The Hardest Part Is Saying Goodbye
The last leg of my journey… damn these words are heavy. But I am not there yet so let’s put this though on hold and move to more important things. Colombia is a marvelous country mainly because of its people. During my entire South America trip I felt welcomed wherever I set foot, people eager to chat with me, to invite me into their homes, help me discover the beauty of their village, city & country, to learn about their culture and to share a few moments of their daily life. But nowhere was it as heartening as here in Colombia. And the fact that there’s only 1 official/safe border between Colombia and Ecuador, I promised all my new friends whom I met along my way up to visit them again when riding back south. It started here in Medellin and the show will carry on through other cities and villages.
First and foremost I will do a huge detour to pass by Bogota and visit Adriana. It was April fool and Adriana had no idea I was coming, I played the trick that my girlfriend (i.e. Llama) was jealous and didn’t want to start ;). But sure enough, I left early morning under blue skies and knowing that my sun is in Bogota both Llama and I were just eager to get there and we roared up and down the cordilleras to reach Bogota in an amazing 5 ½ hours! (Kilometer 42,773; Bogota, 1-Apr-11 @ 14:30). As Adriana was still at work I just caught up with a couple of other friends, Diana and Tim, before heading to the Suzuki dealer to get a few bolts (yep, more fell) and chat with the boys until sundown. Tonight I will stay at Pilar’s place, one of Adriana’s best friends, before heading out with Adri to a lounge to catch up re-counting my stories.
Adriana had organized a weekend getaway for us: Pilar, Enrique, Adriana and I were to go visit “Los Llanos” in the Meta department. Los Llanos or grassy plains are a huge swath of land to the east of Bogota, stretching from the foot of the cordierra all the way beyond the Venezuelan border. Its total area across both countries are up to 1/5th of Colombia superficies and it’s teaming with wildlife; to give you an idea, Los Llanos have more than 700 bird species roughly the same amount of bird found in all USA & Canada. As for the sight, imagine the Canadian prairies but now filled with trees, rivers and marshes where hundreds of animals roam and birds soar. With yours truly at the car’s helm, we first headed through extraordinary roads (and tunnels) in a tremendous ride down the Andes to Villavicienco, the gateway to the Llanos. We briefly visited the city and its famous zoo before heading to eat typical “asado llanero”, the region’s specialty BBQ. The Llanos flat grassy plains are ideal for cattle grazing and the meat here rivals an Argentinean parillada or Brazilian churasco. After lunch we didn’t have a destination in mind, just go with the flow and see where our curiosity and passion will take us. I was so impressed by this ecosystem that I wanted to head deeper into the Llanos: “Up to the border with Venezuela? It’s only 500Km from here…” ;). Well, we had a less extreme choice; Enrique who grew up in Villavicienco was our guide and he suggested heading toward Puerto Lopez, a small village 100 Km from here where we could find a nice finca for the nigh and spend some chill time while enjoying the flora and fauna. We bought a couple of Llanero music CDs from a street vendor and just headed deep into the Llanos. It was just perfect! With Adriana by my side and good friends with us, we just savored every moment, cruising leisurely and enjoying the scenery, stopping every once in a while for a drink, for some pictures or to treat ourselves to some delicious fruit cocktails. And as if it was all choreographed, we arrived just before sunset to the Alto de Menegua, the so called “Ombelico de Colombia” (i.e. the geographic center of Colombia). This small hill also boasts a tremendous viewpoint on the infinite expanse of the Llanos and the nearby Rio Meta with a gorgeous sunset to top it off. Even with the heat and humidity, we huddled together and enjoyed the moment.
As darkness set on the region, we decided that it’s about time to find a place to lay our head for the night and we were in luck; a few kilometer after the Alto, there was a beautiful finca-hotel with a pool set within a large swath of land including a couple of lakes where we could kayak. And what is the first thing we did? Hope in the pool! A perfect end to our day: A bottle of rum, some appetizers, good music and we stayed until 23:00 cooling off and having fun in our small paradise.
The next morning, we headed to explore the finca’s surrounding area especially the lake. It was a serene environment, a swath of water surrounded by marshes teaming with birds. Adriana and I hoped on the kayak and ventured through the marshes and we were rewarded by seeing up-close and personal a proud and gorgeous chestnut eagle (and hearing its astounding scream), some martin-pescadores, cormorants and many other multicolor birds including ones which are bright orange, almost fluorescent! We also saw a few babillos, i.e. little crocodiles, which were enough for Adriana to mandate that we head back :). Well, the hotel pool was safer, no babillos here, however we were joined by a couple of huge iguana sunbathing on the ledge. We bummed around the pool until 15:00, relishing every moment we had together until our stomachs started screaming for some asado and we reluctantly headed back to Villavicienco for lunch before driving back up the mountain to cold and rainy Bogota.
I knew that on my trip’s last leg it will be hard to say goodbye but it was especially arduous and emotional to do so now and leave Adriana. We met for breakfast in the Zona Rosa and spent most of the morning chatting away, not wanting to leave. But you can’t escape reality: some have to go to work and some had to keep living their adventure. However, we were sure that somehow, someday, somewhere we will meet again; hey it happened before, it will happen again.
My next stop was Pereira to see Alvaro, Cesar and J.E. as well as Joana, Carlos, Raul,… and what a great feeling it was to just pop up and say “Hola”! (Kilometer 43,147; Pereira, 4-Apr-11 @ 17:20). Everyone was so surprised to see me show up; no one really expected me to actually do the detour and visit them again. But here I was and I spent the evening chatting & laughing with my “parceros” and only checked in into my hotel late at night. I wanted to stay another day here but time was running out on my visa and needed to move on. The morning I dropped by again to see Alvaro & the boys and only hit the road just shy of noon time. It had rained all morning and the sky was still grey and menacing but the rain was holding off. As I was riding south I could see to my left (East) the big black cloud that dumped its payload on us in the morning and to my right (West) another depression, a huge & tall black cloud carrying with it round number 2. As for me, I was riding in between these 2 fronts with white clouds above me, revealing from time to time the blue sky above from where the sun would pierce through to warm me up. Sometime the road curved far enough for me to touch the rain falling from either one of these fronts but only for a few minutes before I returned to my middle path. It was an astonishing ride, almost miraculous, as if someone out there was watching over me. My sun was by my side and I felt happy and at peace riding under my natural cover. And it lasted for the whole ride! Well, almost. I probably “abused” my luck, stopping for a drink here, a few pictures there,… until I guess whoever was clearing my way felt exasperated and 15min before I reached EL Bordo, these 2 fronts of black clouds started swirling and in minutes they touched and the heavens opened up on me. I barely could see anything in front of me: I switched my high beam, turned on my 4-ways and kept riding up to reaching Jana’s hostel where I drove my bike right inside the covered patio-dining area (Kilometer 43,587; El Bordo, 5-Apr-11 @ 18:15). You should have seen the look on everyone’s face as if saying: “What the heck?!” but as soon as I removed my helmet, the smiles shone while hugs and handshakes welcomed me. Word spread fast and in a few minutes, Elvio and others showed up to meet me. Jana and Karen offered me a warm soup and a delicious Bandeja Paisa was served for dinner. Same as everywhere, we spent the evening catching up; everyone wanted to know where my adventures took me and if I had any update from Dan (he was in Quito for the past 3 weeks). I even tried to Skype Dan, hopping he could answer the deluge of questions being thrown on me about him.
It’s so hard leaving El Bordo and now I understand what Dan meant. The people here are so friendly, so inviting and very persistent, you just can’t leave. So I just gave in and settled down comfortably for a day of rest, sharing my time mainly between Karen and Elvio+family. Even by Thursday morning when I was adamant I had to leave, I couldn’t do so until late morning as I had to allocate enough time to chat yet again with everyone before saying my goodbyes. At least I didn’t have a long road today: I was heading to Sibundoy, a small native village south-east from here. I still wanted to allow myself enough time to get there for several reason: 1) I am leaving Cauca and entering Putumayo and both these area are dodgy to say the least, definitely need to be in a village by late afternoon; 2) I will be passing by Laguna de La Cocha which is rated as spectacular by both the locals and my guide book and 3) I will be hitting gravel/dirt road and with the rain we’ve been getting, I expected it to be a tough, muddy and slippery ride. Well the Laguna is definitely impressive, set in the middle of a cloud forest giving it a fairy tale look, but not enough to justify lingering more than ½ hour around here. The dirt road however was a great challenge and it felt rewarding tackling them on steep hills, snaking path and sharp U-turns going up and down the Andes… it’s been a while. (Kilometer 43,830; Sibundoy, 7-Apr-11 @ 14:30).
So why am I here in Sibundoy? And why did I allocate 5 days to this village? It’s not like there’s any touristic sights around here. Well it’s a long story and I prefer putting it in a separate section. Follow the link Ceremonia del Yage to head there and learn about the Kamentsa natives and the Yage ceremony or keep on reading below about the rest of my trip.
As it has been for the past couple of weeks, leaving was accompanied by sadness and I rode away slowly and heavy hearted. Today I will still stay in Colombia, at the border town of Ipiales; I was still weak from yesterday’s ceremony and I also wanted to do my last tourist visit tomorrow. I arrived before sunset, had a hot shower, a light dinner and crashed (Kilometer 43,979; Ipiales, 11-Apr-11 @ 16:50).
I woke up the following morning rejuvenated and rode to the “Santuario de Las Lajas” (Kilometer 43,987; Las Lajas, 12-Apr-11 @ 8:15) a spectacular neo-gothic church inside a gorge with a bridge spanning across the thundering river. Las Lajas is a very important pilgrim site in Colombia since back during the 18th century the image of the Virgin Mary appeared to a child and her mother right on the rock wall of the ravine where the church now stands.
That’s it for my time in Colombia; I used up all the days allowed on my Visa, only 8 hours left before it actually expires. Out of all the countries I visited, none attracted me and called me as much as Colombia did. Even with all the political and security problems this country faces, it is still on a fast track of development. Excellent universities and hard working people with lots of determination, passion and the will to succeed make Colombia a prime place to settle down. Not to mention my sun shines in Bogota.
Back home in Quito (Kilometer 44,268; Quito, 12-Apr-11 @ 16:00) I just took a week off, doing absolutely nothing other than catching up on my e-mails, sorting my photos and writing my stories. And the weather was even more horrendous than in Colombia: cold and rainy, very depressing and definitely not encouraging to head out. A few days later I met up again with Diego (my good friend and best mechanic), Dan (whom had the accident in El Bordo), Perrine & Jocelyn (from Guatemala + Belize), as well as all the good friends of Alisson and Barry.
However I can’t deny that deep down inside me, I was sad: the Llama Show is coming to an end.
Do I want to go on? Don’t tempt me, I would turn on the bike and head to Brazil… but I know it’s time to stop and move on to other challenges. I have been preparing myself to this eventuality for a while, got everything lined up to do the final tune-up and rejuvenate Llama for her to be attractive in front of potential buyers. Still, when the moment came to publish the for-sale add, I felt heavy. I was facing another goodbye, my hardest one yet. The toughest part of it all is: it’s up to me to pull the trigger…
During Semana Santa Barry and I escaped rainy and cold Quito to head to the beach. This was more a riding trip vs. a beach trip: I wanted to take the Ruta del Sol all the way north before heading back inland then south to Quito (I did the south part of Ruta del Sol back in December ‘09 when the Llama show started). It might also be my last outing with Llama and I was looking for a challenging ride through gravel roads. However, to my great disappointment the government construction projects were in full swing and cement or asphalt roads were all what we faced. (Where the money came from to build these infrastructures and how much it cost and to whom it went is still the heated debate of corruption in this country). Regardless, although it was a beautiful and picturesque coastal route, it was boring from a riding point of view (Kilometer 45,565; Quito, 24-Apr-11 @ 18:10).
Back in Quito I rushed to clean up Llama and replace all the broken parts as 4 potential buyers were waiting to see it. Luckily, Dan, Diego and his father all helped me and by Tuesday Llama was parading on the catwalk. Got to tell you, even with 57,000+Km, she still looked ravishing, turning heads in the street and impressing all the guys who came to see her. Yet none was willing to shed the money I was asking for. Diego warned me the market was very bad, he has been waiting for 6 month to sell his bike with no luck. Yet more e-mails and calls came: some were offering to exchange their car for the bike, other a piece of land with river view, another offering to give me ½ my asking price, an “oferta super seria” he added. Well super-seriously, I am not in a rush to sell and I had 1 month to see what I could fish. I didn’t have to wait long though, one of Diego’s good friends, Daniel, was interested and on Thursday, without him even looking at the bike, we found a compromise and shook hands on a deal. This is probably the best sale experience anyone can hope for, between good friends, the whole process done in honesty and trust which is even more important here in Ecuador as thieves and opportunists lurk around. I will also be giving everything away to Daniel: my riding jacket, helmet, gloves, rain suit, panniers, tank bag, all the bike’s protection gear, my tools, spare parts, the bike cover,… everything! Except the bikes’ tail-bag adorned with all my stickers; it will be the only physical souvenir that I’ll keep.
On Saturday night, I stayed home silent and pensive. The money transfer was executed and all I have to do on Monday is go to the notary to certify the purchase agreement and hand Daniel the keys. The final curtain is about to fall on The Llama Show. As I was washing my riding cloth and cleaning all the equipments I felt empty and senseless, like a robot executing his task. I sat down with a glass of wine, feeling disheartened and dejected as if I was betraying a friendship. Reality finally hit home: I was about to part away with my 17 months travel companion. Llama was my dream become reality, she accompanied me throughout my endeavors, faithfully by my side, always ready to go, plowing ahead wherever I set sail. You know that within my 17 months adventure, riding 45,804Km through snow, sand, mud, deserts, jungle, crazy hwy speeds, under diluvian rain, from -10°C to +38°C, from the beach up to 5,300m.a.s.l., she never ever complained? A couple of times in the high & cold Bolivian altiplano she was cranky to wake up in the morning but otherwise not a single mechanical problem. Absolutely none. That says it all. As I was remembering our adventures I couldn’t hold back and tears rolled down my cheeks…
45,804 Kilometers, 493 days (17 months), 7 countries, 1 continent…
The Llama Show
What next now? Well you will find out soon. In the mean time, I would like to leave you with a quote from Fernando González, an early 20th century Colombian existentialist philosopher. I tried my best to translate it into English.
«Leer es un viaje, pero el mayor viaje posible es el estado onírico. Allí, bajo la corteza del sueño, podemos hacer largos recorridos, dejar que poseamos alas y llegamos a países entre lo maravilloso y lo trágico. La cama, el solo hecho de yacer, es el barco primario, nuestra primera nave posible. También sabemos que el alto riesgo fue dar nuestros primeros pasos, asumir la condición erguida, atrevernos a dejar de gatear y darle jalones al mantel para evitar caernos, toda una Odisea. Ese primer intento de dejarnos llevar por nuestros pasos podría ser el símil de nuestros primeros viajes. Después de eso, los pies andan, han caminado barriales y autopistas, han hecho posible que todo nuestro cuerpo pueda sentir el cambio profundo entre un jardín doméstico y un bosque de encinas y de árboles silvestres,….»
« Reading is a journey but the greatest possible voyage is the dream state. There, under the veil of our dream, we could embark on long trips as if we have wings, to reach faraway lands between the marvelous and the tragic. The bed, the mere fact of lying, is the primary boat, our first possible ship. One of our greatest fears was taking our first steps, to stand up, dare to stop crawling and to let go of the table cloth to prevent us from falling… what an odyssey. This first attempt to get carried away by our footsteps could be compared to our first trip. After that, our feet keep walking, they travelled through neighborhood and highways, they made it possible for our whole body to feel the profound change between a garden and a wild forest,…»
La Ceremonia Del Yage
The valley of Sibundoy is home to the Inga (yes, with a “g”) and Kamentsa native people and Sibundoy itself is the outermost center to meet with a traditional Taita. Taita??? A Taita in the native language mean “father” but it is also used to refer to a Shaman, a traditional native medicine man. In Putumayo, native families still faithfully follow their culture and traditions and the Taita medicinal knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, dating back long before the Spaniards conquered these lands. I wanted to live a few days with a native family, with a Taita, experience their daily lives, learn about their culture and if I gather enough confidence in their knowledge, maybe participate in the Yage ceremony. Wait, what is “Yage”? Yage is a brew made from the sacred Ayahuasca vine and other plants, like Chaliponga and Mapacho. The Yage “remedio” (i.e. medicine) preparation is very complex and its potency and effects highly dependent on the knowledge and experience of the Taita. It is a sacred potion intended to purify body & soul and its psychedelic effect allow each person to embark on a voyage of “self discovery”. More on that later.
Arriving to Sibundoy my original plan was to settle in a hotel before going on a quest to find my Taita. Some “hippies”, i.e. Colombian youth & wondering backpackers as they are amicably known here, whom I met along my road, told me to look for Taita Kirwin, which means “Angel” in Inga language. Unfortunately Taita Kirwin was in Bajo Putumayo, the deep end of the department and definitely a no go zone for me as it is an un-controlled & lawless area, bastion of the guerilla. Talking to a few older native men in the plaza they pointed me to Taita Angel-Gabriel, as did a group of young Colombians (Andres & Sebastian) and a Pais-Vasco guy (Iñaqui) which have been living with the Taita’s family for the past couple of month, learning from them, sharing their lives and offering all-around help. So I just rode my bike there and was welcomed with open arms by Taita Angel-Gabriel. He invited me to stay with them as long as I wished, helped me settle-in in a small wooden room in the back before inviting me for lunch; Mama cooked us homemade traditional food followed by chicha (not the drink, rather the corn mix) and a warm cup of panela (a sweet herbal drink). That afternoon I chatted away with my Taita trying to learn more about him and the Kamentsa culture which Taita Angel-Gabriel was so eager and proud to do. He then took me around the street and introduced me to his kids and grandkids.
Most of Taita Angel-Gabriel family lives on this same dead-end street. They all are down to earth people, living in the simplest of means but in harmony with Pachamama; Miguel-Angel is aTaita too, Jose a.k.a. Chepe like his father is a sculpture, Anna and Rosario work in artesanias making mostly bracelets, necklaces and earrings out of Chakiras,…; they all cultivate the earth, growing corn, potato and other vegetables to satisfy the essential part of their daily dietary needs and they also raise chicken & pigs. They even search for gold in the nearby stream whenever they have time. 20 or so exceptionally well raised grand-kids help their parents in and around the house while the parents and grand-parents teach them the Kamentsa way: Most of the kids speak the native language, learn to play the traditional musical instruments from a young age and participate in the ritual songs and dances (I witnessed a couple of rehearsal, absolutely amazing talent). But kids are always kids, they are very curious about me, asking a thousand questions, always wanting to show me around or taking me to the surrounding farms and of course, dragging me to play games with them in the street.
The next few days I became part of the family helping around in any way I can: cutting firewood, collecting potato and corn from the garden, preparing food for the kids, becoming intimate with their culture and traditions,… I was also growing more comfortable with Taita Angel-Gabriel, earning each other’s trust which for me was necessary if I wanted to take part in the sacred ceremony. Chepe and Taita Gabriel also gave me an introduction lesson to wood carving. A side note to all: It’s definitely impressive to witness the skills Chepe and Taita Angel-Gabriel use when sculpting; they use machete and knives to do most of the carving and the few sculpting utensils they have are more ancient rusted and dull relics then real wood sculpting tools. So here’s what we are going to do: I would like all of your help to get wood carving tools donated to us so I can bring them back to Colombia. Please ask around, ask your friends and acquaintances to see if we can get good second hand tools. Otherwise, I guess we can also try to raise money and buy them. I am counting on you guys! Remember, this is their daily living and these people lack money. To give you an example, when going to the market, they count each penny they spend; buying 20 bananas for a mere U$D1 is an expenditure they think twice about… yet they welcomed me as one of them, shared their home and food without asking for a penny. Of course, I bought lots of their artesania, brought home chicken, vegetable and fruits, treated the kids to the local bakery, went to the neighboring farms for milk, yogurt and cheese,… as a form of saying thank-you to all what they have done. But buying them tools will go a long way in improving their livelihood, making them skillful and more productive. Thanks!!
I delayed my ceremony until the last possible day. I would have loved to live longer with Taita and his family but my Colombian visa was due to expire in less than 2 days and I was still a day ride away from the border. I was still cutting it very close; anything could happen on the road or worst to me. And participating the night before to the ceremony was not helping; I might have to sustain the next day effects of the Yage: it can be difficult riding if I am sick and exhausted. But things fell into place quite nicely: some called causality, I called it just a lucky consequence, but Camila, Iñaqui, Andres, Sebastian and Urdina all decided to join me for the ceremony. That night, we decided to brave the cold and be out in the open air, closer to Pachamama and we setup our stage around a campfire behind Taita’s house. We all met there at 20:00 and Taita Angel-Gabriel made his grand entrance dressed in his multicolored ceremonial poncho, adorned with century old necklaces made out of Puma claws, precious stones, sacred seashells and animal bones, holding a Shacapa (a bouquet of medicinal herbs) in his left hand. He was a little annoyed though: he was missing his feather crown as his son Miguel-Angel borrowed it on a visit to Bogota to participate in another ritual and he still wasn’t back. Taita sat on his desk and started talking to us about his ancestors, their knowledge about Yage, how the “remedio” would be taken, how we should relax and let the potion take us away. He would always be by our side, watching over us, monitoring our reactions and trying to analyze our feelings; he would be there to help us and guide us during our transcending voyage.
The celebration starts with Taita playing a traditional flute followed by singing ritual songs in Kamentsa while we are relaxing and preparing ourselves body and mind. Taita then lights up a cigarette of Mapacho tobacco which smoke will protect us from any negative energy and bad spiritual influence. He then passes me a cup with the “remedio” which I take in both hands, offer my respect and prayers to this offering before saying “salud” to all and drink the potion. The others follow suit and for the next hour, while awaiting the Yage to take effect, we were invited to let loose on our journey to a higher state. We each pick up a musical instrument and a free for all jam session starts; it reaches it apogee when Camila with her beautiful voice starts singing spiritual and traditional song-tales about natives, spirits and Pachamama.
It is time now for each to reflect upon oneself and silence is requested; we all take a 2nd dose of Yage and start our purge. Purging is an essential part of the ceremony from both body and mind perspectives: On the physical side, vomiting and diarrhea allow you to cleanse your body from parasites and bacteria. Preparation is essential for this step; for the past 4 days I followed a strict diet based on vegetable, soup and aromaticas (no meat or fried food, go easy on the sweets). The mental purge starts with a self induced state of relaxation, of spiritual purification to clear your mind from any disturbing thoughts,… I just thought of Yasmina :). Then the Yage starts taking effect and a psychedelic feeling takes hold of me. This is not hallucination and euphoric sentiments as when taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. Quite the opposite I would say; I felt relaxed, conscious of where I am and of my thoughts, yet on a serine voyage. I was flying, riding animals or just walking during my trip of self discovery. It felt like hidden thoughts and feelings were brought to light through my visions and while conversing with the people I met along my trip. You’ll excuse me if I leave the rest of the details to myself. To just resume my experience and put everything into context, I think the Yage ceremony is a travel within oneself, an awakening, a glance into our own sub-consciousness. An introspective look providing hints of a path to follow or even sometime the actual answer I have been looking for or even maybe trying to hide it and/or dismiss it. They might not be the expected outcomes and perhaps sometime not the most “beautiful” conclusions, although they are definitely compelling, making me see and hopefully face my future from a different point of view. In short, we all have the answers within us, the Yage just call them out.
By 2:00AM Taita takes each one of us separately into his lab and performs a purification session, a cure to eliminate the remnant negative energy, cleansing body and soul to only be left with the positive energy gathered during the ceremony.
Next morning I felt at peace although very tired. I went to the market to buy a chicken for Mama to prepare us a “caldo de galina” and invited everyone for this goodbye lunch. After this improvised sharing session I started loading my bike when Taita Angel-Gabriel, Mama, Chepe, Ana, Rosario,.. and most of the kids, all came out to wish me farewell. Even if I stayed here just for a few days, it was enough to bond with the family. The grand-kids were begging me not to leave while the parents were reminding me that they will be awaiting my return. As for Taita, the emotions got the best of him and a few tears dropped down his cheeks to the surprise of all… even his kids were astonished at their father’s reaction.