After being ghosted in Colombia, my hostel mates saved my trip
“You can’t sit here crying all day,” my new Argentine friend, Marta, admonished in Spanish. “You also can’t hate all of Colombia because of some chamuyero. We’re going to walk around today, and then tonight, you’re leaving Medellín.”
We had been living in the same hostel room for the past three days, which gave her the license she needed to offer such advice. I looked at her and then glanced down at my phone. Still no text. Marta sighed in exasperation, scrunching her hair up into a ponytail before letting it all fall down again. “No more phones!” she scolded. “He made his choice, ya. Now you have to live.”
She was referring to Sebastian, the handball player I had met the previous June when he and his teammates were playing in tournaments around Buenos Aires while I was living there. He was a paisa, the colloquial name for people who come from Colombia’s Coffee Region, and I was a student from West Virginia. We spent the night dancing to Nicky Jam songs in a crowded club while his teammates and my friends mingled with one another. To put it briefly, we hit it off.
Sebastian returned to Medellín the next morning, which marked the beginning of our year apart.
I spent the last two weeks of my semester glued to wifi zones, and my long-distance relationship shifted hemispheres as I flew home to the States. At this point, our conversations were hesitant and sweet, like a first kiss with someone special. I moved back to Ohio to start my senior year of college, and before I knew it, I'd fallen in love with a man I'd known for one night in Buenos Aires. Despite the fact that I was a Spanish major, our conversations weren’t always easy. I took twice as long to respond because I was constantly Googling Colombian slang to decipher his messages, and every day I had to parse what I truly wanted to say into something that could be written using only non-expressive verb tenses and bland nouns.
I took twice as long to respond because I was constantly Googling Colombian slang to decipher his messages.
Sebastian was almost finished with his engineering degree, and he was constantly flying to countries like Bolivia and Panama for his sport. As the months passed, I found myself in the library late at night writing my Spanish thesis, worrying over whether or not he was dancing with a fresher version of me.
We didn’t communicate well, and I always faulted our language barrier. “You said you’d call me at seven,” I texted him one freezing night in February. “It’s after ten now.” It was a Saturday, and I was alone in my apartment. I watched snow fall from my bedroom window and cried quiet tears, not wanting my housemates to hear me when they came home from a night out.
He was never a prompt texter, and I chalked it up to cultural difference. When I told him I felt neglected and unimportant, he finally replied in Spanish. “This is a busy time for me,” he wrote. “I won’t be able to talk much, but I love you.”
We passed the next month sending a single message every day, but by March, our conversations had come to a screeching halt. I was defending my Spanish thesis in the next few days, and my anxiety was rampant. After nearly a week of silence and a handful of unanswered messages, I texted from that liminal space between anger and sadness and asked him why he'd disappeared.
"You’ll never come see me," he wrote an hour later. "Why keep talking if we’ll never see each other?"
“Do you want to see me?” I asked, and, for the first time in weeks, the response was instantaneous.
“Of course, linda. I love you.”
With my next paycheck, I bought a ticket to Medellín for June.
Graduation passed, and as our June reunion neared, I grew even more anxious. "You’ll pick me up at the airport tomorrow morning, right?" I asked, leaning my head out a hotel window by the Panama City airport. Our call kept disconnecting, and for the first time in months, Sebastian seemed more concerned about our fraught communication than I was.
"Of course, hermosa," he said, and his deep murmur was followed by static as the call dropped.
Sebastian met me at the baggage claim at eleven the next morning, and he offered me a chaste kiss on the cheek. A Canadian girl I'd met on the airplane did her best not to watch our anticlimactic reunion. I’d explained on the flight how long it had been since we’d seen each other, so now there were two of us disappointed with his feeble peck.
We left the airport and huddled together in the back of a bus as we sped toward the city centre. Sebastian traced an outline of the city on my thigh, pointing to all his favorite places in the City of Eternal Spring.
“We’ll do it all,” he promised me, and I believed him.
I was staying in a hostel because Sebastian still lived at home, and he chatted with the manager, Gloria, while I paid for my room. We spent the afternoon together and had drinks that night on a wooden terrace in El Poblado.
The next night he came by to pick me up before guiding me to a corner bar that overlooked Parque Lleras. We drank sangria from jars and talked about our families and how he would come visit me in New York that December, and afterward, he led me to a quiet street that was lined with benches.
"I would like for you to kiss me," he said in accented English. I was overcome with the sweetness of it all, and, for the first time since I arrived, everything felt right.
We ended the night on the steps of my hostel. "I've got work tomorrow morning, linda," he said, pulling me in for a smooch afterward.
"I’ll come by tomorrow at two, and then we can go to Parque Arví," he said. We embraced, and then he let go. I never saw him again.
Since nobody can truly witness someone being ghosted, Marta, who had seen me arrive with him the day before, witnessed about all she could: the 2 p.m. arrival that never came, the text messages that went unanswered. Sebastian’s teammates offered no consolation either. One said he had not seen his friend in days, and the other could not fathom why I was even upset in the first place. After a little more prying, he admitted he hadn’t realized Sebastian and I were as serious as I was making us out to be.
In an effort to keep the anxiety from eating me alive, Marta, who was on her own vacation in the city, took me out dancing. I was an absolute killjoy, but she stuck with me throughout the darkness. The next day, though, Marta was determined to snuff out my flames and cover me in ashes. “Vamos,” she said when she came back from the shower. I had haphazardly dressed myself, even though my plans were quashed. Marta’s hair was wet, and she was dressed to explore. “You’re leaving Medellín tonight, so we’ve got to put a week’s worth of sightseeing into a day.”
“Where am I going after I leave Medellín?” I asked. My flight out of the city was still four days away. I was set to start a program in Ecuador at the end of the week, so I could not drastically change my travel plans.
Learning about his home country became a way for me to feel as if I was shortening the distance between us.
“Cartagena or Bogota,” she resolved, running a comb through her hair. “But we’ll decide that later. For now, though, where are we starting?”
Before meeting Sebastian, my Colombian knowledge began with cocaine and ended with Shakira. Throughout our relationship, though, this changed. Learning about his home country became a way for me to feel as if I was shortening the distance between us. I became a voracious Colombia culture consumer, reading about everything from Botero to the FARC. I was an unofficial expert on Medellín tourism, so I was ready with a half-hearted list for Marta.
We started at the Nicky Jam mural in El Poblado because it was closest to us. I had written my senior Spanish thesis about the artist, and Sebastian promised to take me there to see the reggaetonero. There were no real maps that detailed where the mural was, so Marta and I bought pineapple from street vendors and asked them to point us toward the artwork. Twenty minutes later, my hostel mate was snapping photos of me in front of the mural. She kept me laughing the entire time, and in those moments, my sadness was suspended.
Next, we took the Metro downtown so we could ride on the city’s famous cable cars. This was Marta’s choice, though I unabashedly enjoyed the view. Afterward, we teetered up to the top of the mountains and explored Parque Arvί, the park I was supposed to visit with Sebastian. I bought a bracelet so I wouldn’t forget my failures in Medellín, and Marta and I ate piles of chorizo. Finally, it was time to return to the hostel. Marta had to pack so she could leave for the airport that night before flying to San Andrés, to continue her trip.
I sat by myself on the hostel terrace, watching as tourists and locals meandered throughout El Poblado below me. My computer was propped open on the tabletop, and I was desperately searching for flights. Existing in Medellín without Sebastian was terrible, but, somehow, navigating the city without Marta by my side almost seemed worse.
Existing in Medellín without Sebastian was terrible, but, somehow, navigating the city without Marta by my side almost seemed worse.
“May I sit here?” A blonde woman with light blue eyes asked. She spoke English with an accent that was different from my own, and I gave her a nod and what I am sure was a sad smile.
“You do not look happy,” she asked, her eyes shifting from me to the street below. “Why are you not happy?”
I learned her name was Magda and that she was a Czech chef travelling around Colombia on holiday. She learned I was an abandoned wreck who was desperately trying to flee the city I kind of hated but also definitely loved.
“Tomorrow I will go to Cartagena. Come with me,” she said, referring to Colombia’s picturesque port city on the Caribbean Sea, which is known for its sweltering days and hot night life. “Nothing heals a broken heart like drinking wine in the Caribbean.”
I should have been skeptical of this random woman, but having just devoted over a year of my life to a man who abandoned me without reason, I had little faith in my instincts. So, I booked my flight right there at the table.
Magda left the next morning, and my flight was not until the evening. I spent the afternoon puttering around the hostel, making small talk with my fellow guests and packing my bags. Even when you’re by yourself in a hostel, you’re not really alone, and eventually, I headed downstairs to check out.
“No novio today?” the manager, Gloria, asked in Spanish. She seemed confused by my lonesomeness. Gloria, like most everyone else who met Sebastian, had been smitten with him upon their first meeting.
“He disappeared,” I replied, “so I’m going to Cartagena.” I explained what happened and that I needed to check out. We had grown close during my stay, and I told her I did not expect any kind of refund because I had paid in full upon arrival and because I was leaving on such short notice.
Gloria shook her head, immediately opening her cash register. “Absolutely not,” she insisted, counting pesos into the palm of her hand. “You cannot leave Colombia with a bad taste in your mouth. Here.”
She handed me the bills before giving me a wink. “That is, unless you’d rather I keep this as credit so you have somewhere to stay the next time you’re in town.”
I laughed. “I’m not sure when the next time would be.”
Gloria smiled, shaking her head slightly. “Well, be prepared for him to come back. Colombianos have a funny way of doing that.” I laughed and felt a little sad, but I thanked her and walked to the terrace.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would return to Medellín a year later to live my own experiences in a city that I had gone from loving to kind of hating to fully loving again. Had I left Colombia the first time feeling dejected and unloved, I don’t know if I would have been able to return. But the contrast between Sebastian’s behavior and the kindness my hostel mates taught me a lovely lesson about humanity: Lovers can become strangers, but strangers can also become friends.