For five weeks last year, I traveled with my husband and sons, 10 and 12, through Colombia. That’s right, Colombia. Or, as it’s known to many Americans, the cocaine and kidnapping capital.
We weren’t exactly headed there for a family vacation. After almost five years waiting to adopt, we had been matched with a 2-year-old girl who lived outside of Bogota.
A foreign adoption is a complex emotional experience. Not only are you opening your heart to a child, but, hopefully, their culture too. My husband and I both speak Spanish and Colombia has a long history of adoption with strong government oversight. It was the clear choice for us from the beginning.
Getting to Know Our Daughter’s Country
An important part of our adoption journey was that we’d likely have to spend a month or two in Colombia, waiting for the adoption to be finalized. My husband and I were eager to travel throughout the country, learning about our child’s culture. We knew how important that would be in helping her find her place in the world. How can a child feel good about themselves, if they don’t feel good about where they came from? Yet as the time approached for us to travel with our two sons to Colombia, well-meaning friends repeatedly offered to keep our boys with them. Family expressed concerns about our safety.
Colombia is recovering from decades of drug cartel violence and a civil war that has destroyed rural communities, leaving thousands homeless and impoverished. As one or two people were candid enough to discuss with us, many Colombians blame Americans for their problems. They feel our nasty drug habit encouraged farmers to grow an illegal crop that erupted in violence, with the American military eventually coming in with their own solution— destroying large areas of farmland with pesticides. Thankfully, these conversations were extremely rare. In general, we were warmly welcomed.
Should You Take the Kids to Colombia?
Occasionally, I am asked to speak to prospective adoptive parents about the joys and challenges of adoption. Sometimes they’ll ask if they should leave their other children behind during their adoption travels. They are often traveling to countries in crisis, in the midst of social or political upheaval— countries, like Colombia, that are on the U.S. State Department’s travel warning list. Is bringing their kids worth the risk?
Did we want to put our kids in harm’s way? Of course not. Was it easy traveling with three kids (one we’d just met) in a foreign country? Heck no! My husband had to take a leave of absence from his medical practice and our boys had to miss some school (luckily most of the trip occurred over the summer).
Was the trip worth the risk and the effort? Absolutely. We just felt it was important for our entire family to get to know our daughter’s country and culture. We were right.
The Benefits of Traveling to Adopt
My boys now have a positive view of their sister’s native country. When they hear about the cocaine and kidnappings, they know better. During our five weeks, we came to love our daughter’s birth country. Although we know we’re providing her a great home with lots of love, we’re also aware of the many wonderful things she’s left behind to be part of our family.
I wish the same experience for everyone who adopts through a foreign country. Get to know it and love it. Make it part of who you are.
While we were in Colombia we met several adoptive families of Colombian-born teenagers who return regularly to make sure their children maintain their Colombian connection. Some had been on jungle tours of the Amazon in the south of the country, some were staying at all-inclusive Caribbean resorts in Cartagena, some were embracing the world-class museums and restaurants in the bustling big city of Bogota.
We plan to be one of those families. I can’t wait to visit the lush tropical plantations in the coffee region. I’m eager to scuba dive in the Colombian islands near Cartagena. There are still so many regions of the country we’ve yet to explore.
Over time, we hope to introduce Sara Sofia to all of them, so that she, and we, never lose our Colombian connection.
Andrea Guthmann is a freelance journalist focusing on family travel. She spent many years as a writer and producer for WTTW-TV, the PBS station in Chicago. Her travel stories have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Parent and on-line travel sites.A native Floridian, Andrea’s now a big (windy) city mom of 3, who range in age from tot to teen. She loves sailing Lake Michigan and visiting the world class museums and restaurants in her sweet home Chicago.