behind the clouds, part one
From Bogota, Fede sent me north to “the most beautiful place in the world.”
Parque Tayrona is Colombia’s prized ecological preserve along the Caribbean, where a vast civilization once thrived until the Spanish Conquest toppled it some four hundred years ago. I had read that a handful of Tayrona escaped into the Sierra Nevada mountains and their descendents still live in its isolating embrace. I remembered seeing some of their hand-woven bags – mochilas as they are called here – slung over the shoulders of Bogota’s fashionable elite. Rain and thick marine layers blocked my view of the mountains 40 miles away, until one morning a sunrise revealed the silhouette of their jagged snow-capped peaks tumbling and rising 18,000 feet above the sea.
Everyone I asked told me that visiting the Sierra Nevada was impossible. Armed guerillas use the shelter of the mountains for drug and arms operations. Then there are the Arhuaco (arr-WHA-ko) indigenous who have preserved their way of life by shunning contact with the outside world. You can hire a guide to visit Ciudad Perdida, the stone remains of a hillside Tayrona settlement that some call “Machu Picchu off the beaten track.” But I was interested in the Arhuaco, not another trek to lonely ruins.
One evening before leaving the coast, I began chatting with an Arhuaco woman who was selling mochilas in the town outside the preserve. She told me about their subsistence life rooted in ancestral practices, and how extended families maintain at least two farms to grow crops at different elevations. Green plantain is the main year-round staple along with a range of fruits and other starchy vegetables. Coca leaves, carried by Arhuaco men in a special mochila and chewed throughout the day, are their sacred crop. They also grow coffee and sugarcane, some of which they sell to buy basic supplies.
“Ah,” she added, her eyes brightening, “there is really nothing an Arhuaco likes more than a cup of coffee and a little bread. Make an olla of coffee and offer some bread and you will have a dozen visitors.” What kind of bread do you make in the mountains? “Nobody makes bread there, we buy it from merchants who bring it up from the city.”
Was teaching bread baking a way into the Sierra Nevada? It seemed like a wild idea, but since we were developing a rapport I suggested that I could show her family how to make bread. She seemed intrigued, but the decision wasn’t hers. She had to discuss it with her family and, more importantly, she had to consult a mamo – a kind of shaman, she explained, who would divine whether my trip would go well or not. But she had more pressing business elsewhere and told me to call in a week about meeting again.
A week later I met Leticia at her home in Valledupar, a mid-sized city built right up against the eastern slope of the Sierra. Though her family in the mountains seemed open to bread baking, it was important to take things a su tiempo – at their own pace. “People have to get familiar with you, before you show up with a sack of flour and start making bread.”
And there is the business with the mamo, she reminded me. The Arhuaco believe that everything in the Sierra, from the rocks and clay to each living creature, has a spirit contributing to an overarching equilibrium. To maintain this harmony the Arhuaco rely on the advice and spiritual work of mamos, a priestly order of men who are chosen at birth and trained “in the wisdom of the ancients” for the first 18 years of their life without ever being allowed to see the light of day. Mamos, she told me, can perceive and commune with the unseen spirits of the Sierra. Though she had already spoken with a mamo about my trip, we had to go together to get his blessing.
Our departure date got pushed back, because “things are going on.” Leticia had learned that armed guerillas were in the area and there were signs of trouble. “Don’t worry. We’ll just let this blow over and go up later.” She went back to Parque Tayrona to sell mochilas for a holiday weekend, leaving me with her mother and nephew. During long days in the unrelenting tropical heat, the more I considered her vague details about the situation in the mountains, the more my curiosity turned into unease.
I knew from studying politics that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known locally as la guerilla) have been fighting a bitter and bloody civil war against the Colombian state for over forty years. In places beyond government control – like the Sierra – they fill the power vacuum. Though I trusted her when she said la guerilla doesn’t get involved with indigenous people, I began to worry that I was getting into something way over my head.
I had nearly convinced myself to return to Bogota, when Leticia told me to get my things ready because a jeep was coming to pick us up at 4:30 the next morning.
After a bouncy two hour ride up a valley that led into the mountains, we crossed a river and hiked through a dark forest to find the mamo. A rock wall marked his home at the crest of a ravine. Inside we found the yard filled with bright orange blossoms and bulging green gourds.
The mamo was not home, so we decided to come back later.
A long hike alongside the river brought us to the low farm of her father in law, Teti.
Seated near the doorway, surrounded by balls of hand-spun yarn, his wife was weaving a shoulder strap for a mochila.
Teti, his eighty years etched into a face framed by a cascade of white hair, took my hand in his big, callused paw, “Ahh… so you're the grrringo,” clearly amused at having a norteamericano in his house for the first time. Besides Leticia, he was the only indigenous person I had met so far who spoke Spanish.
Taking me for a walk around his finca, he pointed out his crops, from tangerines to plantain to neatly pruned bushes of coca.
He picked a few young leaves from one of the bushes. "When they harvest coca to make drugs they just rip all the leaves off the branch with one swipe. But when you harvest it to buchear – to chew – you approach the plant with more respect. You pick the leaves one by one as you would a ripe fruit, and then you toast them gently so that they dry."
He reached into his mochila and grabbed a pinch. I held out my hand. “Here in the Sierra if someone offers you coca – or anything for that matter – you always accept with two hands. If you accept with one hand it means that you are stingy, that you expect to receive only as little as you would be willing to give.”
He filled both of my hands, and following his example, I stuffed my mouth with the crispy leaves. Within moments my saliva moistened the ticklish clutter and I gathered them into a single mass and moved it to my cheek. You don't actually "chew" the leaves, but rather let them steep in the side of your mouth. I had chewed coca before – it helped in Bolivia when I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness or needed to settle an upset stomach – but I never got accustomed to their acrid odor and the obvious sense that I was sucking on leaves. This coca was sweeter and tasted like strong green tea. In five minutes, the left side of my mouth was overcome by a pleasant warmth that seemed to lull my cheek to sleep.
Over small cups of tinto Teti invited me to travel with him to his high finca to harvest coffee and make panela, the heavy blocks of crystallized raw sugarcane that is a staple in every Colombian household. The next day I tried to settle into the daily rhythms of the family, mostly helping out in the kitchen.
Rumors surfaced constantly about la guerilla. Over the next few days – from a series of experiences that for the safety of those still in the mountains cannot be shared on the web – I learned that once you enter the orbit of Colombia’s civil conflict, you are in a world of fluid rules where no move is innocuous. A documentary filmmaker who has done work in the Sierra summed it up best in a recent conversation: “The truth is, it is impossible to be innocent in Colombia. As soon as you work there, do research, or [somehow] get in the circle of action, you have to choose sides. It´s a lose-lose situation.” Any assumption that I could remain neutral disappeared, when someone joked that my white face and dark beard made me look like a guerilla commandante in the area. A cold shave in the river did nothing to slough off my growing ambivalence about staying and going farther into the mountains.
Leticia told me she had to go to the city for some pressing business. The thought of her leaving disquieted me, and there were plenty of good reasons to go with her. Nevertheless I couldn’t make up my mind. I wanted to stay and go with Teti to his high finca. But now, without the safety net of Leticia's reassuring presence and so much out of my control, I felt uncertain. I needed the advice of someone with more insight. The Arhuaco trust the wisdom of the mamo, I was convinced that I should too.
Leticia and I hiked the trail in silence until we reached the mamo's house. He was sitting under a fanning sycamore when we arrived. Like most Arhuaco he doesn’t speak Spanish, so Leticia explained why I was here and that I felt anxious about continuing my trip. He handed me a pinch of wool and instructed me to divide it into three balls. I clasped them in my right hand, and in my left he pressed three more. Telling me to wave my hands slowly around my temples and direct my thoughts to the little balls of wool, I was to conjure everything I had seen and felt over the past few days.
When I finished, the mamo took the balls and wrapped them carefully in two leaves. He walked to a small stone altar that faced the peaks rising above us to the west, closed his eyes and muttered what Leticia said was a short prayer. When he returned, he said: “Be smart, you’ll be fine.”
We parted at the river, and I found Teti waiting for me on his mule a little way up the path. Together we backtracked up the trail and, passing his home, climbed a steep path. When we broke through the trees, the entire valley opened before us. Above it now and heading to higher ground, I felt a surprising sense of release. I told him how contento I was to be in these mountains, walking with him up to his high finca.
“Yo tambien estoy muy contento, gringo.”
A lush mountain loomed in front of us. "That," Teti said, “is my finca.”