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.

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. 

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!