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Commentary: Gratitude During a Time of Crisis

Gloria Delany-Barmann
Gloria Delany-Barmann during a trip to Ponce, Puerto Rico

As I shelter at home with my family these days, I've been thinking a lot about travel, community, and the privilege I have had to cross borders to live, work, and travel abroad. Perhaps my thoughts of travel stem from the fact that for now and the foreseeable future, I won't be getting on any airplanes or taking any cross-country road trips. At the same time, and on a more serious note, my thoughts are grounded in the real concern for those in places both here and around the globe where people are less able to social distance or unable to shelter at home.  

My first trip abroad, a little over 35 years ago when I was a freshman in college, I boarded a plane to Bogotá, Colombia with my friends Sandy and Steve to explore South America. Our plan was to get off the plane in Bogotá, hitch hike to Machu Picchu, somehow get to Brazil, travel up the coast of that country and take a boat deep into the Amazon. We didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and I don’t even recall having a Spanish phrase book. My mom’s last words to me as I boarded the plane were “I still wish you weren’t doing this.” 

While on the Avianca flight from Los Angeles to Colombia, we met  Gustavo Adolfo,  who politely informed us (in English) that we were embarking on a potentially perilous journey.  At that time there were hundreds of kidnappings a year in Colombia, Pablo Escobar was on the rise, and the notorious Shining Path Guerilla group was extremely active in Peru. Gustavo suggested that we go with him to Medellin, so we could learn a little Spanish and get our bearings. What Gustavo didn’t tell us until his brother Mauricio was picking us up at the airport was that he hadn’t been home in two years and that his homecoming was a surprise for his parents. 

When we arrived at his house, his mother, doña Stella, and sisters Isabel and Cristina warmly greeted us and invited us to have a seat in their living room. They gave us a glass of tomate de árbol juice, a tropical fruit whose taste, to this day, always takes me back to Colombia. There were many happy tears and animated conversations between Gustavo and his family.  We immediately felt safe and at home in our new surroundings.  Needless to say, our families in California were a little more at ease knowing that we actually had a phone number where we could be reached. We ended up spending 3 months with Gustavo and his family and we never made it to Machu Picchu.

I returned to Colombia the following year by myself to study and live with the Francos, again with the intention of trying to get to Machu Picchu. The night before I was to leave,  Doña Stella knocked on my bedroom door and begged me not to go, telling me it was muy peligroso. I decided that if she, a Colombian, was telling me it was dangerous, then I’d better listen. Instead, I travelled around the country with my friend Javier, a hydraulic engineer who was working on infrastructure projects in remote parts of the country. Everywhere we went, from the Andes to deep into the jungle region of the Chocó, people welcomed us into their homes and communities. It was another 20 years before I finally made it to Machu Picchu. 

Today, instead of heading out for an adventure with friends and family, my choice (and responsibility) is to stay home. While at home, my thoughts are with people I’ve met over the years who provided me with safety and shelter in their homes and communities. And while I may not be able to board a plane, I can still reach out to my brothers and sisters in the world and be part of their safety net. There are many ways in which I can do this, in fact, I get a lot of virtual reminders of this everyday via email. I’m sure you do too. One of my most recent ones came from Partners in Health.  PIH Co-Founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, in his letter to staff last week stated, “Let’s keep resolve and gratitude at the forefront of our actions to heal the sick, protect the brave and the vulnerable, and defeat the pandemic in the next weeks and months.” 

I urge us all to keep resolve and gratitude at the forefront and to do our part to keep our families, community, and our world healthy. 

Gloria Delany-Barmann is a Professor of Bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) Education at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.