Where Were You on September 11, 2001?

Like many people in the United States, I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001.

Ironically, I was not in the United States at all, but in Colombia, a nation with far greater concerns about terrorism than my own peaceful country.

I had married my Colombian fiancé in December of 2000 and we had moved to Arizona so I could start a Master’s program in January of 2001.  We were able to take some time away in September of 2001 and had flown to Gonzalo’s home city of Manizales to meet his family.

Yes, to meet the family I had never met before marrying him.

Was I crazy or perhaps just plain naïve?

Probably both, but I had married him anyway.

His student visa had expired and he was legally able to remain in the United States for a year while working. However, if he left, he would have to apply for a new visa.  We were concerned that he would be denied fresh papers in Colombia and would be unable to return to the United States.  With wedding plans in the making, we couldn’t take that chance.

Getting tourist visas for his large family would have been expensive and unrealistic given the time constraints and I never considered flying to Colombia to meet the family without him.  That would have been more than a little awkward, so we just got married and figured we’d have a party in Manizales later.

Fast forward almost 10 months and we were there.

I was constantly looking over my shoulder and feeling a little paranoid given the lawless reputation of Colombia.  While our nations were on good political terms, I was still aware of the poverty that made me a pickpocketing target, not to mention the risk of being kidnapped.  I was a broke graduate student with loans up to my eyeballs but I still had much greater access to resources than the average Colombian.

So where were we when the Twin Towers fell?

In the dentist’s office.  Seriously.

Gonzalo needed $3,500 worth of dental work done in the United States.  We had health insurance at the time, but no dental insurance.  What would you do?

We flew to Colombia to meet the family and he got the work done for less than $200 in Manizales.

The dentist was a beautiful Colombian woman who came rushing into the room where he was reclined in the dental chair.  Her Spanish was too fast for me to understand as she clicked on the television.  I saw what looked like a war zone and watched in dismay as the realization sunk in that this was my own peaceful country.

I was in Colombia fearing the worst and concerned for my life, but all was well there. 

We were doing routine things like going to the dentist and hanging out with family.  I was tasting a new cuisine and taking in the gorgeous Andes Mountains.

Meanwhile, the United States was under attack and innocent lives were lost.

How would we get home?  Flights were canceled and airports were on high alert.

How could we feel safe in airports or anywhere else for that matter?  We were scheduled to fly back the following week via Miami and then on to Phoenix.

Would we get home on time or be trapped in Colombia of all places?

To say the Colombians were sympathetic and compassionate in their condolences was an understatement.  They had lived through decades of terrorism and violence so they knew how hard it would be to have life go on as normal.  What we were living through (or dying in) was far from normal.  In fact, it showcased the worst human behavior possible.

We did, in fact, make it home on time although the airport experience was hushed and eerie.

Life has continued on but it certainly has changed and we have had to accept a new normal.  My concern is that we have become more distrustful, more polarized and more monitored in every way, all in the name of security.

Obviously, this raises travel concerns and it isn’t only the places on the Travel Advisory lists that are of concern.  Terrorism, kidnapping, violence, pickpocketing, etc. can happen anywhere, even in countries deemed safe and well developed.

For someone who is planning a 7-month career sabbatical to travel with my family, we cannot have our heads in the sand.  We have to understand that human beings are a mixed bag.  Most show kindness and hospitality but some don’t and we must keep our eyes open.

Do we stay home then?

Of course not.  We can’t live in fear.

The point of travel is to make meaningful human connections and celebrate the beauty and accomplishment of other countries and cultures.

With common sense and caution, we go for it.

Our mission is citizen diplomacy. 

It is building friendships and finding common ground with other good people.  And the good people are everywhere.  We have to believe that and live that out ourselves, as best we can.

As we take our Midlife Escape, we can choose to remain optimistic about the human condition even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.  We can expect goodness, kindness, and compassion from strangers in far-away places who we hope will become friends.

In spite of the tragedies and challenges the news services report on a daily basis, we will remain open-hearted and seek out the best in ourselves and others.

May our family help bring more peace and understanding into the world as we travel

…in our own small way and with God’s help.



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