It’s Christmas Day, and I’m strolling along a gently winding path by the banks of a river. A family of pigs, a mother and five tiny piglets, are snuffling calmly in the undergrowth to my right. They are largely unperturbed as I pass by within a few feet of them. Directly in front, I see the same group of four cows that have passed me by the previous two mornings. I move to the side of the path and lean against a low stone wall as they pass by. Like the pigs they don’t really acknowledge my presence and carry on the way from which I have just come, down to a ford in the river, where they have stopped every morning for a drink on their way to the field where they will spend the day grazing, before returning back up the path to the paddock where they’ll sleep. No human being is guiding them or moving them along; they just seem to know that this is the path they are meant to take.
It was an icy cold night and, as the sun slowly begins to rise and peer over the mountains surrounding the valley, steam rises from the smooth rocks in the river and the frosted plants growing wild along the path. Apart from the occasional twittering of small songbirds concealed in the brambly thickets that surround me I can hear nothing but the burbling of the river, the pio pio of baby chickens feeding along the stone wall, and the grunting of the aforementioned piglets. I round a bend in the path and a short muscular man silently glides past me. He wears a long pristine white robe and carries several tatty woven bags slung over his shoulders. As he walks, he silently taps out a series of patterns with a stick on the lip of a gourd clutched in his right hand. I nod my head: “Du.” “How are you?” He mutters the same response, and carries on along the path. He is Arhuaco, an indigenous people whose ancestors called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta home since long before the Spaniards arrived on these shores. The valley in which I find myself on this cold Christmas morning is Nabusimake, the capital and spiritual centre of the Arhuaco people.
The name Nabusimake roughly translates as “the land where the sun is born,” and, wandering around this peaceful haven deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains (it wasn’t always thus – the Arhuacos have had to deal with overwhelming violence from the Spanish invaders, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries, and threats to their land-rights and way of life continue), it’s not hard to imagine how it’s inhabitants could see it as the center of the universe and the cradle of creation. The best way I can describe the pastoral beauty and peace of Nabusimake is that it reminds me of a tropical Milton or Blake; or a Colombian version of Tolkien’s Shire. Born and raised in rural Shropshire, I feel relaxed and peaceful here, but it’s a peace tinged with a sense of regret and nostalgia – Nabusimake seems closer to the Shropshire of A.E. Housman than the county in which I grew up.
There’s not really a lot to actually do on a visit to Nabusimake; most people tend to just spend the night or even make the long journey into the mountains just for a day. I opted to stay here for 3 nights, and I don’t regret a minute of it: my time in Nabusimake will, and I can’t honestly say this about many places I visit, remain in my mind for as long as I live. This might sound like a hyperbolic statement to make aged just 28, but I truly believe it – I have never been to a place that felt so far removed from the world that I know and grew up in, and yet simultaneously felt so familiar. As a member of the technology generation, the complete calm and tranquility of Nabusimake was a revelation. I have visited peaceful places before, but nowhere that, at the same time, felt so out of step with the modern world.
So what did I do during my time in the land where the sun is born? Visiting Nabusimake might seem boring or uneventful to some travelers: I mostly just wandered – I would rise before dawn and just start walking, following the banks of the river and, occasionally, when the cold wasn’t too biting, stopping to take a (short) dip in the deeper sections of the river. The Arhaucos view certain pools along this river as highly sacred, so it’s important to find out where you mustn’t swim beforehand, and I made a concerted effort to never swim too near to local families bathing or washing their clothes: I felt very privileged to be able to spend time in this land, and so showing the proper respect, even to the point of perhaps excessive formality, was important. There were times when, during one of these dawn walks, I would naturally come to a halt and stand in awe of the silence and overwhelming aura of peace and calm that pervades you if you spend time in Nabusimake.
On the second afternoon I follow a narrow, winding path away from the main road through the valley. It takes me along a small stream past a series of small Arhuaco dwellings, until the path gradually begins to climb upwards along the ridge of one of the jagged mountains that surround Nabusimake – as I climb higher and higher above the valley, the houses below begin to recede from view, and what opens up around me is almost too vast to properly comprehend. I am suddenly on eye level (or so it seems; in reality I’m many hundreds of feet lower) with many of the sleeping giants that watch over the Arhuaco’s valley. The panorama is vast and all-encompassing, and I suddenly realize that the Arhuaco’s fight to protect their ancestral homeland is so much bigger than simply protecting the right of a few thousand people to exist as they always have – this is a battle of modernity against tradition, of the juggernaut of development and globalization against harmony with nature and a peaceful way of thinking. It might be that not even many Arhuacos see their plight in these huge terms, but standing here above Nabusimake, sweating in the hot Caribbean sun, I’m moved deeply by the symbolism the place takes on in my mind.
And what of the people who call this gorgeous valley home? The Arhuaco people (also sometimes known as Aruaco, Bintucua, Bintuk, Bíntukua, Ica, Ijca, Ijka, Ika, and Ike) are descendants of the Tairona culture and, along with the Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo people, are largely concentrated in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Their language is of the Chibchan language family, and is known as Arhuaco or Ikʉ (follow this link for a full Arhuaco-Spanish dictionary PDF). Of the less than 30,000 Arhuacos in Colombia, less than 15,000 speak Ikʉ, yet around 90% of these people are monolingual. The Arhuaco territory was once much larger, and encompassed much more of the foothills of the mountain range, but they have been pushed further up into the mountains over the years as a result of colonization and farming. The Arhuaco population is dispersed throughout the 22 territories that they currently occupy: Nabusimake is considered the spiritual capital, and is where Arhuacos will journey to in the event of an important meeting or spiritual event.
The Arhuaco worldview is, like their entire culture, far too complex to completely summarize here – they are deeply spiritual and, as I notice throughout my time in Nabusimake, place great importance on nature and the world around them. One local teacher tells me how the surrounding mountains are their sleeping gods, and that the Arhuaco believe that the Sierra Nevada is where the earth was born and is vital for the health of the whole world. They think of themselves as the ‘elder brothers’ and of outsiders as ‘younger brothers’, who have strayed from the correct spiritual path, and have lost their deep connection with the earth. One of the more noticeable aspects of their culture are the gourds I mentioned earlier, which are carried by all men of a certain age: these are called poporos, and contain a lime paste (the lime is traditionally extracted from seashells: in fact, the only Christmas present I give this year is a beautiful shell from the northern beaches of the Guajira, to a middle-aged Arhuaco man lying in the grass outside the walled village on Christmas Day) regularly applied to the gums by the owner of the gourd, using a long stick. This paste mixes and reacts with the ball of chewed coca leaves that is seemingly a permanent fixture in the cheeks of most Arhuaco men of a certain age. Most Arhuaco men can usually be seen sitting contemplatively, tapping out complex rhythms on the lip of their poporo using this stick, which, over time, leaves a thick, hardened residue around the top of the gourd: when I ask an older man what the purpose of these motions was, he replies in a deep distant voice: “For thinking.”
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the Arhuaco people have long suffered from the abuses of outsiders and not just at the hands of cruel invaders hundreds of years ago; in fact, exactly 100 years ago, in 1916, they made a request to the Colombian government to send teachers to their communities, who instead sent Capuchin Friars whom, among other atrocities, banned children from learning about their culture and established forced labor in the community. It took until a rebellion in 1982, when the Arhuaco people took over the mission buildings, for the friars to finally leave Nabusimake the following year. In fact, the beautiful walled village (as seen above) was built on the orders of these friars in an effort to impose more ‘traditional’ values of housing and community on the Arhuaco people. The buildings, although beautiful, are not strictly traditional Arhuaco homes, and the actual village is used for gatherings more for it’s location in Nabusimake than for any deeply spiritual reasons.
The Arhuacos also suffered the effects of Colombia’s drug wars. As the more profitable coca replaced marijuana cultivated (not by Arhuacos) in the Sierra Nevada, and a variety of armed groups competed over the profitable trade the local people found themselves in the crossfire between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the government fumigation planes sent to destroy the coca crops. The violence was largely indiscriminate, and many Arhuacos were killed or forced from their homes. Their notable mistrust of outsiders is not hard to comprehend in light of this information.
However, the attitudes of the Arhuaco people to me, as a lone outsider, roughly mirror what I expect wherever I travel in Colombia, or indeed the world: the youngest children view me with open-mouthed surprise, ten year olds with giggling bravado, teenage boys with a cool insouciance bordering on the insolent, young adults with interest and curiosity, old women with friendly and open smiles, and old men with not-quite-open mistrust. Most express no interest in talking to me; I don’t really try to converse too much out of respect for their home and their documented mistrust of outsiders. A few young men stop me to ask where I’m from and what I think of Nabusimake. One 12 year old boy takes one look at me and tells me, matter-of-factly, with no hint of malice: “You’re white, like a ghost.” I resist the temptation to tell him that he and his group of friends, with their long white robes, look far more like ‘ghosts’ than I do; as true as it was, I don’t think he’d have appreciated the irony.
Visiting Nabusimake, I often feel conflicted – my presence here, while tolerated, hardly seems desired. Whilst I consider myself someone who has a deep knowledge and appreciation for the natural world, compared to the Arhuacos I might as well be a logger! I am forced to content myself with being as respectful as possible and making as much effort as I can to treat the people and the place with due deference: anything else arouses strong reactions, as I find out on my first day in Nabusimake – I go to take a photo of the river, not realizing that a family are bathing behind some trees on the riverbank. Their disapproving shouts have me watching where I point my camera from then on. I truly want to be able to sit and talk for hours with the people in Nabusimake, and find out as much as I can about their lives and cultures; however, I mostly have to content myself with the fleeting moments of contact as we cross paths during one of my long walks – always the same: “Du.” “Du.”
However, I’m lucky enough to be here for Christmas and, as a solo traveler with no family to spend the holiday with, I am ‘adopted’ by the owners of the small guesthouse where I’m staying and their extended family. The family is a mixture of Colombian people from outside Nabusimake and Arhuacos, and I spend a lot of time with the matriarch of the family, Amparo: the Arhuaco grandmother who also acts as the head of the local school. She tells me in great detail of her struggles being raised by the Capuchin friars and of the heartache and isolation she felt when she returned to her own people, only to be rejected and dismissed as not truly one of them. However, she’s clearly a strong and determined woman, and she talks with great pride of her hard work in educating new generations of Arhuacos in the school that overlooks the valley (I took a little tour around the school with a Colombian lady who once worked there, and, whilst it could use some investment, it’s clearly loved and cherished). When I ask her what the local people make of tourists visiting Nabusimake her answer doesn’t really ease my doubts all that much: the older generation doesn’t like outsiders coming into the valley, but the younger people are keen to interact with different cultures and learn from them.
Being away from my family I feel a tremendous affection for this tough old woman (I see something of my own grandmother in her); she’s clearly faced hardship and struggles in her life, but her attitude is positive and her passion infectious. As the party carries on around her in her house where we spend Christmas Eve, she proudly shows me her diploma in education from a local university: it occupies pride of place in the middle of an otherwise bare white wall. Looking up at this simple piece of paper, a symbol of both hard-work and defiance, prompts a moment of reflection on an otherwise loud and drunken night, knocking back cheap whisky and guaro under a full moon which casts long shadows in the valley.
The former teacher, a Colombian who returns regularly to Nabusimake with her French husband (whom she first met whilst both of them worked here) and two children, is responsible for one of my few moments of real contact with people’s lives in Nabusimake. On the afternoon before the party at Amparo’s house, she wants to visit a former student in her house further up the valley, and she invites me to join her, an offer I gladly accept. So we stroll past the walled village through the woods, before arriving at a turnoff up a small hill. Her friend, even though they are clearly close, still seems a little shy, and I wait outside, taking in the garden, filled with sheep, pigs and chickens. I am eventually invited in for coffee and, as I sip the hot, sweet liquid (grown in the adjacent garden) directly from a wide, hollow gourd, my eyes adjust to the darkness in the small room. A woman and child sit on the floor beside me; him glancing curiously at the ‘younger brother’ and her putting the finishing touches to a beautiful mochila. A large, freshly skinned rat-like animal hangs from a metal hook on the wall above the stove, ready for that night’s meal; the air in the room is close, and smells strongly of wood-smoke, an intense comforting smell. The women laugh and joke, and I happily accept another ladle-full of coffee, wanting to prolong the experience as much as possible. Soon though, the time has come to leave. We thank our host and invite her to the Christmas party later that night. She never does come.
The following day, Christmas Day, as dusk creeps up over the mountain ridges and the shadows lengthen, I begin the gentle stroll back to my guesthouse on the banks of the river, following another one of my long aimless meanders along the valley. At a certain point I turn and look back the way I’ve just come – a mother and her three children are walking away from me, with the mountains in the background and faint smoke rising from a hidden house in the valley. Life for the Arhuaco people is undoubtedly hard: they face a tremendous struggle to maintain their traditions, protect their homeland, and preserve their culture. Malnutrition and health concerns are sadly common, and access to education, whilst improving in the local school, is badly needed. However, watching the three children chase each other along the river bank, whilst their mother calmly follows, stitching a new mochila as she walks, I allow myself a fleeting, and possibly misguided, moment of envy for the simplicity of life here, even as I acknowledge in my mind that life in Nabusimake is far from simple. Tomorrow I will return to Valledupar via the treacherous road through the mountains, and life here will go on much as it always has for the Arhuacos. I am keenly aware that theirs is a world I will never truly know; but that feels alright. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be understood.
Postscript: in the months that have passed since I spent time in Nabusimake it feels increasingly like a dream, or some sort of hallucination. Because the spiritual atmosphere, the overwhelming silence, is impossible to capture or record, sometimes it’s hard to remember that it truly exists. Over the past few months, the Arhuacos have voted to restrict visitor access to Nabusimake – it is currently not open to travelers and tourists, and only special permission will allow access. This, on reflection, seems like it’s probably a good thing; after all, the land is theirs to do as they want with, and if they feel that closing Nabusimake will allow them to protect their land and traditions better, then it’s for the best. It still makes me a bit sad though: it was a special place to visit, and I hope I get to go back one day; if anything, just to check that it was all real.
For more information on Arhuaco culture and Nabusimake, check out these links:
I would also strongly recommend John Lundin’s beautiful book, ‘Journey to the Heart of the World,’ which takes what Lundin learned from living among the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada, and tells it as a lovely novel. You can find it on Amazon.