“Santiago de Cali: Nacio de una sonrisa de Dios,” said the taxi driver on our way to Cali from the airport. Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport is situated about 35 minutes outside of the city, in Palmira. The sun was grazing the mountainside as it fell to rest, granting sights of the radiant colors of dusk across the sky. I felt at home. “Como, Como? Nacio que?,” I asked the taxi driver not understanding what he had said. “Nac-i-o de un-a son-ri-sa de Dios. Nacio como born.” He was trying to tell me that “nacio” means born, though I didn’t understand his accent immediately. Eventually, as I admired the scenic beauty of the sky against the mountains from my window, it clicked. Santiago de Cali: Born from a smile of God.
I arrived in Cali about three weeks ago. Aside from communication barriers due to my very rusty Spanish, adjusting has been surprisingly easy. I suppose I knew what I was getting myself into, having already called Cali home, thanks to a teaching fellowship I completed from 2014-2015. I like to think of my first year spent here in Cali as a test of the waters. I’d learned the ins and out of navigating Colombia not only a foreigner, but a black foreigner. I think part of my initial attraction to Colombia was how vast the African Diaspora is on this land. As a black man, I can quite easily disguise myself as a local; that is, before I speak. Since most Calenos (people of Cali) are accustomed to white foreigners, it’s very common for someone to assume I am from Colombia before I utter a word of Spanish in my stuttered, southern accent. From the natural beauty of the terrain and its people to the energetic sounds of salsa igniting life throughout the city, I was captivated by Cali.
I’d moved back to the United States once my teaching fellowship ended because the fellowship wound up providing very little financial support and professional development. There were opportunities to teach in Cali but I felt I needed more training after my first year teaching English to large groups of beginner-level students. Plus, I needed to save money to support future endeavors. After a few months of hardship finding a job in D.C., I found a government contracting job which afforded me to save and contribute to the household while living with my family. I told myself I would eventually leave D.C. once I’m back on my feet. Over the course of my last two years in D.C., I worked, saved and began studying homeownership as well as entrepreneurship. I had a ton of ideas for businesses and had hoped to launch a company as soon as possible. After doing some market research, I’d decided to delay the launch of a tourism company I’d been working on while I built a stronger brand and team. Loneliness and the stagnation of my pursuits in D.C. left me increasingly unsatisfied with my life there, and I still couldn’t seem to stay away from Colombia.
Despite my absence, my Colombian friends would always find a way to message me to check on me, ask when I’m coming back or let me know I’m missed. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be here. So I’d taken leave from my job to visit Cali for two weeks in 2016 and one week in 2017. It was at the end of my last visit to Cali, that I told myself I’d move back once I found a remote job. It was then that a dear friend of mine in Cali had given me sound advice on the importance of surrender. “When your heart is in something, the universe has a way of taking care of the rest once you learn to surrender.”
I’ve called it the universe. I’ve heard it called humans themselves. I’ve heard the force that moves us all in a divine order called many things. But the way I know it is God. God arranges situations and people on my path to teach me lessons. I don’t always digest the lesson immediately. But when messages gathered begin to naturally align with my intention and reality, my faith grows stronger because of what has already been revealed in my life.
Within the first week of 2018, I’d been offered a remote job as a Web Search Evaluator and secured my spot in a professional development course I’d been wanting to take. Both of which, led me to booking my flight to return to Cali, Colombia. From that moment forth, things seemed to flawlessly fall into place. I put in my two week notice at my government contracting job just in time for a looming government shutdown. I sold my car within minutes of posting it online. I even had a friend who airbnbs his place in Cali while he travels. He just so happened to be traveling during the same dates I’d booked my flight, landing me an apartment with full amenities and all utilities included for $300 monthly. That’s a steal, considering the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. is roughly $1,486.
As tough as it was re-assimilate upon my return in 2015, I am grateful for the sequence of events that led me back to the U.S. for two years after having been immersed in Colombian culture for a year. I hadn’t realized how much Colombia had changed me until I began to adjust to my environment in Washington D.C. There are certain things you don’t notice about yourself and your culture until you step out and watch from a distance. For instance, how we as Americans tend to be quite wasteful. Americans consume the most natural resources and conserve less than people from any other large country of the world. Being around Colombians taught me to pay more attention to the resources I consume. Returning to the states, I’d begun scrutinizing people who were overly concerned with false pretenses. Some people would judge each other based off how excessive they could be with their consumption and spending. Here in Colombia, its quite the contrary. Conservation is highly valued. For instance, I’ve noticed it’s quite normal to unplug appliances before leaving the house and to only run water when necessary. No one is really concerned with what type of car you drive (if you even have a car) or if you have the newest iPhone. Instead, I’ve felt myself being judged when a Colombian friend has gone behind me to unplug appliances before we leave the house, when I spend money out eating instead of cooking at home, or when I’ve left food on my plate at a restaurant.
Colombia is known as the happiest place on earth, and I believe the key to the people’s happiness is their gratitude, humility and their strong relationships with loved ones. No matter how much or little people have in Colombia, they tend to be grateful and generally content human beings, always willing to share what they have. When greeting, most of the time asking a Colombian how they are will return some variation of the response, “Bien, Gracias a Dios.” It seems Colombia has rubbed off on me in the best way possible and I look forward to securing a new life here.