His address on a letter written nineteen years ago is all I have to go by. Dominga’s grandson, he is the godson I knew only as an infant, though he wrote me periodically for many years.
I give the taxi driver the address in Barrio El Carmen, explaining my story. “I don’t know if my godson still lives there.” We locate the street and the house number. Several workers mill about in front of the house, which is being remodeled and is clearly unoccupied.
The driver says, “Ask the neighbors.”
“Do you know what happened to the Castillo Rocha family who used to live here?”
Heads shake. “No, no one by that name. Ask that woman across the street. She’s been here a long time.”
Back in the taxi, I tell the driver, “I have his parents’ address. Can you take me there? It’s in Barrio La Sierra.” This is my last hope.
Street numbers are confusing. 45A, 45B, 45 C. “Where’s 45D?” We ask a passerby. We drive in circles along streets of broken asphalt. A cab driver explains the street numbers were changed, 45D is now 50.
Another slow circle around the block and then… “There it is!”
The driver stops. I pay him, but ask him to wait to make sure I’ve got the right house.
At the padlocked gate, I wave to a figure inside the open front door.
“Haló? Is this the house of the Castillo Rocha family?”
She nods yes.
“I’m Jose’s madrina.”
A young woman I don’t recognize comes to open the gate. I give a thumbs-up to the driver.
Inside I come face-to-face with an exact, but older version of Dominga. It is Herminda, her daughter, now in her eighties. We hug and laugh. The other woman is Consuelo, her daughter-in-law, wife of their son Jorge. They live here, too, along with their disabled daughter, Adriana. Soon Herminda’s husband, Miguel, appears. More hugs. I tell them of my search to find Jose’s house.
“Oh, he moved years ago. Let’s call him on the phone.”
A telephone in this house I remembered as a wooden shack.
Miguel dials and talks to Jose, explaining that his madrina is here. Unexpected. Unannounced. He hands me the phone. What shall I say?
“Hola, Jose. Surprise!”
“Madrina! How good to hear your voice! When did you arrive?”
I explain how I hunted for his house. We decide that I will go in a taxi with his parents in two days time to his house and meet his family. He has to work tomorrow and I have the Peace Corps Commemoration event.
Consuelo brings me a welcome lemonade, and we sit and talk in the breeze of an electric fan. I ask to use the bathroom. A real indoor bathroom.
“Come to meet Adriana.” Consuelo shows me into a bedroom where Adriana’s distorted body is propped on pillows on a bed, an electric fan directed towards her. Her eyes open occasionally. She makes soft grunting sounds. She was born perfectly healthy, Consuelo tells me, but contracted encephalitis at a year’s age. That was eighteen years ago.
“Hola, Adriana,” I say and caress her arm.
“Would you like me to take a picture of her?” I ask.
Her mother nods. I search for the words to tell her how difficult it must be for her to care for Adriana, and am pleased to hear that they have a visiting doctor and therapist. I also notice a folded wheelchair propped in the back patio.
We finalize plans for our visit with Jose. They call me a cab. Miguel warns me to set the price with the driver before leaving.
Thursday afternoon. I hire a taxi and stop to pick up Herminda and Miguel, whom I now realize are both hard of hearing. Miguel directs the driver until we pull up in front of a small, attached, one story house facing an unfenced dirt soccer field.
With only old letters and a twenty year old photo, I have no expectations of what my godson will look like or what kind of person he has become. When a tall, very thin man with dark eyes comes towards me, I can’t hide my surprise. He bears little resemblance to Herminda or Miguel or to his mulatto grandmother, Dominga.
He smiles and nods.
“You’re so thin!”
We hug each other tightly. Although we are virtual strangers, I feel an immediate and deep connection, as if we’ve known each other all our lives. Perhaps, in a way we have through our mutual affection for Dominga. I suspect she is practicing a touch of sorcery from the beyond. In this land of magic realism, anything is possible. Now Jose is a forty-eight- year-old man with four children and a granddaughter.
He addresses me as ‘madrina’ and introduces me to his wife, Evelyn, her mother (whose name I didn’t catch), his seven-year-old, José Miguel (Migue), daughter, Chiara who’s leaving for her nursing job, and Angie, a married daughter, whose toddler naps in a bedroom. Kevin, the sixteen- year- old is out studying, but arrives later, a handsome young man.
We sit in a tiny front patio under two mango trees and talk of our lives and our families. From her cage hung in a tree their parrot Lucía tilts her head as if following the conversation and occasionally contributes an opinion. Several potted plants line the tiled patio, dividing it from their neighbors’. “The plants are Jose’s,” says Evelyn.
“I water them before work,” he says, “and spray Lucía and her cage with the hose while I’m at it.” Later we go to a narrow strip of back patio to see their parakeets and a finch.
“Jose”, I tell him, “we have the same interests.”
His wife remarks that they have a family joke that Jose, due to his narrow face and nose, is really my son, and that I left him with Herminda to care for.
I don’t feel motherly towards him. It’s more like I’ve met a soul mate.
Evelyn calls us in to eat. They’d asked me by phone what my food preferences were. I said, “Authentic Colombian food.” She serves us a plate of typical arroz con pollo, rice mixed with shredded chicken, fried plantain, bollo, a corn roll, and salad. Jose, his parents and I sit at the table set for four.
“Evelyn, aren’t you going to join us?”
“I ate earlier.”
I remember this custom from fifty years ago. Evelyn’s mother doesn’t join us either but spends the evening watching vintage Mexican movies on TV.
After dinner, we move back to the front terrace. Migue puts on his bright yellow soccer shoes and runs to the field to join his team. We share more stories until I notice Jose’s parents getting restless. I consult with Jose and he calls a cab. We’ll meet on Saturday to do some sightseeing if he can change his shift at work as a security guard. We exchange email addresses and phone numbers.
The WI-FI reception at the hotel is irregular, so I call Jose on his cell phone the next day. He’s at work. “Madrina, two of my coworkers are sick, so I can’t get Saturday off to spend with you. I’m so sorry.”
I’m terribly disappointed. The realization of how fond I am of him takes me by surprise. Disparate fragments from a song surface in my mind. I don’t know how to love him, I don’t know how to take this…I don’t know why he moves me….
“And Sunday?” I ask.
“I work half a day.”
“I’d like to take you all out for dinner.”
We agree that I’ll go to his house Sunday afternoon, my last day.
Facing a Saturday with no plans, I arrange with a guide to go bird watching at a national park. I sleep poorly, beleaguered by itching mosquito bites.
Sunday afternoon. Jose, Evelyn, Migue and Kevin, freshly showered, hair still damp, are waiting for me. Evelyn is attractive in a delicate, flowered blouse. They want to show me their neighborhood. We walk the narrow streets, past neighbors chatting on their front patios. Ah, yes. This is the Barranquilla I remember: streets alive with voices of family and friends and loud strains of coastal music pouring from houses, corner shops and restaurants. And I, too, am with family.
After a few blocks, we reach a main street and a mall. I realize this is what they want to show me. We tour the mall, stop for lemonade and head to a large area with rides and games for kids. I buy the boys some tickets and they race off. We laugh, watching them chasing each other in bumper cars. They hook me into playing a shuffle board game. We pose for more photos, one of me with each of them and then all together. They want to eat at the food court and all know exactly what to order.
While we eat, it starts to rain. The wind whips the tree branches into a frenzy. Then the deafening rolls of thunder. A wild tropical storm, like the many I weathered in the past – now on my last night. Lightning strikes and the lights go out in the mall. We’ve come unprepared for the rain and all squeeze into a taxi for the short ride home.
We watch the rain through the open door, while Jose tells me of his struggle to educate his children. Before he took this job as a security guard, he worked for eight years in a coal mine in the Guajira, the northeastern corner of Colombia close to Venezuela.
“What did you do there?” I ask, picturing his thin figure covered with coal dust in a deep dark tunnel.
“I checked the quality of the coal.”
I wonder if that was under or above ground.
“I came home every eight days.”
He is happy with his job now, he tells me, and works overtime, sometimes twelve hour shifts, in order to get ahead.
I want to stop the clock and make these fleeting moments last, but, when the rain lets up, I ask them to get me a taxi. “I must be up early for my flight tomorrow.” Evelyn goes off to look for a cab and returns ten minutes later with a taxi, but not the reliable neighbor taxi driver they’d hoped for. They are not comfortable entrusting me to this strange cab driver.
The entire family – sons, daughters, son-in-law, granddaughter and mother-in-law –gathers to say goodbye. I hug them all. Just before getting into the cab, I turn to Jose and squeeze him tight one last time, burying my face into his neck.
It’s not until the next morning that I see his email. “Madrina, please call and tell me that you arrived at the hotel safely. I am worried.” I attempt to send him an email from the hotel and then from the airport, but am unable to get an Internet connection.
October, 2015, Barranquilla, Colombia