Until a couple weeks ago, Mom hadn't been back to Colombia since 1988, when she dropped me off at my Abuelita's house to go work on her dissertation for a few weeks -- as if Cali were just around the corner. We had flown down together from California. I was 7. She knew as surely as she knew anything that I would be alright.
I went swimming daily, ate full midday meals prepared by my loving Abuela, and tolerated my doting tia’s need to spit-comb my bangs. My memories from that time are of hot, white skies that opened up in the afternoon to water the patio plants. They're speckled with the calls of the peanut vendor in the plaza, who worked next to the cholado guy, caddy-corner from the chontaduro lady. When my mom came back from her research trip to pick me up, my tia and I had decided to welcome her by saying, "Mamá - yo hablo español ahora! (I speak Spanish now!)" It’s easy when you’re that young. There is a picture from that visit that has me standing in the middle of the plaza in an oversized 80s T, with friendship bracelets running up my arms and a pre-braces smile that reminds me of how wild and happy I was in the country I still considered ours.
And now I am here again, on my own, an adult, as she was.
Mom was the true pioneer, though. Four years before that trip -- pre-internet, pre-digital nomad hubs, pre-Selina, pre-full-stack-developer jobs, pre-Yelp, pre-GPS, certainly pre-Uber -- Mom had married my father, a Caleño, and spent almost four years in early 1980s Colombia. She survived Giardia and dengue fever; boiled water to drink; hand wrote letters home, and had only one American friend with whom to speak English. Her experience was partly defined by being a new mother to a baby whose first language would be Spanish, living in a traditional familial setting, and getting paid in pesos, which meant never having enough. But she and my father just made a go of it, one adventure at a time.
Those were the years when the cocaine trade was just lifting off, devouring the fragile balance of Colombian society, flawed though it was. We left well before he-who-shall-not-be-named rose to infamy, before the Peace Corps suspended placements in the increasingly fractured country, before the majority of internal displacements occurred during the civil war. But, she says, there was already a sense of vulnerability to the violence both overt and lurking. We returned to the U.S. in search of sanity and stability. We left so that I could go to school.
Over the years I had been back to Cali countless times, not only that summer with my grad student mother, but also with my father, and even on my own. In 2014, I was awarded a Fulbright Grant and had the life-changing opportunity to live on the Caribbean Coast (Cartagena) - today one of the country's top tourist destinations, despite the widespread poverty. In the wake of that year of social contrasts, I conceived this beast/passion project/risky social purpose travel effort called Scarlet Macaw. But I decided to launch in Medellin because of its reputation online and the PR machine aiming to bringing in more and more visitors every year, championing Medellin's social scene, top-notch digital amenities, and one-of-a-kind investment opportunities for those with money. The prospects were, in a word, insane - and super seductive. Medellin today is also a great entry point for first-time visitors to Colombia.
So I had been here a little over 6 months before I finally was able to welcome Mom for a visit in May. She had also never been to Medellin, and was excited. With her proclivity for uncharted territory and general trailblazing, 30 years later she still only really worried about the water.
I wanted Mom to get a sense of the City of Eternal Rain for herself and also for us to have some active, adventurous QT together. We decided that would mean the mountain town of Jardín, a 3.5 hour bus ride from the city's south terminal, famous as a sanctuary for an elusive red bird they called the Gallito de la Roca -- Cock of the Rock. I'd also have a chance to run some development ideas for Scarlet Macaw Trips past her, while on the road. She is SMT's sole editor and thought-partner for my nascent company, with its huge, beautiful, full-spread, stereotype-busting dreams bursting at the SquareSpace seams! But before I drew up an impossible editorial calendar for this one-woman-marching-band, I just wanted to board the bus to Jardin and get Mom to say cock-of-the-rock 100 times in 72 hours...
I had learned NYC via solo-explorations on foot and long bike rides into the furthest reaches of the boroughs. I did the same in Medellin and we would do so Jardin. Finding things on my own reinforces the experience, creates organic anecdotes, and adds a trustworthy confidence to the itineraries and trips I design for clients and partners. (In sum, I am like Columbus, 'discovering' Pergamino Coffee on Cra 37 six months into my stay in Medellin. Correcto: The coffee there is exceptionally good.)
In this way, booking an AirBNB apartment that was less than promised, then canceling our second night there when we stumbled upon an insanely luxurious hotel del pueblo, was that much more joyous! Canvassing a town and exploring without a plan opens your eyes and readies you for inevitable serendipitous interactions, genuine surprises concerning good food, sightseeing, and activities - without any expectations. It frees your mind from the instinct to compare and form judgments.
Right off the bus on Day 1, we followed a random street past the edge of town into a gorgeous pastoral area. The afternoon downpour had just cleared, and we found ourselves communing with the happy celebrants of The Magic Hour: butterflies, street dogs trotting purposefully around the puddles, cows and horses grazing the luscious wet grass, men lowering themselves into front porch chairs after work. The muddy road was lined with eggplant-black elephant-ears, birds of paradise, and chaotic tangles of a plant whose leaves and stems were both the same bright magenta color. It was a magenta-on-magenta crime scene and we have the pictures to prove it. Rounding the curve in the road on his way back into town, a man on a moto slowed to tip us off: "Keep walking, there are gallitos right up ahead!" Gallitos, could we be so lucky? We weren’t, but I saw a bright orange-and-black feathered bird whose Latin name could only be SF Gigantus Fan Numero Uno fluttering around in some shrubs, then zooming off to pick berries elsewhere.
At night, we treated ourselves to a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we had - correct - chicken stir fry (it was on the menu) and a glass of wine. Save for one Spanish couple, there were only English-speakers in the restaurant (because vegetarian!). Thinking about the next day, we considered taking a tour with a man who would: a) help us secure rubber boots for Mom, b) take us by jeep to the waterfall and c) provide a delicious local lunch. We awoke to pouring rain and decided to take a pass. But we found all of the above on our own, as soon as the rain cleared, with ease.. Another tour, promising views of the famous bird, also left too early in the morning. But said gallitos - these Cocks of the Rock that make their home in various pockets of Jardîn - could be found in the afternoon, too. I’d gone to bed googling these ridiculous animals - large like some doves, bright red with a half-moon-helmet of red feathers on top, making themselves seem taller. #Men
Let's blow this pop stand. Having not slept at all at our shitty AirBNB, Mom and I stumbled to the plaza where we sat down at a relaxed, open-air coffee shop. The waitress fixed us granola bowls using fresh fruit from the markets. 10/10 would eat fruit and drink coffee there again. People of all ages, including grannies and granddaughters, frequented the coffee shops lining the very traditional plaza. The church is heavy duty in that it's been traced and outlined 10 times over in gold. But on a daily basis most folks found respite and calm in the cafes, chatting in the fresh air and observing passers-by. Older men and their friends sit and chew the fat, while groups of bikers post up outside, their expensive bikes leaning against bright, colonial buildings, stretching and eating pan de bonos and buñuelos before hitting the road again. Then, of course, there are the street dogs -- Jardin's sweet spirits -- gracing the church steps, plaza and fountain, side streets, and restaurant entrances, lazing around not bothering a soul and dreaming only of tossed meat and a little sunshine. They were nice looking and not mangey, signs of human caring.
Come afternoon, we were ready to go in search of the cocks. Of the rocks. We were told there was a sanctuary for such cocks and in looking for it, the long way, the lost way, we encountered a gallito that literally took our breath away. We were slipping and sliding down a muddy, post-rain trail, barely looking up at the sea of green that surrounded the narrow but unusually loud river passing through the sanctuary, when all of a sudden, a few seconds of wings fanning the air and a shake of a branch and poom! There was our gifted gallito: bright, shocking red in a world of green. We stopped. He perched. We were overwhelmed with his beauty. I zoomed in as much as possible with my phone. He was too beautiful and would not be pixelated. When he took off, we shoved on. We found the sanctuary entrance and met the wife of the biologist who founded it. She told us all about the birds, the bats, the fruits, the owls, and the other creatures that grace the region. After seeing several gallitos in their natural habitat, peeking at them between branches (Note: not camouflaged AT ALL!) and listening to their monkey shrieks, we said adios and ambled back to town -- a short, straight shot -- the way we 'should have' entered the sanctuary in the first place. Happy with our sightings and our sub-par wildlife photos, we went straight back to a restaurant serving platos típicos which had become our favorite after a single first-day lunch there. I fed some of my generous portion of chicken to a sweet, blond street pup who followed us back to the hotel and took a nap under the receptionist's tolerant feet.
Was Jardín 2018 equatable in any way to Cali 1982? No, absolutely not. And it doesn't have to be. She's already done that. She's been there. She's boiled that. She's bared that. I embrace Mom's forever method of travel, which was and still is: conversational, forward-facing, positive, respectful, surprising, and joyous.
We met who we were supposed to meet, ate what we were supposed to eat, and slept where we were supposed to sleep. Being present and free of preconceived notions is the best way to 'unplug' and tune in. It doesn't matter who told you to drink what coffee at tal y tal cafe or what hotel to stay in. Ultimately, all paths led to the gallito, the cock of the rock who landed on the branch right in front of us on the muddy path we were not supposed to be on in the first place. He was magnificent.