Adventures in Colombia Part 1: Meeting my Biological Family

Adventures in Colombia Part 1: Meeting my Biological Family

When I initially began planning my trip to Colombia, I was not thinking about how long I would stay there or even where I was going to stay, in fact, I didn’t know much about the country at all. This was not a relaxing vacation or romantic getaway, in truth, this trip would be anything but relaxing and stress free. I would be meeting my biological family, for the first time, after 30 years.

I grew up in a small rural town outside of Boston. My sister and I were both adopted. Sheryl came from El Salvador and I was from Colombia. Being adopted at a young age I never really thought much about my biological mother. My life was complete with my family and I was happy. It wasn’t until my parents helped my sister find her biological mother for her 30th birthday, that the curiosity began for me. My mother said she would help me as well for my 30th, however my sister is 3 years older than me so I had some time to make a decision.

It was March, 25th, my 29th birthday and I remember sitting at work eating birthday cake. That’s when it hit me; I wanted to start the search for my biological mother. For the next month, I would do basic searches on Google or Facebook (with no luck). Come April, I finally let my mom know that I was ready. She hired a private investigator and the search began.

After about a month, the PI located who he thought to be my mother. We had documents from the agency regarding my adoption so it was easy for him to find her. After a DNA test (and 99.998% match), I began to look at tickets to Colombia, specifically Bogota where my biological family was living. To my surprise the flights were very inexpensive and not too long after I had booked 2 tickets on American Airlines from LAX to BOG (El Dorado). The trip would be 22 days total including travel to and from Colombia.

It finally hit me. This was happening and I was really going to meet my biological mother. Everything still seemed so surreal, as if I were watching a scripted show about someone else’s life. My boyfriend, Paul was going to come with me, but I made it a point to do all the planning. This was my first trip outside of a school organization or study abroad and I wanted to take charge and do everything on my own. The trip in total would include 7 flights and a few nights in 5 different cities. We’d be staying in Bogota for 11 days total, however I split the time up into 2 parts so I’d be able to start off with my biological family and then end the trip with them again (only if they wanted).

Being a photographer I decided to document my journey leading up to the initial meeting. I wanted to show others what it’s like to go through the process of searching, find or meeting your biological family, whether they are adopted or not. For a little over a year I planned, filmed and worked my ass off in preparation for my journey. The trip was set for June 26th, 2017. The year had flown by and before I knew it, June had arrived.

Throughout the year, I had emailed with the PI as he was handling all the details for the reunion. Communication was difficult as he speaks mostly Spanish, however I had the address and name of the hotel we were meeting at, the date and time. That’s all I needed.   The rest would fall into place.

After a hectic year of 60-70hr workweeks, the trip was finally here. We left LA on June 26th and arrived to Bogota around 11pm that evening. Luckily, Paul and I had a day to unwind and get our bearings before the meeting on the 28th at 11am. We took at taxi from El Dorado to our Air BnB in El Chapinero Alto and immediately fell asleep.

Photo courtesy Genna Sandler

The next day we slept in as much as we could. Our apartment was in a very nice, safe neighborhood on the 13th floor of a new complex. We were close to coffee shops, grocery stores and plenty of restaurants. We grabbed our first breakfast right around the corner at a cute restaurant called La Herencia and got some basic groceries. Although we did some exploring, most of the day was prepping for the reunion. My nerves were racing and I was exhausted. We were finally in Colombia and within 24 hours I was going to be face to face with my biological mother.

Waking up the next day, I felt oddly calm. I wanted to keep my composure as much as possible and try to be in the moment. I didn’t want to let my mind wander, as I tend to get overwhelmed and anxious in emotional situations. Paul and I packed up our cameras and called an Uber to go to the Inter Bogota Hotel. We left around 10:15am to be there for 11am. We were to arrive first and sit with the PI, Alejandro and his wife (who would be translating).   My biological family would come an hour in a half later.

The nerves began to kick in while we were in the Uber. Not only was driving in Colombia a bit scary (traffic, speeding, windy roads), I was also in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar language. On top of the culture shock, I was nervous about meeting my family.

We arrived to the hotel early and waited about 15 minutes for Alejandro and his wife. Once they arrived, Alejandro gave me an overview on how the reunion was going to go as far as who would walk into the room first and also a bit of his background. It was comforting. He had done this before, in fact about 1,000 times before and I felt secure knowing I had him there to help me. I will be forever grateful to him for finding my biological family.

The time had arrived and my family was downstairs in the lobby. Alejandro said that my biological mother was extremely nervous and excited as well as she called him the night before. While he was downstairs with my family (which seemed like an eternity) I stood in the meeting room trying to calm myself down. Thinking of it now, I still get chills. My family and I were in the same place, under the same roof and in just a few minutes, I was going to see them.

Photo courtesy Genna Sandler

The first to walk in was my younger sister, Margarita. She walked towards me and gave me a big hug. We both were crying. The next person was my older sister, Nataly. More hugging and more tears. As the emotion filled the room, Alejandro came in to tell me he had a surprise for me (and him as well). Then came walking in my older brother, Juan Sebastian holding a giant basket of roses and sunflowers that took over half of his body. I was excited and shocked to see I had an older brother as Alejandro told me I had only 2 sisters. The more the merrier, right? We hugged as well and continued to cry.

Then my biological mother walked in. We hugged for a long time as she spoke to me in Spanish. I was able to understand a bit however I could feel her words come through her hug. I could feel all of their emotions and love for me just through the way they hugged me. They told me I was the missing piece to their family and that they were now finally complete. That they had hoped and prayed to someday meet me. Like I said, even typing this now I still feel so full of emotion.

My Spanish-speaking skills were lacking, however Paul was very good and my older sister Nataly could speak some English, so between them we were able to communicate. Alejandro talked with all of us and gave us advice on how to move forward and build a relationship. We only spent 2 hours in the hotel and then were free to do whatever we wanted.

After the reunion we thanked Alejandro and packed up our stuff to get ready to go to lunch. My biological family wanted to spend as much time with me as possible. We walked a few blocks and went to a traditional restaurant for ajiaco (Colombian Soup) and then for café next door. We continued to walk all around Downtown Bogota and ended up in a park underneath some trees.

My sisters asked me what I liked to do, what I did for work and about my life growing up. We talked about my family and how I was raised. They were all very thankful to hear I had a good fulfilled life. The first day was full of emotion and probably one of the most profound moments in my life. With 4 more days before we left for the 2nd part of our trip, we made plans to see each other everyday.

After sitting in the park for some time we exchanged Facebook information to continue communication and make plans for each day. I did let them know I would be back to finish out my time in Colombia with them in Bogota. We left each other with full hearts and hopes to build a relationship.

Photo courtesy Genna Sandler

The next four days with them were filled with adventures in Bogota, lots of café, traditional meals and some Colombian nightlife. It was nice to have them with us to explain about the history of Bogota. I also enjoyed hearing about their lives growing up just outside the city.

I came to Colombia to be reunited with my family. I knew as soon as we got to Bogota that this trip would be even more amazing than I could have imagined. I was lucky enough to reconnect with a family I didn’t know. Family that had been missing me for the past 30 years. I felt connected to Bogota and was pleasantly surprised to find out how beautiful it really was.

I still can’t put into words the feelings I felt over my first 7 days on my trip. The planning had finally come to an end and I was able to enjoy myself completely. I got lost in the moments with my family and now will always have a connection and place to go when I visit.

The outcome of being reunited was best-case scenario. I will never take that for granted. People search their whole lives to find biological family members and I was one of the lucky ones to find mine. My family back home was so supportive and wonderful throughout this whole adventure and now I have even more family that love and care about me.

Photo courtesy Genna Sandler

As I packed to go to our next location I took a moment to reflect. I felt so grateful for this experience and even more excited now to travel in the country I was born in. My journey had just begun and there were still four other cities ahead of me to visit.

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