So as soon as I tell you I don’t have any exotic third-world travels to write about, I realize that I lied. Or, more accurately, that I forgot. When I was ten, I traveled with my sister and a family friend to Barranquilla, Colombia. Socorro – whose name, my father told us, means “help” in Spanish – took us on a week-long trip to her well-to-do family’s home. She was divorced from her husband and was returning to retrieve her young son that summer. We didn’t really know anyone who was divorced.
To this day, I’m not sure what possessed or motivated my parents to send their two pre-adolescent daughters to a South American country with a family friend, but I’m glad they did.
Like the rest of life, I don’t think you remember travels in a linear way – at least I don’t. I remember the broken bottles set into the concrete wall around the perimeter of our hosts’ property, or playing a game of ball with the cousins – sign-language only – at the back of the house among the lime trees where the parrot lived. I definitely remember the toasty coconut in the rice, the clear bottles of red soda, the malty raw taste of the chocolate cow’s milk on ice, or the punchy orange juice squeezed from fruit off a backyard tree by one of the housemaids each morning.
I remember the pine-pitch flavor of the guava – “gwayaba” – we were supposed to find delectable, and the way my sister and I whispered and giggled as we cut pieces and slipped them through the bars of the first-floor window to the side-yard alley to dispose of them. I remember Socorro’s ex-husband taking us for a ride without helmets around the neighborhood on his motorbike and the way Socorro scolded him when he returned with us – spitting angry Spanish trills as severe as the dark eyeliner she wore.
In the open-air theater, we watched a subtitled To Sir With Love, smugly understanding the English, and amazed to see the night sky, sitting in a movie theater with no roof. I remember the way people pronounced my name “Lowrrra,” and the secret dis-ease in my stomach when nothing feels quite comfortable, quite like home.
The way my mom packed papery-pink sanitary napkins in my big sister’s Samsonite “just in case,” and how my sister made sure they stayed hidden under her clothes, stands out clearly in memory, as does my sister’s insistence that I face the wall with my arms outstretched to guard the two unlock-able doors to the bathroom while she showered. I remember being confused that “C” was the hot faucet on the sink and not the cold, and recall the surprise and laughter that emerged along with the water from the porcelain bidet, accidentally spraying the ceiling when we turned the knob. I remember throwing towels in the air to try to catch the dripping.
It’s these details that seem so much more vivid in memory than the humid Sunday night we were shuttled into the family den, Socorro’s Dad stretched out on the couch, to watch something special on TV. I know now it was July 20, 1969, but all I can really remember is it was late at night and we stood crowded in the small, dark den, to watch scratchy black and gray images of a man in a spacesuit stepping onto the moon. Perhaps I was just sleepy, but somehow I can’t remember much else, except feeling, somehow, that this was just a little more about us, than it was about them.
Barranquilla would one day become the port of choice of Colombian drug lords. My family would fall out of touch with Socorro. My own parents would divorce and begin new marriages now longer than their first, and my sister would remain my best friend. Forty-one years later I found the same illegible images of Neil Armstrong on YouTube and get chills I don’t think I felt the first time. And I still keep an eye out for those clear bottles of red soda hoping, someday, to find them.