A Letter from Colombia

tatiana de la tierra

15 de julio de 2000. The plane descended during a rainstorm. Lighting flashed through white clouds as the pilot announced, “Damas y caballeros, bienvenidos a la ciudad de Barranquilla.” Passengers cheered, clapped, and whistled, celebrating the stormy touchdown on Caribbean soil.

Colombia, home bittersweet home.

What I really wanted to do on my two-week vacation was be on my family’s farm in el Valle del Cauca, sugarcane region, on the outskirts of Cali. There, I could ride horses, milk cows, walk the Andean mountains, watch the stars fall, awaken with the morning dew.

But I had been unequivocally warned to stay away. It was 1995 and I was on the farm, intending to stay there for several months.

Dusk. I have been hiking all day and I am exhausted. I shower, put on my nightclothes, and shut the windows. Maybe I will sit outside for a bit before going to bed. I hear something out of the ordinary—a man’s voice, a racket, then silence. I turn off the lights and stand still; my senses are keen now. Fierce pounding at the front door—an authoritative male voice: “Open up. We have orders to search the property.” Una requisa. The voice continues. Other male voices. More pounding and clatter. The sounds intensify.

I am standing in the middle of the living room, my eyes closed, concentrating, casting circles of protection around me, fully aware that I am alone, that the house is surrounded by armed men, and that my fate may not be mine to determine.

They smash the glass windows all around me with the butts of their weapons. Blow out the front door lock. Scurry in, guns cocked, eyes and mouths gaping through black facemasks. Escort me out of the house while pressing the barrel of a gun to the side of my head and the center of my back. They are guerrillas with orders to kidnap me and search the farm. A group of them go inside the house; the others direct me down the hill, to the stable. They question me. They do not look me in the eye. They smell of cigarettes and liquor. I sense that they are lying—they are not guerrillas, but rather, a band of thieves—but I play their game, maintain my calm. Eventually, they depart, leave me intact, steal all my worldly possessions, and threaten to return. I am left with the taste of cow dung in the back of my throat.

I take the early morning country bus into town. I curse the dawn, the fresh air, the overpowering beauty of pine forests, and the green oceans of sugar cane that adorn the mountains.

Colombia. It is the love of your life that you can never have. A tattoo etched in your soul. Tragic beauty. Violent love. Unforgettable.

I got my daily dosage of Colombian news from a listserv and a weekly, personalized account from phone conversations with my mother. I’d heard about the “collar-bomba,” a bomb that exploded around the neck of a female landowner who was being extorted; the massacres, mock trials, and public executions in tiny towns; the petroleum pipelines being bombed on a routine basis; the U’wa’s resolve to commit mass suicide if Occidental Petroleum drilled on their land; the wealthy Colombians who were quietly leaving the country; the poorer Colombians who were quietly being allowed entry into the US; human rights activists and trade union leaders who were “disappearing” daily; the thousands of displaced civilian refugees who were caught in the crossfire; the “peace talks”; and the US’s recent approval of over a billion dollars of mostly military “aid” under Plan Colombia, an ambitious project that aims to eradicate drugs and leftist insurgents in one breath. I knew that there weren’t any clear-cut “good” and “bad” guys in this war.

But when you know Colombia like I do—its natural majestic beauty; the stellar quality of its music, literature and arts; and the uncanny creativity, vitality and sense of humor of its people—you can never stay away. I live in the US, but my heart and soul are in Colombia. I wear Colombia like a pendant around my neck, like a shackle around my ankles, like a dagger through the chest. Colombia, despite the dangers, is my sustenance, my place of healing, my magical cove.

I will avoid the farm for now, but I will not stay away from Colombia.

An old friend from high school greeted me at the airport in Barranquilla, where he lived for the past 10 years. We had a borrowed Nissan for our reunion.

The mundane always seems new during those first moments in Colombia—horse-drawn carriages alongside colorful buses on the main thoroughfare; a woman selling homemade cocadas that she carried on a large aluminum bowl balanced atop her head; a bar named “El Gran Buda;” kaleidoscopic-colored homes; scores of people walking and biking on the street; billboard ads for Luis Miguel, Diners Club, Postobon, Conavi, and Banco Popular; and tropical music blasting everywhere.

Our first stop, suitcases still in the car, was an alternative rock concert in downtown Barranquilla. It was late in the afternoon and the concert was underway. Young roqueros clanged on electric guitars, screamed and chanted lyrics, and thrashed about with fresh rock fervor. The groups had names like Cafeina en Exceso, No Importa, Pitfall, Agente Naranja, Madre Santa, De la Nada, and Extrema Neutra. I drank Costeñitas, miniature green bottles of beer, and bobbed my head in rapid succession to the beat as if it were a ritual of awakening.

Later on, after watching “Betty la fea,” the telenovela in vogue, we cruised the streets in search of la rumba on a Saturday night. Barranquilla, hometown to Shakira and Joe Arroyo, is a party haven and one of Colombia’s most laid-back cities. Costeño “yuppies” can dine on sushi, catch “Big Momma’s House” in the upscale Villa Country mall, and dance in techno-trans nightclubs. Common folk can get freshly-grilled chuzos on street corners, pawn gold in the mobile pawnshops stationed in the club zone, and move to the Latin beat.

I wanted one thing and one thing only—vallenatos. Champagne Vallenato Club, in el Porvenir, was the place to be that night, where Ivan Villazón and the accordionist Saúl Lallemand were performing. Dozens of young sexy women lined up to flirt and have their picture taken with Lallemand, who is in his twenties. “Está bueno, pero re-bueno,” a woman said. He played the accordion with magnificent ease, so fast that the instrument appeared to change hues. Women danced on top of tables that night, men had too much to drink, and the band was still making vallenato magic when we left at three in the morning.

My aunt lent us her ocean-side apartment in Santa Marta, a weekend retreat 58 miles away that she rarely visits. The road to Santa Marta was marked with a recent history of kidnappings. Guerrilleros had the infamous “pescas milagrosas” there, random roadblocks set up to catch the fat fish—the wealthy, those worth the greatest amount of ransom. Anyone with wealth or fear of being perceived as wealthy stayed away. They say the guerrilleros have databases with the names of all Colombians and their corresponding net worth.

My aunt gave me the keys to her place, along with tips on how to avoid getting kidnapped: If there is no oncoming traffic for more than ten minutes, turn around—there may be a roadblock ahead. Do not carry personal identification or business cards. Don’t name your neighborhood. Do not speak English. Do not do anything to call attention to yourself. Know this difference—guerrilleros have rubber combat boots, while the military wears pure leather. And whatever you do, do not stop in Cienaga, where criminals are quick to attack.

I have to admit it—I was paranoid. I live in the US and I am considered adinerada in Colombia. I don’t blend into the scenery well. I am big and I wear loud colors with tacky accessories. I didn’t know how I would explain the manuscript of Chicana vampire stories that I was proofreading for a friend from East LA, the Mephistos on my feet, my US-based credit cards, Tom’s toothpaste, or the Harry Potter book I brought. I hoped we didn’t get stopped.

But my friend, who was once sequestered at gun point and taken to the countryside, bound and blindfolded, while his captors decided whether to let him live or not, blew it off. He lit a fat joint like he used to do in high school—Colombian gold—and took a hit.

We were on vacation. We were going to have a grand time.

We sped off to Santa Marta, the oldest surviving city built by the Spaniards, one of Colombia’s many jewels on the Caribbean coast, Carlos Vives’s place of birth. Soon, we saw water, mangroves, mounds of sea salt, and then, Cienaga, where we stopped for arepas de huevo—how could we not stop there?

El Rodadero, the eternal touristy area, was in full Sunday swing. Food merchants, artesanos, hip bars, fast food and fine restaurants all vied for consumer pesos. Musicians from Valledupar played traditional vallenatos on the beach, with just an accordion, caja, guacharaca, and a lead singer. Cosmic women read palms. Teenagers rented jet skis, children played in the water; everyone seemed mesmerized in that particular ocean-side way, taking it easy. I bought a hand-beaded bracelet made with acacia and chambimbe seeds and got into the vibe.

From there on, we were seduced by the natural beauty of the area—beaches, fishing villages, coral reefs, ancient woods, indigenous ruins, unfailing sunshine. We succumbed to our hedonist tendencies—swam underwater, napped in hammocks, rode horses, dug our toes in the sand. We ate everything on the beach—the food was delivered to us freshly made—arepa de huevo for breakfast, fried red snapper and coconut rice for lunch, tintos, shrimp cocktail and cold Aguila Rojas throughout the day.

The Tayrona National Park, 58 square miles of land and water, became our second home. The elevation of the Park ranges from sea level to 3000 feet, allowing for a spectacular coexistence of earthly and oceanic ecosystems. Over 200 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, 70 species of bats, and 50 species of reptiles and coral reefs inhabit the region, along with abundant fish and flora.

I was overwhelmed, as I always am, by Colombia’s raw and dynamic beauty. Your perception of life is altered when you are swimming in crystalline waters in the ocean, with emerald green mountains encircling you and huge granite rocks artfully arranged on the shore. You think that living is a gift and you understand that you are a being in a universe that is always vibrating beneath the surface. You think that, when you distill it into its basic elements, life is simple after all—earth, air, water, fire, and spirit.

One morning, on the radio, I hear that it’s Nelson Mandela’s 83rd birthday. The deejay phones him in South Africa, on the air, to wish him continued good fortune. “We admire you deeply, Mr. Mandela,” he says. Then he adds, “Can you help us with our peace process?” But Mandela has no magic words.

I take the spirit of Nelson Mandela with me to the beach that day. Will Colombia ever know peace? No one has hope; the violence is a thick muck that you can’t pull your feet out of.

I play with silky sand and listen to the ocean speak. I think that violence is an ill spirit of sorts, driven by instinct for survival. Maybe its energy will dissipate over time. It will evaporate and fall to the earth like sediment. It will become specs of planetary matter that mix with the soil, minerals, and coral beneath the ocean. It will become one with the sand.

It will be our history, not our future.

15 de octubre de 2000, buffalo, nueva york, 6:35 p.m .
Originally Published:

de la tierra, tatiana. “A Letter from Colombia: Written in the Sand.” El Andar Winter 2000-2001: 43-45.