There’s a 1969 movie called “If it’s Tuesday, This must be Belgium.” It features an ensemble of B List actors who play Americans touring nine European countries in 18 days.
Which is kind of how I felt in Colombia. There were seven flights in nine days, three major cities, and one major jungle misadventure involving a horseback ride over boulders and a Bataan Death March-type hike which led to a case of possible sun stroke.
I kept having these moments where I didn’t know where I was. Was I in Italy? Spain? El Salvador? Oh, that’s right—I’m in Medellin—if this is Tuesday I must be in Medellin. I kept consulting my damp, crinkled print-out of the tour to re-orient myself.
After seeing Israel and Portugal and Cuba on group tours with packed, dawn-to-midnight itineraries, I swore I would never travel that way again. And those are small countries. Colombia is twice as big as Texas and has twice as many people. Colombia is five times bigger than the UK!
The thing is to know what you’re getting into and to set your expectations accordingly. I knew I would probably not get enough sleep and have to push myself. I knew I could do this for nine days. I gave myself permission to say “no” to some things that were on the itinerary and not feel guilty or like I had wasted my money by not doing something I’d already paid for.
And you know what? It was fine. It was a great way to get an introduction to the country.
Best of all, it was hot and humid. I didn’t need to use Chapstick or hand lotion once. The hacking cough I’d had for months went away. My hair went crazy curly. I got sun burned. I know that’s bad, but I don’t care!
And now, back to reality. My brother picked me up at the airport. He had my down puffer coat and gloves ready for me in the passenger seat. I picked up my car at his house; it was splattered with dirty slush from the snow plows. I stopped to pick up milk for my morning coffee at Super America and laughed at that name. A bundle of mail was crammed into the mailbox, mostly junk. The house was cold and dark; I felt grateful for central heating as I heard the whoosh of the furnace responding instantly to me cranking up the thermostat. I left the milk on the front porch rather than turn on the empty fridge just yet.
I often come back from trips with goals for things to do/do differently. After being in a jungle, my return goal is to more than double my plant population—from 17 to 40. None of my plants had died, which I took as a good sign that I could achieve my goal.
It was midnight. I had been in transit since catching my ride to the airport in Cartagena at 10:30 that morning. I leaned against my bedroom doorway and gazed lovingly at my bed. My bed! Oh, how I had missed it. Every bed in Colombia had been like sleeping on a wooden plank. In Medillin, the beds were so creaky I had to wear ear plugs so I wouldn’t wake up every time I rolled over. In the jungle, the mattress was narrow and only inches off the floor. I kept waking up to pull my arm back from the edge of the mattress. I had seen giant cockroaches, spiders, and grasshoppers; and geckos, in the bath when I turned the light on. I assumed they were lurking in the dark under my bed, just waiting to run up my hand.
I thought about unpack but I couldn’t face the smelly, dusty clothes I’d been wearing for nine days.
I did pull out a few special gifts I had bought for my son, the cook. For instance, this snack that was sold on the street—Big-Bottomed Ants.
I’ll write a lot more about Colombia, but for now, here’s one thing they want you to know: