When I was 15 my mom, younger brother and I left the suburbs of Detroit to head up north in Michigan a bit to Midland. My folks had gotten divorced and my mom wanted to be closer to her family in Essexville, MI.
So I started high school there and was miserable. High school for me sucked. It was definitely the most difficult part of my life. Yet at that point I wasn't aware of that, or of the huge opportunity that awaited me.
One day I was walking down the halls of school in between classes and listened to the announcements, one being about going to live abroad for a year through the Rotary Exchange Student Program. I of course made my way to the office and got information. About a year later, on August 30, 1982, after interviews and classes and meeting exchange students from all over the world, I landed in Santa Marta, Colombia to begin my year abroad.
I was 16 and had never flown nor ever been abroad. My flight from Miami had been delayed many hours and I was fascinated by the people watching in Miami International Airport. Before I knew it we were over Cuba, made a brief stop in Cartagena, and very late in the evening landed in Santa Marta.
I was greeted by my host parent, Pedro and Fanny Guido, and their 16 year old son Adolfo. He was especially excited as he was catching this plane in a few hours to head to the States to begin his one year abroad. I was tired but ecstatic as I saw my family patiently waiting as I went through customs.
I am 46 now and always look back to that year with fondness. Of course in 30 years so much has changed and regretfully missed my opportunity to go back to see Pedro and Fanny before they passed away. Between life's ups and downs and my fear of flying, I have never returned to beautiful Santa Marta. Last year I had the awesome chance to visit with one of my best friend's sisters from Colombia while Mike and I were in Florida and after spending a day with her it was definitely in me that I wanted to return.
My new passport came in the mail a couple of weeks ago and have been looking at flights ever since
I sidetracked. My time in Colombia totally changed the person I was. Engaging in another culture, learning another language, seeing a part of the world that I had no clue about and having tons of conversations about things I had never really discussed taught me so much. Seeing crazy poverty, human rights issues, the most beautiful beaches in the world, a genuine friendliness not really known to me from the US at that point in my life and making friends some of whom I am still in touch with to this day. All of this was huge for a 16 year old white guy who came from privilege, even though I didn't understand it that way at the time.
I met the coolest people. People who took the time to teach me Spanish. I remember many a day when Pedro would drive me around pointing to things and saying them in Spanish. A busy eye surgeon with a family taking his precious free time to teach me. Semaforo rojo (red light) I heard so many times that it is something in Spanish that I will never forget!
I was 16. I typical, cocky teenager. I liked to do things my way. When my host sister Rossana suggested I turn off the US music and set down the book I was reading in English so that I could learn Spanish I was stunned, yet it was a great lesson. One of many I learned from her and many others, lessons that totally changed my life. I will be forever grateful for all of those who were so kind in so many ways.
Thiking of the kindness I have to smile about all of my host cousins. So loving in so many ways. They were a huge part of a wonderful time in Colombia.
It's been 30 years since I first arrived in Santa Marta and since I started to become the man I am today. My heart is filled with loving memories of all of the people I met, especially those part of my host family and those friends of mine who I smile about all of the time.
Thank you for reading!
NOTE: The photo is of El Rodadero, the beach/tourist area of Santa Marta just west and over a small mountain from the city.