Happy New Year! And how is it possible that it’s already January 11??
At the end of every year, we like to look back on our travels and new experiences over the past 12 months. Here’s last year’s entry, focusing on our most popular posts in 2019. And it was also fun to revisit this post from Dec. 2019, our reflections after our first year of living in Colombia.
But 2020? How do we even start?
We’ve tried to get this post airborne a few times over the last couple of weeks. Our go-to excuse, logistically speaking, is that we moved from Medellín to an outlying town, El Retiro, on Dec. 28 (see more about that below!) and only Friday got up and running with functional internet. But if we’re being really honest, trying to capture the turmoil and anxiety, the highs and lows, the outright craziness of 2020 has been like nailing jello to a wall.
At this point, looking ahead seems a lot more appropriate (and empowering) than looking back. But we can’t let the last extraordinary year go without a little reflection, and before January dissolves into February.
You know what they say about hindsight . . . so here we go with the Latitude Adjustment 2020 Retrospective!
JANUARY-MARCH: The “Old Normal”
We had big hopes and dreams for 2020, and lots of travel plans on the books.
In January, we kicked off our blogging year with one of the most popular posts we’ve ever written. We documented our tour of Moravia, a barrio that has transformed from violent trash heap to one of the city’s’ most vibrant and optimistic neighborhoods. It’s a truly inspiring story and emblematic of Medellín’s phoenix-like rise over the past two decades.
In February, we journeyed to Barranquilla for Colombia’s world-renowned Carnival. As we stood squashed up against scores of other parade attendees and sat amidst hundreds of other sweaty folks in the stands, we hadn’t a clue how much the entire world was about to change.
Also in late February, we were treated to a visit by my (Susan’s) mom, Mary Lea Baker, all the way from Austin, Texas. We had been hearing about the virus that was spreading from Asia to other parts of the world. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful and carefree two weeks visiting some of our favorite places in and near Medellín. Here’s our post about our visit to a flower farm that plays a key role in Medellín’s renowned Feria de las Flores.
In early March, we rented a car, loaded up our dogs, and took what would become our last out-of-town trip for many months – to the quaint and scenic Colombian towns of San Rafael and San Carlos.
MARCH-SEPTEMBER: Locked Down
Pandemic reality began to sink in and we started canceling trip after planned trip (including a three-week journey to Spain and Portugal – that one really hurt). In mid-March, the entire country of Colombia went into a national lockdown with varying degrees of restrictions that lasted until September, when international air travel resumed and jump-starting of the economy began in earnest.
We felt a need to document the extraordinary times in which we we found ourselves and record our experience as U.S. expats living through a global pandemic. So we launched a new blog series: Colombia Expats in a COVID-19 World. We kept it going through June, when it finally became clear that the world would be in this crisis for a very long haul.
Looking back on that series now, it’s a little ironic to see how naive we all were about how long the crisis would last, and how and when we’d be able to get back to our “normal” lives. Here’s the very first entry:
As the pandemic and our restricted lives dragged on, we became riveted by the news back in the U.S. The police murder of George Floyd, the incredibly callous response by the so-called leadership in our home country, and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter movement pushed us to write this post:
SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER: Some Freedom Returns
On Sept. 1, the Colombian government lifted the national quarantine and strict travel restrictions that had kept us home for more than five months. Needless to say, we travel addicts were getting pretty antsy! So we finally took the plunge and bought a car, something we’d resisted for almost two years as Colombian expats. Since it was abundantly clear we wouldn’t be traveling internationally for a while, we decided to change our focus to Colombia and the wealth of sights and experiences within its borders.
First on the list was Barbosa, a scenic village that’s just a short drive north of Medellín at the top of the Aburrá Valley.
Next, we spent a morning exploring another nearby town, El Carmen de Viboral – known for its ceramics workshops.
By November, virus cases in Colombia had started to wane (temporarily, as it turned out – we’re now experiencing another huge surge). Feeling a little more adventurous, we decided to take our first overnight trip since the pandemic began. We chose the beautiful colonial town of Jericó and really enjoyed our long weekend there.
In late November, after canceling yet another trip to the states, we went instead to Cartagena over the long Thanksgiving weekend. This was our first air trip since the pandemic began (and will likely be our last for a while). Our strategy was to stay outside as much as possible and avoid people, which turned out to be easy – Cartagena was practically a ghost town. It was a rare opportunity and an interesting time to visit this normally tourist-saturated city.
DECEMBER: A Change of Scene
From mid-March through the end of April, the Colombian economy was almost completely shut down. With so many people unable to make a living and feed their families, there were few silver linings during that period. But one of them was the QUIET. We could hear ourselves think. The air cleared, and amazing bird life flew into the city. The streets were almost empty of traffic for our twice-daily (allowed) dog walks. It was bliss.
As things opened back up, we noticed a change in our Medellín neighborhood. Instead of one or two fruit vendors a day, there were at least 10, many bellowing over megaphones (AGUACATE, AGUACATE!). People were selling everything from “bolsas, bolsas!” (plastic trash bags) to “trapeadores y escobas!” (mops and brooms) to cell phone accessories. With their normal gigs (bars and nightclubs) still shut, suddenly there were herds of street musicians, including full mariachi bands and singers with varying degrees of talent (some of them excellent and entertaining). We certainly don’t blame any of them; people suffered terribly during the shutdown and now they were desperate to feed their families any way they could. But, combined with the return of the usual hordes of motos, diesel-smoke-belching trucks, and construction noise from across the street, the din was incredible. By December, we’d had enough.
We set our sights on moving out of Medellín to one of the small neighboring pueblos to the east, an area known as “El Oriente.” After ruling out the towns of Rionegro and San Antonio de Pereira, we lucked into a beautiful rental duplex in historic and scenic El Retiro, about a 45-minute drive from the city and only 30 minutes from the international airport.
There’s so much else we want to say about this lovely place and its rich history, and we’ll do it in an upcoming post. For now, we’re basking in the cool, clean highland air (at 7,000 feet), the incredible greens of the surrounding mountains, and some of the bluest skies we’ve seen in a while. And the PEACE AND QUIET? It’s paradise.
So far, 2021 doesn’t feel very auspicious. COVID-19 is still raging out of control in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, and Colombia is grappling with surging cases after the excesses and partying of the holidays. And it’s been difficult to watch the ongoing chaos in the U.S. as the current administration comes to an ignominious close. Like so many Americans, we’re still reeling from the horrific events just a few days ago, when a violent mob overwhelmed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol. What’s going to happen between now and inauguration day on the 20th?
But eternal and cockeyed optimists that we are, we know that better days are around the corner. With the Biden-Harris administration taking over in a few days, the U.S. can begin the long process of damage repair, healing, and reconciliation. Now that effective vaccines have been approved and are being distributed in countries around the world, there’s growing light at the end of the COVID tunnel. Colombia has an orderly plan for vaccination in place, with the first shots to begin in February. We’re hopeful (maybe confident is too strong a word) that we’ll be able to resume international travel by the second half of the year.