Monday, November 8, 2010

Colombia 2010 Tayrona Culture

My romanticized notions of The “Heart of the World” have been modified. Here in a hotel in Santa Marta, and after two months of a three-month tourist visa in Colombia, I have not any assurance whether all my efforts will bear any fruit.  I have learned a lot in these two months, mostly not to trust in expectations. I continue to cultivate patience in the face of a deadline and roadblocks.

My arrival in Colombia was auspicious.  My artist friend, Paola Rincon, had created an installation at the Museum de Antioquia, the most prestigious museum in Medellin, honoring the 200th year of the liberation of Colombia by Simon Bolivar.  She had invited three members of different Indigenous communities to create ceremony around a pre-existing “Chacana”, a symbol of the cosmo-vision of Native peoples in the center courtyard of the museum.  A small fire was built in the center on top of some rocks surrounded by water. Four large rivers of Colombia were represented emanating from the Chakana. Sadly all the rivers are polluted. Wayra Chasky a rainbow man from Nacion Indigena Quechua Yanakuna led the ceremonies for the opening of the whole event.

Chacana ceremony

Chacana Night Ceremony

The opportunity was open to the public for the weekend to learn about the cosmo-vision of the Chacana, but since precious few people came partake, it was a private opportunity to make strong prayers in ceremony for the work I had come here to undertake a form of blessing for my arrival to work with the Indigenous world.  This installation, and another Chacana she created inside, were the only works in the show that recognized the Native population in the history of Colombia – and interestingly, these were the only positive pieces in the entire show. The other artists reflected the endless senseless war, the drugs, the environmental degradation and the extreme poverty that laces their country, some very poignant pieces.

Chacana with the Southern Cross

Asdrubal, my Arhuaco friend, invited me to his community afterward to work on a documentary we had started last year on his community cooperative project to empower Arhuaco economic growth.  Arhuacos are one of three remaining Tayrona cultures. This was my third visit to the territory of the Arhuaco. The city of Valledupar, is an industrial town at the base of the Arhuaco side mountain that thrives on the coffee and other mountain grown products. The night I arrived on the bus, a torrential rainstorm turned the streets into rivers of floating trash. I had been horrified by the trash I had encountered in the forest on my first two visits in the mountains and made it a goal to start a trash pick up and recycling program there.

I ended up having to wait for Asdrubal at his apartment in Valledupar for a week. Asdrubal’s father has been the governor of the Arhuaco for 20 years. They have adjoining apartments connected by a tiny courtyard. His brother had come to town to pick up one can of a powdered milk nutrition drink for his wife and new baby.  He made uncomfortable advances for days in the face of my clear annoyance with his antics.  I ended up wandering around the town just to avoid being in his presence. Finally he left.

Asdrubal finally arrived with wife Ester and their two toddlers.  The last time I had seen her, Christmas 2009, she was about ready to give birth to a very big baby boy.  She told me that Asdrubal had left her at their farm when she was huge and overdue and didn’t show up for three days after she had given birth, because he was too busy.  She was clearly very hurt, but said it was not her way to complain.  I learned from many other disgruntled Arhuaco women that this type of behavior was typical for Arhuaco men.  The women are left alone most of the time to raise the family, make beautiful mochillas (hand spun woolen woven bags) for the men to carry their belongings.  Their job is to make sure that there is always food and clean robes for the men, on demand, whenever they happen to show up, and demand they do. 

Arhuaca Woman

The men cluster together in their coca social club, always sharing their coca leaves with each other in a ritual of greeting. They hang around together, for hours and days on end, chewing and spitting on the stick and laying down a thick wheel of calcium deposit at the top of the poporo, always keeping their hands active to accomplish this activity with the focus of an artist creating a work of art. They say, repeatedly, that the gourd is the female, and the stick is the male entering the female.  Apparently, this use of calcium and coca quickens the art of conversation. It must be very addictive.  I wonder if it isn’t some kind of ego food. I have often chewed the coca plant, without the calcium aggregate of shells that they put inside the poporo, and have felt a slight numbness in my mouth, a mild sense of wellbeing, but no real elevation or shift of consciousness that was perceivable to me.

According to Eva Morales, the Indigenous president of Bolivia, the coca leaf is the highest vitamin content of any plant. I also understand that the leaves are already extremely high in calcium.  When offered to me, I am grateful.  But the women of the Tayrona cultures are prohibited from eating it.  As far as I know, this is the only Andean culture that uses the calcium seashells to open doors of perception that will no doubt remain for me a complete unknown.  This is the only Andean culture that prohibits women from chewing the leaf.

As a woman from a diametrically opposite culture, it is difficult to witness these inequalities. Our struggle continues, theirs has yet to begin. It is doubtful if it ever will.  Their spiritual leaders, the Mamas, decreed that they should not use the coca, and so it has been for millennia. Women bathe fully clothed.  Men have no compunction about sneaking to look if they are in the vicinity—none. Monogamy is expected from the women, but the men are free to pursue whatever exploits they choose. It was interesting for me to note that the Arhuaco creation story does not contain a female player. I have to keep telling myself that I did not come to judge, but to help.  This isolated ancient culture has been stuck in time.  Occasionally when I speak the truth of my life as a childless mother, I feel a sigh of yearning in women. There are no childless women. This concept is beyond anything in their experience.

I brought as many LED headlamps as I could carry for the women who have been holding a flashlight in the crook of their necks for generations while they complete the tasks they need both hands to accomplish—ergonomically very bad.  I also brought the solar charged outdoor lamps to bring a little light into windowless houses during the long nights.  My regret is that I couldn’t fill an entire suitcase with these items as they were such a hit. Not having enough has served to engender a lot of jealousy when I ran out.

Asdrubal has become kind of the Minister of Finance in his community. He has taken on a big task.  He has the divination of the "Mamas" to help him.  The Arhuaco community there has developed a cooperative to sell their organic coffee and other crops and gain some economic power so they can afford to buy their own land like the colonizers have been doing. They have a store there that both the Arhuaco and colonizers come to buy stuff they need, but the store could never get enough money to buy enough stuff to sell. The people would go to Valledupar in an unbelievably funky truck or van that goes occasionally like a bus and takes a couple hours.  He asked to borrow money so he could develop an account and purchase enough goods to get the store going.  I loaned him $600, and we went up there with a truckload of stuff.  I realized that a trash factory had opened up. Basura is the Spanish word for trash.  Basura is a huge problem throughout the populated area of the Sierra already - even without the basura factory store.  

On the truck to the community

I was first invited to stay at the home, and the health house of the curandera, Gladis, and her husband, the professor, Leonardo.  They live in a house across from the store, bought from a colonizer with a new metal roof.  It is the rainy season (which they say is becoming a year-long event) and they were catching rainwater from the new metal roof in a small bucket.  This was the first order of conversation, the purity of the water and the importance of rainwater catchment. If it isn’t caught from the roof, it needs to be boiled. Our second conversation was about the contamination of the Earth from the basura.. We became fast friends. The next day I took the hour hike up to Asdrubal’s farm.

Asdrubal had asked me to make a video about the cooperative, but had no interest in seeing any of the footage from the last year.  He had me bring the camera to obtain more footage, for a video that he envisioned he could carry abroad to raise money for his project, and told me he would that take me to shoot some important aspects of the culture, but the weeks that I spent at his farm with his family, I rarely saw him. The workers this year at his farm were not Arhuaco and did not dress traditionally. I picked up only a small amount of footage on any new idea and soon I was feeling like moving on to the intended work on the other side of the mountains. 

I read a beautifully written book written in 1990 by a Swiss priest about the history of the culture, its traditions, mythologies and practices, poignantly describing the terrible suffering these peoples had to endure from the occupation of the Spanish, and the centuries of disrespect by the Colombian government and further colonization of their territory.  Only now are they beginning to come out from under the heavy yoke of their unfortunate history.  The more prosperous Arhuacos are buying jeeps, building houses with materials that are bought in town. The traditional lifestyle is faltering under the call from western culture.  I was surprised to see Arhuaco women in Santa Marta sporting high-heeled sandals and using fingernail polish.

The Arhuaco art of planting a diversified food forest is the key to what is becoming their financial success. They grow organic coffee, cacao, plantains etc, without external inputs by simply intermixing the trees—as in nature. They do not exploit the land in the way the colonizers do, by cutting the trees and over-planting mono-crops or raising cattle.  Ideas like this cooperative will serve to help those Arhuacos who have long been being exploited by the middlemen.  The Arhuacos are the greatest in number of the Tayrona cultures, around 18,000, and are finding their way to live in both worlds.


Food forest - Coffee - Cacao - Plantain - Malanga

Cacao fruit

It became apparent that my valuable time in Colombia was being sucked up by Asdrubal’s desire that I stay with the Arhuaco instead of going to serve the Wiwa. I was helping with the coffee and cacao harvest, helping to look after the kids.  I learned how much I didn’t like living in the same house with pigs and chickens, how to cook on their kitchen fire.  I took beautiful afternoon hikes to even higher elevations on well-worn paths that lead to the houses of colonizers and Arhuaco families who live deeper in the mountains, many hours from others.  And I was feeling trapped with my camera and suitcase, an hour hike from the community, and valuable time was passing on my three month visa when my real mission in coming to Tayrona was to help the Wiwa, another ancient Tayrona culture who in danger of loosing their language and culture. 

When I first arrived I pulled out had some new metal roofing for an intended new house at the farm, and arranged it so I could collect rainwater in a bucket.  Ester considered this an insult, maintaining their water that came from the reservoir and was held in a holding tank was clean.  I could clearly see it wasn’t.  She and the kids had weird rashes and the kids had diarrhea. She kept throwing out my rain catchment water and when I started boiling water to drink, they all rudely chided me.  The past year I had purified the water in a plastic bottle in the sun, UV purification, but during the rainy season, the daylong sun element was missing.  Eventually, on a hike at the top of the mountain, I stupidly took a chance on a hose with water from a reservoir tank and realized immediately that I had consumed contaminated water. I sought out the tank and realized that the water came rushing down the well-worn trail, with burro and mule poo and flowed into the open reservoir tank.  I took a strong purification mineral, sodium chlorite that has the side effect of creating a purge from both ends, and took this as my exit from the house.  I walked to the curendera’s house in the community, my belongings soon followed. 

They, and their kids, were overjoyed to see me again.  I was able to accomplish really good things in a couple days. The professor, Leoardo, and I collaborated to teach the kids about trash.  It was so precious to see them in their white traditional clothes picking up the trash in the immediate area of the school and cooperative, and then we sorted it into recyclable, burnable, and basura.  It was a huge pile.  The Earth began to breathe where they had cleared it, and the feeling was absolutely tactile.  The kids could feel it too.  On October 13, 2010, we began the environmental reclamation of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  Hopefully the idea will spread. Many people come through the community, many trails split there. They hold their festivals there.  In Valledupar I found a recycling center that pays for recycled goods and this will provide some funds for the school kids to buy notebooks and pens - a win - win.

Trash collection

Trash Poster


Gladdis, the curendera, is also trained in Western Medicine.  She uses it when a condition has gone beyond the reach of herbs and the healing of spiritual malaise. She has seen the water in a microscope. #1 cause of infant mortality is diarrhea from contaminated water. I heard her say to the all people who came to the clinic, "You have to boil your water".  So I told Asdrubal, that I would leave $300 for two water collection tanks from the new metal roofs on the school and the clinic.  She was so beyond jazzed! She kept exclaiming, "Agua es vida!"   People could use the recycled plastic bottles that hold the soda they buy in the store to carry the water home.  The kids will have clean drinking water at the school. Once the people taste the difference, they might not even want to buy the soda.  It tastes fabulous.  This could really transform the health problems of a huge number of people.  And a lot of water comes out of those heavens.  I found a place in Valledupar that sells water catchment tanks.  $300 is enough money to buy two 1000 liter tanks, three trash recycling bins, with enough left for a small donation to the school.

On the bus to Santa Marta, I caught the first glimpse of myself in weeks in the fuzzy metal mirror in the bathroom, and realized that the experience had really taken its toll.  I was really looking forward to a hotel and zone of comfort to recuperate, but the few days became almost 10 days as I began the process of understanding the difficulties of obtaining a volunteer visa in this crazy country and dealing with this new community of Wiwa.  I have one friend in Santa Marta who is fluent in English, is familiar with immigration issues, and has been faithfully helping me over the many legal hurtles.  Alvaro is my angel of Santa Marta, who like many people here, has had to face some hard life challenges and is going through difficult times.  He is a kind and intelligent gentleman who lived in the US for many years. This is my major blessing at this time in Colombia.  With Alvaro's help, I still may be able to find my way.

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