For almost three months, we were a self-sufficient four-person unit: Karpinskis vs. Colombia. We ate, slept, studied, shopped, cooked, cleaned, watched Modern Family, did everything as a foursome. It was both awesome — we could complete each other’s thoughts! — and occasionally painful — we could complete each other’s thoughts! Then late March and Eric’s parents arrived, and the entire dynamic changed. From that date until we arrive home, we have guests or are traveling with others 74% of the time. That’s 43% of our days in Colombia. (Jack did the math — home-schooling in action.)
The most important thing to know is that I love love love every single one of our visitors. They are either beloved family, deep heart-friends or incredibly interesting people with whom time is a gift. I would never pass on an opportunity to see these luminous people.
The second thing to know is that I will throw a tantrum if I have to go to the Museo del Oro one more time. Because I’ve been there So. Many. Times. Santa Marta isn’t Manhattan, with an endless supply of interesting and diverting activities with which to dazzle guests. Basically, our options here are as follows: sit on beach, visit market, visit one sad little museum, eat ceviche, buy fresh fish, eat fresh fish and walk around aimlessly. Also, we can take a bus to a nearby town and repeat any of the above. Which I’ve done, often enough to make me sigh teenager-like in boredom at the mere thought of doing it again.
Luckily, some of our guests bring their own interesting (occasionally odd) tourist priorities that broaden my knowledge of our borrowed hometown. One friend, for example, wanted to spend a couple hours in various Colombian supermarkets and drug stores looking at how bath products, body wash and lotions were merchandised, priced and promoted. New to a consumer product company’s personal care line, she wanted to do some reconnaissance, and I learned all about high- vs. low-scent cultures and multi-national corporate structure. My father spent hours with binoculars on the balcony, adding form and structure to my vague awareness that “lots of ships come and go out there.” Another family was happy spending a few hours in the tackiest of tchotchke shops, the kind I usually rush past in an elitist horror: a “handicraft mall” with booths ranged in rows, all selling the same mix of conch shells inscribed with “Colombia” in neon letters, fish-shaped Santa Marta bottle openers, rasta jewelry (note there is no rasta culture here) and (a personal favorite) carved wooden guns where the barrel was shaped and painted like a penis. The shops were a surprisingly diverting past-time, although one wonders who looks at a penis gun and says, “A-ha! I have found the perfect momento of my time in the oldest city in South America!”
All of this is great fun, of course, but there is an issue of time. You might think that a six-month sabbatical with few commitments provides ample time to do everything you want to do. Even time to get bored, perhaps. This is not true. First, there is a three-to-six hour hole in each day here — depending on how heat-tolerant you are — where it’s difficult to do much of anything. Even think. Or hold a Kindle, which starts to get slippery as your hands sweat, parked under a ceiling fan with an icy drink at your elbow. Second, I have kids, who ipso facto vacuum up vast swaths of time by their mere existence. Third, my list of things I want to do with this precious six months is absurdly long.
And it is very hard to make progress on this lengthy list of goals when there are other people around. My days are all in English which is lovely and familiar, but I can feel Spanish verbs dripping out of my cerebral cortex. My best writing time is in the morning, but that’s also when my guests eat breakfast, and the right time to explore the city before the brain-poaching heat of the afternoon begins. And, gosh, I love these visitors so much that I’d rather talk to them than proofread or research or conjugate.
There is also the issue of my introversion, which is incompatible with fourteen waking hours per day with any living, breathing entity in my general airspace. If I were Queen of the World, I would have house guests for four hours at a time, three days per week. Enough to fill my need for social interaction with other humans, but not so much that I find myself hiding in the bathroom with my laptop.* This, however, is not how house guests work.
Of course guests have their advantages as well. Most mercenarily of course are the hostess gifts, including, in one situation, four pounds of cheese. Do not underestimate the power of Midnight Moon goat-milk cheese to compensate for the seventeen hours apparently required to get sunscreen on four children. Also, they make great Amazon sherpas, bringing us wetsuits and salsa and headlamps and down vests, the gear not available in the tiendas of Santa Marta. Traveling in a herd also allows things like chartering a direct minivan for the whole group instead of the interminable wait for a public bus, even if we appear a pink-hued circus for the entertainment of locals.
More importantly, though, their questions and observations rekindle my interest in Colombia. Their curiosity pushes me to re-discover and ask questions: where do all the cars arriving on car carriers end up? Why are all the avocado vendors Afro-Carribbean but the other street vendors are Latin? Can you tell the pollo from the carne empanadas by shape? What theme ties together the gorgeous yet extremely eclectic art in our apartment? Their fresh eyes help me see this place new again, to notice things that had faded into the ambient noise of everyday life. And I am more grateful for that than for the Reese’s peanut butter Easter eggs, although they are a close second…
* This has not actually happened. Not often, at least. Also, in the category of First-World-Problems-Even-If-I’m-Kinda-in-the-Second-World, I’ll add that a housekeeper comes with our apartment for three days a week. I love love love that I clean no toilets, mop no floors and wash very little laundry, but Nini is another human sharing my oxygen and to whom I need to pay some level of attention. And yes, I fully recognize how bratty this sounds, but I would sometimes prefer to do my own laundry in return for actual solitude. Also, I will admit that, in hindsight, I might have considered the wisdom of choosing six months crammed in an apartment 24/7 with three other people who really like to talk about every little tiny thought that enters their heads at all hours of day and night, and have no other social outlet for that need. But that ship, as they say, has sailed.