One of the realities of human suffering is the sensation of time passing us by. It is one of the pains of being alive and aware of it. Oftentimes we live on autopilot, bored with our present circumstances and rushing through life to the next good thing we have scheduled. When times are good we can experience the anxious feeling of attachment, knowing that, like all good things, it can’t possibly last forever.
For me this manifests as an obsession with taking pictures while traveling. I feel the nervous pressure to whip out my camera and capture the beauty of the moment, the peaceful serenity of the landscape and the mesh of colours of the culture around me. It is impossible to do two things at once and, in trying to catch and own the moment, I am unable to truly live it. It´s sad.
However, sadder still is the realization, upon looking back, that some of those Autopilot Times contained a richness of being alive; a simple enjoyment and sweetness in the moment that we missed when we were living it. Thankfully, as humans we are given the gift of memory, a tape recorder or sorts, to relive what we might have missed while we were too busy elsewhere. But wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could truly enjoy the moment?
From 2008 to 2009 I spent 6 months living in Cartagena de Indias, where I taught English at the ColomboAmericano, a language school in the historic city. During the day I would teach and then take a siesta, roam the ancient, cobble-stoned streets of the walled city, or hit the beach. I would then head back to the institute to teach a night class and after that was free to bask in the luxury of night-time coolness in this otherwise stifling hot Caribbean city. It was in this city where I met Joe, who was also there for a 6-month project.
After my night class Joe would meet me outside the language centre, we would buy a box of cheap red wine and we’d walk on top of the muralla, the stone wall that the Spanish built to protect their gold, a richness they stole from the land, so long ago. As the red wine took hold I used to wander over to the part of the city where Colombian celebrities – Shakira, Juanes and, my favourite, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo) – owned vacation homes.
Exhilarated from the wine, the sea air, the cool breeze and the company I kept, I would walk over to Marquez’s door (he was never home) and ring his doorbell calling “Gaboooo! Gabito, donde estás?¨ The only answer I ever got was a snicker from passersby, who happened to be my witnesses, but Gabo never came to the door.
Through the pain of culture shock and the frustration of English-teacher contracts, I was never fully able to appreciate my time in Cartagena. During those 6 months I often felt trapped in my prison of heat and sun. The walls seemed to keep out the breeze and acted like a stone fortress, where I was never able to think clearly enough to realize the beautiful fact that I was inhabiting the very city that served as inspiration for masterpieces like ¨Amor en los Tiempos de Colera¨ or the famous Joe Arroyo song, ¨Rebelión¨. After the 6 months were up, I headed over to the cooler, higher altitude of Bogotá as fast as I could.
Studying during the Canadian Winter puts one in the perfect state of vulnerability for nostalgia to hit, so I shouldn´t feel too bad. Removed from the world with only an espresso and Facebook to entertain and comfort us, we often find ourselves embarking down memory lane, to times when we could interact with the world. It may be my constitution, but I happen to have (luckily) a selective memory that seems to filtre out the good times and serve them to me on a gold-plated platter. The present can never hope to measure up to the beauty of my memories and the future faces the pressure of never being good enough.
However, the memory of Gabo´s house and the boxed wine serve as reminders (literally) to cherish the present. Even the pain and loneliness of studying will pass and all that will be left are the calm, pleasant thoughts of how peaceful it was to work on my own schedule, to learn, and to not be accountable to anyone but my own standards. I know I will also reflect back on how comfortable it was to be part of a small community of like-minded people, like we have at CCNM. We are truly blessed.
So while it may be sometime before I have resources to save for the jet fuel to get back to Cartagena and the $10,000 pesos for the wine, I know that I am left with the gift of memories, photographs and the present to marinate in. Until then.