Place: Cartegna, Columbia
This story is so surreal that I have never shared it with anyone except my husband. Believe me when I say, this is a true story, because it happened to me.
My husband was working in Columbia shipping produce back to the United States. He was there for two months, came home for a break in September and took our two year old son and I back to Columbia with him. I was reluctant to go at first but then I thought why not? Besides, I was tired of being alone in New York.
We landed in Bogotá first. From Bogotá we went to Santa Marta for business, and then on to Cartegna.
Cartegna is a historic colonial village enclosed by walls that were made in order to protect it from pirate attacks. The construction was established during the periods of 1556 and 1608. An interesting feature of the city is that the building blocks used in the formation of the walls and some of the buildings are made out of dead coral. Beautiful old residences with wood balconies are scattered throughout the town. The city itself is very colorful and charming. I loved it.
We settled in a fairly roomy furnished apartment that had two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bath. If you have an adequate income in Columbia you have a servant or two. Most households I observed had five. I found one. Her name was Catalina. She was about nineteen years old. I paid her thirty dollars a month plus room and board. She was happy and so was I.
Catalina was wonderful. She would cook, clean and wash the clothes. I use to watch her in awe when she would wash the clothes by hand. She would lay them outside on the bushes to dry. Then she would iron, fold and put them away. She would do this every other day. She was a marvel. When I left Columbia I wanted to take Catalina with me but I couldn’t get her a visa to the United States. I later learned she went with a family to Lebanon. I hope they appreciated her as much as I did.
She even helped me with my son. We were in Cartegna about three weeks when my son came down with a very high fever and rash. My husband was out in the countryside. I couldn’t reach him. I spoke no Spanish at all and Catalina spoke no English. However, she took one look at my son and ran to the servant next door and brought her back. She was an older woman, about fifty. The woman felt my sons head and started rubbing it with one hand while chanting in Spanish. Within fifteen minutes his fever was gone and so was his rash. He opened his eyes and smiled at me. I was so grateful I started to cry. To this day I regret not asking how she did that, but like I said I didn’t speak any Spanish.
That day I purchased an English/Spanish dictionary. I never went anywhere without it. It was my bible. With the dictionary and the help of Catalina I started to learn Spanish. We would carry on long conversations. She would take the dictionary and show me a word of what she wanted to say and I would do the same to her.
I thought this city is not only fascinating, it’s enchanting. I didn’t realize how enchanting until much later. To me, Columbia was a third world country at the time. There were the rich and the poor. No in-betweens. Much like India, you were born and raised in one class and you never rose above your station. I have no idea if it has changed since I left.
I was happy living in a foreign country. It was a change from my sterile life in the United States. However, everything changed when my husband was in an automobile accident in November. The country roads were very poorly constructed and some were just dirt. When it rained the dirt roads would turn to mud. After a heavy rainfall, my husband was coming around a mountain road on the way back to Cartegna, the road gave way and the car slipped and rolled into a ravine.
He was taken to the hospital in a coma. The Doctor didn’t know if he would be all right. I stayed with him for a week and didn’t leave his side. Finally, when he did open his eyes, he was very weak and disoriented. He seemed to have a brain injury. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t speak enough Spanish to speak intelligently to the Medical Team and find out my options. All I wanted was to get my husband on a plane back to the United States. I was advised against this action by his Doctor. He was too weak to move.
Days went by, and Christmas was just two weeks away. I bought a few decorations and Catalina and I decorated a little tree for the apartment. I would visit my husband every day at the hospital. He didn’t seem to be improving. I was very depressed.
Christmas came and I remember calling my Mother to wish her a merry one. I put the call in early in the morning but I didn’t get through until that evening. The fact that it was so hard to reach the outside world didn’t help my mood. I told her what had happened and explained that as soon as I could get my husband on a plane we would be leaving.
I cannot express in writing my inner torment or how I felt. All I wanted was to go home…I wanted to go home!
My son always slept with me in my bed and Catalina slept in the next room. I could see Catalina as she slept because she always kept the door to our rooms open. As I laid there in bed with my arm around my son, I was in a mental crisis.
I tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. All of a sudden, the whole room lit up and there was a Golden Christmas Tree hanging over my bed. I remember rubbing my eyes, I was awake! I looked around, my son was still in my arms and I could see Catalina sleeping in the next room. The Tree just dangled there and swayed a little from the movement of the air in the room. However, the light it emitted was warm and reassuring. It covered both my son and I. I stretched up and tried to touch it, but it was just out of my reach. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I just lay there, staring up at it and afraid to move. I don’t know when I fell asleep. I know I fell asleep with the glow of that tree on us. For some reason I knew everything would be okay.
The next day I got the news I was waiting to hear. My husband would be well enough to leave in a few days. He had a complete recovery. The Doctors were baffled. We left Columbia on December 30, 1974.
Other Recommended Reading By This Author: The Christmas Mug