Wandering Brooks

in South America

Month: December, 2012

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Part 2 – La Finca de Santiago

Kinga invited me to a very off-the-beaten-track place, the farm of the late María Teresa Hincapié, a famous Colombian performance artist. It is now owned by her son, Santiago.

Inspired by his mother, Santiago follows the Kogi indigenous spiritual path. He was not born Kogi. He is a rare Colombian who has adopted the ways of the indigenous people his ancestors nearly destroyed. He chews coca leaves much of the day, using it as a sacred plant. His teeth are darkly discoloured from it, and he sleeps only two hours a night. Always with him is his wooden poporo, the container that all Kogi men are given when they pass into adulthood. It holds a white lime powder made from sea shells, which works synergistically with the coca leaf.

His farm is a place of spiritual development. Yagé (ayahuasca) ceremonies are held there. They have also held ceremonies with magic mushrooms, LSD, peyote, and san pedro. It is a place of meditation, yoga, music, and, above all, hard work on the farm.

I do not yet understand his spiritual work with the poporo. Personally, I am not drawn to the coca leaf. I am more interested in psychedelic sacred medicines such as yagé. But Santiago explained to me why he prefers the poporo. Yagé opens a door to enlightenment very quickly, he explained, but then the door can close just as quickly. With the poporo, he said, the door is opened slowly and gradually, but it never closes.

The farm was not a comfortable place for me. I have had a headache for six days. I needed rest after the Lost City trek, and the farm was not a place for me to rest.

And yet it was paradise, at times. The two days that I was there, Kinga and I went down to the river in the morning. We danced slow, meditative contact improv, naked in the river in the middle of the jungle.

And Kinga gave me one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. It is a necklace made of quartz and a piece of the ayahuasca vine, crafted for me by a boy from the amazon who had been visiting the farm. I often find myself reaching up to hold the ayahuasca. It helps me to ground me. 

I had an opportunity to take part in a yagé ceremony on the farm, but, for the second time on this trip, it did not feel like the right time or place. I see wisdom in Santiago’s approach to spiritual growth. Instead of taking yagé, I will meditate a little every day. Try to open the door more slowly.

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Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Part 1 – Ciudad Perdida

In 2003, eight tourists visiting Ciudad Perdida were kidnapped by the National Liberation Army, a guerrilla organization in Colombia, which is why the trails are now patrolled constantly by the (actual) Colombian Army. We saw at least a few soldiers every day.

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Colombian army patrolling Ciudad Perdida

I do not usually like men with guns. But my attitude has changed in Colombia. The men with guns here are definitely protecting me from other, badder men with guns. So I like them. Both the army and the police in Colombia have an aura around them of well-deserved respect and pride. In my interactions with them, they have always been humble and friendly.

Aside from tourists and men with guns, the trail is inhabited by indigenous people, one of which is the Kogi people.

I asked one of the Kogi boys how old he was. He said “no sabe” – an incorrect way of saying “don’t know” in Spanish, which is his second language. My friend, Vanessa, asked him if he had another name besides Isaias. He said he had two other names. What are they? “No sabe,” he said, “‘of your father,’ they call me.” His father is one of the Chiefs of the Kogi people. I would guess that he is about 10 years old.

We asked Isaias, Do you like foreigners? No, he answered. Me neither, I said. We asked, Do you like Colombians? No, he answered. Give me your scarf, he said to Vanessa. Give me your shirt, he said to me.

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Isaias

The Kogi children like to ask for gifts. You must give them candy in order to have permission to take their photo, for instance. It feels very strange to be buying photos with candy. It feels strange to take photos at all. But it’s so unreal to meet people living in an ancient, traditional way. It’s difficult to resist the urge to photograph them.

Our tour group had a discussion with one of the Kogi men. He told us about Ceranqua, the sun god. Ceranqua brought us here because we have something we need to learn, he explained. The people from this land, Sierra Nevada, are the big brothers. The rest of you are the little brothers, he said.

The big brothers are entrusted with the task of maintaining balance in the world, of which Sierra Nevada is the beating heart. He said the world is not in balance, and that we little brothers are burning oil and gasoline, and he told us that the work of the big brothers is very difficult, because the balance is precarious.

The big brothers maintain balance through purification rituals and offerings to Mother Earth. They recognize that when they take something from Mother Earth, they must give something back. They do not seek technological development, only spiritual development.

Part of this spiritual work is done with the help of the sacred coca plant and the poporo, about which I will talk a little more in the second post that I will write about my experience in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Prison

I am in prison. At least that is the nickname written in black crayon on the wall of my current Hostel in Santa Marta, “Prisión Casa Blanka.” An appropriate name given the black bars on all the windows, and the fact that I’ve been incarcerated here for a few days while I try to recover from a cold. They let me out once a day for an hour at the beach.

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Here is the Lonely Planet decription of nearby hotel: “Hotel Miramar. Resembles an open prison filled with waster gringos eating greasy burgers for breakfast at 3pm. Cheap and nasty, but with a fun atmosphere – if you fit the profile.” Casa Blanca is even cheaper, at 12,000 pesos a night ($6.50 Cdn), and more run-down. They even stole the menus from the other hotel and put masking tape over the name “Miramar.” But it’s nonetheless mystifyingly comfortable and pleasant here, much better than the 25,000 peso dorm in the “best” budget hostel in town.

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The beach is the perfect place to go while suffering from a cold, by the way. The ocean is the world’s biggest neti pot.

I went with a couple American girls yesterday, and I saw for the first time how shitty it can be for women in Colombia. When we arrived, we put down our towels and I went for a swim/nasal cleanse. By the time I came up for air, both of my companions had been approached by men. One of the guys was kind of good-looking, and my friend, Emily, didn’t seem to mind, so I didn’t worry about it. Twenty minutes later, they were out of the water and chatting on the beach. Maybe this guy is different from the cat-callers in the street, I thought. He seems perfectly capable of a normal conversation. Not long after that, I turned to see him walking away, and Emily said “he was doing just fine until he tried to show me his penis.”

I’m not really sure how to transition after that. So I’m going for a hike tomorrow. A six-day trek to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. If the world doesn’t end before I get back, I’ll let you know how it goes!

Travelling Alone

I licked the tears from Kinga’s cheeks when I left her in San Gil. She did the same for me when she left Montreal to go back to Poland last Winter. We were just beginning to fall in love then. This time, we are less reluctant about saying goodbye. We have been spending a lot more time together than we thought we would a month ago, and we both need to be apart for a while.

Before we parted, we celebrated the Immaculate Conception with the people of San Gil, with live music and dancing. We learned the dance from watching, and we got some impromptu instruction from enthousiastic (i.e. drunk) locals. After dancing together for a song, we noticed that everyone was watching us. Was it because we’re so good-looking? Or because we’re silly gringos who don’t know how to dance? I’m not entirely sure. Later, we added a bit of our own flavour to the dance, and the crowd cheered when Kinga lifted me over her head.

San Gil was more interesting than I expected. It is the extreme sports capital of Colombia, which sounds pretty boring if you ask me. And by boring I mean expensive. And by expensive I mean that actually there are some things that are really cheap. So we went caving for 25,000 pesos, about $15.00. We had to slither on our bellies through mud and water to get through some parts of the cave. The most fun for me was having to dive under the water to cross from one “room” to another.

I also tried hydrospeed, which is like white water rafting except there is no raft. Instead, there is a little board that you cling to for dear life as you are tossed down the river. At least that’s the idea. In reality, I spent most of the time floating calmly down the Rio Fonce, enjoying the view of trees and birds and riverside houses dotted here and there.

After San Gil, I went to Mompós. I told Kinga I would let her know whether she should check it out. No, Kinga, don’t check it out. You won’t like it.

After a sleepless overnight bus ride to El Banco, the town closest to Mompós, I was expecting to have a choice of jeeps to take me the rest of the way. When I arrived, there was only one sketchy looking dude with a motorbike who offered to take me. Not wanting to be stranded in El Banco – it didn’t feel like a very nice place to be for longer than necessary – I reluctantly agreed. On our way out of town, we stopped at the gas station, which was actually a one-room cement house whose owner sold old pop bottles filled with gasoline.

The motorcycle ride took us along the Rio Magdalena, passed villages and wetland and forest. The sun had just risen, and there was a dreamy fog hanging over the landscape. It may be hard to believe, but this was my most memorable experience in Colombia so far.

Mompós itself was also memorable, but not for very good reasons. Long story short, the hostel was unpleasant. There is also absolutely nothing to do in the town except walk around, which is exactly what I did. I’m glad I went though because it was pretty different from everywhere else I’d been so far.

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It was my first introduction to more African influences in Colombia. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the surrounding villages I saw more poverty than I had seen in Colombia so far, until I went to Palenque, that is. San Basilio de Palenque was the first free town in the Americas, founded by an escaped African slave named Benkos Bioho in the 1600’s. Like Mompós, there is nothing to do there but walk around and talk to people, but it is fascinating nonetheless. I found it eerily awe-inspiring to look back and forth between the statue of Benkos Bioho and the people milling around the main plaza, realizing that they are all directly descended from him and his companions.

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The first day I was in Palenque, a crew from UNICEF was filming kids playing soccer. The second day, there was a film crew from Foster Parents Plan. Some people seemed to appreciate the help from charity organizations, but my host Ambrosio said that these groups don’t make any real change. We talked about how it’s the same in Africa. People come and give for a bit, and then they leave, leaving intact the shitty system that creates and perpetuates the problems.

I’m leaving Cartagena tomorrow. Notice I didn’t say much about it? There isn’t much to say. I walked around and saw the old city, took some pictures and fended off drug dealers. I think I will prefer Santa Marta or Taganga, my next destinations.

The Culture Cube

I had a dream that I was given a cube with a different landscape sculpted onto each of its faces. Each landscape represented a different culture. There was an Eqyptian landscape, a Chinese landscape, and so on, all intricately detailed and very beautiful. I was very pleased with this gift. I interpreted it as a sign that I am being exposed to many different ways of living, and that this exposure enriches my life.

Upon waking, I realized that there could be another interpretation. The cultural landscapes are only surface level. It is a beautiful gift, but it is only a souvenir. It fails to show the true depth of any of the cultures. I have something pretty to show people, but I do not truly understand what it is.

Between these two interpretations, I think both are true.

I am currently in Barichara, Colombia, another little town with cobblestone roads where everything is painted white. The bus ride here was hellish. I spent most of the journey trying not to move or speak for fear that I would throw up from motion sickness. Kinga suffered too, so it wasn’t just because I’m a princess that it was difficult for me.

We have been having lots of fun with the varieties of sickness from which we can suffer. The most interesting so far is altitude sickness, which we both experienced on the hike up to Iguaque Lagoon. As we neared the top of the mountain, I was struggling to breathe and my heart sounded like a deathmetal drum line. I had already started chewing a few coca leaves before the symptoms started, but by now my little wad had been used up, so I stuffed a few more leaves in my mouth. I don’t know if it was placebo or what, but within a few minutes of chewing more, I decided to RUN UP THE MOUNTAIN… until my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, that is, and I decided to slow down and walk again. I think the coca leaves worked for me, somewhat, but Kinga isn’t so sure it worked for her. The discomfort was a small price to pay, however, as the view from the top was quite spectacular.

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Apparently Villa de Leyva is famous for its “hongos,” magic mushrooms that grow abundantly there. Once we learned where to find them, we looked for cowshit everywhere we went. Our hongo hunting skills are not very good, but William, our host in Villa de Leyva, was kind enough to give us some. It’s a good medicine, and, according to a couple from Bogotá we met on the way down Iguaque, perfectly legal in Colombia.

They were the only people we saw on that hike, by the way. I am constantly amazed at how few travelers and tourists we meet. We went on a little walk one day to see some ancient ruins of a Church, dating to the 1600’s (I think). It could be a tourist attraction, but it isn’t. We only knew about it because Bonnie, our other host, told us where to go. We just had to walk across farmland, down into a valley and back up the other side, through barb-wire fence after barb-wire fence. We were the only ones exploring the ruins, the only people for miles around.

I was a little sad to leave William and Bonnie’s farm yesterday. We met Bonnie on the bus from Bogotá to Villa-de-Leyva. It started by just asking where she was from and where she was headed, and within 20 minutes, she had invited us to stay for free on her farm if we took care of the chickens and the cat for a few days. We unded up staying longer than a week. Bonnie wasn’t there most of the time, so we didn’t get to know her very well, unfortunately. You can imagine how generous and open she is to have invited us so quickly after meeting us, however. We spent more time with William, and I grew very fond of him. He has a very gentle energy. We will be very fortunate if we keep meeting people like this as we continue to travel.