Journey to the Unknown

On board Avianca flight #98, I’m headed to Bogotá and then Barranquilla. The map on the screen on the seat back in front of me indicates we are over the desert of northern Chile – in spectacular flower.

I’m in a state of disbelief. Returning to Barranquilla after 48 years. When I was 23 or 24. I feel I’m returning to my past. Diaphanous clouds of memories drift in my head, of other flights, landscapes and faces of people I knew then: barrio friends, boyfriends.

It will all be changed now. Google maps and Streets reveal my old barrio, once a shanty town- invasion barrio, now looks more solid. Some streets are paved! Will they have running water now? Indoor toilets? Will I locate my friends Petra, Fidelia, Dominga’s daughter or my godson Jose?

And I have changed, now a white-haired grandmother. Will they recognize me? This is a journey to many unknowns. The people and places that populate my nostalgia no longer exist as I remember them. Will I be disappointed? My shadowy memories must confront reality or make peace with it. I’m reluctant to give up those visual scenes in my head from five decades ago. The airplane magazine reveals a modern Colombia of malls and pricey condos, like my home, Santiago. The scenes sadden me, but the past and the present must meet – a gap I must bridge.

I am not the same person now, not just physically. In my memories I’m 22, 23, naïve but idealistic. Young, single, and ruled by raging hormones in that sultry, suffocating, relentless climate. I went there to give of myself. What can I give now?

We land in grey, cloudy Bogotá. I feel tears welling up. I’m on Colombian ground once more. I wend my way through the enormous airport to find my connection to Barranquilla. The flight is just over an hour. The landscape I view from my window tells me we’re getting close: the wide, meandering Magdalena River, broad expanses of flat marshy countryside.

A mass of hot air envelops me as I emerge from the Barranquilla airport, the searing, humid climate I remember so vividly. I look around for Bob who said he’d try to meet me there. Soon I’m the only passenger left so I board a small yellow taxi which careens, honking, through heavy traffic on unfamiliar streets. “What barrio is this?” I ask the driver, but the name means nothing. I feel a complete stranger visiting the city for the first time, a city I once knew so well. Only the iconic El Prado Hotel, sixty-five years old, as elegant as I recall, is familiar. In the lobby, some gringos look at me and ask, “Peace Corps?” With relief, I learn they are staff, and they offer to take me to the Peace Corps office to meet others who gathered for the event commemorating twenty-five years of Peace Corps in Colombia. Volunteers returned to Colombia just five years ago after a long absence for security reasons.

I no longer feel lost and alone.

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