South America Revisited 30 Years Later.

I’ve recently returned from an 11-day trip with my two adult children to Medellín, Colombia. Sounds like an unusual destination for a 55-year-old woman from Wilmington, Delaware. But my kid’s dad (and my ex-husband) is Colombian and my daughter spent a summer in Medellín making documentaries of families displaced by drug violence five years before. My son had never traveled out of the country and insisted that if he was going anywhere, it would be Colombia. So the decision was made that we spend the holidays not on gifts or decorating for Christmas, but go on an adventure to South America.


As mentioned in the title, this was not my first trip to South America. Some 30 years earlier, when I was in my twenties, I traveled to Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil with my first husband. While we did not travel to Medellín (which would have been crazy to do in the mid-80’s), we did travel to Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Bogotá. Well, there have been a lot of changes in the past 30 years. This is what I discovered.


South America revisited:


  • Ground transportation. When I initially landed in the Barranquilla airport in 1986, there were hundreds of people vying for our attention. One crowd wanting to show us where our bags were, another crowd pointing us to a taxi, and yet another wanting to point us to where we could get some Colombian pesos. My then husband’s uncle was there to take us to his home in a 1955 non-air-conditioned Chevy. I’ve spent the morning trying to research why all the cars in Colombia were from the 1950’s, and turns out the production of vehicles in Colombia was null. When we traveled from Barranquilla to Cartagena, it was always by bus with no AC and frequent stops for peddlers who tried selling us street food. Flash forward 30 years, and we arranged for an Uber driver at the airport. Juan Camilo, our driver, walked up to me at the airport and said “Cathy?” He had a Chevy Sail (not available in the US) and although the back seat was tight, we had nice air-conditioned drive down the mountain to Medellín.


  • Accommodations. On my first trip to South America, we slept head-to-foot on a small cot in my first husband’s uncle’s house. We did not get much sleep. The rest of the time, we were usually staying in a hotel, which frequently had hourly rates instead of overnight rates. Apparently, a different type of business went on there. Many of the homes had cisterns that were filled once a day with non-potable water and a shower was taken by scooping water out of a bucket. This time we had a 3-bedroom, 3-bath Airbnb with a penthouse deck that overlooked the beautiful skyline of Medellín. Wonderful. We had our own space and only unpacked once.


  • Food. While in Colombia on my first trip, I seemed to remember eating yucca at every meal. I guess this is a costeño (coast dweller) favorite but not my favorite. Luckily in Medellín, there are paisas (mountain dwellers) and their favorite is potatoes. While there were only a few stores where we could buy a Coke or ice cream on my first trip, this time there was a huge array of restaurants that could be searched on Trip Advisor, everything from Thai to Argentinean to Colombian. No reservation needed and credit cards happily accepted. On my first trip, credit cards were not widely accepted and the inflation rate was extraordinarily high. This time around, we had a 24-hour grocery store right below our apartment and we frequently were able to cook. Even better, I learned my son is a fantastic cook, who makes killer arepas (corn cakes) and arroz con coco (coconut rice).


  • Technology. What a dramatic difference 30 years makes. When purchasing plane tickets in Caracas for the rest of our trip in 1986, we had to stand in line at a travel agency (remember those?). We didn’t have cell phones and practically everything included paying electric bills or paying someone else to stand in line for you to pay cash. This trip we were posting on Facebook, ordering Uber rides, checking Google Maps for locations, and paying for practically everything via credit card. We had Wifi (Colombians pronounce it wee-fee) in our Airbnb and we could send free texts and call via WhatsApp. Amazing to be practically on the Equator and share Christmas greetings to and from the US.


  • Language. My Spanish has vastly improved in 30 years but my daughter’s and son’s fluency outshined me. I speak Spanglish. I always get pronouns wrong. But I was able to hold my own as opposed to the first trip, where I solely depended on my first husband for translations of EVERYTHING. But I am embarrassed to say that the xenophobia my daughter and I were met with upon our return to the US at the Miami International Airport was disappointing. There was madness at the Miami airport on our return trip back to the Raleigh-Durham Airport. Most of the travelers on American Airlines that morning were going to Latin America or Europe. Most were Latinos or Spanish. None of the American Airlines employees were bilingual except for one security guard. When a Spanish woman approached an American Airlines employee and asked if any of the gate personnel spoke Spanish, she shook her head and said she no one did. The AA employee then turned to me, an obvious US Citizen (tallest, whitest woman in the room) and said, “This is America, isn’t it?” I was flabbergasted.  The outrageous part is that she didn’t even consider that all of the Western Hemisphere is “America.” From Canada to Argentina. America is not just the U.S.A. And English is not the predominant language.


This was the trip of a lifetime. Spending 11 days with my adult children in a land that is half their heritage and spending time with cousins and friends they may or may not see in their life time again. Colombia is safe and enchanting, and Medellín is the city of the eternal spring.

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