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.

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Summer Flashback: Apologies, and That Time I Couldn’t Breathe For an Hour

So, yes, I realize it’s been rather a while since I dropped by this corner of the internet to say hello. I’m just going to be honest and admit that about 30% of it is me being lazy; the other 70% is some combination of busy/holiday weekends, the madness of ending the school year, an inability to edit photos in a timely fashion and, most of all, the fact that I’ve been busting my posterior body parts trying to find something resembling a job for next year. Cover letters are hard, y’all.

But let’s put that all aside, shall we? In my continuing series of Making My Friends Sad By Reminding Them (Usually Through Photography) of Events That Happened Five Months Ago, I present: the tale of the infamous Cotopaxi volcano!

Those of you that know me in real life, or at least through the facelibro, may have heard some mention of this volcano. It is apparently the world’s most photographed volcano, due to its photogenic conical shape, so I couldn’t resist. Plus, it’s a volcano! We don’t have any of those at home! Cotopaxi was on the top of my list of things that needed to be done, and luckily I have awesome friends that also enjoy torturing themselves by walking up hills at very high altitudes. So after we spent a few days frolicking around the cloud forest in Mindo (photos, I know, I promise. Someday), we headed back to Quito and then suited up in our new alpaca gear for a day of conquering the mountain. Or something like that.

What they don’t tell us sea-level-dwelling folks (yes, I know Bogotá is high up, but I was born by the ocean, dammit) is that hiking at altitude is hard as hell. Maybe they tell us and we just don’t listen. Either way, our journey began when we hopped off the bus at a random bend of Ecuadorean highway, across four lanes from a wooden sign marking the entrance to the national park. We dashed across the highway, seasoned from months of dodging Bogotá traffic, and ambled up to a building where a few guys were sitting by pickup trucks in various states of functionality. These, it appeared, were the guides. One dude took it upon himself to be our guide for the day — I am a terrible person and can’t recall his name, but I do remember that he was excellent at maintaining a comfortable interior temperature in the truck and even better at driving with one arm (I didn’t ask what happened to the other one. I assume wild mountain beasts).

Getting to the entrance of the park, it turns out, is the easy part. Once you have your guide and corresponding vehicle, said guide then drives you along the extremely bumpy 19-kilometer or so path to the mountain itself. Along the way, we rolled through undoubtedly icy-cold streams, wound up and down hills, passed through clouds and over vast fields of short high-altitude plants, and learned various facts about the geological makeup of the place (summary: LAVA. Also, layers). We made a pit stop at a small hut on the way to sip some interior-warming coca tea and avoid the guy trying to sell us hats. He obviously couldn’t see the alpacas perched on our heads. And then, onwards! Mountain-bound!

Ecuador is at least 87% volcano

This is where we’re going…

At the foot of the volcano was where things got exciting. Crossing a plain edged by craggy mountains and a chilly lake, we spotted movement on both sides of the car. Then, suddenly, we were surrounded by tall, shaggy beasts: wild volcano horses! I don’t think I’d ever seen horses in the wild before then, and they were seriously beautiful creatures — their coats looked thick enough to use as sleeping blankets. There was even a baby horse, wobbling along between its parents. I think we made our poor guide stop the car like five times so we could document the horses, but it was worth it. And yes, I spent the next hour with the song stuck in my head. Also worth it.

By the time we’d recovered from all of the horse excitement, we were winding our way up the side of the volcano itself, to the parking lot conveniently located at about 4,400m (just multiply it my 3, fellow Americans). For the record, we’re at around 2,800m here in Bogs, so this is a significant step up even for us. And you feel that step the moment you take one, I promise.

Upon disembarking from our transport, our guide pointed up the side of the mountain at a yellow building seemingly an arm’s length away. That was the refugio, he told us — as far up as it was recommended we walk without a permit (or at least some better jackets and snow boots). The walk should be about an hour, he said, and he’d be waiting for us when we got back. The sun had just broken out of the clouds, I could see the actual, real-life snow on the peak of the volcano and the path was lying right ahead of us. I was ready.

You know how on mountains, landmarks look tantalizingly close but are actually brutally far away? Now, imagine that effect, but you can only take 10 steps before you have to stop and catch your breath — that was Cotopaxi. I’ve never had such a hard time breathing in my life — it honestly felt like I was hyperventilating all the way up the chalky, ashy slope. My legs hurt, my lungs burned, I kept yawning to try to open my air passages, my feet kept sliding on the ash (remember, we’re walking on old lava here), I was definitely getting sunburned, and the cheerful groups of intense mountain climbers with their intense ice boots descending as we were going up just made me feel more self-conscious. The 400-meter ascent (from 4,400 to about 4,800) took an hour and pretty much all of the self-control I had in my body. It was also — and still is — one of my favorite things I’ve done all year.

The feeling of standing at the refugio sign, staring down the slope of fine ash particles to the tiny cars in the parking lot and the plain stretching out from the bottom of the mountain, stretching my legs and catching my breath for the first time in an hour, was like a slow endorphin rush. I climbed that, my body was telling itself. I don’t know what my goddamn idiotic brain was thinking, but I climbed that. I felt pretty badass. And the hot chocolate and soup in the refugio didn’t hurt either.

But the second best part? The way down. The ascent may have taken us over an hour, but the descent took about ten minutes, tops. Because ash, on a slope, does a really good impression of a slide. We basically skied down the side of the volcano, each step sliding five feet in the soft terrain. It felt like sliding down a sand dune. Except cold. And really high up. In Ecuador.

I’ve never made my lungs work so hard in my life, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Summer Flashback: Otavalo Market

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This gallery contains 33 photos.

One of the (undoubtedly many) reasons I tend to drive my friends slightly crazy is that I am maybe the world’s least reliable photographer. I’m not necessarily saying that I’m bad at taking pictures (although I certainly didn’t get the … Continue reading

My Best Classes Involve Water Slides

So I was a wee bit MIA last week, but with good reason: I was busy hanging out with about 40 of my 9th-graders in Melgar, a very warm resort-y town about three hours outside of Bogotá, because my life is super-exciting like that. Actually, though, it was both exciting and a great opportunity to spend time with my delightful kids outside of the dark confines of school.

I didn’t just sneak onto a field trip full of 15-year-olds, I swear (okay, I kind of did. But there was a reason!). Colsubsidio, the organization that owns my school, also owns about half of the other buildings in Colombia — including a rather nice hotel in Girardot, right next to Melgar, and a water park, Piscilago, which features the longest water slide in Latin America. For some unknown but delightful reason, particular grades at the Colsubsidio schools get the opportunity for an overnight at the hotel and then a day at the water park. I was originally supposed to go with the 7th-graders about two months ago, but due to scheduling it didn’t work out, so I got shuffled to the 9th-graders instead. This actually ended up being a pretty lovely surprise, since I adore my 9th-graders and they are, on average, slightly easier to wrangle than a bus full of insane 12-year-olds. I’m not sure why anyone at my school thinks I’m a responsible enough human being to take care of a large group of other human beings, but I chose not to question it.

So instead of dragging myself through the polluted streets of chilly, rainy Bogotá, I spent two days frolicking in pools and water slides with my generally well-behaved children, shocking them with the fact that yes, I actually do speak Spanish (surprise!) and yelling at them to stay in their damn rooms and for the love of god please just go to bed (I never said that I slept at any point during this trip. I didn’t).

Being with these awesome kids for two days straight made me remember some of the things that I love so much about this work, and what a huge role my students have played in making this year such a positive experience. On Thursday night we had a bonfire outside, and we did an activity where everyone had an opportunity to speak to their peers about things that have been difficult or positive about this year. I went last, and after hearing the sweet, insightful and often very emotional things my students had to say, all I had to tell them was how much I love them and how important they are to me. They are the reason that I’m excited to come to school every day, and they’re the reason that all of the inconveniences and frustrations that come with working at this school and in this system are worth it. I’m already upset that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them in three months, but I’m trying not to think about it for now.

The two-day vacation was a fantastic opportunity for both fun (Riding the longest water slide in Latin America! Going headfirst through a dark tunnel on a water toboggan! Watching my students throw each other in the pool! Frolicking on playground equipment like a little kid! Not having to wear sleeves!) and reflection (oh my god I love these kids so much how can I ever leave them?). Even though it’s over now and I’m back in my cloudy, scheduled reality, at least I still have the memories (and 75 itchy, torturous bug bites on my legs) to remind me.

Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.


Kite Season

Image

kites everywhere

With “summer” in Bogotá comes the wind, and with the wind come the kites. On the last Sunday of the Festival del Verano (Summer Festival) in Parque Simón Bolivar, they were out in full force. Maybe someday I’ll be this good at kite-flying.

Vacation, By the Numbers

Days: 13

Different airports: 4

Co-travelers: 4 — always 3 other people, but two switched off mid-vacation

Number of times I had to unpack my entire backpack so an unfriendly customs official could rummage through my undergarments and judge the number of earrings I bring on vacation: 1

Meals eaten at Mexican restaurants: 3

Meals eaten at pizza places: 2

Total number of avocados consumed: at least 7

Hikes: 4

Hikes on volcanoes: 1

Times I thought I might pass out for various reasons: 3

Times I actually did pass out: 0. Yay me!

Ziplines conquered: 13

Micheladas consumed: 5. More, if you want to count the 1-liter one as more than one beer (it was $5! I love Quito)

Buses taken: 11

Dollars spent at Otavalo market in Ecuador: UGH.

Steps climbed at La Piedra near Guatapé, Colombia: 670

2×1 happy hour cocktails purchased: 12

Cocktails that were actually good: 4

Unsuccessful attempts to find Pablo Escobar’s grave: 2

Cats at hostels: 4

Motochiva rides: 1

Number of eggs eaten: I can’t count this high

Fourth of July parties attended: 1

Success: total

More coherent, complete sentences and photos to follow!