On Homesickness and Holsteins

Yesterday, someone asked if I was homesick and I was surprised to realize that I’m not.  Not yet, anyway, or not in the way I have been on past trips, yearning for my normal, or at the very least, the familiar.  Like when I spent a summer in Russia and day 5 found me in the just-opened McDonalds because it felt the tiniest bit like “home,” despite having avoided Big Macs for the prior five years.  Or in Norway, on our year of wandering, when I walked out of a movie theater and burst into tears when I discovered that I was still in Norway and not about to meet my friends for a beer and then crawl into my futon in my cozy brick apartment in Boston.

I miss some things, of course.  Like cheese with flavor. And my knives, the ones that cut through things on the first try.  My stove, which is level, so the eggs when you fry them stay spread out in the pan instead of listing to one side, making them difficult to flip.  It’d be nice to have my jeans which I didn’t pack because they are ridiculously impractical for travel (have you ever hung jeans to dry?) and irrelevant once we’re in the tropics. But here, I’d look a little more Colombiana — not to mention hotter than in my crumple-friendly skirts — in this city of beautiful people.  Mostly, I miss not haven’t to gird up my mental loins just to leave my apartment because, out there, someone is going to talk to me about something and I’m going to have to work really hard to muddle through.

And images of the strangest places flash through my mind.  Apropos of nothing, I get a vivid picture of the overpass from terminal 2 of the San Diego Airport — the moment where you can see downtown’s skyline and the boats south of Harbor Island for the first time.  Or the arch on the Balboa Park side of the Laurel Street bridge.  The park near my parents’ house in the winter, close-to-freezing-air in my nose.  The smell of salt and the road to the boat drop-off at La Jolla Shores.  But not the stuff I expected, not places of any particular meaning or significance.

Part of my lack of homesickness is that I’ve brought most of my “home” with me in the form of my three fellow travelers.  So far, we have operated in our usual big-travel mode — when we need each other to get through the day, and don’t really have any choice but to be together — where the world shrinks down to a lovely bubble surrounding the four of us.  Of course, that sappily romantic image is starting to fray the teeniest bit after three weeks, particularly for one specific child who has to share a bedroom, two computers and a Spanish teacher with her younger brother who is so annoying [insert eye roll and huffing breath].  But it’s minor league teen-dom so far, for which I am incredibly grateful. [On a semi-related note, our hostess this weekend — a lovely 40-year ex-pat in Medellin who came here from Minnesota with the Peace Corps in 1964, fell in love and never left — asked Retta what she will do when she finds a Colombian boyfriend.  It was an enlightening conversation.]

And I can’t afford to get tired of my family because even Jack is a reassuring crutch when the cashier asks for ID (which I don’t have) before processing my purchase, or the metro card doesn’t work and I have to talk to the policia, or a random woman stops me in the grocery store and fires questions at me at increasing speed and wordiness until I’m practically in tears because she obviously needs something from me and I haven’t the vaguest clue what it is, except that she keeps referring to our apartment complex and calling herself a vigilante which is a word I don’t know yet makes me nervous. [In hindsight, I’m pretty sure she works at our apartment complex and wanted to get our landlord’s phone number because she knows someone looking for an apartment.  But I’d give my interpretation 50/50 odds of being accurate.]

But mostly, it’s hard to be homesick when I can check Facebook every day and hear about one friend’s new baby, and that another’s daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies, and see that the sunset was beautiful in Coronado.  The last time I traveled, email was new — you know, right after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth — and you had to pay per hour at an internet cafe and listen to interminable screeeeeech-screechy-screech dial-up tones only to be cut off halfway through responding to a friend who got engaged and thought that was worthy of an actual email.  But here, we Skype with my parents once a week and with one friend, I exchange daily emails, a luxury I didn’t have even when I lived down the street from her.  Which makes Colombia seem much, much closer to home than I ever could have imagined.


WHAT ERIC MISSES: The Mission Valley YMCA, running routes that go neither straight uphill nor require dodging traffic every 50 meters, dancing while moving my shoulders (this is a hips-only culture), conversations that delve deeper than, “Que hora es?” and “Donde es el bano?”, my Grant family and my Burner peeps.

AND WHAT HE THINKS IS BETTER HERE: Long, leisurely lunches with the people I love most; always learning something new; time for adventures AND relaxation; anticipation of tall mountains and coral reefs; ripe, delicious mangoes EVERY DAY.

WHAT RETTA MISSES: Lunch table conversations about sex, drugs and politics; no 24/7 time with Jack [ed.note: See?]; not sharing or negotiating for electronics; my bed, specifically my pillow; homeyness.

AND WHAT SHE THINKS IS BETTER HERE: The view from our apartment; the menu del dias and pastries; time for extracurricular activities [ed.note: I believe she is referring to typing, coding, photography, etc., not a Colombian boyfriend]; reading seven books in 3 weeks; being in a foreign country but having access to almost the same things.

WHAT JACK MISSES: In-N-Out burger; soccer fields made of grass, not concrete; talking to my friends [ed.note: they may respond more enthusiastically to monologues]; Panda Express; school [ed.note: Ms. Wollitz should be proud!].

AND WHAT HE THINKS IS BETTER HERE:  Bunuelos [fried, donut-like balls]; the challenge of not speaking your friends’ language [ed.note: he is now in charge of all conversations since he likes the challenge…]; the relaxation and time to do what I want; most of the pastries.

IMG_7854 (1024x683)We spent last weekend in luxury at a dairy farm.  Our host, Andres, grew up in Colombia and then was in Eric’s fraternity at Brown, an experience which quite possibly defines “culture shock.”  His grandfather started the farm 80-odd years ago, when it covered half of a valley east of Medellin, and then divided it among his eight children, one of whom later was kidnapped for ransom and held for four months in the jungle within sight of his home.  He insisted that his captors let him shave every day, and came home transformed from the family curmudgeon to a new man.  The nonchalant delivery of stories like these — avoiding police checkpoints in Bogata after a bombing because an Envigado ID meant going straight to jail, gunshots outside the bedroom which ended up amusing because the security guard was shooting a rogue armadillo — continues to surprise me.  We are the first classmates of Andres to visit him in Colombia.

Andreas’ mother (as I mentioned above) is an American ex-pat who took only 30 years to learn to love blood sausage.  She and her incredibly charming husband raised three children in Medellin and sent them all to Brown, only to have them leave Colombia for years until it was reasonable to come home.  It took me almost a solid hour of conversation to regain my normal cadence in English; it was the first all-English dialogue I’ve had in three weeks, since I resolutely speak Spanglish with my family.

IMG_7845 (1024x683)We ate well, stopping at all of Andres’ favorite places on the drive: for the ingredients for ajiaco [a traditional Bogota soup], for smoked trout sandwiches (easily a Yelp-five-star restaurant, except in someone’s beautiful country home), for chicharrones [thick-cut, deep-fried bacon, if you can believe anything so delicious exists] and empanadas, and for obleas, an addictive traditional snack/dessert made of 6-inch-diameter communion wafers with arequipes [caramel sauce, but better] between them.  The dessert place, beside their $1 wafer-snacks, sells $0.50 popsicles; mine, arequipe-flavored, easily topped those artisanal popsicles we travel across town for in San Diego.  And then appetizers and wine and lasagne and…  oh, it really was such a lovely time.

We repaid their hospitality with the kids’ best magic tricks (some of which worked), thousands of questions about Holsteins and milking strategies and artificial insemination, teaching eight-month-old Emilio how to shake Sprite bottles (Jack, obv.) and two ways to prepare the kale that Nicolas planted in the garden (Retta taught him kale chips and I riffed on the feta/lemon salad).  I’d say we’re nowhere near even.

IMG_7673 (1024x765) Learning about milking and mastitis and the function of the one, sad Angus bull who, due to the wonders of plastic surgery, can’t do the one thing he wants to, but shows the farmers which cows are ready for artificial insemination.

IMG_7665 (1024x765)Playing with the ubiquitous big, scary guard dogs. IMG_7903 (1024x683)Victoria, Nicolas’ supposed-to-be-pygmy pig who spends her days napping and Hoovering up fallen guavas and oranges.

IMG_7907 (1024x683)One of our lovely hosts and charter member of the Jack Fan Club, Andres’ eight-month-old son

IMG_7969 (1024x683)Andres, machete-wielder extraordinaire, on the rock where he proposed to his wife six years ago

IMG_7973 (1024x683)The view from (close to) the top

IMG_8023 (1024x683)Yes, we hike.

IMG_8020 (683x1024) You know that scene in Romancing the Stone where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner — in order to escape from bad guys — slide out-of-control down a leafy tunnel in the jungle, landing in a river? After hacking our way straight up a hill, we descended the same “fun” way, albeit without the river landing. I believe we could all accurately estimate the precise amount of leaves and twigs in Kathleen Turner’s underwear after that scene.

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