I arrived in Barranquilla, Colombia, early on Monday. One of the teachers at the local university where I am going to be teaching and working picked me up at the airport. The first thing I noticed was the extreme heat. It was extreme for me after a week of relatively cooler temperatures in Pennsylvania. As I stepped out of the plane, I noticed the wave of hot and humid air hit me and almost instantly make me sweat. It was impressive.
We drove into town (the airport is about five or six miles south of the city), and the next thing I noticed was that driving was an adventure. Road signs were more like suggestions than actual indications of what was expected of the driver. People honked their horn to warn others of their presence, a constant thing that had to be done since no one seemed to want to stay in their lanes. The roads were shared by cars, motorcycles, big trucks, buses, and horse-or-mule-drawn carriages.
No one seemed to notice the heat.
We arrived at the building where I rented an apartment through AirBnB. The building was guarded and you had to be buzzed in. This is something I have noticed of other places around Barranquilla, remnants of a time when organized crime ruled, yet necessary because there is still plent of petty crime or crimes of opportunity. There seems to be daily robberies of homes left unattended or of people who extract very large sums of money from an ATM and walk down the street counting it. Then again, some people have the situational awareness of a turnip.
I grew up in Juarez and currently go to school in Baltimore after working there for six years as well. I have become more and more aware of my surroundings, enough to know when someone is paying extra attention to me. So I plan to use that plenty while I am here. However, there has been a sharp decline in the number of serious crimes and murders in Barranquilla partly because of an improved economy, partly because of more involvement from the police in the community, and partly because all the heavy drug trade has moved to Mexico. No one fights for this territory so close to the Caribbean any more.
The apartment was just as it was advertized, small and cozy, a studio apartment with a washer and dryer, a gas stove, a fridge that doesn’t seem to catch up with the heat, and a small air conditioning unit which tries its best to keep up. A television and small wifi unit round it out. The bed was a little stiff, but it is still comfortable. The sounds from the street can be heard, but all I had to do was put the air conditioning unit on high to get some really good white noise.
Once I took control of the apartment, my first order of business was to secure provisions. I walked a couple of blocks to a general store where I got some essentials. Toilet paper and soap were my biggest concerns. I also got some eggs, local sausage, bread, butter, coffee, sugar, milk, and cheese. I threw in a couple of dry bags of pasta in case I got homesick for something like that. A bag of iced tea mix rounded out what I needed for the day. After I put everything away, including my clothes and what I packed with me, I called my wife and checked in with her.
Growing up, my mom and dad taught me to not miss people. They said that missing people was a negative feeling that should be avoided. While they agreed that it is difficult to control whether or not you will miss somebody, they said that missing someone just clouds up judgment and makes us lose sight of the task at hand. Well, though I tried hard, I could not help but miss my wife very much. We have been married for five years and together for nine. In all that time, I have been away from her no more than a week (when I went to Korea last year). So it was with some sadness that I talked to her and told her how much I wished she had come with me on this adventure. But she has work to do back home, and I would not have been able to look after her most of the time because I would be working. We agreed that maybe she will join me over a weekend while I am here.
At the end of the day, I turned the fan on to high, shut down the television, and fell into a deep sleep. I was tired from the trip and did not wake up until my alarm went off the next morning. As I write this, I am getting ready to go over to the university and start work. The prospect of all that and getting to know this city, feel every quiver of its beating heart, is making my homesickness fade. That, and some Colombian coffee that I picked up at the store. That stuff is strong.
I will try to check in every few days… Maybe throw in a Talking Tuesday and whatnot.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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