The first time I left Colombia, I was six. We were on our way to visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and our first stop was Miami. My dad had traveled to the U.S. before on business, but the experience was completely new for the rest of us. In the mid-eighties, the drug trading from Colombia was starting to become more prominent in the news, but still had not reached the full-blown proportion of the narcomania of the nineties. We had no idea of the dimensions of the cartels’ intimidation, no one imagined that airplanes would explode in mid-air, shopping malls would be bombed without mercy in major cities, and our society would produce an army of teenage hit men for whom a life was worth the same as a pair of imported American sneakers.
My parents were nervous from the moment we left our door, and stayed fearful, a mixture of parental exhaustion and caution at the unknown nature of trips. It was my first time on an airplane, so I made sure to walk it from head to toe. My dad asked for seats close to the cabin because he believed the front would have less turbulence, and sent me exploring with my mom.
My initial taste of foreignness was a competition between inside and outside: women in red uniforms walking a red carpet, shades of blue in the clouds embracing shades of blue in the Caribbean Sea. My heart expanded within the limited quantities of oxygen and space. I was enraptured flying away from home, from Spanish-language, from familiarity, not knowing where I was. The distance through the window was an equalizer, reducing human settlements in the massive Los Andes mountains to the size of the Avianca (Colombian national airline) logos on cups and pens. The sensation of being suspended while reaching heights and cruising speed, high above everything I knew, was emancipating.
Three years later, Avianca’s red would make the international headlines thanks to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, who targeted a presidential candidate (he missed the flight) and killed 110 people with a bomb midair. The war was not new. In the 50s the creation of FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), a left-wing guerrilla movement, triggered systematic killings by partisan groups and political operatives, but hostility towards civilians escalated in the late 80s and 90s with the massive competition for cocaine routes and profits. The violence spread from the countryside to the cities, creating entanglements with new agents: right wing paramilitary, corrupt government officials, and urban gangs sponsored by organized drug cartels.
My parents were measured adventurers, they embraced travel with a purpose and discourged spontaneity. When I was a kid, we took road trips, from Sunday excursions to small quaint towns to eat potatoes cooked in underground salt ovens, to 18-hour drives for Christmas holidays at a beach resort in Cartagena. By the late eighties, when murders and kidnappings intensified and the armed conflict mutated into one of its bloodiest iterations, they became afraid to travel by road. In a climate of despair and suffering, enjoyment was defiance. Tourism, already a privilege as few airlines flew to Colombia, became a daring act.
For me, coming of age and being a rebellious teenager meant organizing trips by bus. When I had to argue with my dad for permission, I told him I felt protected by some sort of a good star that was not strictly luck but closer to trusting nature, my own, and the skills to listen to my intuition, and others’. I wasn’t daring enough to go to Red Zones, the areas known for open battles and illicit activities, but even visiting my aunt in Medellin or going to the desert in the north was a risk. On overnight bus rides, in certain valleys, the drivers waited for each other to create a fleet of buses for protection against the guerrillas and paramilitary groups who stopped the buses for Pesca Milagrosa (Miracle Fishing), looking for people to kidnap. I felt immune, trusting in safety rituals like hiding the student ID inside my socks and thereby pretending I had neither identity nor privilege. Also, in my head it was as dangerous to stay in the city as to go, and in pretending to lack status, I found relief. I could choose to leave and come back, and I was not ready to give that up.
The more I explored, even in neighborhoods deemed off-limits in my own city, the more I found that flipping the coin on so-called danger had a positive outcome. For the most part. A good laugh at a market stall surrounded by dogshit and waste, a heart to heart exchange waiting in line for a delayed bus on an unmarked desert road, the chitchat on a monument that led to a great street dinner, an impromptu conversation with strangers that could lead to them and me changing plans, all made up for the hassles and the threats. It was possible to be a temporary guest of the world, and make any corner a cozy living room. Others didn’t have that option.
During my childhood, I was used to homeless people asking for money at traffic lights, but seeing entire families on street corners in the Bogota of my late teens was different. They were indigenous, Afro-Colombian, female, male, alone, with four children. People who had lost everything held handwritten signs full of spelling mistakes in a makeshift effort to tell their displacement stories on cardboard. Many didn’t have the strength to come to the cars to ask for money. Their stories were so similar and there were so many, that those of us in cars, with shelter, food, and families to return to, had a hard time believing them. And even if we helped, there were always more people with more devastating stories of loss waiting on the next corner. It was, and still is, disheartening, enraging, overwhelming. To this day, according to the Internal Displacement Monitor Center (IDMC) after five decades of civil war, Colombia has the largest internal displacement rate in the world caused by conflict and violence, followed by Syria.
When I turned 20, I left to study in the U.S. On the road, nationality is your name tag. It is the question everyone knows how to ask, no matter what languages they speak. “Where are you from? You are from? Country?” No one wants their birthplace to be known for evil or danger, but I have been asked all sort of things, from the obvious (What do I think about Pablo Escobar?), to the bizarre (Have I met him? Do we sprinkle cocaine on food?) and offensive (Is my father in the business?). This last one is possibly an assumption that a woman traveling alone must be supported by a rich, corrupt man.
After nineteen years abroad, there are many questions for which I have no answer, and many things I do not wish to talk about. By the time I left Colombia, I had already experienced the shooting death of an uncle and a close teenage friend. Most people I knew had someone in their family threatened, kidnapped, or murdered. I don’t remember any crime ever being solved. But it took me decades on the road to gather the courage to say that I cannot explain the Colombian conflict in 5 minutes, and there are other (many) things about me and about the country that are far more interesting. I simply prefer to give my attention to other subjects; the Colombian problems have taken enough space already in my narrative. I am not ready to share just yet. Perhaps one of my issues with violence is that once it is brought up, it eclipses everything. It has power again to erase and destroy. Once violence enters the conversation, everything else disappears. It kidnaps the words as well as it does lives.
Colombians have a saying, “dar papaya” (literally “give papaya”), it means you expose yourself to a known danger, or a position where you can be easily hurt or taken advantage of. It implies that even if you are hurt, you are the only one accountable for your actions. For example, if you pull your cellphone out on the street in Bogota and someone snatches it, you gave papaya, you are supposed to know that if you want to talk on your cellphone, you must go into a store. So if it’s obvious to everyone that streets are not safe, the responsibility is not on the police or the robbers, but on you.
After nineteen years abroad, most of the times when people ask me where I am from, I feel like I am giving papaya. No matter how many times I have had the Colombian equals drugs conversation, I still feel the weight of not knowing how to approach it. It all becomes a sort of Russian roulette, with the conversation about drugs being the single bullet. Sometimes, people surprise me with comments about some of Colombia’s other exports—singers like Shakira, Maluma and J Balvin, names of soup operas, mentions of emeralds, coffee or flowers, and beloved soccer players in European teams. If the person has visited the country, they have words of praise and love. But, eventually, drugs find a way to show up.
I am expected to have answers to the decades of the country’s history and to be the barometer that can assess if things have gotten better, or if it’s possible to visit. I have to adjust my danger standards to the listeners’, calculate their fear factor according to where they are from, and evaluate if the narcomania of the 90s was worse than the corruption of the 2000s. Since I don’t want to be the person who only criticizes her country, I have to quickly come back with a counternarrative. My latest comeback is that after visiting 40+ countries, I am still amazed at the variety of landscapes in my own.
Colombia contains ecosystems in a relatively small space; it’s the second-most biodiverse place in the world; it’s fourth in water resources. People are also known for being extremely hospitable to foreigners and are overall lovers of music, dance and good times—perhaps because we’ve experienced that life is short. In the last decade, Colombia has often made the lists of the top three happiest places on earth, and this year it was second on the New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2018. My testimony also includes that I go back every year at least once or twice, and most times I travel to new destinations. Places I could not visit in my youth have now become accessible, and tourism to organic farms, indigenous-managed parks and ecological lodges provides post-conflict opportunities for a battered population.
When people ask me if I have watched Narcos (and this happens from Pondicherry in India, to San Sebastian in Spain, and Chiloé in Chilean Patagonia), I quote one of my kindergarten friends: “I lived those times, I don’t have interest in reliving them.” I also point out that as far as I know, Netflix is capitalizing on a recent tragedy and not sharing the profits with the survivors, the real heroes of those horror stories. Colombia’s image in the entertainment industry, local and international, is stuck in an 80s loop and I am not the audience for it. My other issue is that, while it feels dishonest to deny the violent stereotypes, I resent having to explain or even justify the situation.
The role of drug trading in Colombia is just the surface of a much more complicated network of aggressions that was created decades and waves of death before my great grandparents’ time. The story of how coca, the indigenous sacred plant of the Andes Mountains, became cocaine, a weapon of addiction and microdose of self-destruction, involves many people around the globe who are willing to trade lives and blood to capitalize on it. What makes the country’s long-term violence outstanding is what it is not. The parties do not fight for religious or ethnic reasons, no one wants to separate or defend their own territories, and whatever was left from political ideologies, both left and right wing, is imbued with the drug business. People vote to continue pro-war policies that consider force, authoritarian behaviors and military strategy the only possible solutions. Part of being a Colombian on the road is negotiating with how to do justice to our history, and with the painful absence of an alphabet in the collective imagination when it comes to peace.
The government avoids the term “war,” calling it “internal conflict.” In 2016, after a four-year negotiation, the country signed a Peace Process with FARC. It successfully reduced the murder rates, but remained highly unpopular with the majority of the country and a referendum to get approval on the main points of the agreement was voted out. Watching from New York, I panicked as the No votes increased and cried with a Colombian friend in the streets of the Upper West Side when the official results came out. Once again, Colombia was making headlines. Friends texted to ask how could a country, after almost sixty years of war, not try something else? Out of words, I forwarded the best explanation I had read, What Happened to Peace, a piece in the New York Review of Books by Mexican journalist and Latin America expert, Alma Guillermoprieto. As recently as August 2018, a supporter of the No vote for the referendum got elected president and the Peace Process is in a strange limbo.
Running into Colombians on the road is a reminder of this limbo. I inherited my parents love for exploring, but not their desire for returning home or their allegiance to city or country. On my first long solo trip in college, I realized my complete lack of national pride. It is easier for me to choose to be foreign. I visited thirteen countries in Europe and in every single one, I met Colombians. Often I talked to them when I heard their accent, other times I stood in silence and preferred to play the card of the global citizen, to not give papaya, and avoid questions like what I missed the most or where I went to school or what neighborhood I lived in, conversations that aimed to pinpoint a shared socioeconomic background or even people in common. To me, those kinds of reminders are useless and paralyzing. Part of traveling is leaving the labels behind, dissolving the past, letting the new places create me anew.
In Greece, on a boat to Mykonos, I saw a large group of people speaking overly-enthusiastic Spanish, laughing, hugging, clapping their hands. They praised the Mediterranean for “its Caribbean blue” just like “the sea of seven colors,” and took turns posing with a giant Colombian flag on the tip of the boat. I observed, trying to determine if I should speak to them or not. I watched the familiar hand and mouth gestures, the giggles with a tint of accent. I admired that despite the personal tragedies, the uncomfortable questions, the legal limitations of coming from a place dented by war, nothing stopped them from enjoying themselves and basking in nature. Perhaps, because I treasure invisibility and did not want to jinx my ambiguity in a place that allowed me to blend in —big eyes, dark hair, light cinnamon mestiza looks take on a whole different meaning depending on where you are— I could not relate to their public displays. I even felt a little embarrassed.
Shortly after their photo session with the flag, we met on the dance floor. Zorbas, Greece’s informal national anthem, played on repeat in the background. Ready to embrace our inner tourists, we followed crew instructions to make a circle, put our arms around each others’ shoulders and move, shifting from leg to leg. Shoulder to shoulder with Greeks and Colombians, I temporarily lost myself in another country’s displays of pride and clichés. As we weaved in a long chain around the dance floor, I felt our historical closeness in the arms draped over my shoulders. Resilience and joy are a rare combination, but we had lots of both, and away from home, everyone had the freedom to show it or not. The music sped up, the twang of the bazouki leading us from slow, rythmic stepping to a dizzying jig. All the Colombians showed outstanding coordination. Everyone was laughing. Our flag, with its horizontal stripes of yellow, blue and red, rested in someone’s bag, undisturbed. No one asked where we were from.