hello colombia – may 2012

Cañar Chronicle 5:  Colombia, May 2012

Dear Friends:

We’ve just come back from three weeks in Colombia, my first visit to our neighboring country to the north, and Michael’s first return since 1976, when he traveled as a longhaired hippy tourist. There’s a wonderful photo somewhere of him on a horse, skinny, with dreadlocks and wire-rimmed glasses. He recalls that, back then, he was stopped frequently by the police or military and asked if he was carrying drugs. When he replied, “Why on earth would I carry drugs in Colombia,” they responded. “Well then, do you want to buy some?” This time our (perceived) vises went no further than Colombian beer and famous Colombian coffee, (and maybe just a little bit of Colombia .

 It was a rigorous trip. We traveled entirely overland except for a final flight home from Quito – taking two days to travel north out of Ecuador, then making a broad loop around southern Colombia. To travel on the mountainous roads that crisscross the three Andean cordilleras – muddy, incredibly potholed, with frequent landslides and nearly impassable at times – we were crammed into every sort of vehicles for up to six hours at a time, airborne as we bumped over potholes and ditches. Drivers were good, though some little older than overly-confident teenagers, speed-loving, risk-taking, and I – who rarely get nervous on buses – had to close my eyes as we inched around landslides close to certain-death drops into a river valley abyss below, or forded a river that didn’t look like it wanted to be crossed.

Gasoline is expensive in Colombia, compared to Ecuador, and as the trip wore on we had to laugh at our descent in traveling style, from big luxury buses to decreasing-in-size mini-buses, from chiva-style rattletraps to double-cab pickups (above right, me, before six others crowded in) and, finally, standing and hanging for a short ride on the back of a jeep as it sped up the hill to a village. All that was left was to hire a ride on a horse-drawn cart or on the back of a motorcycle. Everyone from schoolgirls to grandmothers to families with babies ride small Honda bikes, and in fact in our last village we almost hired a ride on market day from a line of motorcycle taxis standing ready. When I asked the young driver if he had an extra helmet, he laughed.

Because the Andes are still a geologically active region, many of the cities we visited in Ecuador – Ambato and Ibarra – and in Colombia, have been destroyed at one time or another by earthquakes. The most recent, and devastating, was in 1983 in the colonial “white” city of Popayán, our first destination in Colombia. Many buildings, including the cathedral, were destroyed, and hundreds died. This small city has been largely rebuilt in the colonial style, and was a delightful stop for a few days. Michael found a couple of chess partners at the local university while I visited museums and churches.

From Popoyán we launched into the “great unknown” to the east – San Augustin and Tierradentro, a vast region of archeological mysteries, ancient cultures, and the headwaters of the Magdalena River, which runs the length of this beautiful country. Colombia is much larger than Ecuador – about the size of France, Spain and Portugal combined – but in many ways it resembles our corner of Ecuador. Spectacular green mountain ranges, villages tucked into river valleys or on high plateaus, and houses made of adobe. But the mountains are lower and the climate is milder – semitropical – so folks love their flowers, birds and trees. In the village of Tierradentro, where we’d gone to visit ancient underground tombs, we sat on a roadside bench one afternoon and watched two macaws making a huge racket in a nearby tree. A couple pulled up on a motorbike at the house in front of the tree and invited us to come visit their menagerie – a back yard filled with creatures running free – “Like us,” the woman, Luz Elena, said cheerfully: a miniature Doberman Pinscher, a small pig, fuzzy cuyes (guinea pigs) creeping around, and other animals along with a large cage with cockatoos and parrots. The man, Favi, said someone had brought the two macaws to them from the Amazon several months ago, and they settled right in to the little house and feeding platform in their own tree.

Interestingly, both Favi and Luz Elena are “little people,” and in only two days in this small village, we saw at least ten dwarfs, and others with dwarf-like features. One of the tomb sites we visited was named El Duende, meaning “elf,” as it had held bones of an extraordinarily small person. We could only think that since this was the most isolated place we visited, tucked in a valley between high mountains, there’ve probably been a lot of cousin marriages over the generations.

The underground tombs of Tierradentro, dating back about 2000 years, are scattered over a wide area, dug into hilltops on both side of the valley. Protected now as national park sites and watched over by friendly guards/guides, we were the only visitors. A guard unlocked wire hatches and the rest was up to us…to maneuver difficult, spiraling, stone steps down and peer into dark caverns. Scooped out of volcanic rock, and sealed for millennia from the light, most tombs were doom-shaped cavities supported with pillars decorated with geometric designs, with niches for ceramic urns with bones. Amazingly, nothing is known of the civilization that built the tombs. We had to make long walks from site to site, and all the tombs seemed the same, so after clambering down and up five or six, panting with the heat and effort, I began to ask the guards, politely I hope: “Is there anything interestingly different down there?

Our third day in Tierradentro, when I tried to visit the two museums attached to the park, a guard informed me that they were closed, “for public safety.” He said something like “guerilla action” and pointed toward the mountains to the east. I asked if the large “boom” Michael and I heard while climbing to other tombs that morning – that I thought was thunder – might, but have been a… bomba! he confirmed.

And this brings us to the part of the story that Colombian tourism officials were rather I not tell.The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the so-called “people’s army,” has been engaged in armed conflict with the military for over thirty years. During that time, violence has come from all sides: the army, the paramilitaries, narcotraficantes and the FARC, fighting a guerrilla war mostly in remote regions.

We heard stories, including one from Pacho, our horse guide, of being “taken” by militares or paramilitares years ago and feeling lucky to have escaped with his life. “I was never anything but a guide in my entire life.” We saw manned bunkers built of sand bags right in the middle of village squares. We saw the remains of a bank, blown up and robbed by FARC eleven years ago and left pretty much untouched since then. Several times, while on buses, we were stopped by soldiers and escorted off. Men were lined up and patted down (including Michael; (see photo) and questioned, and women’s bags searched, including mine. For what? We kept asking. Drugs? Guns? No clear answer. The young soldiers were friendly, and no one objected when I took photos, but it was very reminiscent of Central America in the 1980s during the war-torn years we lived there.

Things had calmed down in last few years, and Colombia’s tourism was just beginning to rebound. Then, on the day we left, a car bomb in Bogotá targeting a right-wing ex-minister killed two people and injured many others, and the U.S. Embassy immediately issued a “terrorism” travel advisory.

Despite all this, the Colombians are wonderfully friendly people – open, curious, eager to be of help if they see you stopped in the street looking at a map, or grabbing your arm affectionately while giving directions. Indigenous people are more reserved, as in Ecuador. Curiously, we saw little evidence of indigenous, at least those easily identified by clothing or language, except for our last stop, a small village called Silvia, where the Guambianos live in hamlets outside town. Men wear bright-blue, calf-length, wrap skirts with pink fringe, fedora-style hats, ponchos and ankle boots. Women dress in variations of the same colors, also with ankle boots (though I saw a few fashion-conscious young women in running shoes). They don’t like cameras, and there were no postcards (Colombia has no national postal system!) but I grabbed a couple of photos on market day.

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