Colombia was never at the top of my bucket list. I would have far rather traveled to Vietnam, or even return to Morocco. But then Sarita called one morning in March. I thought she was going to ask about work, and I was ready to tell her I had to call her back later that evening. But that was not the reason for the phone call: I was invited to Medellin.
There is a great difference between traveling with friends to places that are new to both of you and traveling with friends to their homes. In the second case, the journey becomes twofold: an exploration of place through the lens of that person’s experience and an exploration of that person herself. And so it was on our trip to Jerico and Medellin, where Sarita was born. She moved to Portland when she was still a young child during the Escobar era and began traveling back to see family at the age of 17. Her parents returned to Medellin while she was in college and have since moved to a small town in the mountains, called Jerico, the hometown of her grandfather, her father’s father, who had won the lottery as a small boy and bought a coffee plantation. He later became the mayor.
Sarita and I left Miami, where we had both been for work, on a Friday afternoon in March. The night before, we drank cheap Chardonnay while sitting in Adirondack chairs under the magnificent Herzog & de Meuron canopy at the Perez Foundation. My departure had been a whirlwind. I worked late the night before my flight, and I found myself, well past midnight, throwing clothes into a bag. The Perez brought upon us that sense of arrival.  We looked out at the water and talked about our families and our dreams. Later, we played ping-pong and fell asleep in front of a bonfire at The Standard Hotel.
We landed in Medellin that evening.  Arriving in a new place at night is always encased in a sort of blissful ignorance – the ebullience of being a stranger in a strange land without having to face the complexity of specifics. Sarita’s parents picked us up at the airport and, through the darkness, we drove to her cousin’s farm about an hour outside the city: La Finca. We met her aunt (La Negra) and uncle and slept that night in a small guest cottage just wide enough for two twin beds. We awoke to the din of rain on the tin roof and ran across the driveway to the main house, where we ate eggs from the farm and arepas, which we buttered and topped with thick slices of queso. La Negra was overjoyed when I admitted I was Catholic and recently engaged. I had to go to the shrine of St. Laura in Jerico, she said, and pray for my marriage. I promised her I would.
Before we left for the city, Sarita and I walked the grounds of La Finca. It was still raining, and Sarita carried an orange umbrella. We passed an avocado tree and stopped at the end of the path, where a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, just like the one in the backyard of my grandparents’ house in Sheepshead Bay, was surrounded by a field of bamboo. Look how quickly it grows, Sarita said, pointing out the green shoots. I sensed a vulnerability in her that was new to me.
On the drive to Medellin, the sharp, modern landscape came into focus as we turned round a mountain. Our first stop was the Museo de Arte Moderno, which was closed for renovation. We had a coffee and took a taxi to the botanical gardens, a wondrous maze of jungle and wildlife contained within a concrete cylinder, and then headed to the Museum of Antioquia, where we wandered through the collection, taking in the strong modernist sculpture and Botero’s corpulent nudes. As we took a cab to Sarita’s grandmother’s house, driving parallel to the mountains and watching Medellin unfold in front of us, I could sense that this was a city that had transformed itself.
That afternoon, we set off for Jerico. I remember thinking that the best moments of any trip take place in the car, a microcosm of the travel experience. As we snaked up the hill to the town, under a canopy of trees, we saw a mountain emerge from the skyline that was perfectly triangular. It disappeared and reappeared with the fog. Sarita’s mother told stories about Sarita as a child – the time she insisted on wearing red lipstick to kindergarten and then cried when all the boys chased her for a kiss; that she would throw a birthday party for Sarita whenever she requested one, which was only a few times, but still. We laughed.
Finally, after nightfall, we arrived. Jerico was a perfect grid, all the buildings no taller than two stories except the cathedral, which presided over the main square and the houses that snaked out from that central heart of the town. I laughed at the perfect synchronicity of the whole thing. Each house was painted in a different set of bright colors. Small porches with intricate wood latticework careened over the narrow roads and telephone wires snaked overhead, slicing black lines through the landscape. Inside, the ceiling in her family’s kitchen was open to the sky.
The next day, Sarita had an errand she needed to take care of and so I wandered off to find the cathedral. As I climbed the hill outside her house, I could just make out the turrets over the rows of homes. I followed them, taking a left turn and then a right. I repeated to myself the color combinations of the houses on the corners where I took the turns: green, red, white. Blue, yellow, orange. Finally, I arrived at a church. Looking behind me, I saw the cathedral and realized I had followed the wrong turrets. This was the Church of St. Laura.  Inside, the silence was full and dense. I was alone. There, at the front, was Laura, her gaze cast outwards towards the empty pews, arms outstretched, Grecian features and nun’s habit. I sat for a while. I thought of how much had changed, and how much remained the same. There were moments in the past, I was sure, that I had been achingly conscious of the fact that I was happy. But at some point in the recent past that I couldn’t quite identify, those sorts of feelings had lost their edge, their deliriousness. Is that significant, I asked Laura? Laura’s upward gaze did not falter nor did her soft smile fade. After staying far longer than I had expected I would, I stepped out of the church, blinking rapidly in reaction to the searingly vivid skies.
On my last day, Sarita and I rode out to the coffee plantation. Together, we learned that coffee beans are first red berries (“cherries”) that grow on small plants with deep green foliage. They bloom in white flowers. You can suck out their flesh; it tastes so unexpectedly sweet. The berries are pushed through a funnel with strong water pressure, separating the skin from the bean within. We watched as beans were laid out to dry by a young man and his father, who’s tanned bodies cut strong silhouettes against the mountains behind. Later, Sarita translated as the young man explained the roasting process, which was facilitated primarily from a 19th century machine from Albany, New York, that he and his family had been using and fixing for nearly a hundred years. Where you’re from, the man said in Spanish. Travel has a funny way of making the world feel intermittently larger and smaller, within the course of one day. Something about this serendipity reminded me of Laura – her deep connection to these people, the private moment I had shared with her the day before. The feeling it gave me was like a small gift, an answer of sorts to the questions I had asked in the church.
Sarita was staying on through the week, but I was returning home that Monday. I woke up just past midnight on the day of my flight; Sarita’s father had arranged for a taxi driver to take me the four hours back to the airport. I arrived early. As I waited on line for the airline counter to open, the residual fear from the looping taxi ride (without a seatbelt) subsiding in my stomach, I considered the meaning of travel, the importance of checking out of the overfamiliar mess of life. The significance of this particular type of journey, to Sarita’s home, and living for a short while among her family’s life and acquiescing to their choices, her choices. Travel, after all, is freedom from the ordinary. It is a multifaceted thing.
The things I found in Colombia were not things I knew to look for. At home, Alex (my fiancé) asked me what the highlight of the trip had been. I told him that rain fell through Sarita’s kitchen and disappeared through a drain in the floor. I told him that Sarita showed me fruits I had never seen; one you had to crack open with your thumbs and inside are small white segments with seeds inside. The deep red fruit got under my nails and stayed for days.

~Alexandra Thom

Alexandra is the Director of Creative Services at Revolver New York. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA in the History of Art from The Courtauld Institute in London. She is also a published author of academic articles and short fiction, an avid reader, and a passionate traveler.
May 2015