Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Liberated Western Female Meets Primitive Traditional Culture...


As my higher mind sifts through the jagged stones of the experience of life in the territory of Tayrona cultures, the memories of the realities are dissolving into an appreciation of the value in the lessons learned—the ripening of my spirit and a greater ability and courage to meet the unknown.  A recurring thought was, “It could be worse. I could be sitting at home watching television.” If it hadn’t been for the insects and invisible microorganisms that were thriving opportunistically on my body that lacked the appropriate anti-bodies—conversely that my microorganisms posed a similar threat to the people, especially children, I might have stayed there with them longer to learn more about their art of living harmoniously in very tight community. 

They culturally hold a deep, abiding hatred and enmity against Westerners.  The children liked me, and so did the women who came to know me, but it was difficult for me to digest the odious looks I received from so many who had never met me, especially the young women and children.  My brain was freezing on overload trying to communicate, remember everyone’s name, understand their Spanish and learn their language—and figure out how I would survive amongst peoples who harbored a palatable mistrust of those from the culture that for 500 years has been a threat to their very existence.  It was not easy to gain their acceptance.

Western culture is only barely beginning to recognize why humans are now flailing for survival.  It is due to our intoxication with consumerism, our sense of entitlement—our right of conquest over everything. This failure of conscience has left in its wake a poisoned world.  The Tayrona high priests, called Mamas, are really angry because even though they have told us about this, we still haven’t changed or even modified our ways.  Their territory is still being colonized driving them to near extinction, and even worse in the minds of the Mamas, their people are adapting the bad practices of the enemy, thus not holding to their promise to live in perfect harmony with nature, however ascetic and abstinent that way of life must be.

My story there began a few years ago.  Ramon Gil, the leader of one of the surviving Tayrona cultures, invited me there to help preserve the Wiwa language and culture through photography and video recordings of his stories. For good reason he feared the Wiwa were going the way of another Tayrona culture whose language and culture is now extinct.  Desiring to honor this invitation, I embarked on a 3-year journey—learning about the crisis of language and cultural extinction worldwide, and naively taking my best shot at believing that if I studied hard, my old brain could learn Spanish in three months.  I gave up my house and the majority of my worldly goods, acquired the necessary media tools to sally forth to meet this task, bought a ticket to Colombia, and made a blind leap into the abyss.

The men of Tayrona cultures call themselves the “elder brother,” and we of Western culture are not so endearingly referred to as the “younger brother.” They believe their homeland, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the first isolated mountain of the Andes, to be the Heart of the World, and they live according to their sacred duty to maintain equilibrium there. The “Mamas” the high priests of this culture have been warning us to listen to “elder brother’s” admonitions for decades now.




The salient characteristic of the three surviving Tayrona cultures is “elder brother’s” mastication of the coca leaf quickened by calcium derived from roasted ground up seashells that they carry inside a phallic looking gourd known as a “poporro”. The men suck on a long stick moistening it with the juice of masticated coca and then insert it into a small hole at the top of the gourd.  The stick represents the male. The gourd represents the female.  They really enjoyed pointing this out this simile to me—over and over.  They draw out the powdered calcium from the gourd and suck the stick.  It catalyzes the coca juice in some way.  With the greenish saliva on the stick, they paint around the neck of the gourd and calcium slowly builds up around the neck.  A symbol of status and wisdom is to have a poporo with a huge heavy calcium build up on it.  This activity keeps the men’s hands occupied and constantly moving.  The women keep their hands occupied with making “mochillas”, bags of wool or plant fiber, and of course, harvesting and making food, washing clothes, caring for children, etc.



Eva Morales, the current president of Bolivia, who previously was a coca farmer, claims that the coca plant holds the highest known vitamin content of the entire plant kingdom.  This wonder food is commonly used in Indigenous culture throughout South America.  In Tayrona cultures, only the men are allowed this benefit of the coca plant—not the women.  In the Wiwa culture, when the boy reaches puberty at thirteen years old, they receive the poporo and at that time they must take a wife.  So the Wiwa women have to marry at this young age and begin producing children.  In their lifetimes they have between 5 and 13 children fulfilling their responsibility to growing the Wiwa population that in the 80’s had shrunken to 1600 and now is over 6,000.  (Ramon Gil has fathered 25 children from two different wives.)



From my Western woman’s perspective, the use of the poporro and this unique way of consuming coca is a practice that separates the consciousness of the genders.  But to its credit, the men are very peaceable with each other. It also seems that it is very young for the woman to start giving birth.  The women are very tiny people, around 4 feet tall.  At 5’6’’, I towered over them.  On their diet of roots and plantain varieties, fruits in season, occasional chicken or pig, some goat or cow meat, it didn’t seem right that the men got to have the highest vitamin content plant, and the women who needed it most for making babies, did not. 




Coca leaves make an invigorating tea that is consumed freely in many South American cultures. After chewing a big wad of the leaves, I didn’t really feel much.  (I never chewed leaves in Tayrona territory.)  It seemed slightly invigorating—a kind of a mild heart opening experience. As a young woman I experimented briefly with cocaine.  I thought we had discovered the key to sublime intelligence, only to realize very quickly that it was a poison.  When I refrained from using it, the conversation of those using it in my presence sounded amazingly stupid. I concluded that this noxious powdered substance was an ego food.  I couldn’t help wondering whether the effect on consciousness of coca used with the poporro had a similar effect as cocaine, something surely I will never know.  The insidious transformation of this sacred plant into cocaine is the root of unfathomable suffering not only in Colombia, but the whole of the Americas.  Simple legalization of this leaf would solve untold problems of war, violence, drug addiction and poverty.  It was heartbreaking to witness the effects of crack/cocaine on the filthy homeless street children on the streets of Santa Marta.


After my experience with the Arhuacos, who in my estimation are male chauvinists (the previous blog entry), I was glad to arrive in the Wiwa culture where the men do honor their wives.  Almost every woman I spoke with was happy with her husband and what he provided for her.  Their relationships seem to last.  It was wonderful to witness the families together.  They live in a very tight community, sometimes with three families living in one tiny mud hut.  Never did I hear a harsh word.  And the children over the age of two never cried or complained.  I adore those precious children.  They called me abuela, (grandmother) or abuela amiga (grandmother friend).  Oddly, I saw no other white haired people, although I was told that there are those who live that long.



The most fun was after dark when the women and children would dance together with a drummer who had learned a curious hand drum technique and the songs from her mother. The songs and dances, passed on from the beginning of their culture, were said to represent life emerging from the sea through all the plant and animal forms until the human arrived.  The dance step was simple and repetitive with occasional variations.  We danced in a circle for hours.  They expected that I would be unable to keep up with them and were surprised when I easily had the energy to continue.  I followed very closely the leaders hoping that the dance was the women’s way of achieving some kind of visionary experience.  The light from flashlights and candles created an eerie shadowy light that made us appear like floating ghosts, me the ghostly giant. 


Occasionally men showed up to play a flute.  The children would form another dancing circle while the woman with her drum did her thing creating a weird cacophonous mix of sounds.  Another dance music (that they had only on a tape cassette) was a kind of boingy sounding mouth instrument.  All those boingy songs sounded the same to me, but to them the songs were very distinct. At the end of each session, I thanked the women and kissed them all on the cheek.  They liked that I wore only white like them, and seemed to like my kisses too.

I failed to accomplish my mission in any way that I had imagined ostensibly because all Ramon’s time was consumed in an ongoing disagreement with the Kogi and the Arhuaco leaders.  Meetings were held all over, many in the city of Santa Marta at the Casa Indigena—at a center that had been built through the funding of an organization that Ramon had founded. Several structures had been built—offices, and sleeping places for the people when they came to the city.  A Kogi named Santos had overtaken the leadership of this organization.  He and Ramon were at complete odds.  It was an amazing sight to see the men from the three cultures, all working their poporos, gathered there to bicker about where all the aid money had gone, the problem of tourism, and other points of contention. I didn’t understand what was going on, but it meant that Ramon had no time to devote to the project he had invited me to do. 

It turned into a waiting game.  Many who work with these Indigenous communities in Colombia told me that every thing takes a really long time to accomplish.  At the end of six months, after much effort to obtain a visa to stay in Colombia, (for which I had to leave the country to acquire), I decided my time was more precious than the patience I would need acquire to complete the work.  I had come at their request to bring them a gift, but the gift wasn’t being received.  I refrained from shooting video in the village without the presence, sanction and approval of Ramon, as people were not open to being filmed. So I bided my time, often asking for a meeting with Ramon to determine whether I should stay or go.  Once during some night dances I was invited to take out the camera.  It was during the rainy season, and my camera didn’t function due to the humidity.  So I left and waited for the rains to stop, during which time I left the country to go to Costa Rica where I obtained the longer Colombian visa.  I travelled to Nicaragua, where I encountered a culture much more in tune with my idea of a Heart of the World—beautiful, warm, open hearted people, who in the places I visited, were really living a culture of peace.  It was difficult for me to return to Colombia after that.

 When I returned and had been staying in the village for several weeks, Ramon finally arrived. His compound is much closer to the road.  He explained that he was so occupied with internal problems that he didn’t have time to even spend with his wife and own family, much less this project.  He invited me to come to a big gathering at another village, a six-hour hike above the main Wiwa village.  So I went.  By that time, I had been so bitten with ticks, so wary of becoming ill again bathing in the bacteria infested river, so tired of the creepy huge spiders and other insects around my bed, so annoyed with the thievery of the people, so bored with the odious looks from strangers, so hungry for other forms of food, and was obsessed with the desire to immerse my itching body in the healing salt of the sea.  The experience of living in the really traditional village, a 10-hour hike from the closest highway, may have only just begun, but I was no longer in the mood to meet it. 

I stayed up in that remote village longer than I wanted, and felt welcome and accepted by the new women I met. Because Ramon had sanctioned the use of my camera, I was able to shoot some wonderful footage of the people and way of life. The village life embraced by and in harmony with the natural world is beautiful.  I danced all night with the women and children.  Their way of life, the simplicity, how they live in peace and in balance with nature, the way they create community and care for the children, the skill of the mothers and sweetness of the children, all won my heart.  I felt a genuine regret from them when I said goodbye—the people asking when I would come back.  Interestingly, while he was there Ramon never gave me another audience or protection ceremony.  I asked him if he had message for “younger brother” for me to record on video, and he asked people to come talk with them.  I guess he was only speaking to men??? 

I flew out of there on the wings of desire to immerse myself in the Caribbean Sea, practicing my Tibetan Buddhist mantra the whole hike, (as I always do when I hike). The men were amazed at how fast I covered territory with no fatigue.  I chuckled to myself that my mantra gave me more energy than their coca.  These two legs that propel us are a simple gift of nature for strength, vitality and health.  So many of the sicknesses we are seeing in vegetative Western culture could be cured by the simple act of walking.
 

Living in those mountains was like being on a meditation retreat.  Each year I strive to gift myself time away from everyday life in solitude to practice some form of meditation, to purify mind, body and spirit.  (One retreat I learned the long Tibetan mantra that I always practice when I walk.) Each morning the first crow of the cock would awaken me and I climbed up a white sandy path in the darkness to a high point above the village to practice Tai Chi. From this vantage point I blissfully greeted the exquisite beauty of the new day—the spectrum of colors in the sky—the first rays of the sun first illuminating the distant snowy peaks, the graceful liberation of the verdant green valley below me from darkness, the calls of the birds and monkeys greeting the light.  On the morning when the rising sun met the setting full moon, my ecstasy was rapturous, the connection with and confirmation of my spiritual path profound.  This mystical, numinous experience alone gave validation to my whole journey and will remain indelible in my memory as a peak spiritual experience.

Three and a half days a week, the teachers at the village school came up from Santa Marta.  It is an hour-long bus ride from Santa Marta and another 3-hour hike uphill to the village.  These dedicated teachers were making a sacrifice to be away from their own families for so much time each week.  I loved witnessing their teaching styles.  Their presence was uplifting to my spirit.  I had offered to teach English, but my offer wasn’t really taken seriously, so instead I sat in on their tiny classes, improving my Spanish, learning about both cultures.  They had built a new teaching facility, and made the environment beautiful and welcoming. 

A neighbor across the river with milking cows would sell me a pint of milk direct from the udder that I mixed with cacao and honey from the Arhuaco territory.  His wife made cheese.  This was my primary sustenance.  When I gave this salty cheese to the Wiwa women in the village, they consumed huge chunks in one giant gulp, confirming to me how hungry they must be for calcium.  They had goats.  I spoke with some about the value of goat’s milk.  I often reflected on the 6000 year old Sumarian myth of Innana, the most ancient myth known to humankind.  Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth, visited her older sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, who was living on dirt in the bowels of the underworld and whose duty it was to churn death into life.  My entry into their world and Innana’s journey to the underworld had its parallels.

The Mamas—the spiritual leaders were not fond of my presence there.  My sense was that they didn’t like a childless, husbandless white haired women in their midst who did not fit in with their protocol of how women should operate in the world.  They might have thought I was a witch.  I was constantly explaining my childlessness to the people—that at a young age, I had become acutely aware of nuclear bombs and determined at that time that I could not bring a child into such a cruel world—that overpopulation of the planet was of great concern to me and by not bearing children, I was not contributing to this global problem—that I related to all the children of the world as my children.  I was making my best effort to do what to help create a livable world for future generations.  I also made it clear that I believe that freedom is a precious gift and it is a human right to determine one’s own path.

One Mama, Ramon’s eldest son, upon feeling the density of the bones in my arm was amazed at how much bone mass I had at my age. None of the Mamas offered the traditional protection, a ceremony they normally do to pay in the aluna (the world behind the world that they can alone access) for protection.  This saddened me, because I thought I needed some traditional healing for infection and bites.  I slept on the floor of the health house, (a cement house built with US AID funds), where many forms of antibiotics were housed and used frequently for illnesses like colds.  Grippe often killed children.  This raised questions...

My final journey into Tayrona territory was to a place called the Cuidad Perdida, the Lost City, in Kogi territory.  The journey began from the village where I had lived, with a Wiwa guide, Chema, a leading figure of the village.  This was a long uphill hike!  We stopped at a campesino’s house to purchase some cheese and were given a giant spoon of sugarcane “honey” to eat right there.  We forded rivers, and climbed endless steep hills.  From what I read in the guidebooks, the round trip hike was easily 60-kilometers, from the village where we started. 




The Wiwa have a tour company that has created much contention between Wiwa and Kogi leaders.  But I felt privileged to have a Wiwa private guide with a mule to carry my camera.  Chema had agreed to make a statement on video up at the Cuidad Perdida in the Wiwa language for the children who had never been, and probably never would go there.  They can view video on the computers at the school.  At least I could make this gift.

When archeologists had discovered this Cuidad Perdida in 1972, they believed it to be a lost city. Clearly to me, this is not a lost city, but a sacred ceremonial ground—way too sacred to be treated so profanely by the tour companies that conduct tours there.  European backpackers in their 20’s are swarming through Central and South America on whirlwind tours, following some treasure hunt adventure in their guidebooks.  For these tourists to the Cuidad Perdida, it was just another macho challenge, like bungee jumping.  They had no interest or awareness of the history or the cultures of the region.  So it is no wonder that I received odious looks that froze my heart from the natives—even travelling with Chema who was fluent in the Kogi language and seemed to know the people we encountered on the trail. As they cleared the paths with their machetes, they looked at me with growling eyes and curling lips betraying centuries of bitterness and scorn.  White people were infesting their sacred sites like cockroaches, looking only for amusement.  As their Mamas have repeatedly told us, hermano menor, younger brother, is not only destroying their world, but destroying the balance of nature for the whole world—and it is not their fault.

The first and the third night we stayed in the Kogi village of Chema’s second wife (he called her his companion), a village that was the closest to this site.  Polygamy is practiced when there are not enough men to marry the women who reach the age of 16 and are childless.  We had been hiking through many miles of mucky, yucky mud, I in sneakers.  It began raining when we arrived at dusk after a 10-hour hike.  They put me in a hut alone with a candle. The reception from the villagers in both instances, coming in and out, was icy.  I had brought some food that Chema gave to his wife, along with the cheese.  Clearly they needed it more than me.  Way after dark, a boy frigidly delivered to me a cold plate of boiled green banana (yuck) and rice and left immediately.  I was glad that I had brought along bee honey, as this sustained me for the journey.

On the second day we passed a Mama’s house, and Chema asked him for an audience with me.  He refused.  I really wanted to meet a Kogi Mama.  When we arrived at the Cuidad Perdida, it was late afternoon.  The final approach is a river crossing, followed by 1,200 very vertical steps.  Chema told me that the steps were created in this way because each day, the priests had to descend to bathe and ascend again as part of their ascetic training.  The army was there at the top when we arrived, but no tourists.  I found an appropriate altar spot to make a tobacco offering to the directions, expressing gratitude, honoring the ancestors who had manifested this sacred ground from the land of Eagle and laying down yet one more prayer for unification of the hemisphere of the Americas in peace, and for world peace. (You may read about my connection to Eagle on other entries on this blog.) 

We only had a small window of time to do the shooting before heavy mist descended and dense clouds threatened rain.  I was feeling very disappointed that I had not been allowed to consort with the ancestors there more deeply, and that Chema was rushing me back to the camp that was about an hour hike down the steps and downstream.  I later discovered that people who come with video equipment are supposed to get clearance through the bureaucracy that now controls the site, so I guess I should feel lucky for the short time I had to shoot there.  At the time it felt like a huge effort for very little return. Early on, Chema had changed the plan from what I had thought would be a 5-day tour into a 4-day tour.

At the camp, a tour guide for a group of Europeans had a big pot of hot soup.  He was Colombian who had lived in the US for many years and was overjoyed to encounter a North American.  I was equally happy to encounter his soup and to rave on in English about a whole range of topics.  There were bunks with thick wooly blankets.  With the exquisite sound of the rushing river and waterfall, I found happiness for the night and awoke with prayers that the rains would not come for the long return hike. 

Again, on the way out, we stopped at the house of the Mama.  Chema came out from his compound with a strange sort of smirk on his face saying the Mama didn’t have time to meet me.  This time it felt like an intentional insult.  I wondered what he had seen in me.  The Mamas are revered for their special powers to see behind the world and to magically know things that we who live in ordinary reality are not privy to.  I felt I had come to Tayrona with pure intention, had made a big sacrifice in my life to do it, had offered my heart with kindness to the people, brought many offerings, spent my time there in prayer and meditation, practiced mantra for healing and protection with every step, had made adulation at their sacred site, and yet, I was not fit for an audience with this Mama—or really any of the Mamas. 

And so I carried sadness down the trail walking with head lowered when encountering any natives so as not to take on any more hateful looks, into the village where, again, I was treated with contempt, even by the children.  I lit a fire in the fireplace in the center of the hut where gladly there was dry wood, watching the rain dribble off the roof thatch as night fell, feeling alone, gloomy and hungry.  My sorrow was for the people who hold so much bitterness and scorn and teach it to the children. 

In the morning, the Kogi man in whose house I was staying paid a visit.  He seemed impressed that I was capable of lighting a fire.  We had a good conversation.  I shared with him my feelings that this unkind, cold and unfriendly way of being was bad for the people, especially for the children—not good for the health or the heart.  I apologized for the way Western culture has destroyed the planet.  I told him about my non-profit organization that teaches people how to build with mud and many other ways of caring for the Earth—that among us Westerners are those who are striving to live in harmony with the natural world, not many, not enough, but some.  I was grateful for just that little opening to express to the Kogi man who had given me shelter that he might discover that not every white person is evil incarnate.  I left behind things that he could use.  He said that he was glad to have something to remember me by. 


Of course there is much more to tell.  But from my brief and limited experience there, I would find it hard to characterize the Mamas, as they showed themselves (or didn’t show themselves) to me, as the enlightened beings that many {men} believe them to be.  Perhaps they are, and I simply don’t carry a sufficiently high vibration or intelligence to meet their standards for respect or concern.  Or maybe it was my gender and really, they only want to talk to men. Human consciousness has been in a constant state of evolution during the time they have lived in isolation.  The center of balance has shifted.  Independent women are making forays in the world and they really don’t know what to make of that.



If these mountains are, as the Mamas believe, the Heart of the World, this heart is suffering, as closed hearts do. The Mamas believe they hold the key to the survival of the planet—if only “younger brother” would listen to them and put back the precious items they have taken away from certain places.  I have placed a golden treasure in the aluna for the Mamas to discover—a thought, “Loving kindness and compassion for all beings.”  I can only hope that they can find it there and that I have left behind me a large enough opening through which you too can pour loving kindness and compassion into the vessel.  An apology may help, as well as a decision to make a change in your life that might help the planet become survivable for the children of the future.  Small is beautiful—Less is more.  Live simply so others may simply live. Whether or not I was accepted by their high priests does not diminish my respect for these people's tenacious maintenance of their sacred duty to hold the center of the world.


My sojourn in Colombia does have a happy ending.  My return flight took me through Bogotá to spend time at a friend’s house who put me in contact with a beautiful Taita (Shaman) named Universario from the Amazonian Cofán culture. Cofán communities are in the south of Colombia and extend over the border into Ecuador.  He and his beautiful wife and family were conducting an Ayahuasca ceremony just outside Bogota that I was fortunate to be invited to attend.  His healing powers, together with his curendera wife, Miriam, and his magical brew of the most powerful and wise plant medicine teacher I have encountered (numerous other times in my in my life), provided the cleansing and healing that my body, heart and soul were yearning for. It came through the channels of love and joy that Taita Universario had opened.  At dawn, I had a fantastic vision of Jesus holding a baby in his right hand with an Eagle of Peace standing on his left elbow.  An Eagle of Peace, what a revolutionary concept!

The Cofán culture and language is on the brink of absolute total extinction, their territory completely destroyed by Western culture.  These people would benefit greatly from help at this time.  I left some money behind for a botanical garden that was being created by and for the grandmothers in an effort to preserve the ancient wisdom and plant lore of their culture.  It is a catastrophe that the ancient wisdom of plant medicines is being lost with the death of every medicine person who carries that wealth of knowledge. In the back of my crazy wisdom mind, I have been hearing their call for help.  I still have my hard earned yearlong visa to Colombia that ends in January...


To view more on the Cofán culture, TED has hosted a speaker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4yCdGB2NG4&feature=player_embedded#at=545

I mailed the first package for the Wiwa sisters containing infant clothing from Goodwill that the women requested, and little beach balls with the map of the world that the children really got a kick out of.  I sent the package through the post office to a friend in Santa Marta who said she will hand deliver the package.  But the mail delivery in Colombia is subject to theft. If I had sent the package DHL, it would have cost much more than the contents, but DHL offers delivery confirmation.  So I took a risk with the postal service.  So far, no news of the delivery.  But if it doesn’t arrive, I would like to try again with a new package using DHL.  The Wiwa women loved the LED headlamps, and solar charged path lights with one tiny LED light bulb that holds back total darkness in the mud huts with no windows.  Flashlights have been used by the culture for many generations.

If readers would like to help me cover the costs of these goods for the Wiwa women, and also mailing the books of photos of their families and the edited video DVDs I shot for the people—or if you would like to send a donation to the Cofán botanical garden project, I have a direct connection with the daughter of Univerario and Miriam who is attending university in Bogotá and who is spearheading this project.  If I have a strong show of support, I will return to help.  A tax-deductable donation to NetWorks Productions, or me directly, is greatly appreciated.  I will use all you send to help our beautiful Indigenous sisters and their children, or the grandmother's garden of the Cofán. You can e-mail me at networks@networkearth.org.



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