Mongui, Boyaca, is truly beautiful. This admission comes as no surprise to its residents. After all, they proudly proclaim, the town has been declared, year after year, as the most beautiful pueblo in the department. The streets and the cobblestone plaza are lined with colonial buildings painted in green and white and adorned with geraniums hanging in clay pots. The picturesque town is only made more lovely by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, filled with lush green fields and farmsteads. The people are calm and polite, friendly but still reserved. Everyone uses usted and Andean formality is expressed in every gesture and greeting.
The best part, however, is the paramo three kilometres away. Where else can you wander around hundred year old plants above the treeline, drink from crystal clear streams, hear stories of cave dwelling elves, and make it back in time for trout dinner? With a lookout point that reaches 4000 metres, any shortness of breath can of course be blamed on the altitude, not physical fitness levels.
This weekend, I shared Mongui and the paramo with a visiting aunt, uncle and cousin. As always, conversations over empanadas whirled around life and experiences. What are our expectations for our lives? What does it mean to travel in another place, with those expectations?
As I reflect on my time in Colombia, the most important moments have been the encounters with the people I have had the privilege to meet and work with. From crazy in Mampujan to my office in Bogota, I know people’s stories in a way that a simple jumping from tourist destination to destination can never allow. These experiences have in turn shaped my expectations as to what it means to live somewhere else.
In many ways, compared to Mampujan, Bogota feels like it could be any big city in Canada. Sure, we speak Spanish and eat more deep fried food on the street, but other than that, life seems normal. At first, everything was amazing. Privacy! Running water! Fresh fruit! Fast internet! Coffee shops! Regular work hours! Free time! Yet, somewhere along the line, I started feeling less than legitimate because everything seemed a little too easy compared to the expectations I formed because of Mampujan.
When I really reflect, however, the sharing of joys and sorrows that make up life anywhere are the elements that I want to matter. Whether attending a funeral in Bogota or laughing over lunch in the backyard at work, I am in a place where I can delve deeply into what it means to be human in a specific context and location. I cannot overlook the beauty of where I am simply because it seems less than foreign. It is a good thing to get used to a context, to reach a point where that place is simply where I live.
I have written extensively in the last year about the contrasts between Mampujan and Bogota. It is been a challenging transition, but I am so glad that I have had the privilege to intimately know life in both scenarios. Perhaps the way joy is expressed in Bogota, with its urban Andean culture, is different from the Caribbean Mampujan, but it is no less valid. It is part of my work of living here to learn to see the beautiful in what has become ordinary. A shared meal, a radio show, gestures of solidarity, laughter between cubicles, free concerts on the street, flowering trees on the Parkway, a neighbour feeding soup to a homeless man: these are only a few examples of the myriad ways life in the city also reflects what it means to be alive.
Even though it is not as dramatically different, the beauty of Boyaca is no less than that of the Montes de Maria. Mongui is not Cartagena. To expect it to be the same is to shortchange both locations. Each place has its own distinctiveness, but sometimes finding it means looking deeper and changing my expectations. In Boyaca, it may mean hiking for seven hours to arrive at the summit of a paramo. In my office it may mean being intentionally present for the small, yet vital, moments of connection in the kitchen or between cubicles.