Enjoy this story, and for stories you won’t find online, grab my book here.
Here I am, sitting on the stone tiles of a gated front porch on a block in Colombia, waiting on hold for a hospital back in the USA to send me written proof of a negative COVID test.
Not sure how often cops ask for proof of negative, but the Airbnb host told me to have something ready.
And she told me to practice saying, “I have proof I’m COVID negative,” in Spanish. Tengo prueba de COVID negativa. Or something.
I set the phone’s on hold jazz music to a quiet speaker setting, and watch the block wake up.
People aren’t going to work today. It’s Epiphany, and that’s a national holiday here. That’s when the Three Wise Men brought gold, Frankincense & Myrhh to baby Jesus.
There’s something about watching a day start in a foreign country that’s like seeing a play begin. Queue the woman shaking a washed blue shirt over her balcony and hanging it on a white line. Queue the couple opening the front door of the apartment and assembling a ramp over the steps for the man’s moped to drive down.
This morning, everybody is out on their apartment balcony doing chores or eating breakfast. Each of the four balconies visible is like its own world.
One with a grandmother-age woman and her daughter, one with a couple, one with a family of four, and one family of three, are all having a day-off kind of morning.
Instant coffee and a cigarette while leaning off the rail for one dad, pancakes and orange juice for the kids, and moms bustling around on mom business.
Colombia has barred travel again, but I got here just before the gates closed.
Now, I must stay in my Airbnb unless I can get proof of a negative COVID test. But the hospital’s hold music will not end.
No cabs run, and many restaurants are closed. I start to realize I may not be able to get a bite to eat today.
But no wait, look across the street. A few apartment doors to the left.
A woman is pushing an industrial grill out the door. She and a man walk a big striped restaurant sign out of their front door. The sign reads Donde Toby. (Where is Toby? That’s what that means, right? The street food place is asking me where Toby is? For its name?)
I can’t get over how different the apartments are here. You never think about building codes until you see what happens when they’re not there.
Each building is slightly different creating a patchwork of odd angles and different colors. Motorcyclists and moped buzz down the block.
A skin and bone man in a baggy polo and ripped jeans has two trash bags on his arms. He rifles through bags of trash left on the ground.
Around the corner, on a second story balcony, somebody is reading what must be the gospel through a megaphone. I can hash out enough Spanish to know it’s the gospel, and based on the day it must be the story of the Three Kings.
Black haired mothers in pandemic masks walk their children down the block. And underneath it all that hospital hold music won’t end.
And it’s times like these, hungry in a foreign country that’s closed most of its restaurants, unable to leave and delivery service on holiday, yes, it’s times like these that make you ask the big questions.
Such as, where is Toby?
My patio is four feet above sidewalk level, made of brick-colored stones standing behind a painted white iron gate. If I walk to the end of the patio, I can see down the street where the man is preaching. There are lush green mountains rising behind him. They are covered in mist, but in the morning you can see their looming, rolling shapes.
A voice crackles through the hold music. It thanks me for waiting and asks how it can help. I explain my situation.
Sizzling grill, Spanish megaphone sermon, the rising buzz of a motorcycle’s engine. Dogs yap. A little bit of rain comes and goes. It’s all a symphony nobody could ever write.