The Colombian night air dances as the pool at the far end of the Termales de Coconuco slowly fills with tepid, sulfuric water. This is my first return visit to my birthplace, my first introduction to my father, a man who has been absent nearly all my life. My father’s wife Ceci and her niece, Maria Fernanda, and I stand at the edge of the pool watching the water rise. We are on a girls’ getaway, a break from the relentless emotional reunion with my father. We are ready to soak in the thermal waters.
Coconuco rests in the shadow of the volcano Puracé, one of the few active volcanoes in southwestern Colombia. The area advances into the altitudes of the páramo. My father translated páramo as rainforest, but I’ve since learned that he confused his ecosystems. The páramo is a dry, desolate region between the tree line and the snow line. Even so, succulents abound and marshes are lush with grasses, and the sulfur bogs and natural hot springs fuel ecotourism. At the Termales de Coconuco, the natural aquas hirviendas that bubble from the earth are cooled with spring water and then coaxed into cement swimming pools where it is trapped, waiting for tourists.
On this glistening January night, we are the only tourists at this pool. We left behind the crowded hot springs, the aguas hirviendas that boil our skin raw and make sweat drip down our faces. We track down three plastic cups, a couple Coca-Colas, and a bottle of rum and climb down the ladder into the empty pool. The water pours in through jets near what will become the deep end and we splash and kick the lukewarm water, holding our cups aloft to prevent spills.
We are nighttime nymphs, wingless fairies, drunken sprites. We sing songs, we dance, we tease, me in my half-American, half-Colombian, Spain-influenced Spanish all the while wondering how I ended up here. How did I end up in the middle of a war-torn, South American country with two total strangers, dancing in my swimming suit at ten o’clock on a January night? How do we end up anywhere?
“Don’t tell your father we gave you rum!” Ceci shouts in between giggles after one refill. In Colombia, rum is pronounced “ron,” and that makes me giggle all over again.
We laugh at anything and at everything. I’ve never done anything so silly in my life, especially not with someone whom I see as a grown-up. Ceci and the other grown-ups I meet in Colombia are rarely the Minnesota version of grown-ups I know from my childhood. Minnesota is populated by Norwegians and Finns and Swedes, and they tend to be somber and sober. Living is serious business for those immigrants from Scandinavian countries where life is as dark and brooding as midwinter. In Colombia, the adults I meet know how to have fun. On New Year’s Eve, I watch the grown-ups roll up the rug in the living room for a makeshift dance floor. They admonish their children not to drink “too much.” They foist shots of aguardiente and “ron” on me. As the party waxes, the lines between the generations blur; uncles dance with nieces and fathers dance with cousins, grandparents are included and small children run in and out between the adults who sway to the rhythm of the cumbia. And if life had brought different circumstances, if the tilt of the moon, the pull of the tides, the heat of the earth had been just a bit different, I might have been one of those children dodging among those laughing, dancing adults.
That night in the near-empty pool, I drink and splash along with Ceci and Mafer. I am nearly weightless, floating and looking up at the shadowy slopes and black skies above. The mountains of that region of the Andes rise to 10,000 feet and higher and perhaps my breathing becomes shallow. Maybe the thin air, combined with the rum, makes us even more drunk.
In the morning we drive to see more of the countryside around Coconuco. By midday we stop on the side of the road near a little stream. The mountainside is steep and grass-covered. Huge leaves provide shade and jagged grey rocks protrude here and there as if meant for climbing and exploring. The sun is a weak, cloud-filtered light and the air smells like dust and rotting leaves. We pull out the Coke and “ron” again. A fabulous photograph from that day keeps Ceci and Mafer frozen in time, forever peeking their grinning heads out of the roof of the jeep with cups of rum and Coke in their hands.
My father erupts when he sees that picture. “You let her drink ron!” he berates Ceci. My father is overcompensating for years of missed parenting. He still thinks of me as his little girl—to him I am still a toddler. I am back in Colombia, but I am not the same as when I left. That I am now twenty and fully American does not seem possible to him. Time plays tricks on us. He let me go and now I appear again; a lifetime for me, a moment for him.
There is a bridge by the stream and I teach Ceci and Mafer to play a game called Poohsticks. It’s a very simple game, invented by Winnie-the-Pooh. Here’s what you do: You lean over a bridge, drop a stick into the water, just a little one. You watch the moving water take hold of your twig and carry it away until it slips under the wooden boards of the bridge. Quick! someone yells and you all rush to the other side of the bridge, lean over—way over—and watch for your stick to reappear. Sometimes it takes so long, you’re sure you’ll never see your little twig again, you’re sure it’s caught on something, it’s swirling in an infinity of whirling water. And then it suddenly bobs up. You feel proud, even though you had nothing to do with its progress.
Ceci and Mafer have never heard of Poohsticks and I’m not even sure whether or not A.A. Milne has been translated into Spanish. Whether it is the alcohol or the absurdity of this kind of race, these two Colombian women immediately embrace it. The three of us run back and forth across this little bridge in the middle of the Colombian Andes, breathless with laughter.
And I don’t wonder how I ended up here. I just drop in my little twig and laugh at the ridiculousness of the game, the idiocy, the wonderful pointlessness of it all.