Our time in Cauca was spent cycling through what is locally known as the ‘boot’ of the province. It is an isolated section, sandwiched between states which the Cauca people feel culturally closer to. Their situation creates a separatist, and at times resentful, mindset – many people live without post or internet and so have to travel twenty hours to the regional capital every time they need to deal with a government body for school enrollment, a driving license or a tax query.
Combine this with a large ethnic minority and you find communities with a tendency towards territorial independence. Obviously, the indigenous groups predate the Spanish, and so do their laws and traditions. Although legally independent – not answerable to Colombian law – these groups remain a marginalised minority within Colombia. For many of them, it’s a logical and just next step to declare their region an autonomous indigenous territory where this would no longer be the case. One of the many people who spoke to us about this was a female taita (shaman and indigenous elder), Maria, who we stayed with. She initially seemed a bit hesitant with us. We sat down with a cup of English Breakfast tea (cultural invasion in practice) to find out why.
There is a lot of received knowledge about white people that is passed down and shared among indigenous communities. It’s mainly negative. The erosion of indigenous power and independence as white people have moved in has created a distance between the two communities. Indigenous life centres around the natural world: they pray to the Gods of sun, earth, moon, rocks and water and their medicine is plant-based. The disregard white people show for these beliefs and the natural world they are based on increases the distance between the two cultures.
From the indigenous perspective, White Man prioritises money. The two main culprits are seen as white medicine and oil/mineral extraction, both of which disregard and destroy nature. Both use nature for their creation or production: companies convert natural products for our (the indigenous people’s ‘white man’) convenience but by the end user, all traces of nature have been erased. Petrol companies market themselves as ‘ecofriendly’, we buy new jewellery and mobile phones without a thought for how the materials were obtained, and we take a pill for a headache but belittle the idea of using the herbs the active ingredient came from. The knowledge that we are destroying the natural world (and therefore our home in the process) as well as many communities’ livelihoods, has done little to change our behaviour so far, not necessarily because we’re selfish, but because there is a disconnect between us and nature. For the moment, we still feel too far removed from our impact to care. After hearing all that, we understood Maria’s initial wariness.
Indigenous beliefs focus on ‘energy’ and maintaining harmony within ourselves, with each other and with our natural environment. As the religious and cultural leaders of the community, taitas are trained not only to create natural remedies to resolve individuals’ physical and mental problems, but also to mediate familial and communal disputes.
Another important religious and cultural minority we met are the Evangelicals. Invited to sleep on a family’s living room floor, some confusion arose when we decided to get out our sleeping bags and twenty people walked into our makeshift bedroom: unbeknownst to us, the location for the weekly Evangelical service. Three hours of chanting and strategically timed ‘hallelujahs’ orchestrated by the preacher to keep energy levels up and we came away with a message of ‘Believe in Jesus, get baptised and you will be saved’. We met the preacher after the service and asked the age-old question: ‘What about good people who aren’t baptised and bad people who are?’ The response was simple: ‘Be baptised or burn in hell for all eternity’ – an eerie prophecy when delivered with such a kindly smile. It seemed that poverty is a bonus in God’s eyes, but not a requirement – just like morals, ethics or your earthly conduct, which He’s also prepared to overlook. As a preview of our afterlife, our sleep that night was minimal, with giant moths constantly batting us around the face.
We came away from both experiences with an appreciation for what the two religions appeared to have in common: the sense of community and togetherness which comes from sharing a belief in something greater than yourself.
Cycling hasn’t had a look-in this time: there’s not much to say given the monotonously terrific views and the friendly people which come as standard in Colombia.