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GRANDPA'S LAUGHTER LESSONS


In the silence of the universe, the divinity of creation hid, spreading its power to the fragile womb where my heart's beating first began, sailing in that sweet, thick maternal liquid. Life emerged victorious above all else, a theatrical play began to spill over the edge of my eyes in the form of furious, infinite beauty... “Welcome to the flavours of life”, whispered my grandfather, delivering a punch to my mother's cheek.


The Master


When my mother found out she was pregnant with me, trying to keep it a secret from my grandparents, she confided in her younger sister, my Aunt Yamile. However, my aunt couldn't keep the secret to herself and ended up telling my grandfather. It's said in the family that my aunt had a bit of a crush on my father, so even though it was clearly a youthful mistake fueled by gossip, the consequences were controversial. My grandfather who had a conservative and almost primitive mindset, attacked my mother physically upon finding out. After much bleeding, my mother was almost convinced she had lost me. Ironically, that dramatic event turned into a December joke among the family. "Michelle held onto that belly like it was a rodeo horse," laughter comes and goes.


Both families had survived multiple clashes due to the relationship between my parents. My grandfather had defended my mother from my father's early displays of violence, so finding out that his eldest daughter, the family's shining star, was expecting a baby from that arrogant, big-faced boy did not sit well with him.


My grandmother Otilia tells me with a tone of vindictive relief, "All that fighting for nothing. After you were born, your grandpa became obsessed with you. He'd come home half drunk and in a hurry to play horsey with you. Silly old man!"


The truth is, he is a naturally sweet man, with a heart of gold. Hailing from the Colombian coast, he carries with him the programming of machismo and conservatism that makes him think he owns his wife and children, and that he is superior for being a father and a man. He never had the opportunity to go to school and never received any academic or emotional education. Yet, his kind-hearted nature is what has survived in him. Years have gifted him with a much more tranquil and peaceful temperament. He is indifferent to the inherent drama of our family and naturally chooses simplicity for every occasion. There is something in his character that lacks effort, that extra burden of things that we sometimes carry as mere humans.


We know him for his quirks, fables, and stories, his light-hearted sense of humour, his cadence, his jet-black, straight hair, and his timeless jokes that combine fiction, Caribbean folklore, and the remnants of his own imagination. His biggest idols are Chespirito, Cantinflas, and Charlie Chaplin. I've always thought that he has a little bit of all of them. The struggle, the difficulty, the humour mixed with the rigidity of patriarchal customs that he didn't even know he was enforcing... and under the rubble of all that lies the shining nobility of Alcides Caicedo, "The Master" as they called him in the neighbourhood for his incredibly straight hair, slanted eyes, and uncomplicated spirit.


Eyes Wide Open


Nine months after that session of hysteria and punches my mother received for "making a mistake," I was finally born on March 2, 1990, at 5:55 pm in Barranquilla, northern Colombia. The two great football rivals were playing. There was no attention to anything else. The eyes of the country were on the screens and the eyes of the medical team were no exception.


My mother was screaming in the delivery room bathroom as she felt the force of my head pushing through her intimate space. The pain of a first-time mother, a woman discovering herself, opening up to the unstoppable power of life unfolding in its fullness. Finally, a distracted nurse answered the desperate call of the young mother-to-be. My mother was 21, very thin, and the amount of blood she lost weakened her to the point of easily losing consciousness. At last, the doctor arrived in the room to attend to the quick and unceremonious birth. My mother says that I emerged into this world with eyes wide open and ablaze with curiosity as if searching for something, capturing details like a camera. Since I can remember, she has shared this story with me on every birthday, "I swear to God, your eyes were as big as balls, looking for something, taking it all in." I've always thought mothers add a touch of fiction to these highly emotional moments, which I secretly enjoy. I relish in the repeated jokes, the tales passed down from generation to generation like balls of straw collecting feathers, sand and dry branches. I adore the “cadaver exquis” that we accidentally become simply by existing.


As my mother regained her strength over the next few days, my grandmother took credit for her recovery, claiming that her homemade beef liver juice with beetroot had regulated her hemoglobin. I like to believe her, as I'm not a fan of Western medicine either. She enjoys making all kinds of potions, juices, and brews. Terrible to the taste, but powerful and effective. "Got a cold? A cow eye soup, holy remedy!" For knee pain, nothing beats a massage with marijuana paste and rum. For dizziness, smelling ethanol straight from the bottle is the solution. She is like a healer from the forest, healing anyone who mentions any ailment, from a simple headache to terminal cancer. Maybe I'm the one who's exaggerating when describing her, but again, I like to trust in her, believe in her as that funny herbalist who's clinging to every expression of life. I've always thought that it's my grandma's deep faith that really plays a major role in this string of improvised miracles. My lovely Otilia.


Cerveza and Chaos: A Memoir of Fleeing Venezuela


Being born in Colombia certainly lends a much more interesting hue to all the stories I've written in life. It's as if being born there determined that my destined mission on this earth is to pen profound, emotive writing for laughter, for tears, for remembering, for forgiveness, for continuing to traverse the winding bridges, mysterious labyrinths, and lush forests of this existence.


In 1990, my journey of life began in Barranquilla, a city known for its heat, loudness, and fullness of life, dance, and music. It is also known for its carnival and the unique personality of its people. Although I grew up in Venezuela, I feel that I know Barranquilla well through the detailed stories of my family that filled my head with anecdotes, myths and legends.


My childhood in Venezuela was filled with heartache and hardship. I remember feeling a sense of hope and promise as I grew up in a country that seemed to be thriving. But as the years went by, a sinister force began to take hold of every aspect of our society - the economy crumbled, inflation soared, and basic necessities became a luxury. As I grew older, the reality of our situation hit me like a ton of bricks. My family and I struggled to put food on the table, and even going to the supermarket felt like a daunting task. Safety was a constant concern, and as a woman, I felt the weight of the country's troubles on my shoulders. My heart ached as I watched Venezuela spiral into chaos and despair. Being a human being in that country felt like a constant battle, one that left me feeling drained.


After losing her job, my mother was overwhelmed by the struggle and felt lost. But she found solace in her old sewing machine, which had been collecting dust and forgotten for many years. I needed a comfortable backpack for college and suggested she make one for me. Little did I know, my friends would admire it and soon, orders were pouring in. I could see motivation in my mother's eyes again, there was definitely something magical behind this project. Our backpack label became a total success. Not only could I pay for my own college, but I was able to pay for my brother's too. We even appeared on TV, in magazines and on the local radio. But despite our success, living in Venezuela was unbearable.


In 2015, after enduring a string of brutal robberies that left me feeling like my life was worth nothing, I made the difficult decision to return to Colombia. My mother and brother supported me and we planned for them to join me after a few months. My grandfather, however, decided to come with me on the journey. Saving enough money for our airfare was a real challenge, as inflation was working against me at every turn. With airline services completely collapsed, we planned to travel by bus to the border and cross the Simón Bolívar Bridge, the main land route that connects Colombia with Venezuela.


Leaving my tribe behind was a difficult decision to make, but deep down in my heart, I knew this move was necessary. I envisioned myself laughing about it in the future or perhaps even writing about it, as I always do with everything else.


Crossing Horizons


Finally, the day of our journey has arrived! We boarded a bus and journeyed to the border. We went through customs and completed all the necessary paperwork. Then, we began crossing the famous bridge. The heat was intense and our luggage was heavy, yet my heart was bursting with excitement as this was the most important decision of my life so far. As we reached the middle of the bridge, where the sign reads "Welcome to Colombia," Grandpa started feeling very tired. His knees were aching and the heat was seriously affecting him.


He stopped and gave me a look of despair that made me lose faith for a moment. He took my hand, my heart raced with anticipation as he gathered his courage to tell me with a unique innocence the following: "Mija… let's have a beer! Gasoline for this little body of mine, otherwise this machine won't be able to function anymore” I burst out laughing! I felt so much tenderness and laughter at the same time, that for a moment I forgot the seriousness of the situation we were going through. We were both drenched in sweat, tired, scared, and filled with uncertainty, but his request made me feel that everything would be okay and that beer would certainly taste incredible.


I remember clearly the cheekiness in his eyes and the gestures seeking complicity, like a child asking for candy knowing full well it would be denied. But I knew we had to push through. I replied, "Abuelo, please, one more effort, we must cross this bridge. The guards are right there, and if we don't hurry, they will come and bother us." My heart raced with fear at the thought of encountering them. These ruthless men were infamous for preying on travellers, stealing their luggage without a second thought and exploiting the vulnerability of those desperate to reach the other side. The mere thought of them sent shivers down my spine. But my mission was clear - to slip past them unnoticed and reach our destination unscathed, with the fragile look of my thirsty grandpa as my ally. The stakes were high, but I was determined to outsmart these funny guys and finally make it to Colombia.


As we crossed the border, that famous line that draws a crude truth of separation and fragile brotherhood, we heard the guards shout all kinds of insults at us, they were quite creative with their words of rejection and xenophobia. "Go back to your country, Colombian trash, you don't belong here, long live Chavez!" My grandfather held a tired smile, his walk always gentle and that temperament of tranquillity that has always characterized him and, according to my theory, keeps his hair without grey and his mind free of complications. He's like a Japanese cat, whose lightness adds life to the cadence of his steps. I, on the other hand, didn't know how to feel, my heart was broken to hear so many insults, to feel banished from the country that saw me grow, that educated me, that taught me everything I know, that holds my roots, my memories, my love stories and now...my heartaches. Even though I wanted to shout back at them all my anger, I decided to keep walking, to keep my path, even though every step felt heavy and impossible because of the heat and intense thirst. We pressed on, crossing the bridge and finally arriving in Colombia. The joy was priceless.


Grandpa paused to tell me: “Look mija, there's a little tiendita over there, let's go get a beer, time to celebrate!" Never had I tasted a beer so refreshing, so delicious, so paradisiacal, that saved my throat from so much bitterness. “Cheers!" he said to me, gazing towards the horizon, resting his arm on his luggage, falling silent like a Buddhist monk awaiting the next moment of light. To be honest, I never understood the level of peace that older people seem to experience in life. Maybe as they get older, they start to realize that they are not going to be around forever, which gives them that lightness in their being. Whatever the reason for their confidence and composure, I wanted to be flooded with that feeling for the rest of the journey, and for the rest of my life.


I finally understood the meaning behind his constant smile and realized that in every photo and all of my memories, his innocent and childlike grin is the most prominent feature on his face - it's like his signature that will never fade. As I consumed the beer, I experienced a strong feeling of forgiveness and love that filled my chest. It seemed as if the beer had washed away the lingering resentment I held towards him. Those memories of the subconscious, everything that happened before being born, that pain without explanation that squeezed my heart with anger, of dark smoke that I had never been able to understand, until today, until this precise moment.


I finally managed to raise a smile. My lips curved upward and a couple of tears rolled down my cheeks. I knew that this difficult journey with Venezuela had come to an end, and so had this painful connection between us. “Cheer to you Master, thank you for helping me to see beyond”.








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