MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY – MAY 13, 14, 15. MEDELLÍN
We chose a small hotel, a converted home, on a tree-shaded street in a residential area, HOTEL PARQUE DEL RIO, because it is a pleasant ten-minute walk to the huge exhibition hall where EXPO ARTESANO is taking place. We enjoyed this walk each morning.
First, we walked the entire pavilion to get an overview and discovered there are nine booths selling Wounaan baskets. The other indigenous booths sell other types of weavings; gorgeous tropical wood carvings – but just bowls, trays, and small animals, nothing at all novel; appliqué molas, which we considered but decided against in the end because we have sooo many textiles already; intricate beadwork including elaborate collars in lovely colors; and that’s about it. The variety of indigenous crafts is minimal, especially compared with Mexico.
We stopped in the office of ARTESANÍA COLOMBIA. Mayer has been corresponding with them for several months. They assist artists and buyers, pre-registered us, etc. They assigned “Johan” to us, a young man, 22, who proceeded to spend the next three days with us. We adore him, and he was a great help to us. He’s charming and sweet, bright, and bilingual, and we wanted to adopt him! Even though Mayer’s Spanish is totally amazing, Colombian Spanish is a different accent and some of the words are completely different. AND, some of the indigenous basket makers did not understand the concept of “wholesale.” Johan painstakingly explained it, but in the end two of the basket makers would not reduce their prices at all, even if we would buy 15 baskets from them. It was so sad for us, but we were not able to do business with them. Some of the other sellers were quite sophisticated and knew exactly what to do.
Then we returned to the first booth and began selecting baskets. A year ago December when we bought our first baskets, we came home with 57 and sold them out in three months. So this time, we decided to buy 75. Picking them out is exhilarating. Imagine getting to buy everything you see that you like! We don’t have to choose; we can take them all! We chose 15 and asked them to set them aside for us. Then we went to the next booth and did the same thing. – It is not a quick thing, especially with Mayer, who carefully considers each choice. There might be a stunning design, but on closer inspection, the weaving is not tight, or the rim is sloppily finished, or the form is a bit lumpy. Not good enough for Mayer.
The first day we completed maybe four booths. The second day, we completed our selections. Then, we went back to the first booth to retrieve our stash. We developed our routine. Equipped with masking tape and scissors, I taped a code number to the bottom of each basket, and then wrote the corresponding price on my code chart. For each basket, Mayer had to convert the retail price to the discount they were offering, and then convert the Colombian pesos (called COP) to U.S. dollars, which we figured was easier for us to manage than Mexican pesos. It was fun. But we kept seeing gorgeous baskets we wanted to add to the stash. We tried to be somewhat disciplined, but kept giving in. – Then we repeated the same routine with the next booth, and the next. It all took time. There was much joking, storytelling, explanations, photo taking. They all wanted photos of us in their cell phones, with much giggling and laughing.
There are about 3,000 Colombian pesos to a U.S. dollar, so a basket might cost 285,000 pesos, or 1,750,345 pesos. Funny!
We ended up with . . . YIKES: 91 baskets.
Now we needed to arrange shipping. Again, Mayer had been corresponding with a group called PRO COLOMBIA, designed to help buyers (but usually companies buying containers of commercial goods, not little guys like us). He learned that there is in fact a trade agreement between Mexico and Colombia. He had even found the code for baskets (lumped in with weavings.) The Pro Columbia people there at the fair, a slight gorgeous woman named Juanita, were very helpful and nice. BUT, they were not as prepared as we thought they should be after all of Mayer’s correspondence. After many phone calls, running around, waiting, waiting, waiting, it turns out – of course! Each artist has to fill out a “Certificate of Origin.” These official forms are available only from customs brokers, and there was no way we could obtain them that day. Just as it is in Mexico, the artists would have to be registered with the government to qualify to fill out these forms, and none of them would be willing to do that. Again, no laws are set up with indigenous artists in mind! We all just had a good laugh over it – after finally figuring all this out.
I’m happy to report that, during all this waiting and hassling, I have my book and am thrilled to have time to read. I’m in the middle of Ninth Street Women, in which I am fully absorbed. I am loving it!!! — It was all sort of fun anyway, because we were not in a hurry, Johan and Juanita were both soooo lovely and helpful, and we all thought the bureaucracy was so absurd, we got a kick out of it.
The packing and shipping company were right there on site, so we schlepped our 91 baskets to their office, supervised the packing into three huge boxes, thoroughly taped and strapped. We had to get in a taxi with them and go to a different location to pay with our credit card. In the end, with the declared value of each box, with the shipping charge and what we think we will be charged at Mexican customs (16%!!!), it seems that it will still be much less expensive to ship these 91 baskets than it was to ship 57 baskets from Bogotá the last time. The customs situation remains to be seen, but we think it will be fine.
THURSDAY, FRIDAY, SATURDAY – MAY 16, 17, 18 – BARICHARA
Our next destination was the colonial town of Barichara. We took an hour flight from Medellin to Bucaramanga, and then a taxi for three hours ($85 usd) to BARICHARA. The drive was a two-lane, extremely curvy highway with many slow trucks and, fortunately, an excellent driver, who did not pass on curves. That’s why the drive took so long. But the scenery, WOW! It felt like the beautiful mountains and valleys we see in Guerrero – but on steroids. The mountains were huge and vast, and the canyons waaaay down there. We found out later that we were driving around a canyon that is actually a national park! More about this later.
Barichara was founded by the Spanish in 1785, and the whole town dates from that time: 250 years ago. It is amazingly well preserved and utterly charming! Renovations and restorations took place in the 70s. Laid out in a perfect grid, it is street after street of whitewashed one-story buildings with old, old wooden doors and trim, simple and rustic, with no wires anywhere, tidy and beautiful and unpretentious. When the houses have two stories, they have a wooden balcony on the second floor, with flower boxes. The doors are simple wood, flush with the walls, painted dark green.
The town sits on a hillside with expansive, dramatic views of the wide valley and rolling hills rising up on the other side, wherever you look. We arrived in the evening, and walking the dimly lit streets could not have been more romantic. The stunning views of the surrounding countryside did not appear until the next morning.
A week before we departed for Colombia, a Colombian woman came into the gallery, and we got into a long conversation. When she learned we were about to depart for Colombia, she insisted that we stay in her weekend home in Barichara. It would be empty our week. She arranged for a neighbor to give us the key.
This house charmed the socks off of me. It left me breathless. It’s 200 years old, with ancient, hand made lumber doorframes and windows. The walls were two feet thick, adobe and rammed earth covered with what ever they used for plaster and white washed. Our bathroom, the kitchen/dining room, and the living room had no wall on one side, just open to the garden. The living room was built around an open courtyard, and to my great delight, one night there, it rained. We sat on the built-in comfy bench with the rain pouring beautifully into the living room two feet from us. The gutters fed into spouts with chains that fed the water into stone bowls that over flowed, so it created fountains at the same time, with a wonderful sound, right there in the living room! It was magical, just so amazing. We sat there entranced while it rained and rained.
Over breakfast, in the dining room, we watch little yellow birds having such fun in their birdbath, again, not five feet from us. We were inside, and they were out in the garden, but with no wall between us. And there were no bugs! Quite literally, no flying bugs at all. Totally amazing. The bed was equipped with mosquito netting, but we did not need to use it.
We felt incredibly lucky to have met this amazingly generous Olga the week before we left, and to have blundered into possibly the most charming house I have ever seen, let alone stayed in.
For breakfast the first day, on the suggestion of our host, Olga, we walked around the corner to LA ROLLA. The back yard where we ate was all lush tropical plants with five large turtles walking all over, quite active. The host, Santi (short for Santiago), sat down to eat with us (he just had coffee), and we became fast friends. We talked and talked. His sons, 4 and 6, showed us their drawings and tried to squirt us with a water gun until Papa put a firm stop to it.
We walked all over the town, to the cemetery, the clay workshop, the churches, the views. It was pleasantly hot, not humid, and every so often a most wonderful, welcome cool breeze would arise and waft over us. We climbed up a steep street one afternoon to find an antique store on the little map we had, only to learn that it had long-since closed. We’d stop in the afternoons in a beautiful colonial courtyard for a lemonade-with-cocoanut, or a maracuya (passion fruit), Mayer’s favorite. Then we’d finally wander home for an afternoon nap, so delicious and so rare for me. At night, we both feel like we slept deeply and long in this quiet house, and we could linger in bed and have leisurely mornings, before stepping outside to this world of 200 years ago to do more exploring.
Barichara is not about shops. There are very few, and sell only junk or uninteresting crafts. We saw no sign anywhere of any of the beautiful indigenous crafts we saw at the Expo, where we bought the baskets. (Just like Mexico: Natives are not interested in their own rich patrimony.)
I’m guessing that Barichara is like San Miguel was in the 60s. It’s extremely laid back. There are almost no cars, a few parked and only a very occasional car driving by as you walk. There seem to be quite a few young families who live here, judging by the crowds of children when school let out. It is definitely a lot of weekend people from the cities (although it is fairly inaccessible). It is just one completely gorgeous, unspoiled, undiscovered, quiet, slow-moving little jewel of a town.
SUNDAY, MAY 19 – CHICAMOCHE CANYON
Now began an adventure that our new friend Santi planned for us, quite different from anything we would have known about or planned. The drive back to Bucaramanga to catch out next flight would have been the three-hour curvy highway drive. He instead drove us himself to a town about an hour away, which was the gateway to the national park we had been driving around on the way here. The deep canyon is called CHICAMOCHE CANYON, and it is in Chicamoche National Park. There, we took a most extraordinary aerial tramway across the canyon! The tramway takes 30 minutes. It goes down into the canyon to the bottom and then back up the other side, with astonishing views all the way. Sometimes we were high above the ground, sometimes just above the tree tops. It’s a thrilling ride.
Santi had arranged for his friend to meet us at the tramway terminal and drive us to a hostel he owns, perched on the rim of the canyon, outside the park. It’s an out-of-the-way hostel designed for rock climbers and back packers, and it’s beautiful. We hiked up to a viewpoint above the cabins, and while we were gazing at the views, suddenly . . . a rainbow appeared. It’s not raining. It just appeared in the mist above the mountains, the whole middle part of the arc, bight and gorgeous.
In the afternoon, the host took us to a local farmer’s market. It was mostly booths selling prepared foods, not produce as we expected. The arepas (fried corn cakes) here, are huge and look like too much for one person to eat.
MONDAY, MAY 20 – CHIBCHA CAVE PAINTINGS
Today was a true adventure! Santi planned this entire day for us with his friends. We can never thank him adequately. It was an amazing day, and nothing we’d ever had known about on our own. He arranged for us to see 40,000-year-old petroglyphs on cave walls.
Gustavo, a really sweet, animated guy, picked us up at the hostel at 9 AM and drove us a few miles where we met up with Sergio, who is the real expert. (Gustavo owns and operates an egg farm with free-range chickens, and Sergio sells medical equipment. The history of the area is his hobby, and he is very knowledgeable.)
The four of us turned off the highway onto a really rough road, dirt and stones and sometimes barely passable, but Gustavo was a good driver. At one point, we all had to get out of the car and push to get us a steep grade that was slippery with dust.
Finally we disembarked and began our hike, over rocks, up and down hills, through beautiful forests. Sergio really had to know his way. You’d never find this cave on your own. I loved the hike. It reminded me of my backpacking days in true wilderness. This area was under water 65 million years ago, and there remain many fossils from that time and formations caused by the water.
Finally we arrived at the cave. They deliberately did their paintings in protected areas. This was a sacred, ritual place, and one could feel the energy. These were the CHIBCHA indigenous people. The cave drawings have been carbon dated, and some are as old as 14,000 years. In other locations, they are as recent as the time of the Spanish conquests, about 1530. The cave paintings were discovered in the 1970s, along with some tombs, from which most of the artifacts have now been stolen. The Chibcha people were almost completely decimated by the Spanish, but there are people in the area now with 48% indigenous DNA.
To make the red cave paintings, they used the juice of the tunis plant from nopal cactus, mixed with red iron oxide from the earth and animal blood. Sergio explained many of the pictograms. Some were symbols of a clan, some were a calendar, and some were a map. There were hands with six figures depicting a myth of such a warrior. There is speculation that the clans intermarried, causing deformations like this.
There were many pictograms, and we took many photos.
Sergio pulled out his drone, the first I’ve ever seen up close. It could fly so far, we could not see it, and then back. The vista from the cave sight was another gorgeous, wide valley, we could see for miles.
See the drone on the right?
We drove to a second cave, this one on a private farm. The owner was nice and knew Sergio and was happy to have us see the caves. It was another beautiful hike, through a woods. This time, we had to lie on our backs to see some of the cave paintings. There were many.
Gustavo drove us to the airport at Bucaramanga where we had arranged a late afternoon flight to Bogata. Once there, we walked to the hotel from the airport, a walk that turned out to be longer than we had thought, dragging our carry-on suitcases. But oh we enjoyed this luxury hotel. (The hostel had only cold showers!)
I have not been talking much about food because most of it has been neutral to not very good, and this fancy hotel was no exception. The meal was unsatisfying.
TUESDAY, MAY 21
Bogotá was just so we could catch an early flight south to Colombia’s “coffee triangle.” Now we are here, enjoying the town of MANIZALES. Hoping for a good meal, we looked up Japanese and the most highly rated was . . . right next door to our hotel! And it was delicious sushi. Finally.
Now we will explore Colombia’s coffee area. More in my next installment.
An Unforgettable Experience of México