Words about a family holiday in Colombia

Nearly eight AM on a Thursday in Los Angeles, it’s approaching three or four in the morning Friday in Newcastle, Australia.  My Aussie friend Cezary and I are taking buses and going on adventures around town today, and I feel I should be recounting this journey later, after I finish, after I’m back, settled in, reflecting….

But deadlines and expectations loom like the Andes mountains. Emails and quotes are like little goblins having an evil party on my holiday-mode brain. They are toasting to word counts, dancing to the sound of my typing keyboard, passing out on my frontal lobe but not before vaguely mumbling that I’ll never be a true writer. These doubting demons claw at me to return to “real life” and make me wonder if the last two and a half weeks actually happened.


After spending 11 days with my little brother I can hear his voice in my head, better than before, clearer. His presence is strong and I realise how I’ve missed his humor and ideas since I saw him last. We do not talk enough between visits. Zach would be saying something like this in response to my “real world” concerns.

“When you worry about your work and your day-to-day you miss the point, what are you working for? The only thing that matters in this life is experience and human interactions.”

life of zach
He’s absolutely right, and I’m stunned and so proud to see the way he’s found his direction. He has found a piece of truth and he is working to create a different kind of tourism. He wants people to go on holidays that last a lifetime, for them to change the way they live. He wants to show the West how much more there is to holidaying than an isolated cruise or a beer on the beach.

My little brother left his party-boy persona in South Carolina. He is speaking fluent Spanish, making plans, thinking heavily about how he can live his life with purpose. I challenge him daily during the trip, is the South American Jumbo  grocery store chain, (similar to Australia’s Woolworth’s or America’s Kroger) really destroying everything about what makes Colombia beautiful? What does it actually signify that Colombians can now get all their groceries all in one place? He would say it’s about the big picture, Colombia becoming more like the USA, I maintain you can’t expect developing nations to not want what you’ve taken for granted, even if you hate it now.

Because he lives here and speaks Spanish, he is in charge. We get on buses, we go into restaurants, we walk. I try to speak, but everyone defers to him anyway. This is the first time our family has been completely reliant on my baby brother.  As much as it annoys me to trust him, I don’t really have an option.

I’m scared when I first arrive. I have read the Australian government’s warnings about visiting Colombia.  “Reconsider travelling here”. People have warned me to stay safe; watch out for mosquitoes. I know some people’s  horror stories in Latin America riding in taxis. My Facebook is flooded with news and uncertainties about the Zika virus.
Bogota is not a bashful city. Taxis ignore stop signs, men lean out of buses shouting their destination. If you do want to ride, the bus barely slows, you jump on as fast as you can and you aren’t even seated when you’re flying down the road again. Either that or you are sitting in your seat watching traffic crawl, realising you drastically miscalculated your time of arrival. No one wears open-toed shoes. I wear flip flops (thongs) the first day and feel obvious. (Like I wasn’t already.)  The women dress nicely, the murals and street art are bright, fun and everywhere. Everything is cheap. Meals less than $2 USD. Seventy-five cent beers. We go out dancing on Saturday night and our friends buy a large bottle of the Colombian liquor Aguardiente to share with everyone. They pass around tiny plastic shot glasses. There are fewer rules here. You don’t have to wear seatbelts. You don’t have to use crosswalks. On Sundays they close down entire lanes of traffic so people can ride bikes and roller skate. It’s a day for families.

We don’t stay in Bogota very long. Zach lives two and a half hours away in Tunja. We take a different kind of bus (with free WiFi) and everything slows down. We see surrounding towns. Each town has a plaza and a immaculate church. I try not to compare everything with my visit to Mexico four years ago, but my favourite thing about Latin America is the colors. I love how it lacks the Australian pretension and American corporate same-ness. I love the balconies, I love thinking about the gorgeous gardens that lie within the walls of the city. I love the amazing smell of baking bread coming from the bakeries. Arepas for breakfast. There is always a way to find ice cream.

villa de leyva
Mom and I go out for aromaticas, a hot delicious beverages made of strange South American fruits I haven’t heard of, sliced with spices. It’s nice to taste them and nice to talk. We haven’t talked much lately.

Day by day we try to make the most of things without exhausting ourselves. Sometimes someone stays in; sometimes Zach goes off to see some friends. I’m in a constant jet-lagged state. We walk so much. Colombia is in a drought right now. The Andes mountains are not so green. My lips are dry. I can’t stop picking at the skin around my nails. It doesn’t rain. We stay several nights in Zach’s apartment. He brings me coffee before I’m even up, a nice way of saying “move your ass”. We make friends with strangers on buses. My friends in Melbourne are from Colombia, and we meet up with their families here. We send a few messages, we have a coffee and we are all friends.

It changes as days pass. I feel better. I understand more. I’m not in my comfort zone but I’m not afraid.

I have a moment two days before I leave realising our time is almost over.  I’ve been so tired, messaging people back home, posting photos, trying to understand the language, but I haven’t stopped to be grateful. This is why it seems important to write it all down now, remembering bits and pieces in a new country with an old family, a family that doesn’t always get to be together.

This doesn’t cover it. This is a summary, written sloppily and nervously as my phone dings with a new email. I have to get to work writing words that I can send invoices for.  I have to get caught up, touch base, check in, get feedback, follow up.

I must remember the dry air, the altitude, the high Andes, the strong sun. The disorientation, the feeling of being so foreign and yet here we are, all together. Mom, Dad, Alex and Zach. We are very lucky.


  • Chuck

    I loved reading about your experiences with family and friends in Colombia. It dug up memories of the time I had there over 20 years ago. It seems to have changed, some for better, some for worse. But the adventure I had and people I met still live in my heart. Chuck

  • Victoria Garcia

    Great post¡ Im from colombia currently living in Melbourne and I love the way you describe your experince… and I share that felling of being so foreign…
    Cheers Vic

  • Francy

    I’m from Bogotá and now I’m also Australian. I love the way you tell the story, how sounds like caos but in an amazing way. I miss home and this brought a lot of memories. Thanks

  • Rafael Martinez

    It is nice to hear nice things about Colombia from Zach and his family. For years we had such a bad reputation ‘thanks’ to Pablo Escobar as well as the Cali Cartel.
    Thanks Zach for showing a better pucture of this beautiful country. I wish you luck with your Adventure Better travel company. I know you work hard. Mucha suerte y éxitos.

  • Stephanie Morris

    I loved reading this heartfelt, beautifully descriptive essay again. Colombia is a great country, and thanks to Zach, we got to experience it. We are very lucky.

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