When I was 15, my family moved to Bogota, Colombia. That first summer my parents and I took a trip to the coast by car. My father was a beach fanatic and somebody in his office told him he would find the most beautiful pristine beaches imaginable at the coastal village of Tolu. Since he had to go to Cartagena on business anyway, he decided to make a trip of it and stop in Tolu and the resort town of Santa Marta as well. The trip was almost entirely through the Andes Mountains with hair-raising drop offs on the side of the road. We stopped for a couple of days in Medellín, a city that was later known for its drug cartel. At the time, it was a small city nestled in the mountains with a lot of old churches. My mother had a thing about Catholic churches. If there was a church anywhere nearby, we had to go see it. It wasn’t a religious thing; it was a tourist thing. She wanted to see the architecture, the windows, and the statues. It used to really embarrass me to have to go into all these churches where people were praying just so we could snoop around. That was my teenaged view of it anyway.
The morning we left Medellín, we stopped in a small corner restaurant for breakfast. All we wanted was some orange juice, coffee and rolls. I spoke Spanish fluently with no accent. My father spoke Spanish fluently but with an accent. We went up to the counter and I asked for three orange juices – jugo de naranja. Blank stares answered my simple request. I could not make them understand what I was saying. I had to resort to pointing and acting in order to get three orange juices. We decided that they saw so few foreigners they just assumed we did not speak Spanish and could not process the fact that we did.
On the way down from the mountains, we had to follow a riverbed where much of the road had been washed away by flooding. There were cliffs going up on either side, with the river in the middle, and the road was to one side of the river. Where the road was washed out, there was no place else to go but in the river or hug the cliff. Fortunately there was almost no traffic and we were able to manage it, although we all had white knuckles by the time we passed through the mountains.
As we got to the coastal flatlands we started looking out for the road to Tolu. We were all very excited. The road turned out to be a narrow rutted lane with overgrown vegetation on either side. We said, no problem, this was good, it meant it was unspoiled by the overuse of tourists. The village of Tolu was small. There was a small square in the middle of town but the main road was just past the center and ran along the ocean on the beach. Yes, the beach had become a road with buses barreling down it at high speeds. There were no swimmers or sunbathers – they would have died from the exhaust fumes first and a car accident second. Since it was late in the day, we realized we had to stay the night, so we found a small hotel on the beach that looked passable. We were shown to a “suite” that had two rooms and five beds and a huge bathroom that only had cold water and a millions cockroaches. My father got up several times during the night to spray his mattress for bugs. We left early the next morning. When we got back to Bogota my father told the person who had recommended Tolu all about our experience. Of course, the person had never actually been there. So much for pristine beaches.
From Tolu we drove to Cartagena, the old Spanish outpost. There was a fort on the hill that had tunnels going down to the water. Niches were cut into the tunnel for soldiers to stand with their rifles and shoot people as they ran down the dark and claustrophobic tunnels. It all made me very uncomfortable. Cartagena was often visited by pirates as well as by Spanish ships. Under the water was a heavy chain strung across part of the bay to keep the boats from entering. Those who didn’t know about the fence, sank. Cartagena itself was a beautiful colonial town.
Our next stop was Barranquilla, another big port and more of a vibrant busy bustling city, and our final stop was Santa Marta, a small resort town. Luckily we flew home from Santa Marta so we didn’t have to repeat the treacherous drive.
Bogota was 8,600 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Lush and cool, it rained almost every day for a short while. It is nestled right against the mountains and above the city at 10,341 feet is the mountain Monserrate where a small church was built in the 17th century. Now there is a funicular that takes people up there and the view is amazing. One of the biggest tourist attractions is the Gold Museum. Its mission statement states: The mission of the Gold Museum of the Banco de la República is to preserve, research, catalogue and exhibit its archaeological collections in goldwork, ceramics, lithics and other materials as the cultural heritage of present and future generations of Colombian citizens, to strengthen the cultural identity of Colombians through enjoyment, learning and inspiration. It is definitely worth a visit.
On the weekends sometimes, we would drive down to the hot country and stay at fincas. They could be working farms or just small “summer” houses where people went to relax and get out of the city. We stayed in one that had bungalows around the compound and a big house at the center. We all gathered in the big house for meals and ate at long tables. The landscape was tropical and kind of rugged. There wasn’t much to do but eat, sleep and take walks. On the way home, we would stop in a small village and buy rolls made from cassava flour that were filled with cheese.
Growing up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK, meant constantly adapting and adjusting to new places and new people. After a while I became a chameleon, able to blend in to any background. I learned to hone my power of observation and I would spend the first few weeks in a new environment reserved and quiet, watching everybody else. Then once I built confidence, I would break out like a phoenix, and my new persona would emerge, reinvented for my current surroundings. One of the hardest things about growing up the way I did was saying goodbye. Constantly having to leave friends behind or see them leave did take a toll and as I grew older I became more discriminating about who I opened up to and became close to. In spite of that, I looked forward to new places. It was an adventure, a challenge.
My uniform that year was a ruana (a wool cape) and a hat that was very common among the people who lived in the mountains (a man’s stiff felt hat). I also had a swell pair of suede lace-up boots and I wore rings on every finger. I had long hair and long sharp nails and when I first arrived at school people thought I was some kind of witch. I loved it there. The people were either Colombian or, for the most part, expat kids who had grown up overseas. Everybody was mellow and easy going.
I went to the American school in Bogota. During study hall, we would go to the recreation room and have really superior games of table tennis. At lunch, we would walk to the other end of the football field to eat our sandwiches. I ate peanut butter and jelly on toast every single day for a year. Some people would bring chessboards and we would gather around and watch them play.
My best friend lived near a small shopping center and park area called El Lago where a lot of the “street people” hung out. These were the Colombian hippies and the American drifters who gathered to generally laze around and look for action. People would play frisbee and talk and eat and gather information on parties. We would go there and hang out and try to be “cool”.
One day it was raining (as usual) and I was standing under an archway listening to a Jesus freak proselytize and a guy appeared who had long black hair, a beret, lavender tie-dye shirt, lavender pants, and belt, with bells on his black leather boots. He walked right up to the Jesus freak, took off his hat and in a large swooping movement bowed to him and said “And I am the Devil”. This infuriated the Jesus freak and set him off on a long tirade, which was completely ignored. The “Devil” came up to me and asked me for a light and introduced himself as Giovanni. He was a wonderful character who loved to talk non-stop and tell stories of his escapades under the influence of magical mushrooms.
A few weeks later, Giovanni arrived dressed in a three-piece suit. I almost didn’t recognize him and when questioned he told me his grandmother had died. He had started his day with a large magical mushroom omelet and then set off for his grandmother’s funeral. He went to the church all dressed up, greeted all his relatives and joined the procession to pass by and view the open casket. As he reached the casket, the mushrooms must have kicked in, because he swore to us that his grandmother moved, at which point he had apparently created a scene and was asked to leave.
Giovanni had dreams of moving to Miami to be a hairdresser or a model. When he suddenly disappeared, I wondered if he had actually made it to Miami. A few months later, I ran into his sidekick, Fernando. I had to drag it out of him but he finally told me that Giovanni had been down in the Amazon playing “witch doctor”. He was expected back soon so I told Fernando to pass a message to him to come by because I wanted to see him.
He showed up one afternoon dressed again in the three-piece suit and all his beautiful long hair cut off. I asked him who had died this time and he was furious. Fernando apparently was supposed to have rescued all of Giovanni’s clothes from his mother’s house but didn’t get there in time, and his mother had thrown out all his lavender tie-dyes. It was obvious that at his age, he was expected to get a serious job and be respectable. It was the last time I saw him and I like to believe he really did become a real doctor but for all I know, he is still in the jungle playing witch doctor.
People from the States or England or Venezuela would drift in and out of El Lago. One fellow from England wore only green and we called him Limey. There was an African guy who had lived there for a long time with a Colombian woman. He was famous all around town and known just as “Blackie”.
I want to say those were more innocent times, but maybe I was just lucky and never got into anything I couldn’t handle. I cried all the way to Miami when we moved. I wasn’t ready to leave; a year just wasn’t long enough. Now not only was I moving to a new place with new people but I would have to adjust to a whole new continent and culture plus I was going back to boarding school.
Sometimes people think TCKs are whiney. We grew up in exotic places and had all kinds of interesting experiences. And most people think children are very adaptable and resilient. So the combination of new adventures and the ability to constantly adapt to them must be fabulous, no? Sometimes I think it seems that children are super adaptable because they are better at playing make believe than grown ups are. Sometimes I think that is why it is so hard for TCKs to grow up. They get too good at playing make believe.
Within months I was at a new school reinventing myself once again.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.