Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

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