December, with its many festive celebrations, gift-giving and end-of-year conclusions, was like a turbulent snowstorm churning out change in its unpredictable winds. Completing a year of service as a WorldTeach volunteer was emotive, celebratory, conclusive and relieving.
At an End of Service retreat to close the program, the remaining group of 2014 volunteers discussed transitioning back into home life after a year in Colombia, such as how to speak about our many experiences, and reasonable answers to odd questions.
Surprisingly, after a week in the United States, the most relevant information EOS provided was how to deal with your thoughts, plus appropriate reactions to what used seem normal but now seems strange.
Often, it appeared people we had left for the year did not care about a volunteer experience abroad, where power outages were common or the streets turned to rivers during rainstorms. Instead, they turned their focus to what was comfortable: “Really, you lived without air conditioning? That’s crazy! Want to go to Starbucks?” Suddenly, the familiar felt unfamiliar.
After flying the friendly skies from South America, a week in Atlanta, Georgia was like a southern-fried welcome of hot molasses over chipped ice: sweet, but messy, too. Between sleeping late and visiting with friends, there was the official business do be done at the Colombian consulate for a 2015 work visa.
The consulate in Atlanta, operating in a modest office building near Sandy Springs, boasted a giant Colombian flag, a photo of President Juan Manuel Santos, and several paintings of countrymen wearing sombrero vueltiaos. Following a brief interview regarding my purpose for living in Cartagena de Indias, and restraining myself from breaking into “Oh Gloria Inmarcesible!,” I was granted a visa to return and work in Colombia.
Seven days in Atlanta passed as rapidly as commuters in the HOV lane of Interstate 85. Next stop for holiday merriment: the Carolina Lowcountry. The Charleston International Airport is a modest 30-minute drive to James Island, where olfactory senses come alive driving along salt marshes emanating their briny pluff mud fragrance into the evening air. This aroma, typically pungent to the visitor of Charleston, is quite possibly one of the most comforting smells to anyone who has spent time living in the area.
Three weeks on James Island was perfect: enough time to savor the flavors of Charleston, satisfying all cravings of Southern food, hospitality and charm, but ending before saying, “fix me a plate” sounded like a normal way to talk.
Delectable cuisine ranging from plates of beach fusion to traditional Peruvian holiday dishes, to the greatest of all culinary treats, Mom’s potato salad, was enjoyed with enthusiasm and extra napkins. A perfect blend of potatoes, radishes, celery, hard boiled egg, seasoning and mayonnaise, this potato salad makes you wish every meal needed a side dish.
The crab cake eggs benedict brunch special at La Tabella would make Anthony Bourdain’s swear jar overflow (if he had one). A backyard oyster roast on John’s Island, where guests shucked and sucked their way through bushels of bivalves, accompanied by saltines and plenty of hot sauce, was simply delicious.
Fried dill pickles, lobster macaroni and cheese, fried okra and multiple cups of She Crab soup were devoured with delight during this epicurean adventure.
Southern meals typically start with grace, which is where faith comes in, rolling holy. Sunday morning appearances as a lifetime member of the warm and welcoming congregation of a local Presbyterian church brought smiles and curious inquiries about my volunteer work, as well as repeated explanations that I live in “Colombia (South America), not Columbia (South America).”
Questions of doubt were met with gratitude, describing a challenging year in which prayer played an important part of staying. After experiencing amazing (as well as a few awful) situations in Colombia, being a part of this community again was a genuine reminder of the power of faith.
If prayer isn’t enough inspiration during one visit to Charleston, it can also be found in local free magazine stacks anywhere within a 5 mile radius of downtown. More than just cheap classified productions or glossy promotional publications, these magazines are entertaining, inspiring literary works.
From City Paper to Art Mag, the Lowcountry boasts quality reading, like the all-time favorite Skirt!, where an excellent article by Dean Lofton elaborated on the importance of personal writing practice.
While its true South Carolina has a unique culture, picturesque places, and mouthwatering food, it lacks one element that Colombia has mastered: public transportation. It seems everyone in Charleston has a car, or a car and a truck, for those weekend boat hauls and multiple trips to Home Depot. Some people drive golf carts or ride mopeds, however, unlike the mototaxis of Colombia, mopeds are primarily used when a driving license is suspended, and golf carts are often driven by underaged kids. With it’s huge bridges, miles of marsh-bordered highways and sprawling suburban areas, its hard to determine what type of city bus could handle the Lowcountry terrain and still adequately serve the public.
Following Charleston, a quick trip through Atlanta brought an evening of flashback fun watching The Smiths cover band Smithsonian perform at Terminal West. Atlanta has changed dramatically in recent years, and huge buildings now stand where there once were grassy fields, giving new meaning to the term “urban development.”
Regardless, one thing that remains unchanged is the song catalog of The Smiths, and Smithsonian expertly belted out hit after hit from the London-based 80’s sensation, covering with perfection the brilliant sound of Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
After three weeks of pralines, prayers and passenger seats, flying from Atlanta towards Cartagena was as bittersweet as a wide slice of rhubarb pie. While it seems ironic to no longer consider the Southern US home, deferring this title now to Sacramento (California), Jalisco (México), and most recently, the Northwest corner of South America, it also seems the most honest response to the question, “where do you live?”
To which I reply, “Colombia,” followed by thinking silently to myself, “not Columbia.”