“Travel Tales by AFAR” Podcast S3, Ep1: Identity


This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

It’s a hot summer day. It’s humid, it’s over 90 degrees. And I’m standing in a plaza in Cartagena, Colombia. You know when it’s so hot and humid you’re like, “I didn’t know my knees could get sweaty?” Just me? Anyways . . .

Cartagena is a coastal city on the Caribbean Sea that was founded in 1533. And, of course, many different Indigenous people lived here long before that. Some historians believe humans have been here for as long as 6,000 years. So, it’s a city with some history. Like capital H history.

To me, it feels like a museum come to life. And as a fan of the Night at the Museum trilogy—that’s right, there are three of those movies, shout-out Night-at-the-Museum-fam!—I love cities that feel like museums.

Cartagena is very Spanish colonial in its architecture. It’s a bigger city, with almost 1 million in its metropolitan area. A giant wall envelops the whole downtown, the “old city.” There are fortresses everywhere. It’s got these colonial homes with big doors and beautiful courtyards. There are colorful flowers hanging on every balcony. And some of these places—houses, museums, offices—oh, they’ve got some great doors. Cartagena has great door game. Like they are really showing off the doors.

These are giant wooden doors with artistic heavy metal clasps. Some of the clasps are shaped like iguanas. Some of the doors are so big so that horses could walk into the homes. I’m going to be looking for horse-size doors for my next apartment. Streets are beautiful here. There are balconies on buildings and in narrow streets—it feels like you could almost jump from one balcony to another. If you’ve been to New Orleans and thrown a beer to your neighbor on the balcony across the street—yeah, it’s just like that.

The city is so historic and beautiful that UNESCO designated Cartagena as a World Heritage site. It’s like UNESCO walked the blocks I’m walking and was like, “Yup, we gotta preserve this.”

Speaking of tourism: This isn’t some quiet town where people speak in whispers to not wake the very, very old ghosts.

People also come here to party. It’s a coastal town, so Cartagena makes for a perfect vacation spot and people all over the world come here. While I’m here, I heard all sorts of languages, not just the singsong of Colombian Spanish I’m used to. (“Ayyy que rico verte!”)

As I walk around the city, I make my way to a plaza that feels familiar. It’s the Plaza San Pedro Claver or St. Peter Claver for those who didn’t take Spanish class. He’s the patron saint of human rights. I learn this fact from a plaque near his sculpture in the plaza.

It’s really easy to learn about the city’s history. Cartagena makes it convenient, there are plaques in every square that tell you all about the city’s past and its culture. There are descriptions of buildings. They answer questions like, Who lived here? What did they do for work? Their zodiac signs? Their age of their first kiss? OK, not all those questions, but they give you a lot of history and context that allows you to build a larger story of what this city means.

A photo of a vendor walking by a bright orange wall with a large wooden door in Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena, Colombia, has great door game.

OK, so there’s me: a Colombian American dude standing in that plaza wondering how this city—how this country—fits into my story.

This isn’t my first time in this plaza. I’ve been to this exact plaza before. Like, a bunch of times.

I’ve come to this plaza as a sweaty and smelly eight year old. I remember it was really hot and there was no shade and I was begging my parents for ice cream.

I’ve come to this plaza as a bored and apathetic 18 year old. I remember rolling my eyes at my parents and wanting to go back to my iPod Nano until we got ice cream.

And now, here I am again at 31, visiting for the first time without my parents. Which means unlimited ice cream.

And as I look around, the question I keep asking myself is, “Am I allowed to be here all by myself, just speaking Spanish and exploring the city?”

Like yes, I’m allowed. But am I allowed allowed?

Let me give you some context. I’ve been coming to Colombia my whole life but always with my mom and dad. My parents were born in Bogota—it’s a 45-minute flight from Cartagena—and immigrated to the USA in the mid-80s so they could go to grad school.

As my dad was working on his PhD, my parents had my brother and I and we did a typical kids-of-immigrants schedule. Summers were in Colombia. We would spend time at my uncle’s and aunt’s houses and we would sometimes go to my Tio Coque’s house in Cartagena. I would get poked fun at for my Americanized Spanish (“Yo soy Colombiano, I swear”) and get called gringo. We would walk around Bogota and walk around Cartagena, and we would eat in plazas, and the adults would sit at the table and drink and laugh, and I would try to climb the big bronze Botero sculpture. It’s one of the only sculptures of a not-religious person so it felt less sacrilegious to climb.

Then, I would return to the U.S. for the fall, winter, spring. We lived in Puerto Rico for a little bit, then outside Chicago for most of my childhood. Spanish was spoken at home and English everywhere else. We would Skype our extended family and I would hear stories of my family and see pictures of them, but I didn’t know them too well. Sometimes it was almost like my Colombian cousins were people I knew more through photos than real life.

But mostly, I tried to live a stereotypical American life. Whatever that means. I think that’s the thing, I didn’t know what it meant. So I was like, “What’s American? Let me do that!” So I watched football and went to Superbowl parties and ate hot dogs and was like, “Oh I’m totally crushing this American thing.”

Eventually, I got summer jobs back in the States or fought back against my parents enough so I stopped going back to Colombia every summer. I was like “Why would I go to Colombia when I could stay here and eat hot dogs and wear jean shorts and be a normal American youth?”

My connection to Colombia sometimes felt like childhood nostalgia. Like, “Remember when we all had Beanie Babies?”

“Remember when I was really connected to Colombia?”

With this trip to Colombia, the one I’m on, in this plaza, I was going to Bogota as well. Bogota is where my cousin Camilo is, and Camilo rocks, and I love him, and I also wanted to ask him a few questions about my . . . Colombian-ness.

Esteban: You’ve known me since I was a baby. Are there times that maybe you’ve been like, “Wow, Esteban’s, he’s doing this. He’s in it?”

Camilo: I think so. Because, of course, when you were little, you were, for me, the American cousin, and you didn’t speak as much Spanish—just a few words. You were very American for me. Then over the years, as you were coming back a little bit older—as a teenager then a 20-year-old—you look more Colombian. That’s beautiful. You make an effort to speak like a Colombian and at a family party, you will try to dance like a Colombian and try to drink like a Colombian even if you can’t handle it. [Laughs] That’s really nice, over the years, how my perspective has changed.

When we were little, I saw you with a little bit of envy because you lived in this awesome country, you know, the American dream, and you had access to all these toys, wonderful toys, Toys R Us. You had a Toys R Us probably like a hundred yards away. Colombia opened commercially to globalization in the ’90s. So I remember when we could only buy Colombian things in Colombia, and then after many years, you could import things. When I visited, America was like the dreamland.

Then a little later in my life, when I was an adolescent and I started going to parties and enjoying more being a Colombian and getting into my culture—growing up into my Colombian paws—I think I felt for you because I thought you were missing out. Then when you were coming back, you were trying to be more Colombian, but you actually weren’t. It took an effort. It wasn’t so natural, even though you’re Colombian, have the same family, the same genes, and you do speak Spanish. I have a lot of foreign cousins who don’t, and they get frustrated. You do it very well.

So, yeah, that’s how it’s changed my perspective of you guys, your brother and you. Also, how I saw you evolving into a more Colombian American.

That’s my cousin Camilo. He’s always been one of my heroes. Here’s something that I hate to admit, but I have to because I’ve got this mic in front of me and I must speak all my secrets into it.

I’ve known Camilo my whole life and this is the first time we’ve talked about this—about connection to culture, to family, to ourselves. I guess it’s better late than never. Shout out to podcasts forcing you to have a good conversation.

For a few years, Camilo thought the U.S. was a dreamland. For me, it didn’t always feel that way.

Two women in traditional costumes walk down a street in Cartagena, Colombia.

The vibrant streets of Cartagena, Colombia.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

In seventh grade I gave a presentation on Colombia to my class.

OK, let me get in character. It’s 2007. I like emo rock. I have a crush on a girl named Ali and we will “date” for six months and never kiss and barely hold hands. It’s pretty serious.

I give the presentation and I finish it and a kid raises his hand. “So, is your family part of a cartel?”

The class laughs and the teacher says nothing.

I learn a pretty big lesson that day: Don’t talk about Colombia to mean middle schoolers.

I know you, dear listener, do not need this clarification but let me give you one statistic that needs to be shared. The conflict in Colombia has been dark and long. Yet in a country of almost 51 million people, the number of people actually fighting against the cartels, including the entire country’s own national army, never surpassed 200,000. Fifty-one million people; never more than 200,000 total were actively involved. Good.

I asked Camilo about this thing I think about a lot, that in the USA I’m constantly fighting the media narrative of what it means to be Colombian. That part of my reaction to being Colombian in the USA in the ’90s and 2000s is to not really tell anyone where I’m from because people often have the same jokes, the same questions, the same looks.

Did he, a Colombian living in Colombia, feel the same way?

Camilo: I think we have in common a little bit the thing that we got to know Colombia a little bit later in life, not when we were kids. Even though I’d lived here through that and I did have to watch the news every night. Maybe you get numb about it a little bit but then when you grow up, and you start reading the history and looking at it from different angles. You read a book or see a documentary on the reality of Colombia, I think you have to make an effort to do that.

It doesn’t come on its own, that you get a better knowledge of your country. You have to make an effort to do it, and I think that we have that in common. I like that very much about you, that you try to be Colombian, you make an effort to be Colombian, and you’ve come to Colombia many times, and you know many parts of Colombia. You’ve traveled around and taken buses to towns many hours away from Bogota. Yes, that’s a choice. That’s an awesome choice because it makes you really Colombian. Also, the more you know, as you know, the more you love. I think that’s awesome.

My grandmother died in 2003. I was nine years old.

Esteban: I started reflecting on my relationship with our grandmother, so I’m curious, how would you describe Ita? Did you call her Ita?

Camilo: No, I called her abuelita.

Esteban: Wow.

Camilo: Yes. Just the normal word for grandma. It’s funny because we didn’t have a loving nickname for her. Just abuela, abuelita.

When we got the news, my family and I bought a plane ticket and flew the almost eight-hour flight from Chicago to Colombia.

I remember sitting in a small church in Bogota, the capital city. It’s this stone church that has been there forever. You can see each individual stone that makes up the walls and these are big stones. Like, the smallest ones are the size of my head.

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It’s just a few blocks from my Uncle Coque’s house. It’s also a few blocks from the daycare my Tia Milli and cousin Lina run.

It’s the type of church where the priest is like “Hey kid, your ankle was hurting, yeah? How’s it feel?” “And hey Mr. Haircut, looking good!” “How’s your aunt? I know she was sick. I’m praying for her.”

The priest has those friendly exchanges with just about everyone. Not me, of course. I’m the gringo cousin.

We’re at this church for my grandmother’s funeral. This was the church that she went to. Her name is Isabel Cubides Camacho.

After the service, my cousins and family all sit in a living room and drink whiskey and share stories of my grandmother. And I . . . listen.

I tried to think, but I really had no stories about her. I wasn’t quite sure how I fit into her life.

Esteban: Was there anything she did that you thought, “Oh, that’s where I get that from”? Or that’s where your dad gets that from? Did she do anything that you were like, “Oh, that’s a Cubides trait?”

Camilo: Probably, yes. Let me think about it. I think her humor was a little bit black. That’s a trait, I think, of the family. Also, she was a socialite. That’s also, I think, a little bit of a trait we have. Nowadays, she would have been great for PR. She had a lot of friends, and she loved hanging out with friends and calling friends, and she knew everything, all the newest gossip. I think those social skills, we inherited that a little bit.

So, yes I remember sitting at my grandmother’s funeral thinking “I don’t really know what to say about her. I don’t really know her too well.”

Then I thought about my mom, who was so close to her mother. They lived together until my mom got married, only to move 3,000 miles away from her in her 30s. Three thousand miles in those days was a lot. We’re talking pre-Facetime 3,000 miles.

There are distances we choose and those we can’t. My mom decided to live in the USA—a distance from Colombia that we can’t control too much.

However, she didn’t want the locational distance to mean emotional distance. We did the novena and ate ajiaco and listened to Carlos Vives because we were already dealing with one distance and my mom couldn’t bear another.

Two young people sitting on a seaside wall in Cartagena, Colombia, with a Colombian flag blowing in the background.

“Turns out we struggle with belonging, and the process of belonging is difficult and forward and backwards, but it can also be as simple as recontextualizing the connections we have.”

I think there’s a lot of things that ground us, that pull our feet back to earth.

It can be the recognition of my parents’ sacrifices. Oh, I’m sad I don’t fit in? My mom was far away from her mom for the last 15 years of her life.

The humility to understand that someone’s view of the country you’re from is informed by what they know; often, by the things they don’t know.

Or, that if we look even a little bit, our ancestors show up every day in who we are.

Esteban: I was just telling Misha, my girlfriend, something I love about you is, you haven’t met a stranger. Camilo walks in and is like, “How are you?” All these different things. You go in and you’re like, “How are you really?” with every single person. Is that kind of her? Like, a quick social ability?

Camilo: I think she was really kind. She worked many years for a foundation, doing therapy, physical therapy to little kids who are orphans from the police. She had this social vibe.

My grandmother lives on in my mom’s creativity and charisma. In Uncle Coque’s kindness and Uncle Juan Manuel’s music and Uncle Alvaro’s mischievous humor.

Camilo: When she was young, she went to live in Brussels to learn piano and whatnot. At that time—it was 1920s or ’30s—that was really weird for Colombia.

My grandmother lives on in Camilo. Someone who has to accept himself, publicly state who he is in a Catholic and conservative country. Someone whose decision, in certain parts of Colombia, may be seen as “really weird for Colombia.”

When he was 27, Camilo came out as gay. I asked him how he accepted a part of himself that society told him to reject.

Camilo: I came out of the closet when I was 27. Up until that moment when I was 27, I lived in a bubble. I actually went to law school, and I was this terribly boring lawyer with tie and suit all the time. My hair was short and yes, I saw Colombia from a privileged position. Many things that were maybe screamed by a lot of communities in Colombia about inequality, about the hardships in Colombia, I was a little bit deaf to them, a little bit numb.

The little thread that connects you to that society that you’ve always lived in, when they start breaking, you don’t feel as connected. You got to start looking for connections, of course, and digging in your nature, in my case, or your culture or your parents’ culture, in your case. Of course, it gives you hope to belong again to a new group of people that can hug you and give you strength. That’s really nice. That’s really powerful.

Esteban: Do you feel like you belong now in Colombian culture?

Camilo: I think I belong, yes, much more now than before. Totally. I was just part of a small group of people who thought everything in Colombia was OK. “How is it that so many people leave Colombia to go to America? We’re doing OK here,” is what I would think when I was little. I lived very comfortably here. I didn’t challenge the status quo. Yes, ripping those threads that connected me to the bubble and being able to search for Colombian-ness in all of its diversity. Colombia is absolutely diverse. It’s incredible.

We’re all on the journey to better accept who we are and where we come from. And sometimes a literal journey helps. Like a walk, car, or plane journey.

Turns out we struggle with belonging, and the process of belonging is difficult and forward and backwards, but it can also be as simple as recontextualizing the connections we have.

When I look back on moments where I’ve felt distance, where I’ve felt isolated, where I’ve felt alone, I realize that in almost every situation I was connected all along. Connected to people going through similar things, connected to ancestors who walk alongside me and whose fingerprints are on everything that I do, connected by accidentally visiting San Pedro de Claver’s plaza, a place I’d been to many times before.

We’re all on the journey to better accept who we are and where we come from.

And sometimes a literal journey helps. Like a walk, car, or plane journey.

This trip to Colombia actually happened because I went to a Colombian friend’s wedding. Not a family friend. A real Colombian friend I made as an adult. This is a big deal, people! My friends Isaac and Cami got married and I hosted the wedding in Spanish and English and I only made, like, a few Spanish mistakes. Congratulations to the newlyweds!

This trip was really big for me. I visited my extended family—that’s people like Camilo who you’ve been hearing from and my uncles and aunts I’ve mentioned. It’s one of the first visits I’ve made without my mom and dad.

This was my first meaningful trip I’ve made to Colombia with no family at all. Just my girlfriend and I exploring the city and finding out what this city means to us.

I know: It’s a little silly and I feel like a literal little kid. I’m 31 and it’s the first time going to the country I’m from without my parents. I’m finally exploring who I am and where I come from with no parent chaperone.

And no parents means it’s time to party. And you know, learn about Colombian history and who I am.

I keep coming back to this one story: San Pedro Claver. You know, the guy we met at the very beginning? The patron saint of human rights?

So San Pedro Claver passed away in 1654 in Cartagena and the city officials who previously hated him—they thought he was a nuisance because of advocacy for slaves—those same people ordered a public funeral with full pomp and ceremony. People came and celebrated his life, even those people who for so long rejected him.

This reminds me that nothing is set in stone, that the things we reject—people, ideas, culture—we might someday celebrate and embrace.

People can change, huh?

>>Next: The Māori Village Where New Zealand Tourism Began


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