Putumayo is renowned within Colombia as one of the few states where guerillas still have a strong presence. Warned countless times by people in the neighbouring big city not to go, we cycled to the limit of the so-called ‘safe zone’, had a look around, ‘Nope, no guerrillas here!’… so kept on cycling.
Politics and the Guerrillas
So what is the current situation? From our limited outsider understanding, the guerrilla movement seems to have lost the ideals it started out fighting for (e.g. the rights of the poor being trampled by the ruling elite; the exploitation of Colombian resources by multinationals) and so has lost its popular support. The latter-day guerrillas operate like a mafia – kidnapping, ransoming and murdering people, extorting businesses, and demanding money, food and land from peasants, the very group they claim to represent, in exchange for ‘protection’.
Millions of people have been displaced from the countryside and rural towns to the cities, causing the overcrowding and poverty at the root of many of the urban problems and opportunistic crime today.
Ex-President Uribe came to power 11 years ago and used extreme measures to flush out the guerrillas. At times resorting to unlawful massacre across borders (and almost starting a war with Ecuador in the process), Uribe was successful. Around six years ago, most of the countryside was safe enough for people to return. The roads and towns are heavily patrolled by the army, and units reccie the countryside, spending seven months camped out, tracking guerrilla groups in the jungle. There are certain parts of the state which remain dangerous, and people have told us that as a result of the current President Santos’s softer approach, the problem is starting to re-emerge despite the peace talks.
This creates a muddy approach to politics. Many people have complained to us that there can be no serious left-wing candidate, because any political movement is tainted by the association with guerrillas. People are fed up, but resigned to the fact that the guerrilla issue dominates politics.
Benefits of Guerrillas
However, even the greatest NIMBY problem has its advantages: so why should you want guerrillas in your garden?
1/ Rainforest preservation. Guerrillas are UNESCO with firepower. Putumayo is a beautiful state of dark, abundant vegetation, bright flowers and waterfalls pouring from mossy rockfaces. Cycling through the mountains, picking guavas from the trees and surprised by the smell of wild coriander, we felt the life and energy in the landscape around us. It’s been preserved by the guerrillas’ acute sense of personal space: trespassers will be shot.
Unless you are a multinational oil company with bigger guns, that is. Local communities talked a lot about the destruction of the Amazon by foreigners (and no, money is not pouring into the region), and we saw it passing us. We had wondered why such a remote road, with such little traffic, was so beautifully asphalted. We found out soon enough: our otherwise peaceful and empty cycle was shaken every 5-10 minutes by a convoy of oil tankers thundering past. We were cycling on the specially built Oil Exploitation Expressway, soon to be expanded across the country…to reach a port near you.
2/ Warm and hospitable locals. Most Colombians are proud of their country in a way that is considered strange and nationalist in the UK. Rebs’ British flag tattoo is here met with ‘cool tattoo!’ rather than ‘oh, you hate immigrants’ as in the UK. Colombians carry around the weight of what they perceive to be their international reputation: drugs and guerrillas. They go out of their way to give foreigners a positive impression of their country. Arriving in Putumayo, heart of the guerrilla territories, this is even more pronounced. The regular two banana gift became ten and our average speed slowed to 10km a day. It was in Putumayo we stopped feeling like we were travelling and started feeling like we were just living, popping in on new friends on our bikes and then staying for a while.
One new friend was Vanessa and her husband Juan Carlos. They insisted we join them for an indigenous shamanic ceremony on Friday evening, and for a Sunday lunch with their parents, not to mention the latest ‘Game Of Thrones’ episode on the Monday.
Don Miguel (Vanessa’s grandfather) lives with his sister and niece on a farm a three-day cycle away. After a couple of days of tough, hilly, off-road cycling, we had the strange sensation on the descent of sitting above the clouds, in a world of sunny, blue sky, and seeing the shaded valley below through a brief hole in the clouds below.
Arriving at Don Miguel’s was an obstacle course. We squeezed the bikes under a barbed wire fence, hauled them over boulders and managed to convince a slightly confused relative (who didn’t seem certain of who she was, let alone who we were) that we did know Don Miguel. We thought we’d arrived, and then we saw the bridge. Swaying in the breeze, 30m long, rotting wooden slats lashed together with wire, and a fast river weaving past rocks below. Uh-oh. Twenty stressful minutes (‘Rebs, more to the left!’; ‘Sol, I’m dropping it!’) and we pushed the bikes up one final hill (think the Travelator in Gladiators) through a forest of sugar cane, to the clearing where we found the house.
The farm felt cocooned in different layers of nature: the sugar cane, the surrounding hills, the jungle, and all looked down on by the mountains.
Don Miguel is a Colombian Goodnight Mister Tom figure: gruff but warm-hearted. We weren’t sure where we stood at first, but left with promises to return one Christmas.
During our stay we:
– didn’t shower, instead swimming in the rivers and waterfalls nearby;
– learnt how to make one of the most delicious cheeses we’ve tried;
– ate five meals a day – at first we thought this was a special treat for the guests, but it was just life;
– learnt how to gut a fish, which Sol surprisingly took to much better than Rebs;
– picked cocoa from the tree and made hot chocolate from our home-processed cocoa beans four days later;
– made peanut butter; and,
– the highlight, made blocks of panela (unrefined brown sugar) using a horse-powered press with freshly cut sugar cane. We ate so many sugar by-products, emergency dentists were rushed to the scene.
Taita Lucho and the Yaje Ceremony
We experienced our second indigenous shamanic ceremony while staying with Don Miguel. For us from the UK, this might sound like mumbo jumbo, or a hippy tourist alternative to the beach. Here in Putumayo, there is a strong indigenous community and the weekly Saturday night ceremonies are an integral part of the culture, neither put on for, nor reliant on the tourist dollar. We watch Casualty, they sit around a fire drinking a cup of specially prepared plants which makes you sick and gives you visions. The reasons people gave us for attending ceremonies range from a weekly ritual to purify their body and mind; an opportunity to destress; looking for clarity on a particular problem; to reflecting on their next step in life.
The maloca (indigenous communal structure) where we had our second ceremony was a circle, based on 9 wooden posts reaching into a pyramid roof. It had a packed earth floor and beds around four sides, and was otherwise open to outside. Our Taita (shaman / elder) started the ceremony with an explanation of the physical and mental effects of yaje, his beliefs and why he takes it. Taita Lucho spoke about how yaje allows you to connect with the energy of the natural world. It can be easy to dismiss words like ‘energy’, but it’s another way of talking about the vibes you give off, how you affect other people and the world around you. Think of it like that and it’s clear plants and nature have ‘energy’: you feel different sitting in a park or walking through a wood than you do in a car park.
We took a cup of yaje one by one and wished each other ‘Buena Pinta (Good Colours)’. Some people lay down, some sat around the fire, a couple went for a walk. In the first hour, most people are sick, an important process for the purification of the body.
The two of us sat in our beds for the first and strongest part, in our own bubble. When we closed our eyes, instead of the normal reddish wall of our eyelids there was a world going on – sometimes in our control, sometimes not. The different music and instruments Taita Lucho played strongly affected the visions, as did different light levels. Soon after, we headed outside.
The world was alive – we noticed each plant, star and blade of grass, and it felt like everything merited proper attention. We saw the colours and textures that we normally miss.
In normal life, we get a vague impression of the overall, but we miss the details: our brain thinks it knows what’s there, so we don’t properly look. Yaje slowed us down and gave us the ability to experience each moment with all of our senses and imagination, to be aware of the energy and life in the seemingly inanimate world around us – unsustainable for normal life but important: a momentary access to a reality we’re not normally able to grasp.
Yaje helped us appreciate that everyone experiences life in a slightly different way and allowed us to step outside of our version of the world. We were able to see more than one possibility in everything around us. It’s more how children experience the world – the stick can be a sword, a train, a wooden leg – and a mental freedom we lose as we get older. For us, we didn’t see stones around a fire, it was pagan gods in the form of stones; it was a volcano; it was a serpent with burning red eyes; it was a funeral pyre with an old hunchbacked woman blowing her nose.
In the morning, we closed the ceremony by sharing what we had gained. The two of us left feeling more thoughtful and appreciative, and it’s definitely something we’d like to take part in again.
The only death and danger we saw on our way through Putumayo was on our last night, when we camped in the grounds of an abattoir. Rolling countryside around us, the squeals of dying cows to lull us to sleep.
Thanks to Putumayo, we’re planning more time in war-torn countries.