25 June 2012

La Guajira

[some impressions from a trip made in April 2012]

We stayed at the home of her mother in the pueblo of Villanueva on a dry, sun-baked plain between two ranges of mountains. On the plain the trees grew low and wide and cattle, moving slowly in the heat, grazed in the dry grasses. Mototaxistas pulled their passengers in two-wheeled chariots through the dusty streets of the pueblo and it was very hot in the sun and we did not go out of the house until evening. Then, in the evening, we walked through the streets lined with cinderblock homes, greeting neighbors and friends, and had sweet pan de queso and jugos naturales under the great trees of the plaza.

The following day it rained and the sky went black and there was thunder and lightning and the streets of Villanueva ran with muddy water. When the storm passed it was bright again but cool and the people celebrated the rain and sat in chairs outside their homes as the sun went down and they were still there after dark. Her brother drove us through the pueblo and pointed out the discotheque and the pavilion where vallenato was performed and we made plans for Sunday, when he was not working in the coal mine, that we would drink together for the entire day, first beer than whisky. Aguardiente is too expensive here and whisky is preferred, he said. Yes, by god, then we will drink that then.

In the morning a mototaxista delivered her blind grandfather and I sat with him on the porch and he told me of the rivers. His eyes watered as he told me of the great Magdalena which ran throughout the country and I remembered to him that I had bathed in it once outside of Buga in the Cauca Valley. The Magdalena was a fine river, he said, but there were finer ones even. The white cat rubbed against my leg as he spoke to me. Then I excused myself from the cat and the blind man and had a breakfast of yuca arepas and sweet coffee.

That afternoon it was very hot and we sat in the shade of the mango tree and drank chilled whisky. Every ten minutes her brother or cousin or uncle or father would stand and pour out the shot for each of us and replace the bottle in a small metal pail filled with ice. Vallenato played loudly from the corner bar and the domino players smacked at the table and argued. It was very hot and after the first bottle the women pulled down green mangos from the branches of the tree and returned with the fruit sliced and salted for us to eat.


All the men had names that began with ‘Rafael.’ It was a family tradition. There was Rafael-Andres, Rafael-Gregorio, Rafael-Miguel, Rafael-Francisco and two other Rafaels that I did not remember. They all worked in the coal mine, working twelve hour shifts day or night four days each week. On their days off the Rafaels drank whisky together. Her father, who was Rafael-Gregorio, was president of the miner’s syndicate. He motioned for my attention and drew up his shirt to reveal a pistol tucked in his waistband.

Los Guajiros son gente de la palabra. We are people of the word,” he said proudly.

Three other Rafaels lifted their shirts to reveal pistols. It is necessary, explained her father. There had been one attempt against his life and a cousin had been assassinated three years ago. It was some business related to his position as head of the syndicate.

“The assassin is not known,” said the one called Rafael-Andres.

“But we will know him one day,” said the one called Rafael-Miguel and patted his revolver.

“Yes, we will. Por Dios, we will,” said the one called Rafael-Francisco.

A mototaxista pulled up and a cousin I had been told about joined us under the mango tree. He was called Leandro and, true to what I was told, his head was abnormally large. At birth there had been water inside the cranium that had swollen his head and stunted the growth of his brain. Leandro was now physically a man but had the mental ability of a small boy. He spoke with his jaw clenched and he was not allowed to drink the whisky, but he was good natured and even as the others made jokes on him he grinned happily.

We drank whisky under the mango tree all through the afternoon and into the night. When we said goodbye the vallenato had stopped playing at the corner bar and the domino players had gone home. We drank four bottles of whisky and we were all well drunk and happy and we promised to do it again.

It was dark and very early when we left for the sea. We drove through Valledupar in darkness and passed the coal mine and as the sky lightened the mountains appeared as a high black silhouette against it. With the sun came the heat of the day and the road continued through the valley, through dusty pastureland and then following along a river it was green and lush and there were rice patties. We left the river and climbed a low pass and descending into the next valley the road was broken and pot-holed and her brother swerved and braked and it was very rough driving.

Passing us were convoys of pickup trucks with plastic barrels stacked high on their wagons. Her brother said they were smugglers bringing gasoline into Colombia from Venezuela. They had made their drop and were rushing back for the frontier.

The road forked and turned to dirt and broken asphalt and we entered a pueblo of rundown cinderblock homes. Along the dirt road men were selling the smuggled gasoline from plastic barrels. We stopped opposite an abandoned service station and her brother got out to negotiate the price with a young man. Up the road a team of men were breaking apart the asphalt with a jackhammer. The jack-hammering was very loud and the air was very dusty and the whole pueblo smelled strongly of gasoline.

It was late morning when we made the coast at Riohacha. The beaches at the north of the city were empty and said to be polluted and the sea broke in a long gray line along the sand. There were some Arhuaco men selling artisanales on the boardwalk and we stopped and got out to look at the mochilas and jewelry.

The Arhuaco were short and long-haired and dressed in white tunics and pants and wore a white conical hat called the tutusoma.* They did not speak much Spanish other than the prices and chewed at the coca leaves they held in their cheeks. Each man held a long-necked gourd called a poporo and as they watched us each dipped a black rod into his gourd, covering the end in a white powder which they then put into their mouths. Then they gently rubbed their rods, wet with saliva and powder, along the neck of the gourds.** The youngest of the Arhuaco tried hard to interest us in his mochilas but he wanted too much for the hand knit bags and we did not buy anything.

We left Riohacha and drove east across a long and arid plain. It was noon now and very bright and goats wandered through the sandy scrub and across the road. To the left, through the heat-light, you could just make out the blue of the Caribbean Sea. We drove another thirty kilometers and turned off onto a one-track dirt road that led back to a Wayuu settlement along the sea. There were five of the Wayuu homes called caserios and a boy ran out and directed us to park before a thatch-roofed hutch along the beach.

It was very hot and we sat down at a wooden table in the shade of the hutch and ordered beer from the Wayuu boy. The water was emerald green and clear and the white sand was bright in the sun. There were fishing skiffs tied off in the deeper water. We were the only ones at the beach. The boy returned with the bottled beer and we asked about lunch and if he had fish but he did not know Spanish well enough to understand. We were hungry but the beer was cold and it tasted delicious in the heat.
* The tutusoma is meant to symbolize the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta which the Arhuaco consider holy and have pledged to protect. The Arhuaco believe these mountains to be the heart of the world and that the well-being of the world depends upon them. By protecting these mountains the Arhuaco protect the world.

** The white substance inside the poporo is a powdered lime made of burnt sea shells from the Caribbean coast. The coca leaf when chewed with powdered lime becomes a mild narcotic. Only Arhuaco men are allowed to use the poporo and its ritual is intended to symbolize a woman: “The hole in the top is penetrated by the poporo stick. The powder of burned sea-shells inside is the essence of fertility, and for a boy to grow to manhood he must learn to feed on that. That, and the coca leaves, harvested only by women, will make him fit to father children and tend the land -- to develop a relationship with a woman in the flesh, and with the Mother Earth. The poporo is the mark of civilization. Eating from it reminds a man of what he is, and keeps him in harmony with the Great Mother. The ring of calc which builds up around the rim is saliva (the fresh water of the body) mixed with shell-dust (the seed of Serankua, dua, the seed of all life). Created during contemplation, by thoughtfully licking the stick and rubbing it on the neck of the gourd, this calc is also described as a book: ‘We write our thoughts in it.’” (The Heart of the World, Alan Ereira, 1990).


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