It’s hot. You’re constantly sweating no matter how slowly you move, seeking out shade, fans, windows, air conditioning. If the sun isn’t beating down it’s unbearably humid and sticky until it dumps dirty rain that floods the streets and leaves you literally stranded on a sidewalk island.

It’s the smallest city of 2 million people you could ever hope to find – I’ve been here ten months and I feel like I can’t walk around the corner without seeing someone I know (or worse, someone who knows me.) Someone is always watching your every move, noticing, noting. Reporting to someone else.

It’s not particularly pretty to look at. Even a lot of Colombians think I live on the beach but we’re a good 15 kilometers inland and the closest beaches are more Long Island Sound than stereotypical Caribbean. The architecture is purely functional. Parks are concrete and sad, sandy tufts of grass. You forget what it’s like to sink your cleats into a real field.

It’s loud. If it’s not screeching bus traffic, someone is shouting to their companion two feet away and there’s a speaker blasting vallenato like it’s going out of style (it’s not.) Constant yelling, beeping, music, construction. A group of 3 or more people becomes a volume contest. Don’t take civil turns, just talk louder until you’re heard, or not heard.

There’s not much to do here. When not working, studying or eating lunch, everyone is sitting around in circles of plastic chairs talking about, seemingly, nothing at all. Never ending chats about nothing, over and over. It’s hot.

Then. Then, Barranquilla starts to show its face beneath the grimy chaos. A breeze sneaks through your window. You run into friends and their excitement brightens your day or a friendly stranger makes you smile. You start to notice the mango trees, the flowering shrubs, the Colombian flag colors painted on fence posts, the care with which everyone sweeps their front patio.

The sounds begin to blend and silence makes you uneasy. Suddenly you, too, are shouting in the midst of friends and your message gets across and now it’s a conversation and you’re part of it, not scrambling four topics behind waiting for someone to reach out and charitably include you.

You’re sitting in a circle and you find beauty in the simple chatter. The banter increases with the volume, you laugh at the right moments at someone else’s or your own expense, the context is familiar and intriguing and you can feel the emotion pulsing through the words. Then there’s the first bottle of guaro and the circle relaxes even more, it gets louder and happier.

It’s still hot.

You stay.