My Ultimate Travel Inspiration: Abuela

A note from the author: This is a tribute to my abuela who recently passed away on Friday the 13th, September, 2019. This article was made possible thanks to my family who shared their oral history, where I was able to match up parts of her story with photos and documents. She often would explain, “yo crucé montañas, rios, y oceanos para poder pasar tiempo contigo” to the grandkids in order to help us understand what kind of effort, distance, and sacrifice was invested in order for her to spend time with us. Clarita was a soul full of colors, love and forgiveness. She was magic with her unconditional love, like a poesía de alegría. She could lite up any room she walked into, filling a house with her energy resembling vibrant colors. To better understand why Clarita was the way she was, our greatest inspiration to keep going despite life’s obstacles, the following is her story.

Clara Beatriz Rey was born on July 29th, 1934 in Bogotá, Colombia, although the date is debatable. This stereotypical vivacious Leo personality argued that her real birth date is unknown since she has no birth certificate to prove it. Her family’s life took a turn when she was 4-years-old because her dad Guillermo Rey Chacón passed away due to Tuberculosis, leaving behind Clarita, her older sister of 7 years-old Maria Helena “Nena”, and their Mami Maria Helena Vazquez.

They moved in with her mom’s 14 siblings, 5 tios and 9 tias who helped raise the young girls. Her mom was the oldest of the 14, therefore she was known as el gran poder, or the mighty power, also due to her affability and kindness leading to a certain don, or gift, she had liaising with people. Clarita would later acquire this same don and impressive ability of connecting with people in a way that even a stranger on the street would love talking to her.  Furthermore, Maria Helena had a distinct ability to play the piano that her parents ordered from Germany.

Clarita finished up to 7th grade (2do de bachillerato), then went to work at a Kodak 100_4407shop that some of her aunts worked at, as well as a laboratory where she packaged medicines. Cue meeting her future husband Carlos Jaime Chavarriaga (pronounced Hi-meh) on a bus towards downtown, both of them on their way to work in 1954 when Clara was 19-years-old. Jaime worked at the Manhattan store, a clothing line for men. By the end of 1954, Jaime and Clara wed at the Iglesia Santa Teresita, and then by 1955 their first daughter Martha was born.

 

First Trip Abroad, 4 Kids, and Career

Clarita y Martha - Culver City, California

Clarita & Martha in Culver City, California

By the end of 1955, a tia of Jaime offered the family of three their first trip to the United States. They took a short stop in Cuba for a couple of days, and they stayed in the USA for about 5 months. Since they stayed in Culver City, California outside of LA, Jaime tried out for various roles as an extra for several movies searching for “Hispanic” actors. He wasn’t able to find a job, so they returned back to Colombia. However, this trip must have made on impact on her first born (and possibly the second born too since she could have been conceived in the USA), which later on it will make sense why.

Shortly after, the brood grew to a total of 4 kids with Maria Clara (1956), Carlos Jaime (1958), and Claudia Rosa “Rosita” (1960). In order to not confuse Carlos Jaime Jr with his dad, we will refer to Jaime Sr as “Don Jaime.” Most family trips consisted of long weekend “Puente” holiday trips to warmer climate and lower altitude pueblos outside of cold mountainous Bogotá a couple of times a year. Girardot, Melgar, and Utica were the most frequented spots. Don Jaime’s brother, Guillermo, was a pilot, therefore the couple or the whole family sometimes got to travel thanks to his benefit. By airplane in Colombia, they visited coastal locations like Barranquilla and Tumaco both on the Caribbean and the Pacific coast respectively. 

 

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Clara on her way to Tumaco, Colombia on the pacific coast in 1971. Her brother-in-law Guillermo was a pilot, so he let her take a quick photo opp.

Family Trips in Colombia:

Entrepreneurship ran through Clarita’s veins, as did her nurturing and healing essence. In 1962-66 she started a fashion design business out of their own house where she had a couple of seamstresses on her team. In 1964-69 she created a cake and dessert business overlapping with the other business. Fast forward a bit of time in 1983, she supported Carlos Jaime’s travel agency business which later turned into a catering and events business, Banquetes Pablo VI, which still continues to this day 36 years later. However, her love for working in the healthcare industry prevailed.

Clarita found an internship working as an instrument nurse at the Hospital San José in 1968. To the dismay of her husband Jaime, who like many men at the time felt she should stay at home to child rear and tend to housework, she went against his wishes as she discovered her passion for working in healthcare and continued with it. At the time, Don Jaime had been working at Abbott as a pharmaceutical drug salesman who visited different Doctor’s offices, a job he held until retirement when he created his own related company Disfarma LTDA. Throughout the years, Clara worked seasonally or part-time at several different hospitals: Clinica Palermo, Clinica de Marly, Hospital Militar, and Clinica del Country. She specialized in supporting heart surgeries from about 1968 until about 1988 usually on part-time or short-term based assignments. She took two separate breaks between those 20 years, once in 1977 and once in 1981.

Clara was always savvy to find or create opportunities anywhere. She landed a job as a live-in nanny for two Cuban girls in the Miami, Florida area (Coral Gables) in 1977. She was there for about 5 months, where she would send her earnings as remittances back home to the family. At the time, the eldest daughter Martha was 22, therefore she helped run the household in Colombia. She later had to go home for unexpected reasons the family does not like to talk about, however the experience served as preparation for exciting opportunities to come in the USA and abroad.

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Clarita’s Beauty Battle Scar

She took almost a year-long break in 1981 after she severely broke her right arm in a freak mini elevator accident at the hospital, when a small container (aka dumbwaiter or lift), that transported medical supplies and other materials between floors in the building, fell on her arm and broke skin and bone. Around the same time, Don Jaime and Clara separated since they spent most of their time fighting. It was a very tough year for Clara due to her arm, her failed marriage, and her eldest daughter had left to live in the USA for good. Once her arm was fully mobile again thanks to healing and physical therapy, she persisted with her seasonal work at the hospital. This is only one of the many examples of Clarita’s strength and resilience. It wasn’t until the birth of her first grandchild in 1988 that she decided to drop everything and leave Colombia for a while.

A New Chapter – Grand-parenting All Around The World

At the wedding from left to right: Clara, Richard, Martha, and Don Jaime.

Her eldest daughter Martha met a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Richard Tracy, in 1978. They wed by 1980, and moved to the U.S. by 1981 after Richard completed his volunteer service. By 1988, they were living in Richard’s hometown Toledo, Ohio when Alexandra was born. Clarita decided by the time that Ale was 3 months that she was ready to be a full-time grandmother in the USA to help while both parents worked full time. A year later, and still the only birth of her grand kids she ever witnessed, Michele was born in 1989. Just two months after that, her 3rd granddaughter Diana Carolina or “Caro” was born in Bogotá to Carlos Jaime and his wife Diana Patricia. Because of this, Clara spent most of her time traveling between Colombia and the USA for the rest of her grand kids’ youth until the U.S. grand kids turned 18. For 19 years, her visits to the USA would usually span about 3-6 months each, about once a year, all depending on her Visa and who was able to cover her flights.

 

The most exciting birth of a grandchild occurred in the outskirts of Milano, Italy. Clara’s second daughter Maria Clara received a scholarship to study Opera in Italy, and she was there with her partner Carlos Yañez who was also studying his PhD from 1987 to 1994 for 11 years. In 1992, Clarita’s only grandson Andrés was born, providing her another way to explore outside of Colombia and help rear her 4th and last grandchild for a full year. In addition, she landed a job as a nanny for twin Italian girls. With her youngest daughter Rosita, who at the time worked for the Colombian airline Avianca, she was able to travel very easily due to perks and benefits from the job that were extended towards family. The two traveled throughout Europe together while they spent most of the time in Milano. They traveled to London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and all around Italy. Maria Clara and her family lived in Italy until 1996, when they moved back to Colombia.

 

Rosita and Clarita always traveled together when Rosita worked for Avianca

Again thanks to Rosita and Avianca, Clarita got to travel all over Latin America for the rest of the 90’s and early 2000s. They traveled to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Quito. Maria Clara and Rosita spent a lot of time going to visit the USA to accompany Andrés and Caro throughout their youth, but not as much as Clara traveled there with the them. Thanks to Clara’s dedication and guardianship, as well as Rosita, Maria Clara, Martha, and Jaime’s funding and hard work, the four cousins grew up like siblings and all became fully bilingual Spanish-English.

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The 4 primos/siblings: Alexandra, Caro, Michele, and little Andres all together for the first time ever at the Bogota Airport.

Clarita en Santiago de Chile

Clarita and Rosita visiting Maria Clara and Carlos when they lived in Santiago, Chile

In 1991-1997, Martha’s family was living in Texas for 7 years, therefore Clarita had visited enough times to establish relationships in San Antonio, TX. She was able to acquire jobs with her Visa at the time working as a maid at a hotel, as well as babysat from time to time. When Martha’s family left for Mexico in 1997, she decided she was going to try to acquire U.S. citizenship. She continued work at the hotel, found a job at McDonalds, and helped care for disabled people. Whenever she had some extra time, she traveled to Mexico and was able to see some of the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon with Martha’s family. Perhaps due to viewing the USA as a ‘superior country’, Clara worked hard to acquire U.S. citizenship. She studied for years for the citizenship test to prepare for once she qualified to actually take the test, especially this visibly worn list of 100 questions in English. Although Clarita had the help of Martha and family to bid for citizenship, benefited from white privilege, and she worked very hard at several jobs, sadly her dream did not come true. It could have been the political and cultural nature of Texas, it could have been her broken English, but unfortunately U.S. citizenship was not granted to her after her test in 1999.

 

 

An Adventurous Life

Clarita Passport Photos

Clarita’s Passport photos through the years

Nonetheless, Clarita lived the last 20 years of her life traveling everywhere with her family. It was always her family connections who made it possible for her to travel so much, and on occasion she was able to save her own hard earned money from different jobs in order to be able to travel. Martha’s family moved to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1999, Maria Clara and her family moved to Chile for a year in the early 2000s, and then her sister Nena’s family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2006, so there was still a lot of traveling. By 2012, all of the female grand-kids graduated from college, and so the family started traveling more together to new places. Alexandra moved to California, where it was the first time Carlos Jaime and Diana Patricia traveled to the USA in 2014 with the rest of the family. After that, different family members traveled with Clarita everywhere including an epically captured trip to Cuba.

Cartagena, Colombia:

Las Vegas, Nevada and the Grand Canyon:

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Clarita was very modern for an abuela, savvy with her cellphone, especially Whatsapp. Here is a picture she sent Alexandra about her piece of luggage she kept just because of the memorable trips Alexandra took with it.

Clarita was a resilient, independent, adventurous, and a vivacious soul. Her love for exploring new places almost matched her greater love for her family. For about 3 years, she begged Diana Carolina for a trip to Aruba. That trip did not occur because her 3 granddaughters thought they had way more time to plan and save up for the trip. Clara passed away unexpectedly in September of 2019 due to catching bacterial meningitis which sparked sudden rapidly deteriorating health. Thankfully, she did not suffer as she was in a coma for 11 days straight, 3 of which she was half-awake to what the family deems a miracle chance for her to say her goodbyes before she passed. The whole family was convinced she would live past 100+ years just based on her positive, magnetic, and vivacious attitude. Nevertheless, the family holds Clarita’s spirit in their hearts, and are currently grappling with how to move forward with this new void in their lives.

 

Stay tuned for our trip to Aruba which will pay tribute to Clara Chavarriaga Rey! Who knows when it will be planned, but it will happen!

Montañas, Rios y Oceanos

Possible tattoo inspiration found by Michele. Clarita, a Leo with the Sun as it’s ‘planet’ (star), would often say “yo cruce montañas, rios y oceanos para pasar tiempo contigo.”

Great Expectations

I’m reposting my entry for a World Nomad travel scholarship about a unique experience I had in Italy earlier this year. A 2,500 character limit it was a challenge to condense a “local encounter I’ll never forget”, but I think it was great practice as a writer!

Enjoy!

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Skepticism is every solo traveller’s default, so when a friend invited me to meet a Couchsurfing host I leered and kept my expectations low. Yet once we met, I couldn’t turn down a tour of the “green heart of Italy” by the lively Michael. As we drove into Umbria’s countryside we cooed over Easter lambs, only to be reminded they wouldn’t survive past the holiday weekend. It won me over.

The day was full of things we’d never have encountered on our own. At lunch he told us to fill our “crescia”, with veggies dripping in olive oil so that each bite was decadent and wonderfully messy. Michael mentioned a friend pressed olive oil and might be free to hang out that evening. With no expectations (doesn’t everyone press olive oil in Italy?), we went off into the night.

A massive German Shephard loomed at the edge of a long dirt road, its eyes glowing high off the ground. Jack was supposedly friendly, but I wasn’t taking the chance being so far from reliable cell service. His owner roared up in a Jeep, bleached white-blue hair popping out of the dark and clear-framed glasses catching light.

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“Welcome to Vini Tili!”

Our night was more than just a vineyard walk. Marcos is a 25th generation winemaker and the captain of his family’s legacy; a celebrated organic winery with a reputation built on superb product and limited availability. His pride was beaming as he showed us around and we were glued to every word. This guy was good at building the anticipation.

I’m not wine educated, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that his wine is top caliber. We learned the family history and moved from wine to wine, our glasses sloshing with hand gestures and our Italian bolder with each sip. Every casket held a story or sparked emotion, the great barrels muffled loud laughter and my disbelief at the situation. Jake the dog was the only one keeping their cool.

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It was hard to not be inspired by Marcos’ passion. His happiness and dedication was in each word he spoke. This was something I’ve heard about but never experienced. This wasn’t just a job. It was his life.

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A tiny wine casket was the climax of the evening. It was the last of its kind, a coveted year worth more than any sum. An ancestor put their love into it at the turn of the century and its sat there since, never to be enjoyed by its maker. It wasn’t just unattainable and unique; the family heirloom represented their legacy. Liquid only for the ones that were made from it.

And we were invited to taste it.

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Welcome to Perugia:

Smack in the center of Italy, this medieval city has roots older than early Roman civilizations and its hilltop location has some of the most glorious views of the fertile valleys of Umbria. Welcome to Perugia, a culture-rich city with lots of charm!

Perugia is a stone’s throw from Assissi, and a quick 2.5 hour train ride from Rome. It’s full of winding stone streets, countless hidden nooks, and boasts beautiful surviving structures from eras long gone. It’s a great place to wander; if you get lost all you have to do is head upwards.

The region (and much of Italy) is a goldmine of antiquity for archaeology lovers, with Umbria being the heart of Etruscan treasures. Some of the Perugia’s landmarks were erected by Italy’s ancient people, and the National Archaeology Museum of Umbria in Perugia holds a wealth incredible artifacts. The Etruscans are their own mystery; they left no written account of their ways and most of what we know is gleaned from surviving pieces of art, sculpture, and pottery.

Relics from the Middle Ages also speckle the city, the most famous being the Fontana Maggiore in the Piaza Grande; a symbol of Perugia and the critical center of the city’s busiest and most important square throughout history.

To walk amongst the arches and paths is to walk through their same steps, just everyday people doing everyday things; albeit over two thousand years ago. In some places, ancient stonework is literally the foundation of other buildings and of the future.

Scheming Popes and Renaissance Art

Modern times brought an original Raphael oil painting to the San Francesco Al Prato church in the early 1500’s…which was then pilfered by a Pope’s nephew because he liked it so much and HAD to have it. The Pope arranged for an exact copy of “The Desposition” to replace it to ease tensions with Perugians. Funny enough, the copy is in much better shape that the original that lives in Rome’s Borghese Gallery.

There used to be a few other Raphael paintings in the city that are long gone, and all that’s remained of his mark on Perugia is a wall in the Chapel of San Savero. A fresco illustrating the Holy Trinity and several saints is the combined result of his efforts and of his teacher and celebrated master in his own right, Pietro Perugino. It’s tucked away in an intimate room of the chapel, and if you ever wanted a one-on-one with the work of Italian Renaissance masters, this is the place to be.

So, how’s the food?

Italian cuisine is glorious and I am very glad to be walking uphill most of the time because of it, although the bread leaves much to be desired. I know! Bread in Italy that’s terrible?!

Legend has it that the Salt War of 1540 made Perugians protest salt taxes with a boycott, meaning some pretty bland bread that still exists today. The reality is that any salt that was imported and purchased was probably used to cure meats instead. Still, people will swear that Perugians really wanted to stick it to the man and are proud of their crusty rebellion.

That same Salt War and Papal power abuses ignited Perugia’s uprising against the church that resulted in parts of the city being demolished when rebel forces failed. A huge portion of the city was bulldozed over and replaced with the Rocco Paolina, an intimidating fortress and symbol of Papal power that was built ON TOP of entire city blocks. Though the fortress is no longer standing, you can still walk through the “underground city” and see remnants of the buildings upon which it once stood.

What else is there to do?

Seasonal markets pop up with local wares depending on the month, and you’re sure to smell the truffle oil before you see the vendor. There’s an old church or building around every corner, but the most fun lies in exploring without a destination in mind.

Perugia is a hotspot for studying abroad and you’re sure to pick out the students from the locals. There’s an Italian language school as well and plenty of activities to exercise your new language skills.

I highly recommend Alphaville Coffee as a nice place to get your bearings, and if you want someone to give you ideas of what else there is to do, they have a multi-language social night every Tuesday.

It’s a glorious little city that is sure to get you hooked on the undeniable allure of an Italian romance. If the history of it isn’t enough, maybe the daily espressos and terrace views of never ending valleys and blue sky will be😉

Italy’s “Crumbling City”: Civita di Bagnoregio

Too many poetic, dramatic things come to mind when trying to illustrate a place as unique and dreamlike as Italy’s Civita di Bagnoregio; to walk up its heavily reinforced bridge is to enter a portal into a place without a trace of modernity. Its isolation grants it the ability to remain in a frozen trance, a small enough place where you feel both awed by its medieval charm and utterly aware of your own mortality.

“The Crumbling City”, a dying town, the victim of mother nature? A city in the clouds, an island in the sky, a kingdom above? Locals say “Il paese che muore” (the dying city), but I think “Medieval Island” better suits the tucked away magnificence of Civita di Bagnoregio. How does one even begin to describe it? To start, there’s nothing grey about this rural, Italian retreat.

Precariously perched at the top of a massive hill in the Tiber River Valley, Civita lords over lesser peaks and rolling valleys in sweet defiance of the elements. The clay and stone sides of the once great city has been steadily chipped away at for centuries, yet it looks so proud and resilient that to call it “dying” or “crumbling” seems insulting. It’s here that the Middle Ages are perfectly preserved with no reminders of what century you are in, and the very real thought of its endangered state sparks intense appreciation and awe. The only thing between you and the rest of the world is a sea of hills.

 

Like many places in Italy, Civita has Etruscan roots and ancient Roman ties. It was an important, central city in the region until an earthquake caused intense damage in the 16th century and triggered a steady decline. Its government and population gradually moved downhill to Bagnoregio and it sat a ghost town until tourism brought new life in the late 2000s. The permanent population ranges up to the mid teens, but during the summer it skyrockets with vacationing Italians and visiting tourists drawn to its curiosity. The most steady group are the well fed stray cats that know how to charm the prosciutto right out of a visitor’s panino.

Today the long, winding donkey paths used to reach the top are gone and a steep footbridge is the only way to reach town. The medieval architecture is prominent with assorted pagan remains blended in, but the place is quintessentially Italian. Several small businesses cater to visiting crowds and restaurants offer delicious local fare in cozy stone rooms, but if you visit in the winter your options are limited. Since there aren’t enough customers to serve during dinner in the off season, the restaurants take turns staying open during the week. As expected, it’s incredible.

My visit was during this off season, and my travel partners and I rented a car to make the hour and half drive south from Perugia. The town was relatively lively during the day with tourists, but the stillness of the evening snuck up on us and suddenly everything became super spooky. We were probably the only souls sleeping in Civita (besides our Air BNB host) and we had the crumbling city all to ourselves. We jumped each time the church bells rang or a cat darted out from the shadows, but the pervasive calm of the stoic stone buildings soothed us with its magic.

To feel truly isolated is this. No humming of heaters, coughs in the street, idling vehicles. No sound or movement. Everything was still. This city rises out of the ground into the sky and was an incredible look at a time long gone with no distractions. Just you and the stones underfoot that centuries of people walked on before you. We circled our way through town several times, each time noticing new details and taking in the surroundings. The seasonal bonus of a visit during the winter meant an even more intimate experience.

Intact walls hang over brutal cliffs, peeking over the sides of the hill with windows looking out into the lush, fertile valleys. They’re all that’s left of the original structures they once belonged to, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the 16th century building I was staying in was next to topple over.

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If you visit, I recommend staying the night and switching off all electronics. While Civita is small and can be appreciated as a day trip from Rome, the draw of reflection and quiet is satisfyingly therapeutic.  My AirBNB had a charming garden with fig and persimmon trees with the most incredible view of the valley, and the morning brought on a hike through the etruscan tunnels that wound down from the center and into the green countryside.

Thoughts of Civita will forever charm you with warmth , leaving you with a longing sigh of delight and hopes to see it again.

**Civita di Bagnoregio translated would mean Civita OF Bagnoregio…while this location is commonly called by that full moniker, the hilltop destination in this entry is Civita**