Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

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Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #3: Aguardiente

Many countries have their own unique, distinctive liquor (sake, ouzo, deadly Czech moonshine, and so on), and Colombia is no different. The ubiquitous drink of Andean Colombia — the one you’ll see in everyone’s hands at a night out at the bar or club, the one that makes an inevitable appearance at every party — is called aguardiente (literally, fire water). Aguardiente (or guaro, for short, if y’all are on a nickname basis) is a clear, anise-flavored liquid made of processed sugarcane. It’s produced either with sugar or without, and typically has an alcohol content a bit north or south of 25%. It is also heinously, ferociously disgusting.

So many ways to poison yourself…

I’ve just insulted probably about 94% of the Colombians I know by dissing their national intoxicant of choice, but I’m sorry. Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is, and aguardiente is nothing but horrible. Despite the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) efforts of my friends here, my assimilation does not extend to this terrible creation. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there are only about four things I don’t like about Colombia: aguardiente is right at the top of that list.

The thing is, any relationship we could ever have was doomed from the start, as guaro made the fatal error of tasting like anise. I have never been able to understand why anyone would willingly ingest anything anise-flavored — from unappealing black licorice to the look-nicer-than-they-taste cookies a well-meaning family friend gives us around Christmas every year, it’s one of the easiest ways I can think of to ruin something that otherwise might be delicious. Want to make a cookie suddenly revolting? Add anise. Want to make me avoid a cake like the plague? Frost it with anise. Want to make me swear off drinking forever? Force me to drink aguardiente (or tequila, but that’s a different story).

My favorite is #3: “Because it’s perfect to drink alone or mixed.” OR NEVER.

So the taste is the primary hurdle, but it’s not the only one. The way drinking is done in most non-beer-based social situations here is that a group of people buys a bottle and then spends the rest of the night taking shots out of little plastic cups that are incredibly easy to accidentally crush in one’s hands. And this doesn’t just happen at bars with tables — if you go out to a club, you’ll see people strolling around passing out shots of guaro like it’s Anise Christmas. To me this seems both illogical and like an invitation for spillage, but nobody put me in charge, obviously. It’s kind of like being back in college, but instead of ending up with terrible-tasting alcohol by necessity or legality issues, we somehow get it by choice (again, definitely not mine). Having shots forced upon me is not necessarily my favorite way to consume alcohol, especially in crowded public spaces — having shots of something that seriously tests my gag reflex forced upon me is probably one of my least favorite ways.

I suspect that most Colombians have a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship with guaro — since they started drinking it when they were around 15 years old, they’re just used to it by now. Or maybe some of them genuinely like anise — after all, it’s a flavor that shows up in liquors produced in various other countries around the globe, so it’s not like Colombians are the only crazy ones. I just happen to be stuck with them.

Why drink like an adult when you could be using a 1-liter juicebox instead?

The one benefit of the existence of guaro is being able to punk people with it. When I went home for Christmas in December, I brought a few juiceboxes of the stuff (oh yeah, they sell liquor in juiceboxes here. File that under “Awesome Things Colombians Do Correctly”) back with me as “gifts.” My poor, unsuspecting friends thought it was so nice of me to bring genuine Colombian drinking material all the way home for them — until they tried it. Curses were uttered, blame was cast, friendships were called into question, I did a lot of giggling. It was absolutely worth it, but it also didn’t involve me actually consuming any of it. So I guess I’m okay with aguardiente as long as it’s not entering my digestive system.

The point is, if I ever manage to overcome my intense loathing of hot weather (unlikely) and move to the coast, at least 30 percent of my justification will be because they drink more rum there. Now that’s a liquid pastime I support.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy

One thought that kept coming up during my valiant (and ultimately successful) quest to get myself a visa was how much worse the whole thing could’ve been. Sure, getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go stand in line at DIAN and then sit inside the freezing building for 4 hours wasn’t exactly my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me in Colombia, but it also wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I survived. And from then on, everyone was so nice to me that it made the entire ordeal feel significantly less challenging than it could have.

I guess by now I shouldn’t be surprised that people in Colombia are just pleasant, even when they work at undoubtedly mind-numbing desk jobs, but there’s a part of my brain that’s still firmly lodged in the American (or at least Northeast region) mindset of only being civil when absolutely necessary, and definitely nothing ever past civil. We are exactly as polite as we need to be to get things done, and you can be sure you’ll know if you’re inconveniencing us. Not so here.

As I mentioned, the first time I went to register myself as a business at the Cámara de Comercio, I didn’t know I needed a copy of a utilities bill. I had all my other documents ready to go, but this one little thing was missing. It was too late in the day for me to go home, get it and come back before the office closed, so it was going to be one more day of delay in the process. But instead of just waving me away from the desk, the extremely helpful young woman working there (who, as I said, was as pregnant as she was helpful) sat down with me and filled out the entire document I needed, reviewing all the sections to make sure I was doing them correctly and telling me the smallest possible amount I could give as the value of my company, to limit taxes. “This way,” she told me, “you can just bring in the bill tomorrow and you’ll be all set!” And that’s exactly what I did.

She didn’t have to be that helpful. She could’ve just let me wait until the next day — it certainly wouldn’t make any difference for her job. But she did the good thing, and that’s the only reason I left the office that afternoon smiling instead of growling in frustration.

It was more or less the same at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, where I actually got my visa. I made damn sure to show up there with every single document I could ever potentially need, partly because I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with and mostly because you have to pay $50 every time you go there and I was sure as hell not going to pay $50 just for being a forgetful idiot. Even so, the guy I talked to there was so friendly and asked me questions like he was genuinely curious, rather than trying to trick me into saying the wrong thing. If I were a foreigner applying for a visa in the U.S., the process would be somewhere between a jail interrogation and a private investigator background check, and I would probably feel like a criminal without having done anything wrong. The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is so much easier to deal with in these kinds of processes — I was already nervous enough about applying for the visa. A mean agent probably would’ve made me burst into tears. Instead, I left with the world’s biggest grin and a promise to my interview agent that I would write nice things about Colombia.

Promise kept.

15 Things I’ve (Almost) Forgotten About Since January

  1. What it’s like to wake up every morning and legitimately need to check the weather.
  2. The taste of bad orange juice.
  3. The concept of eye contact as a direct threat.
  4. How much I would normally be sweating this time of year.
  5. Underground public transportation systems.
  6. The existence of Wolf Blitzer. And Maureen Dowd.
  7. Established, consistent bus stops.
  8. Avocados that exist in sizes smaller than my head.
  9. How to parallel park (to be fair, I was never very good at this to begin with).
  10. The idea of standing in line for brunch.
  11. Milk that comes in cartons, or yogurt that’s closer to a solid than a liquid.
  12. Using my debit card for anything that isn’t a plane ticket.
  13. Running without feeling like my lungs are considering exploding out of my chest.
  14. Movies without subtitles.
  15. Millionaire Matchmaker (and my enduring love for it).

What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?

A major part of the experience of living in (or even visiting) another country is the opportunity to see how other people live: what they eat, how they travel to work, how they form and maintain friendships, how they feel about PDAs, and so on. This has, overall, a hugely positive effect for the majority of people. It challenges us to step outside our own habits and expectations, encourages us to examine the norms and practices we may take for granted as “normal” and forces us to define our own values and the truths we choose to hold constant, no matter where in the world we may be.

in case you desperately need it while welding a roof?

No, this is totally the best possible place to leave your hat.

It can also be really, really hilarious.

Let me preface this by saying yes, I’m well aware of the idea of cultural relativism, being conscious about not making value judgments about the practices of others, etc. I know. I know. But just because I observe things and try not be too judgmental about them doesn’t mean I can’t find them incredibly amusing. Because let’s be serious, there are some things they do in other countries that are just weird to us Americans. I have no doubt that there are plenty of things Americans do or like that people in other countries find utterly baffling, too (The NFL? Standing outside stores for like 48 hours to buy limited-edition pairs of sneakers? Putting ranch dressing on everything?), but as an American, I’m rather unable to speak to that side of things.

maybe it's just a really short project?

"Under construction"/"End of work." This would be slightly more logical if the signs were not within about ten feet of each other. Which one am I supposed to believe?

However, as an American in Bogotá, I am in an expert position to observe the things that rolos (the term for denizens of Bogotá) seem to love that are totally mystifying to a foreigner, and I think some of them are worth sharing, even just for the humor. So over the next few weeks I’m going to work my way through some kind of list of my Top 10 Things Colombians Rather Inexplicably Love. The last thing I want, though, is for this to seem in any way mean-spirited or critical. Let me state for the record that I love Bogotá, I love Colombia and I love the people I’ve met here so far. This isn’t meant to make fun of anyone, except perhaps myself for being so weirded out by some things, or humanity in general for its habit of following bizarre trends. Still, just to keep things fair and balanced, I’ve decided to follow this list up with another one, of the Top 10 Totally Awesome Things Colombians Love (And Which We Could Do With More Of In the U.S., If We’re Being Honest). So keep an eye out for these as they come!

Food Friday: Jet Chocolate!

So I’m testing out this new idea, in which I will attempt to write something about Colombian food every week or two. Because I know how much you (by which I mostly mean I) like food! And we’re picking Fridays because alliteration. So there.

Considering that it is essentially its own food group in my diet, and given how much of it I received yesterday, it’s inevitable that I begin with chocolate — specifically, Jet Chocolate. Jet is probably the most popular brand of chocolate in Colombia. In fact, it’s produced by the National Chocolate Company, which we don’t even have in the U.S. (yet. We don’t have it YET. Still waiting on those Oompa-Loompas to show up). Jet bars come in just about every possible size, from tiny two-square bites to giant ones bigger than my hand, filled with strawberry or arequipe flavoring. [Side note: arequipe is a sweet, sticky, caramel-like substance, kind of like the Colombian dulce de leche. I’ll get to it sometime soon, don’t worry.]

it's like a staircase of deliciousness

A helpful comparison, for those of you for whom chocolate size matters.

too bad these have all been eaten already

A few different sizes and types of Jet bars: plain, strawberry, and arequipe.

The bars, always wrapped in shiny blue paper with the little airplane logo (get it?), are your typical mass-produced milk chocolate bars, nothing special flavor-wise. HOWEVER. There is something truly, gloriously, incredibly magical about Jet bars. Something that makes them better than any other milk chocolate bar I’ve ever seen or consumed in my life. Something that creates in me the uncontrollable desire to buy EVERY JET BAR EVER. Something that is undoubtedly making their marketing people terribly and deservedly rich.

Can you guess what it is?

Día de la Mujer: Flowers and Chocolate, with a Dash of Feminism

So today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day — known here in Colombia as Día de la Mujer. As you may or may not know, the holiday started back at the beginning of the 20th century, as a sort of combination of the socialist labor rights and women’s rights movements. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and ongoing strikes and protests by Russian women during the 19-teens, the international community finally began to pay marginally more attention to women’s demands for equality. Since the end of WWI, International Women’s Day has spread across the globe, and is now an official holiday in more than 25 countries, and celebrated unofficially in many others, including Colombia.

good job being born! have this chocolate!

All the swag I got today, just for having a uterus. Good work, X chromosomes.

Here, Día de la Mujer is kind of a like a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Women receive gifts like candy, flowers and small stuffed animals — or, in the case of one of my fellow teachers, a terrifying 8-inch-tall pen shaped like a rabbit. Walking around town today was pretty charming, because practically every female person over the age of about 10 is carrying at least two flowers and probably some other kind of gift. It’s an especially great day to be a female teacher, with all the kids running around school giving  teachers candy, flowers, cards and other presents — kind of like reverse Halloween for grownup ladies. I think I collected like ten candy bars over the course of the day (needless to say, most of them didn’t make it to tonight intact), as well as some very lovely flowers and a personalized card from one of my seventh-graders (who even spelled my name right! A miracle!).

But wait! It gets better!

Top Ten Questions For CEIC Norte’s New English Teacher

Working as a teacher is filled with joys, challenges, lesson planning — and answering the same questions 9000 times a day. It’s even more extreme when you’re the only foreigner in a school filled with curious children, in a country where it’s socially acceptable to ask incredibly personal questions within about two minutes of meeting someone. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had enough time to adjust to the constant barrage of questions directed my way, but sometimes I can’t help but laugh at the frequency with which I get asked the exact same things, every day. At the least, I can say that if I ever end up on the wrong side of a press conference, I’m going to be totally prepared for any and all weird questions that people want to throw at me.

In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my responses to these particular gems:

Don’t you want to see what the questions are?