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Colombia, Day 20

I clearly remember several of my first days of school, especially those that involved new schools. I remember my first day of kindergarten, elementary school in Juarez (Mexico), elementary school in El Paso (3rd and 5th grades), middle school, and high school. They were very tough days for me because I was sent into brand new environments and experienced new situations. I even cried for my mom a couple of times, afraid of what I was being sent into.

Little by little, I started adjusting to the new situations and eventually got comfortable. I played all those social games that we play to fit into new groups and social environments and situations. I laughed at people’s jokes. I made some jokes of my own. And I paid attention to what others did and mimicked them so I could pass off as a local.

My Colombian accent is horrible, by the way. And my Mexican Spanish is heavily influenced by my time in the United States. When speaking with people, part of my brain dedicates itself to adjusting my speech so that I make sense. After all, conjugating Spanish verbs in the English way, or viceversa, just doesn’t work too well away from the Spanglish-dominated borderland of El Paso and Juarez. Often times, to make sure that I’m speaking proper Spanish, I find myself hearing my father in my head. I try to emulate his way of speaking, with the side effect that the northern Mexico accent seeps in.

In the 20 days that I’ve been here in Colombia, I’ve learned how public transportation works. Buses are okay, but they can get a little crowded at times. Taxicabs are cheap enough for me (about $2 or $3 per ride) that I just take them from the apartment to anywhere I need to go, with the exception of that brutal walk to the zoo last week. I have also learned that “droguerías” are not just drug stores but stores where you can find almost anything you need, 24/7. Seriously, if you can’t find it there, they probably know where you can find it, and might even help you get it. And I have learned that taxi drivers have a weird sixth sense that allows them to drive all over the road and avoid other vehicles without even looking over or using the mirrors.

Sometimes I wonder if there is an AWACs system in place for them, feeding driving directions through some earpiece or invisible heads-up display.

Also, if you're not riding in a car or a bus, you're riding one of these... At breakneck speeds.

Also, if you’re not riding in a car or a bus, you’re riding one of these… At breakneck speeds.

I’ve also learned that Colombia, like many Latin American countries, is very Catholic. In a bigger sense, it’s very Christian. Taxicabs all have one saint or another on the dashboard. Most of them have some sort of a variation of Jesus Christ as well: a stamp, a print, a crucifix. Before undertaking any trip, people cross themselves. The professor who picked me up at the airport played Christian rock on the way into town. The other professor who picked me up the morning that we went to San Joaquin also played Christian music in his car.

That is all fine and good with me. I grew up in Catholic and Evangelical households. Most everyone on my dad’s side is a very adherent Catholic. And most everyone on my mom’s side is a devout Evangelical. The concept of a higher power — even one who gave His only son as a sacrifice to atone for human imperfections — is an okay concept with me. From time to time, I’ve been known to pray, sometimes using words. It’s a concept that comforts me and allows me to feel like what I do from day to day matters in a bigger sense.

However, I also grew up with a well-engrained sense of the separation between Church and State. It’s not a bad policy to have. If you allow the State to tell you what to worship — or what not to worship — then that state is an authoritarian state that probably meddles in other aspects of your life. We all know how that works itself out. (Spoiler alert: People’s rights get trampled on.) On the other hand, if the Church has a say in the running of a government, then we have a theocracy where those who don’t adhere to the religious beliefs of the ruling church have their rights trampled on.

In essence, I like the separation of Church and State because it protects everyone’s rights more than the alternative. We can worship or not, and no one should mess with us for that reason. We can believe or not believe. We can be free and exercise our God given free will.

See what I did there?

However, I learned that it is perfectly okay for a government official at a government agency to begin a meeting of government employees with a Christian prayer, and that it’s okay for them to then show a music video with Christian music, themes, and slogans associated with it. To be honest, part of me cringed when I witnessed this… And I’m a Christian! Statistically speaking, there must have been at least one non-religious or even atheist person in that room. I wonder how uncomfortable they felt?

The video punched me in the gut for another reason that I won’t go into detail here. Let’s just say there should have been a trigger warning regarding people getting shot and lying on the ground bleeding to death.

Yet these are cultural differences that I need to become accustomed to if I am to work all over the world, as I plan to do in the future. There are going to be more uncomfortable times than comfortable ones. I’m going to be thrown into places and situations that will trigger memories of all sorts… From when I was dropped off at school on my own under the stares of kids who already had a social structure and support, to the time when I’ve seen people dying in front of me.

I’m going to have to learn to deal with all of those things, and I think these 20 days here in Barranquilla have gone a long way toward helping me achieve that. I now know where there is a local park for jogging and walking in the afternoons and evenings. I now where to get groceries and even how to pay bills. I know how to get telephone and cable service. Finding a doctor is not a problem, and neither is getting toilet paper at 2am in the morning. (Don’t ask.)

We humans are incredibly able to adapt to all sorts of situations. When our brains are working “normally” — neurotypically — these uncomfortable things pass and we come to see new things as old. We get accustomed to where we are, and we even mold the new place to fit our needs. It all takes some time. For some it’s a few hours. For others, a few days. Slowly but steadily, I have come to be comfortable here in Barranquilla. While I still stay aware of my environment, I’m much more relaxed. I find myself pulling out my camera and taking pictures of things when before I’d think hard about even pulling out my cellphone.

Today, I’ve made plans to hire a taxicab driver and go for a tour of the whole city, take some great pictures. I hope to be able to post them here later today. (The wifi connection is a crapshoot when it comes to big files.) I only have five full days left after today, and I intend to make the most of them… And get something nice to take back home to my wife.

If you find yourself far from home, far from your comforts, far from your loved ones… Just give it time and remember that you will adapt. You will get the job done. Most of all, remember that people different than you are still people, and the very fact that they are people — regardless of your adherence to an ideology — should dictate that you treat them with respect.

I know you will. My readers always do.

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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.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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1 reply

  1. Courtesy of my military service, I’ve been to quite a few foreign nations over that career.
    What I’ve learned from those experiences was a confirmation of what my mother told me when I was a small child.
    People are people, no matter where you find them. They may loo different, they may speak a different language, but inside, they’re people. They have the same emotions and desires every other human on the planet has, although the culture may have different ways of reacting to stimuli.
    My mother taught me to treat others as I want to be treated, that respect is granted and disrespect must be hard earned.
    That’s worked well in my life, making friends where such was thought impossible by my peers.
    All because I showed the respect due to another human being first and foremost and was actually willing to listen and learn from others.


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