Just Like Heaven

It is 6:30 am, and I wake up to the sound of birds and the muted light coming through the screens in my room.  I reach for my cup of water and lazily flick an ant off the top before taking a sip.  I make my way to the bathroom and notice a spider who has taken up residency in the shower overnight.  I am remarkably un-phased.

I am also not surprised that I am not phased.  I have reached a point of relaxation that rivals a summer I spent in a villa on a Sicilian beach 35 years ago.  Then, like now, I toggled between swimming, eating and sleeping.  I was 19 at the time, so I was excited at the prospect of partying in a different country.  That lasted about two days.  After that, the relaxation kicked in and there was no need to go out, other than to stroll along the boardwalk and flirt with cute boys.  This vacation, by comparison, is better.

Today is my last full day in paradise, and I am writing this notsomuch for anyone else as for myself.  I want to be able to come back to this and read it during times of stress.  I want to remember this place and this feeling.

I have a massage scheduled for noon, so my only responsibility for today is to show up on time and enjoy something designed to relax me.  Is that ironic?  It might be.  I’m too lazy to look it up.

For 25 years, my typical “vacation” has involved being on-call, regardless of my location.  Once, in Disneyworld, I had to sit on Minnie Mouse’s giant couch and take a long work call, while the rest of the family met Mickey Mouse and friends.  I have dealt with all sorts of work-related crisis from the casinos of Vegas, to the streets of New York, a café in San Francisco, the mountains in Missouri and Tennessee, the beaches of Virginia, California, Texas and Florida, and numerous airports and restaurants.   Don’t get me wrong, a working vacation is still a vacation.  I am lucky that I am able to travel and still manage a successful property.  But the responsibility has followed me, and there is always a bit of stress attached to that.

This time, I am out of the country, and this two week trip is the culmination of two years of travel that are about to come to an end.  So, I am savoring every moment here.

I am staying in a 200+ year old hacienda called San José De Zocotá in Anapoima, Colombia.  Before coming down here, I had concerns.  Not for my safety, but for other unknowns.  Insects (okay, spiders), wild animals, and yes, I had more than a few trepidations that I would be staying in a place with heat, humidity and NO A/C!

It took me less than 2 days to completely forget all my fears.

The wild animal fear is unfounded.  I have seen more wild animals in my backyard in Texas.  In fact, the only 4-legged creatures I have seen on this trip have been four of the most adorable farm dogs and one grumpy reincarnation of Walter Matheau, who sits by the front gate and gives us the dog-version of “screw you” as we come and go.

The insects:  Yes, there are bugs.  Lots of them, really.  But for the most part, they don’t seem to care that we are here.  This “live and let live” quality is nice, and allowed me to relax around them.  Luckily, the first spider didn’t appear until the end of my trip, and by now, I honestly don’t care.  Two small scorpions also popped up in my shower this afternoon as if to say, “Fine, you are in South America…here we are!”

And no air conditioning.  The idea of air conditioning seems silly now.  It would be something that would make noise.  It would also be something that would require closed doors and windows.  It took very little time to meld into the natural surroundings of this place.   We are on the equator, so the climate never changes.  The high temperature during the day is in the 90’s, and at night it falls into the cool 70’s.  There are sporadic clouds and breezes – just often enough to cool off the day when it begins to get uncomfortable.  It is neither too hot nor too dry.  It has rained just enough to keep the dust down.   There is shade and there are screens and fans. And there is a pool.  Honestly, if you are ever too hot here, it’s entirely your fault.

The other thing that never changes here is sunrise and sunset.  There are 12 hours each of daylight and darkness.  When the sun sets 3 hours earlier than my body is used to, I tend to get sleepier earlier.  What “feels” like late nights (drinking, chatting, laughing, hot-tubbing and playing games with family and friends) is really bedtime long before midnight.

And while the weather “forces” better sleep and more pool time, that doesn’t account for the whole of my relaxed state.  There’s more…

Let’s talk food.  I have been introduced to traditional Colombian food.   I find myself eating meat, carbs, fruit and veggies at every meal.  It’s simple and delicious.  And while I have not liked tomatoes, coconut or steak in my “real” life, I find I am eating it and savoring it here!  And the plantains!  Fried thick or thin and crispy, they are my newest addiction.

Meals happen three times a day.   Breakfast is served late.  I’ve never had to wake up to eat.  But let me add that if I decided to sleep through a meal, no one would mind.  On the other hand, I would mind.  The meals have been amazing (breakfast is my favorite!), but the best part is HOW they are served.  For example, right now we are all sitting at different spots on the veranda.  I am at the dinner/game table with my laptop and a cup of coffee.  D is sitting on one of the couches, getting some work done.  J1 is getting a massage in the tower room.  J2 is stretched out on another couch, looking at his phone.  And M is lounging on a daybed, reading a book.  We are all dressed in pajamas or bathing suits.  Ada brings breakfast to the table on the pool deck, and we all stop what we are doing for the moment and gather to eat and chat.  The talk is rarely serious.  It is most often about the weather, the birds, the view, and whether we will take a nap before or after lunch (or both!)

Lunch is served mid-afternoon, and is signaled by a bell hanging from a magically-perfect tree located on the west side of the pool.  We gather again, from whatever states of relaxation we were in, to eat another delicious meal in the shade.  Birds provide the background music.  The scenery is lush and mountainous in all directions.  (Once again, all apologies to my Geography teacher, but it was on this trip when I discovered that the Andes Mountains are located here!) And again we chat about important things like how wonderful the food is, or would we like another beer.  If you were to peek under the table, you would find that we are all barefoot.  Toes in the grass.  Not a single part of my body is tense.

Dinner is served late.  It has usually been dark for hours before we eat.  The table is up under the tall, cool veranda.  Music plays in the background, the fans are slowly spinning overhead, and the sounds of birds have been replaced by frogs and a nighttime chorus of insects.  The food is light, and the conversation varies.

There is an informal formality here.  Workers quietly and efficiently take care of needs we didn’t even know we had.  Mid-week, my dirty clothes were laundered and hung to dry.  I’m certain they have never smelled this good.  I want to re-wear the same shirt every day, in exchange for packing the freshly-cleaned clothes, just so I can open my suitcase upon returning home and enjoy the scent once more.

I pause to flick another ant off the table that seems a little too interested in my coffee.  I absentmindedly scratch a mosquito bite on the top of my foot.  It was a town mosquito that bit me yesterday.  So far, no hacienda mosquitoes have tasted my blood.  But city mosquitoes are clearly less picky.

We were on the outskirts of Anapoima yesterday, in a little bar called La Oficina playing Tejo when we first experienced mosquitos.  The bar was a dirt floor surrounded by painted cinderblock walls.  The ceiling was corrugated metal and the gap between the walls and ceiling was “decorated” by concertina wire…designed to keep people out, but the mosquitoes had no trouble getting in.  A woman in the back was cutting up a piece of meat so large that it looked like it was probably alive earlier that day.

“Tejo”, by the way, is the national game of Colombia.  Players toss steel pucks at a clay pit and aim for little targets.  But wait, there’s more!  The targets are small folded pieces of paper filled with gunpowder.  The goal is to hit them directly so they explode and catch fire!  Oh, and the cost to play is a bucket of beer. In the states, we have horseshoes and cornhole. Why we haven’t added explosives and beer is beyond me.  Two older couples in the lane next to ours had clearly played a number of rounds and were happily dancing and laughing and at times would attempt to talk to me between explosions.  While I understand Spanish most of the time, drunk/regional Spanish was impossible for me.  So I nodded and laughed and waved my beer at them, in the hopes that I wasn’t agreeing to anything I might regret later.

Besides drinking and blowing things up, we took a stroll through town.  The town center was a plaza flanked on one side by a church.  Children, dogs, food carts and music filled the plaza.  I intended to do some souvenir shopping in town.  Rows of little shops lined the main street, and all of them contained similar items: hats, jewelry, clothes, beach toys and inflatable water toys.  It reminded me of all the beach vacations I’ve taken.  There were no “Colombian” souvenirs, yet clearly these shops were designed for tourists.  Then I realized… these were not American tourists visiting Anapoima.  These were Colombians from Bogota coming down for a vacation in the warmer climate.  This also explains why everyone spoke to me in Spanish.  No one assumed I was American (which made me indescribably happy).

Now let me explain about my Spanish.  I took 3 years of Spanish and 1 year of French in High School.  I competed, and won, in the French Nationals in 1980.  I spent a summer in Italy in 1984 and easily picked up Italian.  I live in Texas and hear Spanish all the time.  I’m pretty comfortable with Latin-based languages, and understand most Spanish.  Speaking it, on the other hand, is a whole nuther story.  I am not fluent (at all), and so rather than sound like an idiot, I tend to just stand there like a mute and use really bad hand gestures to communicate.  These are understood by no one, so I am particularly grateful to have my cousins close by to translate.  I make multiple mental notes to REALLY buckle down and learn to speak Spanish.

We took a lunch break in town at BRUNO Restaurante & Café, and I happily washed down more fried plantains (not nearly as yummy as Ada’s) with Club Colombia beer.  Like all the other cafes in town, it was open-air dining.  The best part of the afternoon was soaking in all the culture with good friends and family.

Back at the hacienda, I glance down at my foot and grin at the shredded band on my flip flop.  I left them outside my door last night, and Shadow (one of two German Shepherds) discovered them and decided they were chew toys.  I found one on the veranda, in good condition, but Ada found the other in the trees.  It had not fared as well.

The time has come to say goodbye to J1 and J2 as they make their way back up the mountain to Bogota for an early morning flight home.  Two other friends left yesterday.  I manage to squeeze in one more swim.  The temperature predictably drops the moment the sun dips behind the mountain and I climb out and dry off.

I look around this place… this heaven… and I am beyond grateful for the time I have spent here.  Dinner is quiet and spent with my hosts (my two cousins) and a boxful of baby chicks that M brought back from town yesterday.  We drink wine and whisky and gin.  We talk and laugh and thank Ada again for all of the wonderful meals.  Even though it is our last night here, there is no sadness.  We are saving that for tomorrow.

Tomorrow.  Tomorrow I will pack and say goodbye to my room.  I will find the dogs early, before they head into the mountain, and I will hug their necks and kiss them goodbye.  I will hug Ada, and I will cry just a little.  I will say goodbye to all the workers who made this vacation so stress-free.  And then I will get in a car with my cousins and we will make the drive back up the mountain.  Through scenic towns and past breathtaking vistas.  The elevation will rise and the temperature will drop. Vendors will approach the car to sell us fresh fruit, coffee, Manimoto peanuts and ice cold Coca Cola.  And somewhere in the Cloud Forest, I will again remember that there is no oxygen and I will want to talk and laugh, but I won’t be able to.  So I will stare out the windows and commit the last two weeks to memory.



3 thoughts on “Just Like Heaven

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