If you ever want to feel like a kid again, start learning a new language. If you really want to infantilize yourself, do so while living with a host family.
Though I started learning Spanish in late adolescence, it wasn’t until being emerged in Cartagena that I truly feel like I am developing an ear for the language. My “nieces” in New York have Spanish-speaking nannies and are learning English and Spanish simultaneously. Living with the host family and hearing Spanish all day is akin to having a nanny, because I know that I’ll be fully taken care of and that my needs will be met even though I can’t understand all of the grown-up talk around me. I feel spoiled, having my meals presented to me, only keeping my room neat because it’s my preference to do so, not having to do my own laundry or clean the bathroom.
The idea of regression to childhood and adolescence seems even more accurate as my body adjusts to this new environment. Though I don’t go so far as to ask for help when wiping, my family here does know when I have intestinal distress. I’ve also had slight skin outbreaks on my body (resolved, except for the constant bug bites I seem to collect) and remember how before I left for Prague back in 2000, Seth gave me some really expensive facial products because he warned me that while traveling your skin can go through hell.
Before departing for Colombia other friends also advised me to bring a few fancy products because while living in a developing country it’s nice to indulge in a shower with expensive soaps after sweating through pollution all day. What was more important though was bringing tampons from the States because the paltry variety available here is expensive. However, another consequence of adjusting to a different environment is missed periods (also resolved!), which shouldn’t have been cause for concern, but paranoia is a persistently invasive bitch.
Though the only way I could have been pregnant would be through miraculous conception (Jesus does stare down at me pretty hard while I sleep), I took two pregnancy tests before I was convinced that it was just my body getting used to a new place and living with new women that messed up my hormonal balance.
I’ve been video-Skyping with my family pretty regularly, so they have virtually met Angelica, Glennis, Maria Andrea and Jorge. It wasn’t until this week though that they met my host mother, Gloria. She showed an intense curiosity for seeing my parents, and lingered at my side while I talked to them. My parents thanked her for taking care of me, and she replied, “A la orden” which is used by people who serve you, to say something like, “At your service” instead of just the customary “de nada” (literally, “it’s nothing” but Spanish’s equivalent of “you’re welcome”).
Gloria told me that I look like my mother, which is undeniable, and how nice my parents seemed. It was good timing for her to see my father because he looks healthy again (the treatments he’s received have thus far been miraculously successful, and we’re all grateful for his wonderful care at Duke Medical Center. Say what you will about the basketball team, but the medical team has been champs). He’s even starting to get the first stubble of facial hair back, which must be reminiscent of puberty, though the hairs coming in are white rather than dark.
It was fascinating for me to see my parents interacting with Gloria. It felt like my birth parents and adoptive mother were meeting for the first time and I was this proud little girl who’s lucky enough to be loved by both sides.
Later that evening over dinner, Gloria told me that even after I leave Colombia, whenever I come back, this will be my home. I assured her that she and her family will always have a place to stay in the States too, even though I know that she will never come – a trip for her and the girls would be prohibitively expensive and very difficult for everyone to get visas. I really meant it though and it was so touching to hear her tell me that I will always have a place to stay here. I imagine coming back one day with my own family (or maybe just a partner), but I know it won’t be the same. Jorge is 87; even if I came back in a year he wouldn’t be the same smiling saint, offering me equal doses of sweets and medicine.
Since I’m avoiding eating sweets this year, medicine is more useful and came in handy this weekend.
Fridays are always tough for me because I wake up at 5:30am and teach two classes starting at 7. This past Friday, I taught three classes in a row because I was subbing for another teacher, and so by the time I got back home, I was ready for a big lunch and a nap.
Lunch was perfectly satisfying: Ajiaco Santafereño, a soup of shredded chicken, potatoes, rice, herbs, and corn on the cob, followed by avocado salad. After socializing with the extended family and guests (I could actually follow along with some of the conversation and contributed to it at times), I excused myself and headed to bed. I caught up with a friend over Skype for about an hour and couldn’t fight my fatigue any longer, so I turned off the lights, drew the curtains, and settled in. It was 5pm and the moment my head hit the pillow, I should have been asleep. Instead, a child’s birthday party in the gazebo across from my apartment started up, complete with an MC guiding the children through songs. Of course, no Colombian party is really a fiesta without 3-foot speakers, so the insufferably loud music and goofy voice of the MC made my nap impossible.
I decided that grading papers might lull me to sleep, but I was too distracted by the initial scratches of a sore throat and some bouts of sneezing to pass out. I figured I just had to rally through the evening, and after receiving an invitation to go to a concert downtown with the godmother/aunt of my host sister – a new Colombian friend! – I hopped in the shower and went downtown for an evening of language exchange and Colombian music.
As we ate our delicious gringo food at Crepes & Waffles, my sore throat progressed and not even the Aromatica tea, a Colombian herbal tea with evaporated and dehydrated sugar cane juice (panela pulverizada), could make it better. We walked through a slight drizzle, an excuse for Cartageneros not to leave the house, and arrived at the concert, which started about 3.5 hours after the time on the ticket indicated.
The venue was freezing and though I would typically be grateful for super pumped up air-conditioning, I was shivering. My sore throat was now more than a scratch and non-stop shaking from the cold exhausted my body. It was very odd feeling chilled during one of the hottest weeks in Cartagena. It became difficult for me to keep my eyes open, so after downing a bottle of Gatorade, I got into a collective taxi to make my way home.
It was a comfort to arrive back to the apartment, and though I only had 1000 pesos left (about 50 cents), I knew that after a night of sweating out my fever, I’d wake up to a family who cares about me. I knew that I’d get another hearty lunch and afterward that I could just return to my room to sleep the sick away. I have no other obligations other than just to get better.
I had a temperature of 100.2, which isn’t terrible, but when you’re away from home, any kind of illness feels more serious than it usually is. The worst part of being sick in a foreign country is feeling like you’re all alone. I know that I am not alone here though, especially since Jorge offered me Colombia’s equivalent of Vicks-Vapo-Rub, which I accepted, and some Colombian acetaminophen. I was hoping for something a bit stronger since prescription drugs are very cheap here and a prescription is not often required (I have not taken advantage of this situation yet but give me your requests and I’ll see what I can do). As cheesy as it sounds, the greatest cure will be the love of my adoptive family and right about now, I’m okay with trading my independence for some good old-fashioned CTC (Cuidado Tierno y Cariñoso).