Chapter 17

COLUMBIA: THE UNEXPECTED

1991-01-16, Cartagena


I feel like I'm Jack Kerouac, 'On The Road', in a land where the land itself and the social order that once was 'manana tranquilo' is driven by the tidal wave of cathartic upheaval.

Except I'm not nineteen years old, criss-crossin' the States, hoppin' freight trains, drinkin' Jack Daniels and Ripple Wine, tokin' joints, hangin' out with the dudes at a time just on the verge of the butter-flyin' rainbow-dancin' flower-powerin' Sixties explosion.

I'm criss-crossin' third-world fiefdoms on fourth-hand barely-runnin' mother'n'child-packed radio-blarin' buses. Drinkin' Traigo, takin' native plant medicines and watchin' ancient traditional cultures attempt to come to grips with incredible change as satellite technology blazes through thatch-roofed bungalows and the natives hang on desperately to tatters of a culture swept by the MTV mushroom cloud of the instant coffee and cruise missile age.

I'm in the land of Emeralds, Coffee and Cocaine. Panama hats and white open buttoned shirts the fashion statement. Salsa, the National stride. Days seethe under a hot equatorial sun with the frenetic energy of nouveau Western commerce, nights a fog of steamy sensuality that surrounds you in the sweet perfume of forgetfulness.

Headlines scream the news in bold eye-catching banners: Murder in the streets, assassins, car bombs demolish office buildings and kill scores of by-standers, military coups, guerrillas, narcotrafficos. Natives wearing the colors of a thousand rainbows, and believing that each moment may be their last, live with a life-embracing abandon that is staggeringly intoxicating.

Burdened with apprehension, yet needing to move on, I leave Ecuador for the Columbian frontier and another border crossing.

The State Department warnings are clear and to the point. I heard unfortunate travelers' tales of theft, assault and violence. I read disconcerting trip reports. And yet, here I am.

I also read Andy Weil and had been entranced. Flipped a coin the last week in Ecuador: Peru, heads, Columbia, tails. It was tails. My choice was confirmed the last night in Quito when Monica came into my room to bum a cigarette. She was Columbian. I was seduced.

Return To Sibundoy

An Ode To Andy Weil

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. One of the main attractions of Columbia for me was Sibundoy. There are Indigenous settlements in the valley and I knew they used Ayahuasca. Having fantasies of mysterious nights sipping jungle juice with an old native Shaman, I was unprepared for the events that succeeded my arrival.

Sibundoy Valley is six hard stone-filled-road, people-packed, bus hours east of Pasto. The landscape changes from mountain to forest to rolling hills. Once in the valley mountains surround you. So do every police officer and soldier in the vicinity.

The valley is a pharmacopea of earthly delights, as long as you can avoid the Militarios. There is Yagé growing here, Datura, some San Pedro cactus, and with all the cow pastures and rain, I would bet there are Mushrooms! I put it on a 'Recommended Play' list!

Stepping off the bus, in the Pueblo of Sibundoy, roughly in the center of the valley, I am surrounded by around fifty soldiers in bands of two to three patrolling the streets.

One difference between Columbian military and that of other countries is the hardware. Certainly the Ecuadorians are well equipped with M-16's and Uzi's.

Columbian soldiers, on the other hand, are decked to the hilt. Beltfulls of multiple ammunition cartridges, ammunition slings around their chests like ropes carried by mountaineers. Rippled steel knives sheathed in boots and grenades hanging everywhere like massive green Christmas tree ornaments.

Being fresh off the bus in Sibundoy, I'm especially admiring all this hardware (it's hard to miss!), and wondering what special circumstances other than an abundant treasury could encourage such an opulent fashion statement, when three of these dudes approach me.

I'm the only Gringo in town. "Yes, I'm traveling solo. No, not staying long. No, definitely have not heard about the war and the large band of guerrillas in this area!"

A cursory review of the action on the street prevents me from adding, "Oh by the way, could you recommend the best Brujo in town? And who brews the best Yagé?"

The 'Book' mentioned five or six hotels in Sibundoy. The tourist trade has dropped considerably. There are only two. One good, one a travesty.

I bed down at the bad one the first night, spend the night awake mostly, tossing on a worn thin mattress filled with lumps like unmashed potatoes, listening to loud family arguments of the Macho sort and the television constantly belching some 'B' rated American export action film. I decide next day that for one dollar more the other hotel is a bargain.

Two groups of Indigenous live in the area. Sibundoy Village is predominantly Kamsa while a nearby smaller pueblo, Santiago, is mostly Inga. They both use Yagé, the Columbian version of Ayahuasca, yet it is more readily available among the Ingas.

One day while I'm walking around Santiago with a local Blanco, or Latino I had met on the bus, I come upon two old men just coming into town from the surrounding hills. They wear the traditional ponchos of the Indigenous Ingas. Hair, a deep black and bowl-cut. Short firm bodies swaggering on the path, both cheerful with animated dark features.

As we chat, one of the Ingas with a broad grin asks me if I know about Yagé, their word for Ayahuasca. I nod excitedly. My young Spanish friend begins looking at me as if he had just been told that his priest was fucking the Virgin.

Deciding to return alone I head off as the young Spanish guy murmers to me about the wild Brujos and all that crazy jungle magic.

Returning to Santiago the next day to find the Brujos again, I am 'invited' into the military station. Surrounded by ten soldiers in full armament I am body- and daypack-searched thoroughly.

The Commandante requests my passport then proceeds to interrogate me about my family, education, birthplace, and what I am doing in Sibundoy. In the middle of that small room filled with war-dogs and hardware the suspicion creeps up on me that I might get to experience the inside of a Columbian jail real soon.

The Officer finishes taking the biography, reaches into a bullet-shattered drawer of his battle-scarred desk to pull out a bottle of Aguardiente. Taking a swig, swiping the back of his hand across his lips revealing a smile, he offers the bottle to me. We pass it around the room as all good amigos must, and amidst all this camaraderie I decide that this may not be the best season for Brujo hunting.

Since leaving Quito I have not met one Extranjero! I'm far more dependent on my Spanish now. And the Columbians speak faster than other Spanish speakers.

Feeling like I'm a freak specimen in a glass bottle, being watched constantly, I decide to visit Mocoa, deeper into the jungle, then return to Sibundoy after Christmas.

Leaving Sibundoy on a bullet-ridden bus early the day before Christmas for what is supposed to be a six-hour journey I remember a passage Andy Weil wrote about his first attempt to visit Mocoa. He never made it. Bad road.

I'm hoping for better luck. It is not to be.

The road from Sibundoy to Mocoa goes high and around steep treacherous mountain passes. The bus always has at least one back wheel over the edge of the road. On the curves you can feel the slide and an unnatural lean when the springs bottom out against the undercarriage.

Clouds and mist brace mountainsides, occasionally moving out into the lush green and yellow tinted valley, obscuring the view. When it is clear you can look out over mile high crevasses and incredible waterfalls that drop into an unseen abyss.

Along the road there are many altars constructed near some curve or narrow stretch. Crosses, statues of Jesus or the Virgin. Some with rusted vehicle components surrounding them.

I noticed a large one, it had to be for a bus. Large bold broken headlights, a torn grill and metal engraved plaque surrounded the statue of Jesus. The plaque has a date, the driver's name and the that of the bus company. R.I.P.

On the Disney scale, this is a 'G' ride!

Four and a half hours into the journey, with three more to go the bus slides to a halt. Off to the side, another bus canted at an absurd angle and straight ahead. No Road!

A landslide has washed away the hill above. Both drivers shrug in sympathy and declare it will be three days before the road re-opens. Everyone just stands around with that mañana resignation written all over their faces.

The other bus turns around. My driver is undecided and may stay the night! Making an immediate decision, I scramble for the departing bus, throw my bag into the back door and hop aboard as the bus rumbles back toward Sibundoy. I'm headed back to an experience of a different kind.

Arriving back in Sibundoy in time for Christmas eve I am promptly invited by a group of locals to accompany them for a round of parties and fiesta. Around 10 p.m. we set off for the festivities.

Staggering from house to house in between villages I become the local celebrity. They don't get many visitors here in the valley, just military and funerals. A Gringo among them is a novel sight. Constantly offered Cerveza, more often Aguardiente, feeling unsure of what I am celebrating - my safe return from the bus or just the basic fact that I had not been blasted away as a Narcotrafico or a CIA Agent - I drown any hope of tribal discovery in an alcoholic cloud of abandoned dreams.

The locals, a mix of Indigenous and Latino, continue to recount tales of terror and sleepless nights as their existence is pounded with the regularity of a jackhammer by grenades and bombs from all sides, emphasizing in between glassfuls of cerveza how they want to move away from the valley to a safe haven.

Too many friends and relatives killed by the fighting.

Between visits to houses we stop at discotecas for baile, dancing. There are more discos in town than restaurants. The locals spend the night dancing and drinking in the midst of a cataclysmic storm that erupts with the unpredictability of a mad bull.

Moving On

I cross the border at Ipiales, another non-descript border town. People in transit. Coming and going. A commerce based on transition.

People on the streets already seem friendlier than in Ecuador. It's the holiday season. Two weeks till Christmas! Firecrackers and rockets going off all hours of the night. Or maybe that's just the grenades. Celebration is the order of the day.

Artisans with craftwork in wood, metal and pottery. One or two stalls with curandero-wanna-be's selling traditional medicinal plants, little bottles with colored fancy charms for good luck, long life, abundant money and profound sex.

These vendors also display an assortment of amulets, stones, soaps and incense from different countries. Little figurines of Jesus and the Buddha. One man tells me he is the descendant of the 'King of Brujos' in one region, as he offers me a shot of Aguardiente.

I've been heading slowly northward, stopping occasionally at places like Tierra Dentro or Sibundoy.

Food is outstanding in Columbia, even the McChickens, here called Pollo Rico, can offer a fresh-cooked meal. However coffee is the pride of the nation. That noted Columbian brown beverage, smooth and rich, is everywhere. I've been sitting in cafes all afternoon sipping mine along with all the old men watching the action on the streets, feeling the buzz and savoring a flavor that in many other places south of Texas only comes in 'Instant'.

There are not many Gringos about. I notice I'm frequently visiting movie theatres just to hear English from the screen.

The movies all fall under the category of 'Teen-age Mutant Ninja Aliens from Future Return to Vietnam, Rescue Hostages and are Overcome with Lust for Blond American Women with Mammoth Tits.'

There is a currently popular song that comes out of every open doorway and window, Mi Abuelo, "My Grandfather", a fast spanish guitar number that glorifies the life of a grand old man. I heard it first when crossing the border and now I hear it throughout Columbia. Cities, countryside, buses. There is no escape. After awhile I wonder if there is no other music here.

Cali has the grace and attitude of a large jungle cat. In the daytime it is lazy and lopes with the friendly gait of a playful kitten. At night it is a cauldron of seething energy moving in flux through a magnetic core created by anticipation and a hungry urgency emanating from its gut.

It's not that this is fiesta time, or New Year's Eve. It's just that this is Cali. Calinos live to dance. This is the home of Salsa. The street is filled with outdoor cafes and Salsatecas, those Calino discotecas. There is the constant beat of music, a constant dance of Rooster Calinos up and down the corridor wearing those colorful panama hats, open shirts and skin.

I'm hangin' out on Avenida Sexta, the nuclear core of Cali, sliding with a charged tension down my spine from one outdoor cafe to the next strobe-exploding dance floor, burying my ancient taboo-filled dreams like everyone else in the passionate feline hips and black silk stockings of cerveza and Salsa.

A Homegrown Surprise

I've got a mouthful of dried green leaf wedged between teeth and gums. Now and then I toss back a small dash of Mambe. My tongue feels a little swollen, like the familiar sensation of Novocain. Got that good old Sunday afternoon wanting to get out and move, play some ball, go for a hike kind of feeling. It's going to be awhile till lunch.

I'd come to Tierra Dentro, East of Popayan, in the foothills of the Andes, to do some ruin trekking. I'm finding current diversions more compelling and immediate. Besides, these Columbian companeiros are opening up whole new vistas of experience that I can explore while I have this green motivation in my system.

There are ancient ruins all around. Caverns constructed below the ground as tombs, well preserved, decorated in natural dyes of red, black and white. The designs are an impressive array of geometrical patterns and sacred animals. Snakes for wisdom, Jaguars for power, Frogs for fertility.

I'd been doing some of the tourist trip, walking the caverns and marveling at the precision artistry on all those old burial cairns. My new Columbian friends Mauricio, Carmenza, Nacho and Martha have other plans, and quickly I am finding that walking the fields meeting the natives is more attractive.

Met them when I arrived. We decided to go exploring together. It's sugar cane harvesting season here. The Indigenous have a drink called Guarapo, slightly fermented cane juice.

Nacho loves it. As we walk the hills, at every house we come upon he yells, "Guarapo! We are Thirsty!"

This gets us invited in to drink every time, as each family is proud of their uniquely made Guarapo. Sometimes a little sweet, sometimes tart, it is a tasty thirst quencher. We end up spending hours just gabbing about the sugarcane harvest and drinking in the natives' homes.

One morning on a Guarapo hunt, shortly after breakfast, we walk deeper into the hills, near an archaeological site, and come upon the home of a family of Paixes. These are the original Indigenous in these lands.

A group of six men have already started the day drinking Aguardiente. They offer the bottle as we walk up. Instead, Mauricio asks for Guarapo!

Sitting with the Paixes, discussing the corn crop, sugarcane and the weather, I notice one of them occasionally reach into his bag, bringing out a handful of dried leaf and stuffing this in his mouth. Mauricio confirms my suspicions, and of course I want to try.

At first the Indigenous is reluctant to share his sacred Coca Leaf, here called Ush. Eventually he relents and offers to teach me how to use the sacred plant.

He gives me a handful of dried leaves, tells me to put it all in my mouth and chew. Within a few minutes I begin to feel a slight tingling. After they are all moist the Indian takes out a small gourd filled with white powder called Mambe or Cal, and pours a dash of powder into my palm instructing me to toss it onto the leaves I'm chewing.

I toss back a little, and soon begin to feel a soft easy lift, a perky feeling like an excited kid at play. I'm told not to swallow any, to spit occasionally, and to remove the residue in about half an hour; I can hold it against my gums till then.

Nacho is busy guzzling Aguardiente, happily leaning by the side of the hut and I want to go plow a field of yucca.

This is sacred medicine for the Paixes. Not only is it used to work at high altitudes but also it is used ceremonially and as a curative for certain infirmities. It is used regularly with fasting as a systemic purge.

The Indians are quick to tell me that no Coca is grown to sell, only used within the community. After two chews I feel the effects for two hours. Good stuff!

I'm heading north now, toward Medellin. This city is infamous and I feel a little apprehensive. Yet Columbia is becoming more surprising to me with each new encounter.


Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman


[Email] [Next] [Contents] [Home]