by DL Cohen
I thought Costa Rica, with its abundant natural beauty and incredible beaches, was my home away from home. That was before Colombia.
Colombia is a different animal. Costa Rica feels a little like a playground by comparison. Colombia is a big country with country with big country problems. You could fit over 22 Costa Ricas into Colombia. Perhaps consequently, the main difference is in the cities. Costa Rica’s only city is San Jose, which for the most part is ugly and boring. Colombia has Medellin and Bogota and Bucaramanga and Cartagena and Cali—all large and interesting and very different from one another. If you prefer your vacations, or your life, centered around a bustling, growing metropolis, you couldn’t do better than a city in Colombia. There’s a palpable energy there.
The relationship between the government and native tribes is an ongoing issue in Colombia. Indigenas, as the native population is called, have a much larger presence and role in the political life of the country. They’re concentrated in the vast, roadless south, but I encountered them in Tayrona as well, a gorgeous national park way up in the northeast of the country. I met someone at the Museo del Oro in Bogota that worked for Minga, an indigenous rights group, and I agreed to write a story about Minga and the indigena. This was a real story. I felt like a real journalist.
I signed up for a day-long tour of Parque Tayrona, the part along the shore. The tour included about 10 people, mostly young Colombians. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I thought it was one of those see-the-park-and-get-back-on-the-bus-tours. But it wasn’t. It was one of those get-off-and-take-a-17km-hike-and-don’t-see-the-bus-till-sunset kind of tours. To get to the beaches we had to hike 5km or so over something that I’ll just call a mountain. Once you make it over that bit of challenging terrain you find yourself on a wide beach with rolling blue water and a restless, shifty surf. The path then runs 10k or so along the shore, from cove to cove, beach to beach, flat as pancake. That’s where I met John.
John is a Kogi indian. He’s 25. His father is 95, a shaman of the tribe. He lives in a town in the park that’s an hour and a half walk down the dirt path from where we stood. That path is its main access to the world. He makes the walk twice a day, every day. He was selling batidos, a kind of fruit shake with pineapple or mango or banana, or any of the myriad exotic fruits common in Colombia but hard to spot anywhere else. Along with batidos he sold natively made bags that you see in virtually every store in that area—bags of varied sizes and shapes, woven from some durable reed and all brightly colored, with stripes and vees and interwoven maze patterns curving around them. I’m sorry I didn’t get one. But I did buy a batido. And talked with John in my broken Spanish. His Spanish was flawless. But he’s one of few in his tribe that speak Spanish. They’re Kogi. They speak Kogi.
They had problems with the government, he said, but the tribe had its own land and its own laws. And their tribal status granted them the ability to legally grow coca, part of their medical practice and their religious rituals. John’s son was behind him whittling at a long stick. He told me it was a masher for coca leaves. He demonstrated by stuffing several handfuls of coca leaves into a narrow cylindrical sort of butter churn. The mashing stick goes inside, the cover goes on, and the masher serves to pound the leaves into a concentrated paste. The paste being as yet unmade, John gave me a handful of leaves, a pinch of which I place like tobacco in my cheek. The leaves are slightly bitter, and you chew on them as long as possible to get the full medicinal effect.
I was happy. I’d come to Colombia hoping to find this very thing. I’m too old for the powdered version, I’m trying assiduously to avoid a heart attack, but I’d been curious to sample the natural, unprocessed source product, so meeting John was a fortuitous chance. I couldn’t help but feel that it had all come about through my keen reportorial instincts. This journalism thing wasn’t so bad.
I chewed through the rest of my journey. Coca has a pleasant, energizing sort of a buzz that didn’t feel jittery at all. I wondered how much actual cocaine the amount in my hand would make. Probably a thimbleful. But what I had was all I needed. It was hardly noticeable but put a little spring in my step, and made my mouth ever so slightly numb.
I spent the day with Nina and Carmenza, cousins from Cali on vacation at a resort outside Santa Marta. The same Cali of Narcos and Escobar. I thought of the reputation those shows had given Cali had in the States—a violent and dangerous hellhole populated exclusively by drug dealers and rapists. But it’s a city of 2.5 million people, the capital of the department (like a state) of Valle de Cauca. Nina and Carmenza had both grown up there, and they were not drug dealers. They were the opposite of drug dealers. They were little old ladies.
It was pleasant hanging out with them. Nina had a daughter who lived outside of New London, CT. Carmenza worked in a bank. We were out of step with the group—slower, older. But we had so much to talk about. They were my age. The pace, as we walked from beach to beach swimming and eating and talking, was just right, the conversation interesting. They were my age. I was one of them. They were little old ladies. And I was a little old man. And it was okay.