By Brynn Smith
Today marks one month since I landed back in the States, and every day I still wake up dazed and confused, wondering whether my whole life in Colombia was just a dream, or if all of the chaos here is just a nightmare.
At about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 15, the United States Peace Corps announced they would be evacuating all volunteers from their sites worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I was a few blocks away at my sitemate’s house when we got the email. We were bracing for news, but we didn’t know it would be this traumatic. When it came, it was earth-shattering.
We spent the next 15 hours packing whatever we could fit into our luggage and saying as many goodbyes as we could squeeze in. I sobbed as I climbed up the hill to my house for what I knew would be the last time. My host mom and Abuelita embraced me at the door and assured me that, nos vemos ahorita, I would be back soon. My siblings stayed up half the night with me and helped me pack.
In the middle of packing, almost as if to throw it all in my face, one of my tías leaned into my room with an apparent lack of concern for my fragile emotional state and requested that I leave her my lamp. Despite all of my attempts to integrate and break stereotypes, as I lay sobbing on the floor surrounded by my two suitcases worth of belongings, I realized I was not her heartbroken sobrina, I was just another American girl who could surely buy a new lamp in the States.
I left the lamp.
I spent my last morning at my site showing my host siblings how to make avocado sushi rolls with a kit I found for them in Barranquilla. They were always interested and open to everything I cooked. Despite initial fears and expectations I had, my host family never ridiculed or mocked my plant-based diet. They loved trying food that I made, and they always made me feel like a good cook. That last morning, I felt so lucky to be a part of their family, even if it was only for a little while. I left that afternoon with the other volunteers in my area.
We were consolidated in Barranquilla for about a week, and I spent it pretty much numb. Emotions in the back of the filing cabinet, I tried to focus on spending the last few days with the friends that had become lifelines of support over the past six months. Maybe it’s just because trauma bonds, but I really do think that something special happens when you drop a group of strangers into a foreign country together. We danced on the rooftops to the songs that had been blasted throughout the pueblos the past few months, and we mourned together for having to leave behind the lives that we were building in Colombia.
I was one of the first to receive a plane ticket back to the States. We moved through the empty airports, masked and dazed as if extras in an apocalyptic film. The Peace Corps had given me a dream job. I had work that gave me purpose and independence. I learned to speak Spanish. I could travel and explore. It felt like it had all been ripped away and erased overnight. I felt cheated; I was promised more time. My community was promised more of my time, more of my resources. But then again, how bold of me to assume that any of us were ever really promised more time in the first place.
If living on the coast of Colombia should have taught me anything, it’s that almost nothing will ever work out as you plan for it to, and sometimes, beautiful and different things will happen instead, things that you would have never expected. I only hope that maybe, despite all of the incredible loss caused by this virus, something beautiful will bloom from the ashes of it all.
Until then, hasta luego mi Colombia querida, y nos vemos ahorita.
Read the entire evacuation-themed issue of Oíste here.