On my 61st birthday, the morning after relocation from Atlanta to Bogota, I found myself awake in a three-bedroom apartment with seven (was it eight?) people.
Welcome to a new world, explorer.
As the sun crowned over the Andes, my new nuclear family—sometimes nuclear in all senses of that word—appeared one by one from their bedrooms.
Beautiful Adela, my fiancée, escorted sleepy little Ana Maria, nicknamed Anama, her seven-year-old, to the bathroom. Anama has Cri du Chat Syndrome. She often stares into the air, watching something none of the rest of us can see. Angels, maybe.
Adela’s robust 10-year-old son, Juan Manuel, sat at the dining room table, snapping together a new Lego creation. Juanma knows more about Lego creations than Mr. Lego. Or whoever.
Visiting aunt Loren from Valledupar sat in the window and coughed, the distinct cloth-ripping sound of a smoker with a nasty cold. Her son-in-law emerged dripping-fresh from the shower. A light-skinned fellow even by Colombian standards, he insisted I call him by his nickname: Negro.
I come from Alabama. I flinched every time.
A nanny, Alba, helped with the kids. She comes from some little town lost to time out in the country. Her sister, Ayda, may or may not have stayed the night. This household can barely keep up with its regular crew, never mind the stowaways.
Did I mention a rambunctious 40-pound golden retriever? Lola desperately pleads with every human in the house for a morning walk. In the nearby park, she pulls the leash, all four paws on the ground. With that traction, she could plow a field.
Adela prepares four separate breakfasts, served in turn from a small—make that intimate—kitchen. The house fills four times with the smell of eggs cooked Peruvian-style: bacon crisped in a pan, onions and sweet bell peppers softened in the oil, all this served under perfect soft-yolked eggs.
School buses arrive, one for Anama, one for Juanma. The aunt and … ah … Negro head for the airport. The nanny … or nannies … disappear. Adela goes off to be an ophthalmologist, putting on a sexy white lab coat, instantly professional.
Alone, the dog and I look at one another. In a TV show, the music would swell at this point, and Lola and her master would reach some great unspoken understanding. The man would tousle golden fur on the dog’s noble head. Lola would gratefully lick the hand that feeds her.
Cut to a commercial for Kleenex. My modern family, Colombian style, completes another episode.
Travel is when you go into a new place.
What do you call it when a new place goes into you?
The kaleidoscope of Adela’s household in Bogota deeply moves me. Not since growing up the oldest of six McNair children and the unchallenged head of a tribe of cousins in small-town Alabama have so many fates nested so closely together around me.
In Atlanta, before my birthday move, I lived alone, except for two spectral cats who appeared and disappeared the way cats do. Mostly, I padded around in sock feet through the lonely rooms of a 3,000-square-foot Craftsman. My marriage came apart in that house after 29 years. Ghosts cracked their knuckles in the corners on cold nights.
Home sweet home can kill a man just like cancer.
Then I met Adela in an airport in San Francisco. We stayed in touch, her in Bogota and me in the ATL. Thank goodness for her English. Thank goodness for Magic Jack and Skype. Thank goodness for the big jets that brought us together several times in the next 21 months, until I found the courage to move away from yesterday, to say goodbye to all that.
Now the unexpected beehive of Bogota buzzes around me. I feel up to my ears sometimes … completely over my head at others. I try to learn Spanish, take on a second fatherhood, please clients on different continents with writing that makes people see in new ways. I try to find an apartment, appreciate strange new foods and juices, stay alive in bumper-car Bogota traffic.
As I made plans to leave Atlanta and the South to start this next chapter, I noticed something new in the eyes of friends. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. Then I realized.
Envidia de la Buena, the Colombians say. Envy. The good kind.
It made me strangely awkward among them. Confused about my own motives. Could abandoning a failed personal life in an effort to reinvent a happy life—before it’s too late, a little voice kept whispering to me—make people jealous?
Or maybe I can blaze a trail.
Maybe I can show what happens when a man leaves home.
I’m saying here that Paste readers should not search this space for a travel column. I’m writing an escape column. A Houdini column. Charles McNair, the sequel.
My hopes for life in Bogota do have a nobler motive. I want to learn what it’s like to succeed as a father, succeed as a husband, succeed as ringmaster in a three-ring household circus with hoops of fire and dancing bears and sequined trapeze artists 24/7.
So I write a love story disguised as a travel column. I want to be redeemed by love again in a new world. My modern family gives me a second chance.
Maybe that’s what I saw so clearly in the eyes of so many friends. Maybe they also harbored a burning secret wish for a second chance. Maybe their time will come.
Mine is now.
On my 61st birthday, the morning after relocation from Atlanta to Bogota, Adela cooked four breakfasts and managed to get two kids to school and two relatives off to the airport and then to sort through some work stuff that might just bring sight to the blind.
After all that, she stepped out of the shower into the bedroom.
Folded in her hands like an exotic butterfly, she held up a tiny delicate wisp of lilac lingerie.
“Do you think,” she asked me. “This will do to wrap a birthday present?”
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.