I went back to Mampujan in the beginning of January. After rushing to get leave Sincelejo early, I waited for an hour for the bus to fill, my stomach already full of butterflies. During the trip, a suitcase fell on my head from the overhead compartment. By the time I finally arrived, sweaty and flustered, Gabriel and Alex had left without me to visit a neighbouring community. Everything, from bus ride to arrival to feeling twelve steps behind, felt exactly the same.
Sure, the kids are all a little taller, but the same youth are still hanging out in front of the store, the same vendors are selling fruit at the town entrance, the same people greeted me all down the street leading to my old tiny house, and the same awkward conversations about the weather in Canada were held over and over when we ran out of things to say.
Yet, when I mentioned Lucho, who had painted his house to look like the Red Cross, and then repainted it when it quickly became a local landmark, the Lucho who asked me to take a special picture of him with his new teeth, the man who had accompanied the movement of the Alta Montaña with the truck he bought with his reparations, and whose greetings would echo down the street whenever I walked by, I was told that he had passed away from cancer the previous week.
My first week living in the community, I went on an accidental date with Marcos. When he brought me fresh corn and invited me to go to the plaza, I frantically tried to get some other young people to come along. Through a series of mishaps, however, I ended up hanging out alone with Marcos all evening in Maria la Baja, listening to his theories on US politics and witchcraft and eating banana ice cream.
When I got home, Alex and Juana were waiting for me. They sat me down at their table and explained that when a girl goes out on the back of a boy’s motorcycle more than three times, talk starts. I had two chances left. Also, Marcos was already living with someone else. So maybe I should use those chances a little more wisely…
Strangely, we stayed friends. I would go over to visit when I was sure Eliana was also home. We watched Mexican soap operas, ate mangoes, and listened to Marcos talk about everything and nothing. I celebrated with them when they were able to move out of their mud brick house into a new cement home across the street.
Last week, I sat on the porch of their house and bounced their nine month old son on my knee. I could not stop congratulating them as they beamed with all the joy and pride in the world.
Sebastian and Estebana were the first to share a part of their reparations with me, in the form of two freshly laid eggs from the hen they had purchased with their money. I would visit the elderly couple often to share in their zest for life, even though that life was not easy. Estebana could not have children. Sebastian’s adult children from a previous relationship were difficult. Displacement was hard and their house was falling down around them.
The first time I met Estebana, she hugged me in the middle of the road and promised to make me a bollo the very next day. We got to know each other seated in plastic chairs in front of her house, as she regaled me with tales of her first airplane flight. Sometimes, she would sing me the songs she was famous for, of thanksgiving or encouragement for other members of the community.
This time, when I ran into Estebana at the store, she hardly knew me and seemed impossibly old. Everyone I visited remarked that her nerves had taken a turn for the worst. Later, I lay on her bed next to her, trying to respond to the call of Sebastian from the next room to: “Comfort her, comfort her, Anna!” All I could do was remind her of the joy that she had always given me with her presence and her songs, even though she could no longer remember the words. That we loved her, even when she told me she felt alone and abandoned, by her community and her God.
And then I left, to go back to my “normal” life, where suitcases don’t fall on my head and nobody hugs me on the street.
There is an incredible privilege involved in arriving and leaving, simply because I can, that has allowed these lives to be intertwined with mine, both in joy and in sorrow. I am tempted to not go back again, to allow my memories of Mampujan to fade into romanticized sepia images of days in the creek and peace marches. But to forget to feel uncomfortable and to refuse to recognize change is also a privilege, one that wipes out relationships and what it truly means to be part of the life cycle of a community, in death, in confusion, and especially in the celebration of new life.
In memory of Estebana, Lucho and in celebration of baby David, here is Estebana in all her glory at the beach.