Saturday, October 31, 2015

Journey to the Unknown

On board Avianca flight #98, I’m headed to Bogotá and then Barranquilla. The map on the screen on the seat back in front of me indicates we are over the desert of northern Chile – in spectacular bloom now after an unusual rainy winter.
I’m in a state of disbelief. Returning to Barranquilla after 48 years. When I was 23 or 24. I feel I’m returning to my past. Diaphanous clouds of memories drift in my head, of other flights, landscapes and faces of people I knew then: barrio friends, boyfriends.
It will all be changed now. Google maps and Streets reveal my old barrio, once a shanty town- invasion barrio, now looks more solid. Some streets are paved! Will they have running water now? Indoor toilets? Will I locate my friends Petra, Fidelia, Dominga’s daughter or my godson Jose?
And I have changed, now a white-haired grandmother. Will they recognize me? This is a journey to many unknowns. The people and places that populate my nostalgia no longer exist as I remember them. Will I be disappointed? My shadowy memories must confront reality or make peace with it. I’m reluctant to give up those visual scenes in my head from five decades ago. The airplane magazine reveals a modern Colombia of malls and pricey condos, like my home, Santiago. The scenes sadden me, but the past and the present must meet – a gap I must bridge.
I am not the same person now, not just physically. In my memories I’m 22, 23, naïve but idealistic. Young, single, and ruled by raging hormones in that sultry, suffocating, relentless climate. I went there to give of myself. What can I give now?
We land in grey, cloudy Bogotá. I feel tears welling up. I’m on Colombian ground once more. I wend my way through the enormous airport to find my connection to Barranquilla. The flight is just over an hour. The landscape I view from my window tells me we’re getting close: the wide, meandering Magdalena River, broad expanses of flat marshy countryside.
A mass of hot air envelops me as I emerge from the Barranquilla airport, the searing, humid climate I remember so vividly. I look around for Bob who said he’d try to meet me there. Soon I’m the only passenger left so I board a small yellow taxi which careens, honking, through heavy traffic on unfamiliar streets. “What barrio is this?” I ask the driver, but the name means nothing. I feel a complete stranger visiting the city for the first time, a city I once knew so well. Only the iconic El Prado Hotel, sixty-five years old, as elegant as I recall, is familiar. In the lobby, some gringos look at me and ask, “Peace Corps?” With relief, I learn they are staff, and they offer to take me to the Peace Corps office to meet others who gathered for the event commemorating twenty-five years of Peace Corps in Colombia. Volunteers returned to Colombia just five years ago after a long absence for security reasons. 
I no longer feel lost and alone.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Required Reading

I recently read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. Having lived outside of the United States for over four decades, my knowledge of U.S. history had become embarrassingly rusty. I’ve wanted for some time to remedy that situation.
            The book read like a novel, grabbing my interest from the first page. I was fascinated. John Adams became for me a real person, lovable with his strengths, weaknesses and foibles. His insistence on living a simple life and his love of rural America held special appeal for me. His stubborn belief in his opinions and grasp of critical political situations proved in the long run the wisdom of many important decisions. As third president of the United States, knowing the horrors of war, for years he held out for peace, finally achieving it, with belligerent French and English governments amidst the calls of war by his detractors.
            When many colonists were in doubt, he had clear the need for independence, writing pamphlets and newspaper articles to convince others. It’s amazing to think of the task that our forefathers faced: to create a unified government where none had ever existed before. What should the government of those newly-created United States look like? What should the Constitution look like? Adams insisted on a three-branch government, containing a system of checks and balances. He believed in strong executive powers, while his opponents fought for more powers in the individual States. This later group called themselves “Republicans” as opposed to the “Federalists.” Sound familiar?

The parallels with today’s U.S. politics almost leaped off the page. The same forces and belief systems vie for power today. Is history repeating itself? Have we learned nothing in over two hundred years? We Americans need the perspective of the past in order to understand the present.  If I were in position of power, I would make David McCulllough’s John Adams required reading in every civics class across the country.