You love your country but does it love you?

Every time I am on a plane and I feel that little bump which means the wheels have touched down at El Dorado airport, I feel so relieved. It’s always good to be home; returning to a place that you love and understand, where you feel loved and wanted, where you have hopes and dreams and something that vaguely resembles a plan of how to achieve them.

Sometimes I wonder if I even like travelling. My journey home from Asia was horrendous – 26 hours in the air, 20 hours at airports, my body clock set 13 hours in the future, 2,600m of altitude waiting in my present. That first night I dreamed of flight attendants and check-in desks and ground staff and boarding times and all week I have felt a bit, well, absent.

And it is not even the physical act of travelling. I am not sure if I am a good traveller. I get fatigued by sight-seeing and landmarks. By the end of my time in Burma I couldn’t face entering another temple, instead I craved tea and watching the world go by. My favourite memories are not of sights and sunsets but people, beautiful people who are still delighted to see tourists in their country and will do anything to make them feel at home.

But it’s not even that. That is what you are supposed to do – meet local people, get addicted to their tea. It is more that I meet travellers while I am away who seem completely at home in the country they are visiting. They are utterly absorbed by it. But I always feel like an outsider – a person who constantly observes yet fails to grasp their new reality. That is why I take loads of photographs and write my stories. I know in about six months I will finally understand where I have been, what I have seen and what I have felt and by then, of course, it will be far too late.

I have been to many countries but I only hold a few in my heart. Colombia, of course, is part of me. The others are Sri Lanka, Cuba and, now, Burma. Those countries got to me. I worry about them, I read about them, I feel a strange pain in the event of natural disasters and political upheaval and I keep a sort of distant watch on their progress – like a mad Auntie overseas who never comes home, but still treasures the annual Christmas card.

It is no surprise to me that Sri Lanka tops that list because it really was the country that “broke me” – at 22-years-old I thought I knew everything about the world and then you see the after effects of a disaster like the tsunami, you meet people who behave in a way you could never comprehend, you find emotions in yourself that cause you physical pain. I remember one man whose experience of the disaster was so terrible I can’t write it here because it will make my heart and hands too heavy, but I have often thought of him over the years and wondered if he is still alive. It was 10 years ago now. I prefer not to know.

So when a lady who reads Banana Skin Flip Flops wrote to me this week from Sri Lanka (she found my blog by accident but became absorbed because of the similarities between Colombia and Sri Lanka – from the conflict to the corruption – and indeed it is often uncanny) her letter awakened those feelings in me. And when she said: “Sometimes I think about what a friend said to me recently: You love your country but it is not reciprocated,” it was poignant for me, especially when I am tired and out-of-sorts. Because we talk so much about loving our country, don’t we? It is a bit like loving our family. We didn’t choose either but somehow, if everyone loves unconditionally what they were born into, life will work itself out. And as much as we acknowledge the absurdity of that (Is your mother really the best because she gave birth to you? Is your country really the best because you were born in it?) it takes a lot –something grave indeed – for us to over-ride that unconditional love. It’s basically a given.

But do our countries love us? I love England and I love Colombia and if they love me back, they do it very differently. England will look after me and protect me in ways that would have been unthinkable half a century ago. It will do everything to keep me healthy, it will put a roof over my head in the event of disaster, it will punch above its weight to educate me, fix my teeth, battle valiantly to solve and prevent crimes against me – in fact, it will keep me safe in ways so pernickity the average Englishman now permanently associates the words “health and safety” with “killjoy”.

Yet here I am in Colombia, the country I chose, which I always argue says far more about a person, but which arguably doesn’t love me at all. Not because it doesn’t want to – but because it can’t. If it was just the country and me, I would be very much on my own. Everything is down to you miss, nothing we can do. But I’m not alone, am I? Not for a second. I am loved so fiercely by this country I am relieved every time I feel that bump. In fact I can’t list the ways I have been heartened, encouraged, defended, rescued, helped, supported and protected by Colombians.

Maybe there are just different types of love and they all come with benefits and pitfalls and it is just a case of accepting the one that is right for you. Or just not thinking about it, but instead just getting on with loving unconditionally because the whole “unconditional” part means not expecting so much in return. I really have no idea. All I know is that I am dazed and confused, I am not too sure what day of the week it is, but I am home and that is what matters.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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11 Comments

  1. fromyoutoyou

    Great article Vicki, very heartfelt. This exact question has been on my mind a lot lately as I try to decide whether or not to stay in Bogota or come back to the United States. But it occurs to me that one of humanity’s biggest problems right now is our continued love of countries. Have we forgotten that they are, in fact, non-existent? It’s important to love your home, but I think if we are going to survive these extremely challenging times, we’re going to have to wake up and realize that Earth is our home, and that no lines in the sand can divide us. Traveling is absolutely wonderful, because it shows us that strangers, people we never have met and may possibly never see again, are still our family. And that’s the whole point, because if we are to survive as a species, we absolutely must wake up to the fact that humanity is our family and Earth is our home. Hopefully we’ll all awaken to this by first loving the fictitious country we find ourselves in and the wonderful people we’re surrounded by, but if we are to forge into a new age of humanity, it’s high time we remember what’s real and what’s not. Countries cannot love us because they are not real, and as long as we put our faith in things that are unreal we’ll continue to suffer and have our love unreturned.

    Sorry if that sounds preachy, lol, obviously it’s not directed at you personally, it’s just been on my mind so much lately as I go back and forth between the “United States” and “Colombia.” It occurs to me more each time that these distinctions are totally meaningless and that these are all ideas we’ve forgotten we created in the first place. If we truly wish to love unconditionally – and I know you do! – then one of the first ways we can do that is by seeing countries as the illusions they are. United we stand but divided we fall…so as long as human beings continue to believe that they are in competition with one another over the resources found in Our Home, well, then for that long we will continue to be at war and have our own created illusions incapable of returning the love we gave them.

    Just some food for thought! Sorry to unload, jejeje. I sure do miss it there!!!

    Kevin Hanson

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Definite food for thought and I have to say the more I travel the more I think we need some sort of “World Leadership” – an all-powerful entity which over-rides country boundaries and the notion of “look after your own” to do what is best for the planet as a whole. Of course I appreciate the impossibilities of that, I understand the limitations of human nature and am aware I speak idealistically. But the fact we are destroying our planet because we think about ourselves as nations is pretty difficult to argue with, I agree!

  2. Travis Crockett

    Kevin, perfectly put. The Scandinavians are on the case, they seem to have created as close to utopian conditions as possible in their own countries that they are now looking outwardly to help those that are struggling, as we are in Colombia. For me the scale of the problem is mind boggling, changing cultures and mindsets of so many people who are just trying to survive and trying to convince them of the greater good is a mammoth task. Politicians are now forced to compromise ideals to the needs of economic competitiveness and the powerful influence of the corporations that no matter how idealistic they may be, I fear they are not going to be much help. I look to the future hoping for a miracle and that there is a set of exceptional, bipartisan, non-political leaders in the next generation that by their sheer unfaltering idealism, will create a following or an organization that will inspire the good in the human race, for the sake of the human race, and break down our ridiculous, invented and meaningless borders. We need an army of Mandelas and Gandhis from all corners of the world. I can’t help but think that if pure Buddhism was to become the most popular religion in the world we might have a shot at saving it.

  3. Ana Pantelic

    Another great article Vicki, and welcome back “home”! 🙂 You should check out NPR’s TED Radio Hour on “Identity” – they blend a lot of stories from different TED talks that address this issue very well, and it was an enjoyable listen.

    Far more than loving a particular country, I think we fall in love with the people and perhaps, to a certain extent, the lifestyles. I loved the freedom of Boston… biking around the city, running along the Charles, and being surrounded by some of the best and brightest… I also loved Madrid… the artsy feel of Malasaña, the hours spent roaming the streets aimlessly, the endless nightlife… and there’s also Belgrade, where I somehow feel cool and special for knowing the language and customs, being a part of that world while still being slightly an outsider, and having that feeling of passionate patriotism when I can boast about artists that have exhibited in the city – friends that are starting up cool business ventures – or even the inkling of positive change and development…

    And yet as I reflect on yet another move and yet another city I’m leaving behind, I think the thing I will miss most will be the people… the friends and colleagues with whom I have shared endless highs and lows. And of course the city, which despite its torrential downpours still manages to avoid the extremes of winter and summer. It’s a bittersweet moment, but I think that more and more we’re becoming a community of nomads who enjoy the best and worst of all that a city has to offer, making the conscious decision to call each and every one of the places we inhabit “our home”.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Ana, thank you – and sorry to hear you are leaving! But I think you are right and once you have that ability to seek out what makes every city special – the people essentially – it just gets easier and easier to make yourself at home. I have no doubt you will be just fine. Lots of love and luck!

      1. Nohra

        Hi Vicky. Another great piece. It brought to mind the phrase: “wherever you go, there you are”. It’s not really the country, it’s what is stirs up in us.

  4. roadjesstravelled

    I love how you talk honestly about travelling. To anyone who asks I say that I love to travel, I love the adventure and the new experiences. And I think a part of that is true but what you say about how you feel an outsider and not a good traveller really resonated with me. I don’t know if I would say I love to travel, because it isn’t really a choice. I don’t choose to love it, it’s a compulsion that I have to indulge. I’m not sure that I am a good traveller, but I am a traveller. It’s who I am and what I do. Maybe I do love it, I suppose real love actually is a compulsion, a necessity, like eating or breathing rather than something you choose. Not always sunshines and rainbows, but more real than that.
    Anyway, I got a bit distracted then, but I loved this post and I wanted you to know. ( that’s a compliment as I’m usually far too lazy to comment)

  5. pollyheath

    Lovely article – it really touched home for me. I’m in the process of leaving Russia, my home for the last four years which I love SO MUCH. Unfortunately it’s a love I rarely feel reciprocated. I think though, like you said, this is an inevitable part of travel: some countries will touch you more than others, whether you (or they) want it.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  6. Ceri

    This is such a great piece and I resonate so much with it. What you said about England is the same for me with Wales. In those ways it loves me back but in more ways it breaks my heart every day. The injustice, the hatred, the bigotry, the violence, the small-mindedness, the absolute incompetence of every political party, just break my heart and that’s why I leave it. I love it but it hurts me too much to stay and watch it destroy itself.

  7. David

    ” it will put a roof over my head in the event of disaster, it will punch above its weight to educate me, fix my teeth, battle valiantly to solve and prevent crimes against me ”

    It will only fix your teeth under some circumstances. For example if you need root canal surgery but the tooth has already been under the NHS it will not be done again – £450 please or you can lose your tooth. Happened to a friend last month.

    Same with housing, it might house you if you are lucky. Or it might take your money and house someone else with it, while you get to rent a room. (Too many examples to name)

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