Monica Restrepo and I are uncontrollably close. She, daughter of my father’s brother-yes, my cousin- was born just nine months before me back in the 90s.
She taught me how to climb stairs, we went through puberty rites together, approved of each other’s significant others-or didn’t-and have been best friends for over 22 years.
However, it hasn’t been easy. Ours is a story with tangents such as cultural displacement, political asylum, family disputes, and continuous rootlessness.
We had been apart for seven years, since my political asylum was denied in the United States back in 2008, but she came in May and rediscovered a country she left 15 years ago, when she was just eight years old.
I was curious and excited to get her perspective on the culture shock she could feel among her own. This is our Colombian Story of Return, mine permanent, hers temporary.
Monica, like me, was born in Manizales, Colombia in the coffee triangle, a city known for its proximity to the volcano Nevado del Ruiz and close-knit community with traditional (read: old-fashioned) values.
She had attended two different Catholic schools before her family uprooted to the United States in 2000. We had family in Kansas, so it was logical that, as Colombians, that’s where we would go.
We understood we had roots in family, but growing up we learned that roots can ground you, surround you and possibly suffocate you.
My family followed one year later and on arrival, like hers, filed for political asylum. We attended separate public schools and took in American culture.
After pending for years, her asylum was approved, and mine was denied. My family left on “voluntary leave,” but there is nothing voluntary about being exiled from a country you understood as your own. We were 15 years old, and so began our separation.
For seven years, we stood 4251.01 kilometers from each other, carefully planning our reunion.
May 29th, 2015 at 5:30 p.m. I patiently waited at the international arrivals gate in the Rionegro airport. When she came out, we ran towards each other, crashed into a stance of relief.
“How is it that you still smell the same?” she asked burying her head in the nook of my shoulder, her suitcase at our feet.
From that moment on, I studied her patiently. Her accent that was almost a typical paisa accent, her behavior that wasn’t American or Colombian, it was all her own.
She compared several scenarios to ones she had seen volunteering in Mexico or visiting Puerto Rico; she saw similarities between cultures and she understood the jokes- most of them, anyway.
“Muchas gracias señor/señora” she’d say to any given bus driver, mango salesmen, Metro staff, and whoever else might have done her a service.
She laughed at the wit of Colombian humor; she slammed every door she could lay her hands on, sending taxi drivers into madness.
“¿Quiere un mango?” (Do you want some mango?) she’d ask the blind man sitting next to her on La 70, placing a piece of green fruit in his hand.
“Don’t acknowledge street salesmen or catcalls” I’d say, But in moments, she’d smile at artisans on the street telling them all how beautiful their work was, or laugh loudly at the old man who’d look at her and yell “An angel!” And somehow, it was all okay.
She felt at home like she had left Colombia a few months and came back home.
“What are you surprised by?”
I told her I wanted to write this article. “Tell me what surprises you as it happens.” I said.
And, unapologetically, here it is:
- There is no dangerous obesity. At any given moment she would have expected several people among us that were seriously overweight, she didn’t see any.
- People wear very colorful clothes, with lots of flower patterns.
- There are different stereotypes here, Americans are not Colombian’s favorite tourists-according to what she repeatedly heard from strangers- taxi drivers, random pedestrians-who assumed she, like our coffee, was 100 percent Colombian.
- People are extremely polite to each other, even if they aren’t necessarily kind, they speak politely.
- Everyone looks so clean.
- Not many people smoke.
- The size of the orders of the food-she noticed while we ate at Presto-are a lot smaller, but not too small to fill your stomach.
- Very few people wear sunglasses.
- Clothing is very expensive. “Do people actually shop frequently?” she asked.
“This is the best spot in Medellín.”
This is what she said one day while we were sitting on La 70, looking towards a restaurant we had dinner at a few nights prior.
The restaurant is called Dejame Q’ Te Cuente, a mouthful for most foreigners not accustomed to Spanish. It’s my favorite grill in Medellín, for its outdoor seating, great music and warm vibe.
The fact that my server is always the same and remembers my order is comforting; the place makes you feel at home.
Everything is delicious, but on the night we had dinner there with friends, everyone wanted a rib from my stack, so both Monica and I recommend them.
It has been a week, and I have shown Monica little nooks of where I live now, and what our country looks like since she left it. She’s comfortable, happy, but unsettled about the amount of money it takes to pay for a round trip ticket here. She’s a student and fears she won’t be able to come back for years.
In the meantime, she is tasting everything, eating mango when possible-“con mucho limón”- and discovering herself and her culture more and more every day.
Soon, we’ll be heading off to Manizales, and the city that seemed big when she was three feet tall, will probably shrink in front of her eyes to the small, traditional place with growing infrastructure that it is now…and I can’t wait to see what she has to say about it.