While hiking Pico Pance, Juan David had asked me one question. He asked, "when you told people you were traveling to Colombia, what did they say?" I knew this was a big question. It not only asked what my, and my friend's and family's preconceived notions were of Colombia, but also, what biases were imposed on his home and loved ones by our media coverage of his country.
I thought back to the brief planning stages of this trip. Most of my friends were thrilled and envious when I told them where I would be traveling - many of them asked me to bring back coffee. My parents were nervous that I was going international, but they took comfort that I would be visiting friends.
There were some hesitant remarks. First came the clarification: Columbia? Or, Colombia. I would confirm, "Colombia, the country." This clarification was followed by a list of general concerns: Is it safe? What about the drug trade and kidnappings? Can you travel from region to region?
I knew that Colombia was not the same country I had heard about on the news of the 90's, but to be honest, I didn't know exactly what the conditions were or how individual communities had changed as the headlines faded. Juan David followed up his question by speaking with love for his country as he nostalgically told stories about his life in Colombia. I was eager to experience more.
After the holidays, we piled in to the cramped back row of a bus on its way to Buenaventura where we would catch a boat to Juanchaco in the Parque Nacional Natural Uramba Bahía Málaga region of the Pacific Coast. A friend of a friend recommended that we visit Cesar Matiz Reyes who operated the Yubarta's Hospedaje Rural Juanchaco, a small cabin style hotel and guiding service. Leaving Cali, we rode through the mountains to the sea.
The park is popular for whale watching during peak-season. We were visiting off-season, and through the window, the area looked worn by the weather and lack of resources.
Cesar greeted us as we walked up the pier. He spoke Spanish quickly as he connected with Callie and Golnar to speak about his plans for our visit. I couldn't understand most of what he said, but in earnest, he tried to communicate with each one of us as he introduced us to his home. Cesar has an infectious smile and an unsurpassed level hospitality.
We had a few moments to settle in to our cabins before exploring the area. Cesar said he had arranged a canoe tour of the mangroves. We walked along a dirt road through Juanchaco to Cesar's favorite beach near Ladrilleros. My Chacos slid in the yellow mud and I found myself bracing so that I would not dip my foot in to the garbage laden water. Cesar quietly indicated "It comes from Buenaventura." The tides carried trash from distant cities to the beaches and up the river mouths. The small communities in the area had few options for what to do with the waste. It was a poignant reminder that the things we consume can end up on a beach halfway across the world when the ocean currents move just right.
In Juanchaco, small Christmas trees stood outside of many people's homes and businesses, and painted pop bottle ornaments and flowers decorated the alleyways. These holiday decorations were carefully crafted from bits of trash in unique and beautiful patterns that reminded me that people can see beauty in every circumstance.
We walked for an hour along a beautiful black sand beach to La Barra. Cesar brought us to a small palm covered building where we grabbed a cold beer before jumping in the water for a swim. Amiable met us carrying a machete, carved wooden paddles, and plastic chairs for his canoe. He would be our guide through the mangroves. Cesar and Amiable met and chatted as old friends while Callie, Aaron, Golnar, and I all steadily climbed into the canoe.
As the canoe paddled up river, we saw Egrets, Green Heron, Kingfisher, Toucan, many other small birds that I could not identify, and an Iguana. Once the river became too shallow to paddle, we all hopped out and continued to follow our guides by foot to several incredibly beautiful freshwater pools connected by small waterfalls. We swam through the pools and climbed the slick rock and followed, what from above, must have looked like an emerald beaded necklace tossed into the forest. As Cesar noticed us exploring farther in the distance, he called us back to the boat to make our way out. We paddled through mangroves as the sun set and the vocalizations turned on. Every ten minutes or so a new voice would join the chorus in the trees. We all stared at the tree tops and listened as the water slowly drifted under our boat.
Tranquilo is a commonly used word in Colombia. In a formal translation it means tranquil. In a loose translation, people commonly use it in kind of a, "chill, I've got this," "no worries," "it's OK," "ah yeah, sure," "whatever," "take it easy;" all rolled in to one. When I first heard this word, I had just gotten to Colombia. Aaron and Callie taught it to me, and hinted that I might want to take the philosophy back with me when I returned to Seattle. I think they could tell that I had been stretching myself too thin recently.
The morning of our kayak trip was a necessary reminder of the word. The wind was blowing hard, it was raining, the surf was up, and all of us stood on the beach second guessing our desire to get wet. Also, I wouldn't be paddling that day. I had damaged my ulnar nerve two months prior and had been avoiding repetitive elbow motion ever since to keep from triggering the funny-bone-esque pain and numbness in my arm. I was intending to sit the day out, but Cesar simply sent one of his friends to wake up a local guide to paddle me around. Being a past kayak guide, I had a very difficult time swallowing my pride in order to hop on the boat to sit idly while someone else did the work. I did, and eventually participated in a little needed self-growth.
We explored the coast and paddled up a new river to another freshwater pool. I was reminded of my days in South East Alaska. I watched the water curl off in small rolling eddies as the current hit a rock formation, waves became confused as we passed through a cluster of small islands, and eventually we felt the water gloss over as the wind calmed. It was a good to be in a boat again, if only to watch.
After the paddling trip, Callie, Golnar, and I went exploring on our own. Through three translations of two sets of directions, we a found beach that emerges and disappears with the tide. We spent the afternoon playing. It is refreshing to forget about your age and responsibilities for a while to swim, strike yoga poses, chase waves, and spend 10 minutes trying to think of the correct Spanish conjugation for "to pet" so that we could ask a couple if we could pet their puppy.
The next morning I woke early and had breakfast with Cesar. Here I discovered that he could speak a few words in English. It was incredibly liberating to try to have a conversation on my own, it had been difficult to keep up when my friends were communicating over the past few days. It was nice feeling like an equal participant and it allowed me to connect with Cesar to say thanks. We wove our partial translation together and I thanked him whole heatedly for the wonderful kindness he had treated us with. His love for this place was evident and it was fun to learn a little about what brought him from the city where he had a career, to opening this small cabin stay. He modestly said this is where he is happy. He moved his hand around him as if to say, the pace of life, all of this makes him happy.
Later that day we said our goodbyes. As we left, you could see that this place had a lasting impact on each one of us.