My love affair with South America proved to be too strong to resist, and after leaving in a whirl of uncertainty and heartbreak last year, that cheeky wanderlust wind has blown me back. It is sometimes difficult to justify why we create certain circumstances, or go to particular places. In response to ‘Why Colombia?’, I just felt like a wanted to come, that there was something here for me. Having already experienced parts of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brasil, and fallen for them all in different ways and for their own special reasons, I submitted to the irresistible urge to scratch my itchy feet on Latin American tierra once again. I arrived to the subtle chill of a Bogota night, and was kindly collected and hosted by a friend and ‘Bogotiano’ in the north of the city. Through him and his friends I was lucky to immediately connect with the rhythms of Colombian life. My intention on this journey was, where possible, to stay with Colombians, learning about the cultures and histories as I go, listening to stories, and hopefully picking up a bit of Spanish. Right now I’m speaking a terrible form of Portuñol I’m not even sure I understand sometimes.
So I spent my first few Colombian days exploring the pretty, antiquated streets of Candelaria, rising to the heights of Monserrate to marvel at the sprawl of the metropolis, visiting galleries and museums filled with resplendent artefacts and art from pre-during-post-Colonial days, absorbing the stories, the modern art, and of course being schooled on the political, economic and emotional history of Colombia, and how this all connects to the Colombia I find myself in. Like all South American countries, Colombia has fought itself out of the devastation of colonial rule, struggled for its right to be an independent nation with industries that benefit the people. Naturally, this is no easy feat, or of course a simple subject to write about from a position of relative ignorance. However, what struck me about the conversations I had with my friend was his unrelenting passion for this country that I am discovering to, indeed, be awe-inspiring. It is a constant source of food for thought, that out of the devastation and pillage of a continent can come such force of resistance, and love. I think I am getting a little ahead of myself here, as I am now writing this having been in Colombia for 6 weeks, so am possibly condensing lots of experiences, conversations and emotions.
I have been reading Eduardo Galeano’s Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina, a highly emotive account of Latin America’s tempestuous history over the last five centuries. Through listening to the voices of the poor and the wealthy, the leaders, intellectuals, Indians, guerrillas, soldiers and outlaws, Galeano eloquently tells of how indigenous populations were overtaken, and for the most part destroyed, and how commerce was shaped so as only to benefit the coloniser, not the colonised or indeed the country in which it was created. Hugely unsustainable industries were enforced, such as mining, sugar and coffee plantations, which only took from the land, replaced nothing, and fed nothing into local economies. As all the wealth was being lavishly pissed up the wall in golden streams, sent back to Europe, or traded with the east for spices and tapestries, the Indigenous populations, Africans brought in through the horrors of the slave trade, and next generation Latinos were not inheriting much in which to call their own. Galeano’s pertinent accounts were pulling me through a past that still echoes in the golden alters of the Catholic churches, the high-nosed statues in the town squares, the newly constructed, over-facing country houses built on land once inhabited by Indians. I was delving into my memories of the Cerro Rico in Potosi, a mountain stripped of it’s silver and the site of 8 million forced labour mortalities, a place where on entrance one can still feel the misery seeping from the ravaged walls; I was back on the cobbled streets of Ouro Preto, a town that contains a plethora of typically ornate churches, simply due to the fact that the conquistadores had nothing more to spend their money on. Even the slaves were allowed to build themselves a church, a fact I still find painfully ironic.
On the road to Villa de Leyva for the weekend, a quaint, cobbled town 2 hours north-east of Bogota, I was confronted by more aggression-steeped sites, finding myself on the turf in which Bolivar finally confronted Santander in the fight for independence. It is forever unnerving to me, to be in these monumental places, staring at the bronze faces of the past, trying to transcend what it was truly like at the time, what the motivations really were. It’s a test for the imagination, and an important one, as we too often forget how these long-distant events still flow around us and affect our now. After this stop we continued on to have a relaxed afternoon and evening in Leyva, allowing me to get up on Sunday to the sun rising, ready, with camera, to explore a little. I love that period of a new day when the streets are open to be what you need them to be; silent, pensive. I meandered the lanes of Leyva, allowing the cobbles and terracotta tiles to take me back in stages through my Spanish and Portuguese streaked past; the bobbled streets of Paraty, hills of Andalucia, sapphire and dust-laden all at once, the warm rooftops of Tenerife villages.
I later found myself in the Casa Museo Luis Acuña. An artist of the 20th Century, Acuña played with his significant talents in painting, sculpture, tapestry and folk-lore to recreate the stories that passed between the oppressor and the oppressed in these lands. In his galley room, one side weighed by carpets depicting Spanish force and conquest, the other by carpets of Indigenous colour and connectivity, cut down the middle by a coat of arms at the far end blankly staring down the line of separation, one feels the intense buzz of tragedy fighting with the silence of finality. Walking through these halls, and out into the stunningly muraled walls of the central courtyard, I felt an intense longing for a time that cannot be altered. The spirituality, wisdom and sadness permeate the walls of this incredible house.
I do not want to disregard this dark history. However, I have a tendency, when reading a certain book or focusing on a certain subject, to become all-encompassed by it, so that I view everything I see and do through that lens. I put my blinkers on, so to speak, and this was not the intention of my journey, neither should it ever be. Of course it is not wrong to seek and value knowledge, and the subsequent power born from this. The lesson, I suppose, that I learnt during my first few days in Colombia is that it is important to be aware of what we need to know, or connect to, at any one time on our personal paths. To listen to our ‘selves’, and determine if what we are internalising is beneficial. Because if it’s not, even if the information is wise, profound, or will be useful at some point, if we’re not in the right space for it to sit, we are powerless to use it positively. It can even be the opposite. As Galeano himself writes:
“One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behaviour and language of those who read…”
Sometimes, what we need is to be alone. And so whilst I figured out how to break my own habits and barriers, I made the decision on the bus from Bogota to San Gil, as I allowed myself to drift between the pain of Galeano’s pages and the Colombian landscape as it alternately dried, lushed, curved, turned mountainous, and became the subject of my historically analytical attachments, to put the book down temporarily. I was leaving the big city for San Gil out of a personal need to be lighter, to explore myself, and out of this came the understanding that the pain from those particular pages did not have a space with me at this point on my path. This natural decision led me to a time of great reflection and realisation in the intensely special San Gil…