Opening up personal “in-roads” is harder than I thought

Hiking trail in Pionon Ecological Park, Sopo, Colombia

What is new, what’s familiar and what is a result of the habits I’ve grown accustomed to for most of my life are all blending into one undistinguishable reality. As a friend aptly suggested, it’s an emotional ‘sancocho’ (in reference to a traditional Colombian soup made of all kinds of ingredients.)

It’s been close to a month since the big move ‘back home’, and I’m starting to feel those massive emotional tectonic plates move. It has come in waves of sudden tears, impatience, a mini identity crisis, but what’s been most difficult is that feeling that things are starting to ‘normalise.’

Indeed, staying alert and listening with new ears, seeing with new eyes is becoming a trickier task by the day. Whether it is a defence, adaptation or simply a “human” mechanism; the ability to stay awake to the many layers of transition, learning –or unlearning and overall change, seems to decrease proportionally to the number of mornings I experience in my ‘old shoes’ –this often means literally wearing shoes I’ve inherited from my mother to stay warm inside the house!

This process has become apparent in my daily interactions with others and my futile attempt to go beyond what each experience is meant to bring.

During the first few days, I was pleasantly reminded of the warmth of people and was very aware that making eye contact and greeting everyone with intention made a big difference; and so while I went for my morning runs, I’d greet everyone. I even played a blind eye to the men honking and whistling on the street (catcalling is the name of the game for women in public spaces here.)

As the days have gone by, my neighbours are more familiar with my presence and I’m less willing to spend the extra breathing air to greet every single one. Furthermore, the harassment is less easy to ignore but in a twisted kind of way also becomes ‘normal’. It is the paradox of learning the inappropriateness of a social normal you grew up with; and being outraged but quickly giving up because you realise you simply can’t change it –at least not during a morning run.

But then it is in random situations, when I’m least trying, that the ability to connect with other humans returns. Yesterday, while traveling in a cab, with no prompting, the driver started telling us about his town; how his neighbours had organised to look after each other by creating a numbering system for their homes to easily communicate if someone needed help; and that he was so very proud of the touristic attractions the town has been able to develop in the last 5 years. Just like that I was taken back to that place where things are possible when people come together and care for each other. Not a feeling that was old or new, simply an emotion that only in my most optimistic days I’m really able to connect with. And it wasn’t because I was trying to make an extraordinary connection; or come up with a theme for my next blog that this spark of humanity occurred. It was because I entered into a conversation and listened without expectation or judgment –it might have helped that we had just completed a beautiful hike and my brain was clearly in an ‘open mode.’

Connecting with other humans in Bogota, and the country at large at the moment, means acknowledging that our neighbouring country Venezuela is undergoing great suffering. Almost every single time I’ve taken a public bus, there has been a person from Venezuela asking for help. The first time, the opening line surprised me: “good afternoon…” followed by a deafening silence, and a quick revert back by our visitor “who is going to greet me back?.” At the time, I thought, that’s a very good point, why can’t we greet back? Have we lost our manners, let alone our humanity? And so I joined the few who responded ‘good afternoon’ with gravity and almost self-righteousness.

The act repeats itself every day, and not until someone greets back does the story, largely of desperate times, begins. Over time, the introduction has lost its appeal and I’ve began accustomed to the ‘motions’ of saying ‘good morning or good afternoon’ and then going on auto pilot as the stories unfold while very few pay attention. This has reminded me of how quickly we become used to, and often times immune to the other people’s pain. No wonder news channels struggle so much to keep us paying attention and use all kinds of mechanisms so that we don’t do what I’m starting to do in the bus, and either turn to the next story or simply ignore what we are hearing because we’ve heard it before.

Luckily, the universe has ways of waking us up, and again, when I least expected it, something lit my seemingly dormant senses. During a recent visit to the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation, I was swiftly and painfully reminded that social turmoil and pain has been part of this country for many decades; and this has been part of my story too; thus shaping how I see (or don’t) the world and the reality around me. As I was walking around the exhibition, a small display caught my eye. It described how families in the 80s didn’t travel by land for fear of kidnapping. It took me back to my childhood and the many conversations at the dinner table about why we couldn’t go on holiday –flying was not affordable, and how despite the disappointment of those years, we simply made alternative plans and moved on. It was such a simple reality which in hindsight, and seeing in a museum, strikes as undeserved and sad.

Yet, we were the lucky ones; many Colombian families experienced unbearable tragedy during those years; and what brought me to tears in the museum was the countless number of cases of disappearances and murders; particularly of social leaders and politicians wanting to do something to change things. I felt deep sadness and anger. I cried and my heart cracked a little. Though the sadness was real, tears came from a place of hope, respect and profound admiration for those who have tried to contribute to the place where they lived.

Today, I am traveling from the country side into the city and will try very hard not to succumb to hopelessness while entering the traffic jam which seems to swallow the city whole every morning, I will try to stay open and optimistic but I will also try less hard to see things with new eyes. Today I will simply go about my day and remember that I am another member of society who cares and that no act is meaningful or meaningless, it is simply a part of the day and that if any of it leads to an opening I should follow it but not force it.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

Marcela Guerrero Casas

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I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.