On the Streets of Cartagena


After a couple of super serious posts – It’s time to change the pace, back to the colorful life of Cartagena..  When we aren’t in Sincelejo, I’ve had a considerable amount of free time to enjoy the city.

Iris and I have had some great adventures (particularly gastronomic ones), but I have also spent a lot of time roaming around on my own, trying to make the city my home.

So I thought I would introduce some of the nice people I’ve met on my daily walks around the city. I don’t have photos of everyone, but I thought I would share the ones I do have..

aistedes 002

With Aristedes

 

(According to this picture, the  rumors are true – at least the part about my looks)

I almost didn’t post this picture of Aristedes Ayala and I – just because I look pretty awful but that would be a disservice to Aristedes, who has been a good friend while I’ve been here.  We’ve hung out various afternoons while he’s practiced his English with me.  I’ve tried to impart my southern accent during our lessons along with key American and southern idiomatic phrases, but I am not sure how successful I was.

But then again, it seems like my own accent has started to fade away from disuse.  (I have tried very hard to speak very clearly, and not to use colloquial phrases when I talk to non-native English speakers over the last few years – and I think I might have been a bit too successful.)

Gustavo

Gustavo

This is Gustavo.  He sells aromatic coffees, gum and stuff like that – one of the streets near my home, in a shady spot by the beach – so I see him almost everyday.  (I also have a slight gum addiction).

Gustavo is an interesting guy – he’s worked here near the beach in Cartagena for ten years – so he’s seen a lot of interesting and crazy things, particularly on holiday weekends when the beach is packed with tourists.

Prior to that, Gustavo, who is from here in Bolivar, worked in Agriculture in the coffee sector.

Miguel

Miguel

Miguel is a nice young kid I met who works for Aguilar as one of the delivery drivers (so he has what I consider to be an ‘essential’ job here in Cartagena).  I don’t know if the city of Cartagena issues badges for expedited travel during states of emergency like we had at the hospital in St Thomas, (USVI) but he should probably get one.  I can’t even image how life might grind to a halt if alcohol was suddenly absent from all the bars, restaurants and fancy hotels.

 

Willie

Willie

Willie is one of the vendors who works on the busy touristy zone in Bocagrande.  He sells a lot of the Colombian craft items.

Willie with his wares

Willie with his wares

Since I have been working on my first mochilla, we talk about my progress sometimes.  (I’ve made a lot of progress on my latest trip to Sincelejo).

making progress on my Colombian bag

making progress on my Colombian bag

Then there’s this guy.  I don’t know his name, so I will call him Juan Carlos (which is one of my favorite names).  Imagine my surprise to see that he has been here at the military base every day watching over me (which is across the street from my apartment).  I never even noticed him until today.

Meet Juan Carlos

Meet Juan Carlos

So I asked Juan Rodriguez (at the base) to introduce me – and he did.

Officer Rodriguez

Officer Rodriguez

I know the military here has a bad reputation (particularly for past misdeeds) but all of my encounters with them have been pleasant, professional and friendly.

I always feel safer when they are around.

Manuel

Manuel

Manuel sells jewelry and beads on the beach – but he was happy to make time for a short chat.

I didn’t get the names of some of the other vendors I spent a couple of afternoons chatting with.  (I wasn’t shopping – just passing the time).

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I joked with this guy about being from Bucaramanga (he’s not, BTW) because I have the female shoe shopping fantasy about Bucaramanga.

Selling shoes

Selling shoes

 

I always imagine it would be a shoe paradise for me – lots and lots of shoes in small sizes!  (I wear a what is a child’s size shoe in the USA so it’s hard to find shoes without cartoons on them at home.)

Now  – that I think would be a great tourism opportunity – “Shoe Shopping Excursions”.  I’d be more than happy to sign up for a weekend trip to Bucaramanga to find at least one pair of comfortable shoes that actually fit!

I’ve actually tried to enlist my good friend Camila in a do-it-yourself shopping adventure, but to no avail.  (She’s expecting a baby soon which has put a damper on major excursions – but hey – a new baby isn’t so bad..)  She’s be the perfect accomplice because she used to own an upscale clothing boutique so she is very knowledgeable about the quality of leather, clothing, shoes and other apparel items.  She also has excellent taste.  (I have gringo taste which is nothing to brag about – so I accept all help offered.)

I dread shoe shopping at home because it’s an exercise in frustration and is often accompanied by tears..

But maybe I can enlist some of my fantastically fashionable Bogotanas on my next visit..

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This nice kid was just hanging out, outside Juan Valdez – but he was happy to let me take his picture..

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Now I don’t have a photo of one of my favorite people here in Cartagena.  His name is Juan Fernandez and he repairs shoes along one of my exercise routes.  He’s about 60 and from a small town outside Cartagena, though he has lived here for about 40 years.  I always stop and chat with him for at least a few minutes, and he always greets me by name.

When we both have a little more time, we talk about philosophy, life in Colombia and our shared experiences.  I look forward to seeing him – and he always asks about my adventures in Sincelejo.

Now I know I talked about some of the things I don’t like about Colombia in a recent post –  but it’s people like Juan Fernandez that make me love Colombia so much.  Just nice people – who are happy to talk to a stranger, make her feel at home and pass the time.

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Made in Colombia


The operating room may have stayed dark for the last several days, but that doesn’t mean it’s been a quiet holiday week here in Cartagena.

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the quiet streets of last week are just a memory

The relaxed, fun atmosphere of the city – due to the tourists, the beaches, the clubs (and the Chivas!) is contagious.  It’s impossible not to be affected by all the smiling, happy people out and around…

Boy

 Adventures with Iris

Iris and I have had a fantastic week – wandering around the city and enjoying all that it has to offer.  (I swear, my next book is going to be called, “Adventures with Iris” and I am going to chronicle all of our various escapades).  But since she’s camera shy, it would be kind of a crazy book – with photos of me standing alone in all sorts of cool places..

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Hanging out with Iris usually looks like this (as she hides from the camera).  You can also see my new haircut from a recent ‘day of beauty’ with Iris.

We’ve been all over town, sampling various cuisine, drinking a micholada here and there, and enjoying the refreshing evenings that serve as a relief to the sultry heat of the day.  We get along great so there is always something to talk about when we hang out.

Coconut water from the source

Coconut water from the source

I have a bit of a routine here – in the early mornings (if I wake up early enough), I head out to walk along the beach for some exercise.  By 7:30 or so – the sun, heat and humidity are already out in full force, and it’s time to head back indoors.

bikes in el centro

The rest of the morning is spent sewing, writing, reading, or crocheting.

After lunch it’s time for a siesta to pass the afternoon before the ocean breezes come to shore and cool off the city.  (Without the daily afternoon cool down, I think the city would just be unbearable, particularly for someone like myself, who is unaccustomed to the heat.  People from South Florida probably don’t even notice it.)

Visiting with Iris' Colombian craft class

Visiting with Iris’ Colombian craft class

In the late afternoons – we head out for various activities..

at a recent Colombian cuisine and craft event in El Centro

at a recent Colombian cuisine and craft event in El Centro

Colombian crafts – continued

I am making a lot of progress on my first crochet project – the universal, ever popular  ‘Colombian bag.’

Made in Colombia

Made in Colombia – the typical/ classic Colombian handbag, “Mochilla”

Of course, mine won’t be as fancy as these here (since it’s my first) but I did add a jazzy yellow stripe.

Colombian bag progress update

Colombian bag progress update

Avenida Brasil – More drama than the hair-pulling, cat-fighting “Dynasty” style dramas of the 1980’s.  (That’s probably not their advertising slogan).

I also work on the bag some evenings while we watch “Avenida Brasil” which is one of the typical melodramatic (always crying or screaming) telenovelas on television.  As the name implies, it’s actually a Brazilian show.  It’s a bad stereotype of Latin American soap operas with tired story lines (everyone cheats – no one uses contraception, so everyone gets pregnant (but somehow never gets HIV).  It has none of the substance of “El Patron” but it’s popular here, so I watch it.   But maybe all soap operas are like this – I was never a big fan of the Young & the Restless or whatever…

For the last week of episodes: the wicked Carmina  has been crying/ carrying on (and manipulating everyone) in every episode.  She recently caught her husband, Tifon cheating on her with one of his old friends, Mona Lisa.  But that’s no surprise to chronic watchers despite the fact that Mona Lisa just married another guy..  ( and Of course, Carmina has not only been cheating on Tifon for several years – but actually lives in a shared home with her amante, Max, his unsuspecting family, as well as her in-laws and her daughter (whose father is actually Max.)

Probably the only interesting story line for me is the serial polygamist. I don’t know the name of the character – but he’s suave and handsome in kind of a bland Argentine kind of way.. It’s like he just can’t help himself – as he marries woman after woman and maintains several separate lives.  He was recently found out by his three wives (who were completely unaware of each other) – while dating and wooing a fourth woman.  It’s only interesting to me in that he seems completely oblivious yet totally manipulating and calculating at the same time.  It’s a common theme that reflects much of the ‘machismo‘ here.

Then there is Jorgita (Jorge), the son of Carmina and all of his trials and tribulations.  Of course, he is in love with one woman, while dating and impregnating another.   He’s supposed to be so wonderful and charming – but I find him quite revolting with all of his flashy jewelry and declarations of ardent amor.

Of course there are a myriad of other characters and story lines but this is probably enough to give an accurate depiction.

Hecho en Colombia

 

Handmade dress - about half way done

Handmade dress – about half way done

I’ve also been sewing a dress using some fabric and patterns I bought here.  I altered the pattern (quite a bit) to make it more of my 1920’s style and on a whim – have been sewing it by hand.

One of my preliminary handsewn seams.  (They are prettier when I finish).

One of my preliminary handsewn seams. (They are prettier when I finish).

Maybe when I get done – I can label it ‘Hecho en Colombia’ since I made it here in Cartagena using a Colombian sewing pattern, and Colombian fabric.  (Both the pattern company and the fabric manufacturer are in Medellin.)

Iris has a perfectly fine Brother sewing machine – (I used it to create a new helmet guard for Dr. B’s helmet light) but I just felt like doing it by hand.

photo (52)

 

Dr. B’s new helmet liner

It’s a cushion made of fabric covered foam that keeps the metal frame that holds the surgical light from shifting or weighing too heavily on his head during surgery.  It’s navy blue so it’s hard to see in the photos.  It has velcro strips to affix it to the metal frame, and adjust for individual sizing.

photo showing Dr. B and his helmet light.

photo showing Dr. B and his helmet light (and the old liner).

Haha.. Kind of funny how even sewing always circles back to surgery, isn’t it?

 

Downtime in Cartagena


Ribbons, fabric and sewing supplies in just one of several stores in El Centro

Ribbons, fabric and sewing supplies in just one of several stores in El Centro

As I mentioned in my last post – with no surgeries scheduled due to Easter week (Semana Santa), we returned to Cartagena Thursday evening.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the custom, Semana Santa is a big deal here in Colombia.  People from Bogotá and other cities escape to Cartagena and the coast areas to celebrate and join in the parades and processions.

The city is already packed with tourists – enjoying the historic quarter, and the beaches.  The tour buses are full and blaring loud music for laughing visitors.  Clubs and restaurants are full to bursting and swimsuit clad vacationers wander the streets along side Cartageneros.

For my roommate, Iris and I – it’s a great chance to enjoy a leisurely Saturday.  We headed down to the old quarter to do some shopping. But instead of chotskies, tacky knickknacks or random souvenirs, we have a special mission in mind: Fabric shopping!

Outside a fabric store (with a very well-endowed friend) in Cartagena (photo Aug 2011)

Outside a fabric store (with a very well-endowed friend) in Cartagena (photo Aug 2011)

One of the things I love about El Centro is the abundance of stores devoted to fashion, sewing and clothing design.  There are stores filled with ribbons, lace and buttons; stores just for knitting and crochet with thousands of yards, threads and other accessories in a rainbow of colors.. Stores filled with sequins, beads and pattern magazines.

Then there are the fabric stores – all clustered within several blocks.  The richness of the fabrics displayed in the windows draws you in: elaborate laces, rich, silky satins, shimmering sequins and super-stretchy spandex.  There stores are different from the United States – where crafting and quilting have dominated and shunted fashion sewing to the side.  Instead of a huge assortment of quilting cotton, a large array of home decorator fabrics and a miniscule array of fabrics for clothing – here – fashion is king!  There are meters and meters of silky jerseys, swimsuit fabrics, lighter than air sheers, wrinkle-resistant polyester blends and traditional hot weather favorites like linen.   I am in heaven – and I’ve only just entered the first shop.

Magazines containing 10 - 40 different patterns

Magazines containing 10 – 40 different patterns

The next great surprise is the pattern department.  It’s not in the fabric stores – it’s at the bookstore or magazine stand.  Bianca, Quili and other brands offer the latest in fashionable attire in handy magazines.  Each magazine contains paper patterns for 10 to 40 different pieces of clothing  – and each costs 9,050 (COP) or less than five dollars.

Better yet – they have all the specialty patterns a girl like me could ever want.  (I enjoy making swimsuits/ exercise apparel in my spare time – and Kwik Sew is the only company in the USA that makes these sorts of patterns in any kind of variety.)

I am like a kid in a candy store – and I can’t resist buying a small handful of glossy magazines.

But before we go home, we head to the Getsemani neighborhood just outside El Centro – to a small local restaurant specializing in seafood called “A Casa del Buen Marisco“.  It’s down the street from a much more expensive place, Antilles de Mar, but has its own reputation for excellence among the locals.

photo (40)

I had the house favorite, the seafood soup and it was delicious.  I snuck glances at fellow diners plates – and everything that came out of the kitchen looked pretty savory.

After a terrific lunch – it was time to return home for an afternoon siesta.  Once the afternoon cooled off, we slipped out to get Dr. Barbosa a surprise gift before returning to work on my evening project: Learning to crochet.  (Don’t worry readers – Dr. B doesn’t read the blog so it’s still a surprise).

making progress on my Colombian bag

making progress on my Colombian bag

As I mentioned before, Iris is teaching me to crochet a traditional Colombian style handbag.  She’s been taking classes for months and recently received her certification from a specialized government agency.

It’s a pretty cool project, actually:

The Colombian government has a division that certifies artists who make authentic style Colombian goods.  The government offers classes to teach people how to make these crafts (or cuisine) in the time-honored way.  These free classes offer (predominately) women with a way to supplement their income, while preserving Colombian heritage.  These classes and the resulting certification process are also used to ensure the quality of the goods / services provided.

 

San Jacinto and taking the long way home


San Jacinto

As we left Sincelejo to return to Cartagena, I noticed that we made an unexpected turn away from our usual route.  This was confirmed as we passed the fitness center on the other side of town and headed towards Corozal.

The department of Sucre as outlined in RED

The department of Sucre as outlined in RED

“Ah, this will be my adventure today,” I said to myself.  Sure enough – I kept quiet and enjoyed the change of scenery as we drove away from Sincelejo into a mountainous area that reminded me of my high school years in Angels Camp – Murphy’s area of  California (Sierra Nevada foothills).

The terrain was dotted with trees interspersed with dry straw-colored grasses.  Cattle grazed in pastures on either side of the small, winding two-lane highway.

As we drove through Corozal, I ventured to voice my suspicions.  The good doctor laughed and confirmed that it was, indeed an ‘adventure’ designed for me – since he and Iris knew of my love of Colombian countryside.

avocados 002

the apple is just there for scale

First stop on our tour was for the famed avocados.   (Indeed – these famous avocados have been the source of much amusement among the cardiac surgery team due to a previous episode involving a “bait and switch” by another team member (who ‘stole’ a bag of these avocados from the good doctor, and left behind a small bag of more ordinary avocados in their place.)

woven fabric made on traditional looms

woven fabric made on traditional looms

We then passed into Bolivar –

Our next stop was San Jacinto, which is a town that is locally known for their artisanal crafts.  (The Sucre – Bolivar regions are noted for many of their textile crafts.  Some of the techniques date to the pre-Colombian era).

Having Iris as my tour guide was wonderful.  As a certified artisanal artist of traditional Colombian crafts, Iris was able to give me a detailed explanation of each of the different types of craft making – including information about regional differences in weaving designs, colors used, and other traditional items.

(For more information about the processes used in this craft work, click here.)

sincelejo 002

Since I am in the midst of  (very slowly) learning how to crochet one of the traditional Colombian bags  – I can certainly appreciate the amount of time and skill that goes into crafting each of these individual items.  There is no assembly line, factory floor or Made in China” labels here.  (Yes, I looked).

sincelejo 003

 

As the road wound its way back to the fork where we usually take the other branch) we stop at our usual coffee shop.  There we were greeted by a Palenque resident selling baked goods.

sincelejo 005

We bought a sweet, round ball of a popcorn(ish) treat called Alegra which contains corn with coconut and panela.  She then came and sat with us and attempted to teach us to speak a few words of Palenque.

After our brief respite, we continued to the main highway to Cartagena and proceeded home.  It took a little longer, but to me – it was well-worth it.  Thank you, Iris and Dr. Barbosa for my unexpected surprise!

!Eres Absurdo!


aortic barbosa

Eres Absurdo!

I’ve heard that several times since I’ve been here – but it’s not exactly as it sounds.  It’s slang: like saying “goofy-footed” when referring to snowboarders.  It means that I am left-handed, or left-hand dominant, since the operating room requires you to be somewhat ambidextrous.

So this week – that was one of the things I set out to do – to become more proficient with suturing with my right hand.  It wasn’t as hard as I expected but I certainly don’t have the speed I have with my left hand (which sadly, isn’t that fast).

Barbosa aortic

Monday

Today wasn’t a great day. Everything went well – harvested vein, closed incisions, in the operating room so it should have been another fantastic day – but…. I just a felt, a little lonely today, I guess.  Or maybe lonely is the wrong term – since I live with three other people here in Sincelejo.  I guess what I meant to say is it’s the first time I’ve really felt alone since I’ve been here – and it was kind of surprise to feel that way.

I guess because I am used to traveling frequently and in making unfamiliar surroundings my home that it came as an unexpected pang when I suddenly missed the camaraderie I have had at other hospitals.  Everyone has been fantastic here – particularly Iris, who I consider to be a good friend, but it’s not quite the same.

My name is Kristin.. Kristina is someone else

Here in Colombia, many people struggle to pronounce my name so it’s usually simplified to “Kristina”.  But that’s not me.  Just like my name, I feel like a bit part of my personality just doesn’t translate into Spanish well.  Not as a cultural metaphor or anything ‘deep’ like that – but literally.  When something that you take for granted – like having an extensive vocabulary at your disposal, is redacted, it kind of changes how you express yourself.  It also changes peoples’ perceptions of you.

Just for five minutes – I desperately wanted at least one person who really “knew” me to be there.

Dr. Barbosa is a fantastic teacher and a very intelligent and kind person – but we don’t have the kind of friendship that I had with either Dr. Embrey (in Virginia) or Dr. Ochoa (in Mexicali).  Part of that is probably due to the fact that I just haven’t been here all that long.  I worked with Dr. Embrey for almost three years.  Dr. Ochoa and I were together five to six times a week for months.

aortic valve 010

The other part is Dr. Barbosa himself.  Our perspectives are fairly different, so that tends to complicate things.  He is always friendly but still a bit reserved with me.  That might be due to the fact that I am still lacking fluency in Spanish.  (I understand a heck of a lot more that I can speak – but even so, colloquial phrases and subtle nuances in speech are usually a complete mystery to me).  So I miss most of the jokes in the operating room, or figure it out about five minutes too late to be part of the conversation.

But after a little while that feeling of intense ‘alone’ dissipated – and everything went back to normal, whatever that is.

aortic valve 012

Tuesday

This morning I went by the Cancer Institute of Sucre.  I had written to them last week, but received no reply, so I decided to stop in.  After about an hour, I was able to talk to one of the administrators but she said that I had to submit all my questions about their cancer treatment programs in writing, in advance.  I explained that is not how it usually works, and left my card.  I am sure that will be the last I hear from them.  It’s a shame because the facility is beautiful, sparkling and new.  They advertise a wide variety of cancer treatments including brachiotherapy and thoracic surgery so I would have liked to know more.  (The website looks like something circa 1996, so it’s not really possible to get information from there.)

Another case today – another saphenectomy!  But this one came with a potent reminder.   While I still need practice, I feel more capable of performing the procedure that I did before.  Things proceeded well, if slowly (still need a headlamp!) but then it turned out that the internal mammary wasn’t useable so Dr. Barbosa needed more vein conduit.  Which he proceeded to harvest himself, in about five minutes.  So – I still plenty to aim for.

The holiday week started mid-week, but I am still hopefully for a few new consults tomorrow.  I know we probably won’t have any surgeries over the ‘Semana Santa” period, but I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed anyway.

Wednesday

Aortic valve replacement*** today.  Dr. Salgua showed up early today – and looked pretty determined, so I decided just to stay out-of-the-way.  I figured since it wasn’t a vein harvesting case, I shouldn’t make a fuss.  After all, I am just a visitor here – and I’ll be leaving soon.

aortic valve 027

Not my best photo by far – but my favorite part of this surgery – placing the new aortic valve into position

Instead, I stayed behind the splash guard and took pictures – since aortic replacement is the “prettiest” of all cardiac surgeries.  Unfortunately, my position was a little precarious, balanced in two steps – and still barely above the splash guard.  So many of the best shots – ended up partially obscured.  (But I don’t want to give up any more surgeries to get better photos.)

Received a consult from the cath lab today but surgery will probably be delayed due to the Easter week holiday.  (The team is willing to operate 24/ 7 – but few else are.)

Both our patients from earlier this week are doing great.  Monday’s patient passed me several times doing laps on the med-surg floor.  He’ll probably go home tomorrow or Friday.

Thursday

No surgery scheduled for today.  Rounded on the patients from this week and spent some time explaining medications, post-discharge instructions and other health information with the patients and their families.  While I love the operating room – this is the part I enjoy the most: getting to know my patients, and getting to be part of their lives for just the briefest of moments.  It is this time with patients – before and after surgery that makes them people, families – not legs or valves or bypasses.  Without this part, I am not sure I would have the same satisfaction and gratification in my work*.  I love seeing patients when they return to the clinic for their first post-operative visit – to see how good they look, and how much better many of them already feel.

This afternoon – was exactly that as one of my first patients returned to the clinic after surgery.  The patient looked fantastic!  All smiles, and stated that they already felt better.

After seeing patients in the clinic, we packed up and headed for home.  Since we currently have no surgery scheduled for next week (Semana Santa), and our other consults are pending insurance authorization, I don’t know when or if I will be returning to Sincelejo before I depart for the United States.

*As I say this, ironically, I am hoping for a ‘straight surgery’ position for one of my future contracts, so I can refine/ improve my surgical skills for future contracts in different settings that encompass a variety of duties.

***More Aortic Valve articles, including my famous “Heinz 57” post can be found here:

Aortic Stenosis and Heinz 57 : (what is Aortic stenosis?)

Aortic Valve Replacement and the Elderly

Aortic Stenosis : More patients need surgery

Cardiac surgery and valvular heart disease: More than just TAVR

There is a whole separate section on TAVI/ TAVR.

 

 

Iris & Ximena


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.

Part of the machinery that makes up Iriis' professional life: the heart-lung machine

Part of the machinery that makes up Iriis’ professional life: the heart-lung machine

(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.

Cardiology textbook

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?

“Ximena”

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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.

salad made of exotic fruits

salad made of exotic fruits

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.

Boiling brevas: Photo by Camila

Boiling brevas: Photo by Camila

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.

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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.

Sundays in Cartagena


El Centro

El Centro

Sundays in Cartagena are a bit different from Bogotá or Medellin. As a major tourist destination, Cartagena never really slows down the way other cities do in Colombia.  In Bogotá, my neighborhood (Chico) was essentially deserted on Sundays.  The only signs of life were on the streets closed for  pedestrian walking.  La Candeleria and Usaquen were the destinations of choice for Bogotanos who chose to stay in the city.

Instead the activities change – instead of business, the weekends are for boat trips to the Islands of Santa Rosario, long leisurely lunches, wandering around El Centro and looking at arts and native crafts, and walking along the beach.   Tourists stroll along Bocagrande window shopping at designer storefronts, eating ice cream.  The hotels host popular events in Castillogrande, and restaurants and bars feature the sports of the day, to standing room only crowds.

So today, after sleeping in a bit, Iris and I headed to El Centro for another leisurely stroll around El Centro.  Sunday mornings are a nice time for this – the streets are still pretty quiet and not yet packed with tourists.  (That comes later in the day.)

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As we wandered down the tree-lined streets, I can’t help put take photos, even if I’ve photographed these same areas many times before.  Somehow, every time I encounter the colorful buildings with the beautiful blossoms on the curving cobblestone streets, I am enchanted all over again.

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After walking around the neighborhood and making our way up the wall, we headed to the nearest Juan Valdez..

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After our leisurely coffee, we walked back home to escape the heat of the day.  Now I am heading back out – to the beach.