CARTAGENA, Colombia- Flooding is a part of life on the Colombian Caribbean. Each year the rains fall, the rivers rise, homes, business, people, whatever that is not securely fastened to the earth is carried away or other wise destroyed. When the floods come boats replace cars and people move to higher — or drier — ground. The people of the northern region of Colombia are use to these floods, the prehistoric Tayrona people who once inhabited this land used them to their advantage and transformed the flood water into managed irrigation systems. But even though Colombians have been seeing these seasonal floods for a long time, they still destroy property and take lives.
I walked into the Hotel Marlin one night and the receptionist, Jose, had a fresh haircut. I made to comment on it, but he beat me to the conversational punch:
“My house is destroyed,” he told me while smiling.
“The water was up to here inside my house,” he indicated while holding his hand at chest level, “and my roof fell down.”
Jose’s house which he, his wife, and their four kids lived it was destroyed in the floods that hit parts of Cartagena over a couple day period. In the center of the city, the streets were flooded — often to the point that taxis could not pass and foot travel severely impeded — but in the outskirts, the residential areas, homes and businesses were destroyed. The news showed images of people riding around in canoes around houses that were halfway under what now appeared to be a lake. Jose’s house was among them, it was completely wiped out, gone.
“So where are you living now?” I asked him.
He told me that his family was staying with his grandmother as easily as if having his home destroyed was an event no more worthy of conversation as his new haircut. Jose only took a single day off of work as his family transitioned from wreckage to refuge.
“Es la vida,” Jose responded with a shrug and went back to work.
Latino culture is often criticized for, generally speaking, lacking the propensity to plan ahead, and when compared against the the future obsessed cultures of the USA and Europe there may be something to this. But Latino culture possesses an attribute that the rigid cultures of the fridgid north can not touch: the propensity to live for the moment. Where the people of my country tend to whine and cry and lament their fate for years after their homes are destroyed, Jose was over it in a day and was smiling, laughing — business as usual. Under the circumstances, Jose’s behavior would be considered extremely odd in the USA — perhaps odd enough to be accused of being in denial or even committed for some sort of mental disorder. But Jose’s reaction towards disaster and the loss of possession and property is rather normal in Latin America, and the fact that his employer only allowed him a single day off of work and his coworkers failed to shower him with pity shows this clearly: Latino culture is equipped to deal with the ephemeral.
Jose was fine, his family alright, and on his single day off of work he didn’t sit around mopping, he went and got a hair cut. When the flood receeds Jose will put the roof back on his house, rebuild whatever he had, and hope he fares better in the next flood. Es la vida.