Two Fridays ago, I finished up another week at school and headed to a dentist appointment, followed by dinner and a movie with a friend. These are the types of evenings that truly make me feel as though I have built a life here in Colombia. I do things that make me happy, I explore new possibilities and spend time with great people, within the realm of a new living situation and a new culture. These nights make me feel like a resident of Cali.
Later that weekend, I was browsing the New York Times Global Edition, when I came across this article. Author Simon Romero wrote a stunning piece about a woman in Cali who provides a home for some 800 animals rescued largely from drug traffickers and paramilitary warlords. Operating from her home in Villa Lorena, located just up a small road in the slum-ish neighborhood of Floralia, Ana Julia Torres has been caring for animals like these for over 16 years. (For all the details, check out the whole article, and watch the accompanying video.)
By the time I finished the article I was near tears, which surprised me. I have been living in Colombia for almost eight months now, and have come to terms with many of the issues here that still need to be improved. On top of that, I am not really an animal lover. I didn’t have a pet as a child, so even domestic animals sort of creep me out. Why did I feel so affected by this article?
Then it hit me. I live in the city where this is happening, and I had no idea. Not even the slightest clue that this was happening. Yes, I live here, but will I ever feel like I truly know Colombia? Will I ever truly understand the culture, the politics, the government, the history. There is so much to learn! Will I always be just another tourist, no matter how long I call this place my home?
There is this part of me that knows that I work here, I get paid in Colombian pesos, have a Colombian ID card, pay bills here, and even go to the dentist here. Essentially, I do almost all the basic things that other residents of Cali, Colombia do.
Then again, I don’t vote here, and I never will. I will probably always speak Spanish with a gringa accent. I don’t usually respond to the question “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks to God.” I have strawberry blond hair, pale skin, and I do not feel a strong allegiance to any one particular national soccer team. I spend my free time traveling around other parts of Colombia.
In so many ways I will always be a Minnesota girl with an adventurous spirit, which is great…there is just always this part of me that wants to dig deeper, to expand my knowledge base, to enrich my experience in as many ways as possible.
Fellow travelers, what do you think? Are we only ever residents of our home country? How long do you live in a place before you can call it home? Can you ever really understand a culture that you only experience as a tourist.