Here in Cartagena, I have been fortunate enough to have two great roommates; Iris and Ximena.
Dr. Barbosa made all the arrangements for me, and I was a little nervous about bunking down with another nurse (we can be temperamental and territorial at times) but living with Iris has been absolutely wonderful.
I was kind of worried I’d be living with some young, possibly flighty nurse who might resent having a middle-age woman in her home, cramping her style. Instead, it’s like having an instant best friend and I love it.
For starters – we have a lot in common: we are both academically and professionally inclined. Iris is the perfusionist for Dr. Barbosa’s cardiac surgery service and is extremely knowledgeable.
(In Colombia, Perfusion is an advanced nursing degree. Iris obtained her master’s degrees in both critical care (National University) and Perfusion at (CES.). She is widely acknowledged as one of the best perfusionists (if not the best) in all of Colombia. Her peers frequently consult her seeking advice for a variety of surgical circumstances.
She is the only nurse to collaborate (and be listed on the cover) of a comprehensive Colombian textbook on Cardiology. Her name is listed along side such esteemed Colombian physicians as Pablo Guerra, Nestor Sandoval and Sergio Franco.
She also serves as a reviewing editor of several Colombian medical journals. Research articles are sent to Iris to review the methodology/ study design and overall quality. Articles she rejects will not be accepted for publication.
In her free time, it’s not unusual to find her reading the latest journal articles on cardiac surgery or working on presentations for the latest meeting or international conference on perfusion. In fact, she recently returned from the annual Colombian conference on cardiology and cardiac surgery in Medellin. She is equally enthusiastic about all aspects of nursing and the position and rights of women (nurses) in Colombia and in medical society in general.
She is particularly outspoken against much of the machismo that dominates life here. She is the one person I have learned to expect to never ask me the unpleasantly intrusive questions that seem to pass for almost introductory conversation here such as “Why don’t you have children? Don’t you want them? What does your husband think of that? Your husband permits you to be here [in Colombia] without him?”*
Even when we don’t agree on all issues, she never judges my opinions or thoughts. She endeavors to understand my reasoning instead. It’s refreshing.
This combination of intellect, insight and experience makes for a lot of interesting and engaging discussions in the evenings as we relax and enjoy the fragrant breezes that bring daily relief to the sweltering city.
A strong woman in a culture of machismo
Iris is also extremely forthright and independent (traits that also resonate with me.) She takes no ‘guff’ from anyone and lives how she pleases in a society that has a lot of difficulty accepting that (unmarried, no kids with Ximena as a part-time roommate.)
Even my professor, as charming and intelligent as he is, defaults into this kind of ‘macho’ thinking. He tells me he worries about Iris, as “she is all alone” without a man to protect her. He worries she is missing out on true happiness and is destined to be sad, alone. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather, Iris has chosen to defy tradition, and live life on her terms. She has friends, family and romantic attachments like anyone else. She just maintains both her privacy and her independence despite that, sort of like Elizabeth I of England.
It is sometimes hard as an outsider to understand why this attracts some much attention – a single woman living quietly in her own apartment. But then I think back to some of the comments I get from friends, acquaintances, co-workers and even strangers regarding locums life, and I realize, that as female professionals; whether the United States or Colombia, we still have a long way to go.
It’s just that as an American, I think I have fallen for the illusion of the possibility of female equality in way that women in other countries never have. (The irony is that at this moment in my home country, women’s rights; to reproductive, financial and professional freedom are being eroded more that any other time in recent history. Hard won battles of the 60’s and 70’s are being erased with nary an outcry.)
Here ‘paternalism’ rules the day – and no one pretends any different.
But there is more to Iris that a forthright, intelligent, independent individual. She is also a nurturer, a caregiver, a nurse in the very sense of the word.
What could be more nurturing that offering up her home to an unknown stranger from another land?
Iris and the other members of her apartment complex have adopted a white and orange stray cat that answers to a variety of affectionate terms. One of these is “Nena”. One my first day here, I confused “Nena” as a shortened version of Ximena, so Ximena she is.
This straggly looking, mangy little ball of fluff is adored by the residents of the small apartment building. Typical of most cats, she is “owned” by none, but owns each neighbor in turn. But it was Iris who took up donations to get Ximena surgery she needed and routine veterinary care. All the residents share in the feeding and care of the street cat – including applying a cream to her healing surgical scar, but it is Iris whom Ximena usually seeks.
While most of the residents leave their doors open during the afternoons to invite Ximena in, Ximena is most often found either inside our apartment, or bellowing outside the door (on the rare occasions that is is closed.) She wanders in with the grace and arrogance that only a cat possesses.
She carries herself with a dignity that belies her ‘homeless’ state as to say she isn’t a vagabond but a seasoned traveler as she visits each apartment in turn – but always comes back to Iris to stay all afternoon and overnight.
Some of the neighbors our jealous of Ximena’s attention, but with our weekly journeys to Sincelejo, they always have an apportunity to host ‘Nena as their favored guest.
Iris loves to cook – and does so easily, deliciously. She embraces a healthy lifestyle filled with daily exercise and fresh fruit and vegetables.
We talk about my love of Colombian food – and together one day in the kitchen, we make brevas. She tells me with a smile that she has never made them, but used to watch her grandmother cook them for a sweet tweet.
We savor the sugary treat, one breva at a time over the next several days.
In addition to learning how to perform saphenectomies from Dr. Barbosa, Iris is teaching me how to crochet. My first project will be one of the small bags that is in a style typical for Colombia. I think it is ironic that it seems easier to suture that it is to crochet.
But Iris is endlessly patient with me – and slowly, slowly as I unravel my mistakes and start again, I am making progress. She has a blogspot where she showcases her latest creations. She recently received national accreditation as a ‘native artist’ to participate in festivals and art fairs that specialize in traditional Colombia crafts.
Today, as we sit on the sofa, crocheting, we talk about plans for the Semana Santa (Easter Week). The secretarial staff in Sincelejo has vacation plans and wants to keep the office closed all week so she can visit a boyfriend in Medellin – but Iris and I think it should remain open for the patients. We plan to offer to staff the office, so that patients won’t have to wait a week to be seen. We will have to navigate and negotiate carefully and diplomatically to prevent causing any hard feelings but as Iris points out, it’s the right thing to do for the patients – and the doctors, and that’s what matters. (My motives are admittedly more self-serving: more clinic = more surgery.)
*This type of questioning is fairly pervasive throughout Colombia, and is often performed as part of introductory conversation. Once a taxi driver in Bogotá directed me to the nearest fertility clinic when I responded “No” to the question about children. He wasn’t rude, on the contrary, he thought he was being helpful.
** Iris prefers not to have her picture taken.