I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it means to be an extranjera in Cali. And not just an American woman passing through the hostal scene with my backpack. But one who really has fallen hard for this city. One who dreams of calling it her own city. I know it’s not and it will never be mine. But I like to dream of it. Everything that adds to the illusion of my belonging her is welcomed with opened arms. Running into friends on the street absolutely makes my day because it reaffirms my sense of place. Whipping out my frequent buyer card at the supermarket or my local ID card (which is extra cool because you have to be somewhat official to get one) makes me glow with pride. Hopping on the bus with my bus pass and chatting on my Colombian cell phone leave me feeling special…special in a “I’m just another girl in the crowd” kind of a way. Except that even while I am trying my very best to blend, I will never ever be just another girl in the crowd in Cali. My friend Delana has been living in Cali for over a year. She originally came here on vacation (from Santa Cruz), fell in love with the city, and moved back to study Spanish and salsa dancing. She also teaches yoga which is how I originally met her. Delana’s story is not uncommon here. Where as Cali is just another big, bustling, sweltering city for many of the tourists who pass by, those who take the time to see beneath the surface often fall in love. How many extranjeros have I met who get a dreamy look in their eyes when they talk about Cali? And not just extranjeros- Caleños get it too. One of my favorite conversation starters is to ask someone if they were born and raised in Cali. Nearly 100% of the time they puff out their chest, get a sparkle in their eyes, and very proudly claim to be “Caleño Caleño” as opposed to just one Caleño which might mean you are from a nearby town or relocated from another city.
But the reason I brought up Delana is that she recently headed back to The States for a holiday visit and one of the first things she was surprised by was this: “I actually miss being openly ogled by strangers. (How rude! Don’t they see how hot I am?!)” It’s hilarious because it is absolutely true. As annoying as it can be to be constantly watched, the attention has become the new norm. And it would be a lie to say that I didn’t sometimes (or often) enjoy the heads that turn when I walk into the room. But along with the excitement of being so different comes the undeniable fact that I can never truly belong here. I will always be an outsider. So what would it mean to build my life in Colombia? I have friends, I have a community- many locals and many extranjeros…but now that I have been here for 4 months the first of my close extranjero friends are starting to leave. People who have been part of my social circle nearly since I arrived, people who, for me, have been part of the Cali landscape. And now it is changing. And I realize that it is only a teensy tiny taste of what life is like for the Caleños who have opened their hearts to me- the constant coming and going of people. How do they do that? How can they be so genuinely open and welcoming to me if I am just another extranjera who will leave? And what if I didn’t leave? Or what if I came back? What is I built my life here? What would it mean to build my life in a place where I am always an outsider, where I am always part of a culture that will never quite be my own? I am sure that I have no idea. Of all the time I have spent abroad, even in Brazil where I really did immerse myself, I have never had the experience of calling a foreign place home. But there are a lot of people in the world who do just that…in fact my own step mother (from Germany) and my step father (from Mexico) did just that. I grew up surrounded by people who were doing just that and I was never even really aware of what it meant. I’m not saying I am planning on staying in Colombia forever (don’t worry family!) But this might be the first time I could actually imagine that as a possibility. And it makes me see Cali in a different way.
Tomorrow I head to the North Coast for a vacation (from all this intense work I have been doing…) on the beach with one of my best friends from San Francisco. It is the same area of Colombia where Cameron and I ended out year-long trip just about 3 years ago. It will be interesting to return there- but I can’t think of a better person to do it with that Sarah. Off for some good old fashioned girls time. =)