By Regina M. Ernst
I’m a CII-5er, so I’ve got about seventeen months in country to date. I’m one of the many who chose to visit family in the U.S. over the holiday vacation. Having not lived in my “hometown” for years, I was surprised and a little startled by my desire and, at times, desperation to leave Colombia for a brief stint. Not until I had about a week in the states did I realize why I had felt this way. I craved some time away from everything to reflect, regroup, and rededicate, which I’ve realized has been a near impossible task when I’m in Cartagena, neck-deep in costeña culture, busily focusing on the basics: acquiring language skills, budgeting a tiny budget, mapping a new city, working in a completely different setting than anything I’ve been accustomed to.
The time away was a gift, one I was lucky to share with my Barranquillero boyfriend, Mario, who drank a hot chocolate with whipped cream every day and experienced the beginnings of frostbite (or frostnip, as it’s called when it’s not really that serious) during a tragically frigid ice-skating date. However, an even more significant moment was returning with my sister and my father to Cartagena, a city with which I’ve developed a very complicated love/hate relationship.
As the time to return to Colombia approached, I felt anxious, thinking that upon arrival, maybe I would feel awkward or disjointed or worse! Maybe I would forget all my Spanish! Thankfully, the opposite was true. As I situated my family in the airport, in the hotel, in the taxis, in the buses, on the streets, in every restaurant, I realized just how comfortable I felt here, in a city that mere months ago seemed so foreign and intimidating.
On my dad and sister’s last night in Cartagena, my host-family invited us to the house for dinner. This would be their first time leaving the tourist bubble world of Bocagrande and the city’s historic Centro to venture into one of the city’s less-renowned barrios, El Bosque. My host-family, who I’ve always appreciated for their generosity and patience with me, outdid themselves to create the most hospitable environment in which we shared a home-cooked traditional dinner (including my favorite, arroz con coco) and countless stories, which my host-sister’s boyfriend and I worked diligently to translate between the two languages.
After hearing about the many site closures and housing changes for Peace Corps Volunteers in Cartagena (and in general), my host-mother, Damary, sighed and told me, “Que no te vayas, Gina.” I’m finally starting to catch a glimpse of just how far I’ve come: that this really is a home for me, that these beautiful people truly are my family, and that the distance ahead isn’t so daunting.