to have Alzheimer's, I'm glad it's here, in their loving hands and surrounded by this beauty. It's a cool morning, and they serve my favorite foods: lulo - a delicious fruit drink; pandebono - cheese bread; and cafĂ© con leche - coffee with milk. Mom seems to remember me, and I am in paradise.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colombia, Part 4: Thank God for Cristo Rey

"Linea unica, por favor," - with its translation "Unique line, please,"- is the sign greeting Dan and me as we get off the plane. I'm soaking everything in and the wade through immigration goes quickly. We make our way out the door and into the overwhelming throng, but Dad's smiling face in the center of the sea of Colombians is a reassuring sight.
Cristo Rey Hovering Over Cali
The airport used to be far from town, but Cali has grown toward it and on the drive I search for something, anything, that looks familiar. The city is so changed it's another place entirely. I'm disheartened that 25 years has turned Cali into a stranger and I wonder if this is how Mom feels; lost in a world that was home. 
I'm relieved when Cristo Rey, a distant speck in the sky, comes into view. At least he hasn't gone anywhere, even if he is now surrounded by cell phone towers.
Mom and Dad's street in the Daytime
Mateo, our driver, turns off a main road, then makes a quick left and pulls up to a huge white wall. We've arrived at Mom and Dad's assisted living home. It's a lovely house, feels very safe, has a pool and a veranda, and there are many people around to help out.
I'm thrilled to see Mom, but she isn't sure of me. Dad tells her I am her daughter and she looks suspicious. She smiles her distant smile, not my dear mom's smile for me. She loves her nurse, the cook, and everyone who looks after her, and Dad seems well. He is in high spirits. I leave the room and come back and Mom asks, "And who is this?" It breaks my heart and pisses me off at the same time. I hate this Alzheimer's. 
I've noticed there are no bugs, and can't wait to tell my Natalie. No bugs! No mosquitoes, no cockroaches, a moth or two, and some salamanders, but that's it. The weather feels damp and cool, like it just rained, and it's unbelievably quiet. A dog barks occasionally, a car drives by, but otherwise this house, with it's windows open wide to a neighborhood full of people, is silent. This is truly a different world, this city of 3 million. It's still hard to believe the number now includes my parents. But tomorrow I will see Cali in the daylight, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Colombia, Part 3: Next Stop, Cali

 The Miami Airport's North Terminal is a wonderland. Even the air smells better, but that's because of the expensive perfume shops. The floor is inlaid with gorgeous pearlescent shells and sea life, and -- is everyone more good-looking? I love this, even if it feels like a weakness to enjoy such ritz.
Dan and I head for our gate, find chairs, and get comfortable. I doze, exhausted from being up since 3:30 am. I am aware, even as I rest, of more and more people surrounding me. Finally, I sit up, a kink in my neck, and Dan and I kill time talking about our kids, Mom and Dad, and how much flying takes out of a person. I swear it's because of the noise of the engines.
When it's time to board our flight, I call Chris and Natalie at home, then Olivia on her cell phone, to say goodbye. The flight will be three hours, seventeen minutes and the next time I am on land will be in Cali, Colombia, the city of my youth. We rise over Miami and it seems we barely miss the skyscrapers on the beach. We are immediately over water, and soon we are over land again: Cuba, they say. They serve us delicious snack dinners, then I listen to jazz and look out the window. I see the ocean end and Colombia begin, and am in awe of the clouds building up over the land. It's silly, I know, but I feel safer with that bouncy castle of white beneath me.
Soon we will see the Andes, and I push the tragic memory of Flight 965 carrying Ariel Felton and Catalina del Corral out of my mind. That flight, and those school friends, didn't make it over the mountains in 1995.
The sun is dipping beneath us and the sky, still blue, is rimmed with pale yellow. As I sit, my forehead pressed into the window, I try to separate what is new about this experience and what I grew up loving about flying. Speed; I always loved the overwhelming speed that makes flight possible. And those clouds. The cold, forced-fresh smell of the airplane's oxygen. The sense that I'm closer to God up here. The music in my eats that separates me, making me feel alone on this wing.
So what is new? Chris. The girls. The fact that I am thinking of them at every turn, and missing them. And Alzheimer's. That's new.
 The pilots lowers us into wispy clouds that will envelop us and darken the night around us. I remember this morning when tears stung my eyes as Chris glided down the escalator, waving goodbye. I'm on my own now, and I feel a momentary sense of rebellion. I didn't want to take this trip. After years of travel (my old passport opens like an accordion, stamped full) I am now a homebody. I didn't choose for my parents to move so far away. It all feels so dangerous, so frightening. I want my little life back. But I need to see my mom.
Then our airplane drops below the clouds and city lights shine in the distance. I can't deny the thrill I feel at seeing Cali, my beautiful Cali again. Like it or not, my world is about to get bigger once more.
Here is a link about Miami's North Terminal. Have you been there? http://www.miami-airport.com/app_north_terminal.asp

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Colombia, Part 2: Miami

The plan is for Dan and me to take a car from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to Miami's airport, and we are whisked away from the airport into a white sedan with black-tinted windows. I'm glad my big brother is with me. I've lived a small-town life for twenty years now, and everything about our trip has been anything but small-town: slick, busy, fast. 
Now Dan and I are flying through the traffic jam that is South Florida. Our driver, Alfredo, is from Ecuador, but to me he’s Rayco's twin. My brother-in-law had the same charming Spanish-softened English, that sharp wit, that sweet Tony Bennett smile. But Rayco didn't drive like a bat out of hell. At one point I mouth to Dan, “How fast are we going?”
“Seventy-eight,” he mouths back. And this is in bumper-to-bumper traffic, with the usual construction along the sunny, palm-lined highways. But Alfredo is an excellent chauffeur, and we don't die on this less-than-32-minute drive. In Miami’s airport, Dan and I have to walk the entire length of the terminal, A to H, to track down his luggage. Halfway there, we ask an airport employee if there's a quicker way to make the trek. "No," she says. "Anyway, it looks like you could use the exercise." Once we've found Dan's suitcase, we go to great lengths to find the people-mover back.
Checking in at an American Airlines ticket counter feels like heresy; we are Delta people. There's no line at the freestanding computers that look like R2-D2, but there's no human contact, either.
We get Starbucks mochas and share a scone, but end up having to wolf it down in front of the security gates. The woman checking our passports and boarding passes looks at mine, then at Dan's, and seems to make a decision. "Just go this way," she tells me. Once in line, Dan whispers that I've dodged a bullet. She has let me go with him and he is preapproved. The non-preapproved line is easily three times longer. I walk through the security gate holding my breath. In Pensacola this morning, a perfectly normal-looking woman in her seventies, polyester pantsuit and all, had been searched pretty thoroughly. Things have sure changed over the past thirteen years... But the uniformed Hispanic gives me a nod. Good to go.
We head to our concourse, riding a Disney-style tram through gray buildings, open hangars, and big sky. We are dropped into another part of the airport I swear is cleaner, brighter, better; we are now among the international jet-set.