As the age-old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
A little over a week ago, I decided that I was going to ask my host mom Gloria and our empleada Glennis if it’d be possible to lay off the fried foods and all the dairy for a while (I get served whole milk mixed with Milo at dinnertime) because I don’t feel like I’m making as much progress towards my goal of getting fit as I’d like to. Though I’ve been regularly exercising and just bought a pair of weights as a birthday present to myself, I haven’t been seeing the changes I should because every day I’m served some kind of deep-fried traditional Colombian food.
I gathered my courage, looked up all relevant words in the Spanish dictionary, and was hoping not to offend with this request. However, instead of having to ask for a temporary halt to the fried food onslaught, I caught a debilitating stomach virus. During the rainy season here, viruses run rampant, and I’d fallen victim to one that kept me in bed with a fever and Rosemary’s Baby-style stomach cramping for three days. Upon doctor’s orders, I was restricted from fried foods and dairy for about a week – I was going to lose weight the easy way, with diarrhea!
Aside from a few hours of vacantly finding my way to the only clinic in the city that takes my international insurance, I didn’t leave the house for four days. On the fourth night of my illness, I also got cabin fever. I decided to go over to my friend Yonatan’s place to get a change of scenery. Yonatan had come with me to the doctor the day before as my interpreter even though he was also sick with a bad cold, and to make matters worse, he had to sit through the questioning at my exam, which included hearing information about the color and consistency of my stools. It only seemed right that I go over to his place and force him to gargle with salt water (hacer gárgaras) and give him some packets of good old-‘Merican Emergen-C.
Gloria gave me suspicious looks when I told her I was leaving for a little while (she’d taken to standing vigil at the bathroom door and every time I came out she’d ask if I had diarrhea – maybe she’s got a shart chart somewhere). My fever was still low-grade and would be for another couple of days, and so I took a Dolex (Colombia’s version of Tylenol), packed a bottle of Pedialyte (which I tried to imagine as a delicious cocktail and now have a taste aversion to because I drank so much of it), and an apple, which Gloria told me to peel first so that the skin wouldn’t upset my stomach.
Maybe it was the fever, but I had the giddiness of a little kid going on a field trip, even though I was only going to a neighborhood five minutes away. Cartagena is such a small town that the directions to the taxi driver were to go to the Catholic church in the Nuevo Bosco neighborhood, and he knew exactly where to take me.
Like most unmarried Colombians, Yonatan still lives with his family, and so upon arriving to his house, I was introduced to his father, uncle, grandmother and various maids and nurses who care for the house and his ailing grandmother. Though slightly delirious, I appreciated the Colombian warmth with which his family greeted me. Like most Colombian families I’ve come into contact with, Yonatan’s family really enjoyed the sit-around. This is when you just sit around, not really doing anything, not really focused on anything in particular, and you just chat about whatever comes up. Every morning at my house, two neighbors drop in to have a sit-around with Gloria and Jorge, drinking their morning coffee together and chatting. Over the weekends, it’s normal for a few extended family members to come over and do the same, and I can count on at least one of them falling asleep at some point in the visit.
As I sat with Yonatan’s grandmother and made small talk, because that’s about all I can do with my limited Spanish, I started to feel the very restless American feeling of not knowing when an appointment will be over, what’s expected from me, or how to express that I had a fever and all I really wanted to do was zone out and watch TV. Rather than running the risk of insulting her somehow, I sat through the visit and just smiled as much as possible and attempted to show how happy I was to be in her house.
Though I grew up in the South, where manners are essential (when I’d come back from being at a friend’s house, my mother would make sure to ask me if I remembered to say “please and thank you”), I sometimes forget the heavy weight placed on good manners here. Maybe it’s part of the Latino culture in general, but in Cartagena, manners are everything, which is surprising given how much people here also make little jokes at each others’ expense. You give up your seat on the bus to the elderly or a woman with a baby, but you also endearingly call a chubby little girl “gorda” (which literally means fat). You open the door for others but also tell someone that they stunk up the bathroom. You eat politely (albeit rapidly) and greet everyone who comes in or goes out of the house but you also have to take it when your host mom good-naturedly blames your virus on infecting everything from the fan in your room, which suddenly stopped working, to her nephew who’s now sick with the same symptoms you had. You stop and chat with neighbors and let them touch your arm and figure out the appropriate way to show them warmth and kindness while they make fun of your __________ (fill in the blank).
As I was leaving my friend’s place, I briefly spoke with his father who was watching TV (the screen flashing every few seconds, which will eventually induce seizures in whoever is watching it) and then Yonatan shuffled me out. I forgot to say good-bye. Once we were outside, away from earshot, he scolded me, reminding me that I need to be more polite to his family because they notice those little things and I should remember to say hello and goodbye, at least. I didn’t have any excuse for my oversight, aside from the fact that I usually just follow the leader and since Yonatan was already outside, I went out after him and didn’t look back. Also, since my Spanish is still so bad, I sometimes feel invisible and exempt from having exemplary manners.
Now, in an effort to be less invisible and better understand the cultural norms, I am making more of an effort to improve my Spanish. I’ve decided to attempt a month of only speaking Spanish, outside of speaking English in my classes and to friends/family in the States (thanks to fellow World Teach volunteer Zach for the suggestion). Otherwise, I will speak Spanish only with my friends here and with anyone else I come into contact with. Limiting my English will certainly be a struggle and I know that it will be difficult to express myself, but I also think that it is the only way I will really see improvements in my language skills.
I get to put start practicing tomorrow when Lindsay and I leave our little comfortable nest in Cartagena and fly to Manizales, which is in the coffee growing region. Even though I don’t normally drink coffee, I will surely make an exception to taste what is purportedly the best in the world. We’ll tour coffee growing farms, see the world’s tallest palm trees, bathe in thermal waters, and be a lot colder than we are here in Cartagena. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but my birthday wish is not to come back with a new virus as a belated birthday present, but rather with renewed vigor and enthusiasm for being as present here as possible and courage for starting my month-long Spanish-only experiment! If you want to wish me luck, do en español!