Wild Asses in the Salt Desert


And now for something completely different – village life and a great salt desert, the Little Rann. We left Ahmedabad on highway, and progressed on to country roads past simple farms and through dusty villages. Eventually the driver began asking people for directions, at which point I realized we can use maps.me without internet, hauled it out and directed him through the twists and turns to the Rann Riders camp we had booked for a four day stay.

The camp is comprised of lovely, simple mud huts built in the traditional style of the area, the walls decorated with leaf appliqués and mirrors. Our front porch has two traditional Gujarati swings, ubiquitous here, and inside is a modern bathroom, simple bamboo furnishings and two of the hardest beds ever, great for my back. All meals are provided in a cavernous outdoor dining hall and the food is stupendous. It’s also great to have a chance to try various Gujarati dishes and ask questions about them. We are taken on a “safari” in a jeep for a couple of hours each day, and so far we have visited the wild ass herds on the Rann desert, a couple of nearby villages, and spent a morning bird watching in a wetlands area. Very low key but fun, freezing cold in the open jeeps in the morning and evening, though mid day is warm.

img_4276The wild asses are an interesting breed. They are quite large and very powerful, reminding me of the body type of the zebra with their muscular, stuffed looking haunches and barrel like sides. They can run indefinitely at 65 kilometres per hour, and run they do, in small herds just for the heck of it. They eat tufts of small plants that survive in the salt desert conditions, it is hard to believe there is any nutrition in them. When the rainy season comes, the salt flats are inundated and the wild ass take refuge on small “islands” just areas of higher ground which the rains replenish with grass. They cannot be tamed, and seem to have a happy life galloping over the flats, perfectly adapted to their surroundings and with no predators to harass them.

On the way back we stopped to watch the sun set over the salt flats at the home of a family of salt collectors. This is a tough life but their home of plastic sheeting lashed over a wooden frame with a hard earth floor was well equipped and as neat as a pin. The woman immediately poured out tea in the sort of paper cups that we put ketchup in at fast food restaurants and the husband took us over to one of the pools to show us how he could dip in and collect a double handful of salt crystals, huge ones, some of which he insisted we take with us. The process involves digging a 25 foot deep hole — and it would be like digging up asphalt, the salt desert is thick and the earth heavy — into which they put a pipe. They attach a pump run by a solar powered engine and the resulting briny water is pumped into holding tanks shaped into the earth the way rice paddies are. All this is done post monsoon during the cold season which is now when the temperature drops to 10 degrees overnight , then the hot sun of the hot season (48 degrees out there) evaporates the water, they harvest the salt and beat a hasty retreat to their village for the 4 months of the monsoon. So they are either boiling or freezing on the desert or hunkered down in the village with no income during the rains! Some jobs are harder than others, but they seemed to be making the best of it.

We spent one day with a driver supplied by the camp visiting the Sun Temple at Modhera, the beautiful Rani-ki Vav step well, and a work shop of Potala double ikat silk weaving which I had particularly wanted to see. The trip took 5 hours and the drive through the surrounding countryside with its subdued palette of taupe, gold, and tawny brown, negotiating multiple speed bumps at the entrance to each tiny dusty, plastic infested village. We passed many camel carts laden with goods driven by Rabari men in their distinctive cropped white jackets, voluminous dhotis, and elaborate white turbans. An exotic looking group, the women wear beautifully embroidered garments topped by flowing chiffon headscarves. They are reputed to have come originally from Afghanistan.


Our village tour was low key and interesting, a young guide from the camp came with us and we visited a number of his friends in nearby villages. I was afraid it was going to go badly, as our first stop was at an encampment of Mir people midway between the camp and Dasada village. The Mir are nomads and travel back and forth between Rajasthan and Gujarat, making this area their winter home. Their homes are very rough — plastic sheeting over a framework of wood but nothing like the salt makers’ house. These houses are filthy and disorganized, as are the people themselves. They herd goats which live with them in the shelters, and the women bead bracelets which they vied to sell. Their dress and jewellery are most exotic, but they are also as sharp and persistent as nomadic traders anywhere. I really felt uncomfortable as we did not want to buy — for one thing we have no small money, what with the money shortage here and the usual difficulty getting change in Asia, it is an impossible situation. I felt like we were staring, and was trying to beat a hasty retreat when up pulled four SUV’s with Indian tourists from our camp, a tour group studying photography and this was their first field day. Out came the long lenses and 18 people focussed on the inhabitants and started snapping away. We quickly got into the jeep, it was much better in the two small villages we went to where the guide knew people who were glad to show us their cows, and even their embroidery, and where we felt we were just wandering without causing a kerfuffle.

IMG_4391.JPGThe Modhera Sun Temple is one of the finest in India, built around 1100 years ago, though we think the one we saw in Orissa was more spectacular. The rulers at the time were supposedly descendants of the sun, all the motifs and indeed the design of the temple is engineered to show the cycles of the weeks, days and years. Originally a huge diamond in the forehead of the deity in the innermost temple reflected the light in a line across the temple at the exact moment of the solstice. Interesting parallel to all the Mayan temples we have visited in Latin America. Of course I fell for the offer of a guide for only $2, my travel companion despises guides so was most displeased, and the man was truly annoying, chanting on and on about 52 this, weeks of the year, 365 of that, days of the year, cycle of life make love, pregnant, home birth, death….Doug wandered away as he always does and took pictures but his huffing indignation was quite audible. Fun anyway, and I got rid of him (the guide, not Doug) quite promptly and we had a nice wander.

On to Patan, a dirty congested city with the most gorgeous step well we’ve seen yet, the Ran-ki Vav, also 1100 years old. Step wells were not just wells, they were also way stations for those travelling the silk route, with a well for drinking and a separate one for washing bodies and clothes, on another level was a pavilion for travellers to lay out their bed rolls and spend the night. Despite this mundane purpose, they are all fabulously carved and decorated with religious and secular motifs. Many many stairs descend into the wells at the bottom. Built of sand stone as all these buildings of that era were, they are amazingly ornate but also subject to erosion. The saving grace for this one was that it had filled up with debris and garbage 3/4 of the way up and was not “discovered” until late in the 20th century when it was excavated. Consequently the carvings up to that level are very well preserved and distinct. We saw many of these lovely wells when we were in Rajasthan on our last trip, filled with noxious garbage and goats eating away. It is good to know their historical interest has lately been recognized and their beauty revealed.
Also in Patan, the Patola weavers make double ikat saris which take a year to complete and cost in the thousands of dollars. Only one family continues this style of weaving which is a ridiculously complex technique. In single ikat, complex enough, the threads which will be the lengthwise ones on the loom are wrapped with little lengths of cloth to form the desired pattern. Dying takes place in at least four stages, each time a colour is applied that area is then bound with the cotton to retain the colour and another area unwrapped to take the next colour. All this tying and dying takes a very long time. The ikat I have on the wall from Sumba is one of these, it is a most complex pattern depicting the funeral traditions of the area. Single ikat of that quality is also a dying art. In the Patola weaving a further complication is that the widthwise threads are also tied and dyed. Imagine the complexity of lining up the pattern on the widthwise thread so that the pattern will agree with that on the lengthwise threads, while maintaining a tight selvage edge which a sari must have. Keep in mind that this is all being done in the finest of silk, and you can understand why a few thousand dollars in not much to pay for the finest quality pattern.

Only one family of these weavers is still working in this craft/art form. We were so fortunate that the senior member of the family was present when we arrived and for some reason decided to give us the most comprehensive and fascinating tour. He has been all over the world to museums and exhibitions, taking looms and workers with him to display the process. Anyone going to Basel (Linda?) should check out the museum’s comprehensive exhibit which this man set up. Examples of their work are displayed in many famous museums, apparently the Museum of Art in Toronto is considering buying a large original piece from them currently. I love weaving (viewing it that is) and was so pleased to see this workshop.

IMG_4711.JPGSo that was a great day, the other three have been much more relaxing, going out for a few hours on our “safari”, eating like pigs, lying on our swings going at the Kobos and strolling to the nearby village of Dasada. The last day of our stay corresponds with a state wide holiday for the Kite Festival and our camp is filling up fast with Indian families. The well to do here all speak English it seems, and mix it with Gujarati which sounds very cool. Such friendly people, we will be sorry to pull out of here tomorrow. On to the historic city of Bujh.



Fifteen years after our epic 5 month circumambulation of India, and 42 years after our first visit, we are back in this swirling, vibrant, colourful country. We are starting in Ahmedabad, state capital of Gujarat, an area we missed on both our previous trips.

Ahmedabad is a city of 7 million people, and 150,000 “motos” or auto rickshaws, those passenger taxis on a motorbike frame, ubiquitous all over Asia and known as tuk tuks in SE Asia, which is what we call them from old habit. There are zillions of motor bikes as well, and combined with pedestrians, people pulling carts loaded with lethal lengths of pipe, sacks, and lumber, suicidal maniacs on bicycles, the odd elephant, the resulting traffic chaos has to be seen, heard and smelled to be believed. Walking is nearly impossible and it requires nerves of steel or a death wish to cross the street. Fortunately motos are easy to find and cheap so they are the best way to get around. In fact, I’m all in favour of just paying 50 cents to cross the street but my travel companion won’t hear of it.

The city was established over 600 years ago and we are staying in the older part, separated from “new” Ahmedabad, a mere 60 years old, across the Sabarmati River. The traditional building style is a courtyard house where three or four storeys of rooms centre on a central open courtyard. The design is such that sunlight in the interior is minimized and the hot air rises through the open roof. Apparently the interiors are 5 degrees cooler than outside which in a place where temps are over 45 in summer is important, and heat is retained in winter which it is now and dashed chilly mornings and evenings. All the members of an extended family lived together in these places which often had 60 or 80 rooms, and housed their own place of worship. There was no exterior space, fountains and plants are found inside on the terraces overlooking the courtyards. Gujaratis are traditionally merchants and business people. Ahmedabad’s wealth was originally built on the textile industry.

IMG_3690.JPGAs usual looking for a soft landing after a lengthy journey and a dreadful 12 1/2 hour time difference whereby we arrived at 6 am but our bodies were convinced it was 6 pm, I booked us into a gorgeous restored grand haveli, the property of a prominent mill owning family. And what a soft landing, a stunning property, lovingly restored by the grandson and great grandson of the original brothers who built the sprawling place in 1904. Thus we experienced haveli style by living in one, albeit a very grand one, before starting our exploration of the maze like old city.

The grandmother of the house began collecting the intricate and beautiful embroideries and prints done in the Kutch desert area, and for which Gujarat is renowned, as a young woman in the 1930’s. They are housed in a small private museum, well explained, through which we were shown by a tiny, ancient woman who spent her days sitting on the floor by the door working on her embroidered pieces. Our rooms and the large and beautiful common areas are adorned with framed examples of antique pieces, and all fabrics used in the building were printed by local artisans. Absolutely lovely.

img_4091Our appetite whetted for more history, we took two walking tours of the oldest part of the city, one lead by a guide from our hotel and the other much better one, by the local historical society. We went by tuk tuk (we can’t get used to calling them motos) to Shrinarayan Hindu temple which at 7:30 in the morning was in the full throes of worship, a noisy affair with bells, gongs, and chanting. The good thing about Hindu temples is that worship is not a hushed and reverential affair so interlopers such as ourselves do not feel particularly out of place. The men stood in front of representations of the various deities which the priests unveiled for the occasion, the women craned their necks from behind a brass rail in the rear. As Doug pointed out, since there are always way more woman worshipping than men, these patriarchal rules are really illogical, but it is thus in most eastern religions.

IMG_4073.JPGWe met our tour leader in an adjoining building designed to house the pilgrims who were visiting the shrine. We began walking through the winding narrow lanes closely following the guide and were soon completely disoriented. The area is divided into “pols” kind of mini neighbourhoods, each with its own entrance overhung by a “security cabin” and originally with gates that were barred at night. Each pol is named over the door for the group that lived within it, by occupation or religion or kinship. All are connected by secret passageways so if the city were under siege (which it never was) the idea was that all the pols could lock their gates and still get around to other pols inside the inner maze. Every pol has a bird feeder on a high pole, a substitute for a tree, and many houses have built in bird nest holes. img_4146These people value all life, a special tenet of the Jain religion which is common here whose serious adherents wear face masks to avoid sucking bugs and thereby killing them, and whisk the ground in front of them with a broom as they walk for the same reason. People feed the birds, the squirrels, the dogs and the cows as a duty. As I was walking, a small rain of chapattis nearly struck me, intended by a resident of the upper storey for the strolling dogs and cows below.

IMG_4129.JPGThe havelis are ornately carved and constructed with a combination of sandstone and wood, allowing them the flexibility to withstand earthquakes, the most recent of which in 2001 levelled new construction but spared the antique havelis. Now most of them are decaying and uninhabited as the wealthy families have moved across the river. The city has belatedly realized that preserving them is a good idea and incentives are offered for their restoration, an extremely expensive undertaking. Interspersed in the maze of havelis and tiny shops are places of worship — Hindu, Jain and Muslim — and antique monuments like the original Stock Exchange now inhabited by small shops.

IMG_3804.JPGWhen we finished our tour at the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) with its ornate columns and grand prayer hall, we found a quiet byway to drink some water and eat some sweets we had bought on the way. A friendly man came out of his repair shop to ask us where we are from (non Indian tourists are very unusual here) and bought us tiny cups of masala tea from the man who goes door to door with his kettle doling out tea to all and sundry. Apparently Gujuratis pride themselves on welcoming strangers — attributed to their position on the silk route — but in our opinion aided in the modern day by the rarity of foreign tourists. Unlike in Rajasthan there is no hassle, no hard sell, we love it! We chatted and he brought out his son who was off to school.

IMG_3855.JPGBy the time we had done that, it was 11:00 and when we left the quiet lane, the place had transformed completely. Where the quiet “cow cafe” had been, dozens of motor bikes were being parked. Stalls full of goods and produce were setting up as we watched. Soon there was hardly room to walk between them down the little lanes and the cacophony was deafening. We walked, completely lost, enjoying the scene, until we’d had enough, hailed a tuk tuk (oh yes, not just foot traffic in the tiny spaces, but tuk tuks, motor bikes, cars, bikes, cows etc) showed the card from our hotel and were whisked off for a death defying ride back to the peace and tranquility of MG House.

IMG_3917.JPGWe had six days in Ahmedabad, pacing ourselves, knowing that huge busy cities and full days of sight seeing are not compatible with mental health. We visited Gandhi’s original ashram where he gathered his following, honed his philosophy of non-violent resistance, and welcomed untouchables whom he renamed “Harijans” meaning children of god. That act caused some of his most loyal followers, including his wife to temporarily leave the movement as it was so repugnant to them to be near these “unclean” people. It is a peaceful place by the river, his austere quarters are preserved and a very well labeled museum documents his life. It was from this ashram that he launched his salt march to the sea to protest taxation by the British. We will visit its end point later in our trip. So much revered by Indians, there were many Indian tourists there to offer respect, even though the current focus of Gujaratis is all about making money in contrast to Gandhi’s rejection of economic wealth.

We also visited some exquisite religious buildings and a lovely restored step well, the Adalajav Vav — more about step wells in the next instalment. We had the interesting experience of being photographed at least 100 times as we visited a Kite Festival by the river where teams from all over competed in flying the most extravagant kites. The Australians were most impressive! The denizens of Ahmedabad were out in force in their Sunday finery, and though we have always been asked for photos in our travel in Asia (some sort of fascination of having pictures taken with the bizarre, dreadfully shabbily dressed foreigners) the whole thing has gone to a new level with the ubiquitous cell phones. It used to be only people with cameras but now absolutely everyone carries a phone. By the 40th selfie I had a whole new appreciation for Justin T’s patience…

The city was in the throes of an economic conference called Vibrant Gujarat, the brain child of the current prime minister of India, Mr Modi, back when he was prime minister of Gujarat. He is credited with great economic gains here, though also his right wing Hindu party was responsible for riots causing 2000 deaths in 2002. The day of the Kite Festival he was also responsible for utter gridlock on the streets, it was headline news in the Times of India the next morning, and we were caught in the middle of it as we tried to tour the sights with a car from our hotel in the afternoon. The drivers here are supremely skillful, as everyone weaves in and out of the traffic, blaring horns constantly, and missing cars, motor bikes, tuk tuks and huge buses by fractions of an inch. Best not to look. Riders of motor bikes swath their heads in bright shawls to avoid breathing in the dense fumes like a posse of brilliantly coloured ghosts. We are always relieved to see the imposing House of MG come into view on our return.

Loved our introduction to Gujarat, off now to the villages and salt desert of the Little Rann Wild Ass Sanctuary. Something completely different I expect!

Mysterious San Agustin

We left Popayan in a car driven by Rene, a friend of the helpful receptionist at our small historic hotel. Rene drove all the way from San Agustin to pick us up, which seemed like an awful lot of work — 130 kilometres but 5 1/2 hours, you can imagine the road — but after we liked him so much we hired him to drive us for the next three days, we understood why it was worth it to him. He was a great guide, he spoke Spanish slowly and was easy to understand.

  The lengthy drive took us over a high pass, through paramo (alpine tundra) with distinctive tussock grasses and the espeletia shrub which has spectacular blooms (according to Rene) only every seven years. Though it was cold and inhospitable after the warmth of Popayan, we soon descended to the relative warmth of the San Agustin area. This road was not safe to drive and often cut off completely by guerrilla activity for many years starting in the ’90’s. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Magdalena (which we first encountered later in its life at Mompox) which had been destroyed by bombing 8 times during this period leaving San Agustin cut off from the north. All calm now though, but heavy military presence along the way.

  About two thousand years ago this area was populated by an indigenous group who buried their dead in elaborate tombs marked by large stone statues with huge eyes, grinning fanged mouths, traditional clothing, often adorned with snakes and Eagles. Many golden artifacts were found in the tombs, some of which are in the Museo de Oro in Bogota, others were carried away by looters over many years. A great number of these statues are now protected in the Parque Arqueologico which was up the road from the Finca where we stayed.

  Our first day Rene picked us up early to start the day at the Parque. Since the Easter week holiday is just huge in Colombia, all the accommodation in town was booked solid with Colombians on holiday and most of them were headed for the sights. Rene was right to get us out there early! We really enjoyed walking the extensive grounds around the statue area, especially as we hired a wonderful guide Umberto, who provided entertaining commentary on all the oddities of the statues and local mythology, and even played two traditional instruments as we walked along the slippery stone paths between grave sites. By the end of 3 hours the Colombians were flooding the site and we were finished with the Parque.  

  After a hugely filling “almuerzo”, the traditional set midday meal, off we went in Rene’s 4 wheel drive to a variety of other sites scattered throughout the countryside. According to the Rough Guide, to properly do justice to all the sites, it is necessary to have 3 days: the first as we did starting with the Parque to become familiar with the mythology, and to start touring the nearer sites, the second in the 4 wheel drive to the farther flung sites, and the third on horseback to those areas with impassable roads. We drew the line at the horseback part, but some of the roads we did on the second day were pretty nearly impassable! Colombians are crazy about waterfalls, and though we are not so much we happily visited 3 since they were along the way. This area is not much visited by foreign tourists so usually there are only a few people at each site, with the Easter week holiday, all the areas were swarming. Colombia has a rapidly growing middle class and apparently they love to travel. Fun to observe Colombian families.

  Along the way we admired the brilliant green hillsides of coffee and the dizzy-making Rio Magdalena gorge, passing through small farms and larger plantations of sugar cane and papayas. The coffee from this region is judged to be the best in Colombia, despite the fact that the Zona Cafetera gets the name. The climate is just right and apparently coffee likes to grow on steep slopes. Many in this area are so steep that the pickers attach themselves with ropes at the top and rappel down the slope, picking as they go. Since coffee has to be picked every 5 days, it is a terrible job, both difficult and dangerous. As you gaze over the edge of the gorge and envision lowering yourself down to pick the ripe beans, you can see the farm house so far below it looks tiny, with a winding path down over which supplies have to be transported down and loads of coffee up. Seems impossible, but I guess it works, coffee is Colombia’s third most important export after oil and gold.

  As we wended our way along the bone shaking road we met a small procession of village people, carrying a table with religious figures and flowers on it, about the size of a small end table. They were all singing and waving palm and eucalyptus fronds, and stopped in front of us at a roadside stand marked XI for the Station of the Cross it represented. They all dropped to their knees and prayed, had another hymn, then moved on. Young people helped old ones with canes, others carried babies, and kids skipped along waving their fronds. A complete contrast to the pomp of Popayan, kind of both ends of the spectrum.

We thoroughly enjoyed the two days in the truck but were glad to miss the day on horseback though lots were willing to take us, and many of the Colombians we passed mounted looked pretty hopeless. Instead we had a good day walking to the small town and around the surrounding area. On the fourth day our plane was leaving at 5 so we had the morning to go into the town for the Easter Sunday Procession and Mass. Again it was a great contrast to Popayan. San Agustin is tiny, just a village around the usual central square, all the Colombian tourists had left to get back home, so it was just the townspeople and a handful of gringos assembled to watch the Procession. The tableaux from the various earlier days had been left in the Parque to be admired. For the Resurrection theme, the flowers were gold and white, and the depictions were rather less gruesome.

  Various groups assembled, a secondary school marching band, a troupe of female baton twirlers, a group of rather inexpert young dancers, and a large group of women in red suits wearing white lace mantillas among others. Out were brought three of the tableaux, San Juan (John), San Pedro (Peter) and Mary Magdalena. The carriers wore robes covered by hooded brown calf length tunics, and only 4 were required for each table compared to the 8 needed by the massive Popayan ones. The priest, a jaunty soul in sunglasses, announced the names of the 3 images and the crowd clapped for their favourites. They then rearranged themselves, and we assumed, they were going to allow the winner of the popularity contest to lead the progression. However, at a command from the priest, the bearers of the three tableaux bolted down the street and we realized that it was a foot race and the clapping was for the favourite to win! There may have been betting involved. They rounded the far corner and disappeared from view, the race was 4 square blocks, so the crowd all trained their eyes on the corner around which they would appear. First to round was San Pedro, to wild cheering, then Mary Magdalena and then…..a long pause during which everyone craned their necks, and I wondered if one of the more elderly carriers had had a heart attack. Then at a dispirited walk, around the corner came San Juan — the jostling was too much for the statue and it appeared to have broken in half. The crowd clapped anyway and the priest took it in good part, directing the bedraggled crew into the church for “reconstruction”. Then the parade progressed in an orderly fashion accompanied by all the townspeople singing hymns and waving their fronds. Seemed like a lot of fun, far less serious though less elaborate than Popayan.

  Back to the cute little garden house where we had stayed on the very good Finca el Maco to grab our bags and Rene came to drive us 45 minutes to the tiny airport at nearby Pitalito. We had to be there 2 hours early, Satena had sent us an email to insist on the time, and we soon saw why. Since there was no security machine, all the luggage had to be checked by hand, and each passenger too. Off we went in a tiny propeller driven plane for our last internal flight in Colombia.

  We so enjoyed our last three stops, as we wended our way south. We were close to the Ecuador border before we flew back to Bogota. What an amazingly varied lot of country we have seen. Back to Bogota to prepare to fly home, to the Arche Noah Hostal where we started.  
We have loved this country which is so eager to welcome visitors again after the many terrible years of conflict.  It really has something for everyone.  For us we avoided the more touristy spots on the Pacific Coast in favour of the smaller towns we so enjoy.  Accommodation is great and not expensive, travelling surprisingly easy.  And that cliche that is so hard to avoid — friendly and helpful people make the trip special.  Hard to leave, but looking forward to home too after three months away.  Hope spring has sprung!

Semana Santa in Popayan

Well we were sure wrong about missing all the Semana Santa fun in Popayan as I feared in the last blog!
But first, we had an exciting journey to the place. We flew from Armenia about 45 minutes from Salento. From these small towns, all flights go through Bogota. That part went without excitement. We quickly switched planes into another small propellor driven number, and got set to taxi down the runway. Bogota is very high so the planes really boot it to get aloft in the thin atmosphere. We were roaring along prior to take off when the pilot slammed on the brakes and we shuddered to a halt. Nervous laughter among the passengers, three quarters of whom were the members of the Bogota Tigres Futboll (soccer to us) Club. A rapid fire announcement followed. I turned around and asked, “Habla ingles?” the word for “anyone” having escaped me. All the guys started laughing and pointing at a huge guy sitting behind me (he turned out to be one of the goalies) who embarrassedly owned up that yes he had a little English. Apparently the pilot said there was something wrong with the engine and they needed to check it out before we left. A little later, we were told (again my by now friendly interpreter helped out) that we would return to the gate. Drat we thought, hope there’s an airport hotel. When we arrived at the gate we were told to get down (with these small planes you have to walk across the tarmac) and assemble there to await instructions. Next we were herded together, the stewardesses joined us and we filed onto an airplane that just happened to be sitting there. Off we went in this one. The flight to Popayan goes over a high range of mountains and it was terribly turbulent, I think half the plane was terrified. Then lightening began flashing past the windows. When we touched down we were amidst a lashing downpour. We taxied into Popayan’s tiny airport, and were told to wait in the plane while they brought out umbrellas (I understood this part). Just then the power went out in the whole airport including the runway! What a way to start our Popayan visit!
  Popayan is a lovely colonial city, blindingly white especially at this special time of year, Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Our hotel was in a gorgeous 18th century mansion, simple austere white rooms set around an interior courtyard full of plants, furnished with many original wooden benches and cabinets of the time. After our traumatic arrival, we were delighted and astonished to open the wooden shutters to our room’s balcony to a view of the lighted facade of the lovely old San Jose church across the narrow street. The price for the room was very reasonable as all our lovely rooms here have been, for the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, but the price doubled for Tuesday and we had to pay a surcharge for the balcony. As mentioned before, we had to revamp our tentative plans around the Easter week celebrations as the hotel was fully booked Wednesday to Sunday. We were rather resentful about the surcharge for the balcony, as we thought the Processions for which Popayan is famous started on Thursday. How wrong we were! Tuesday proved to be the first night.
  But preparations were going on everywhere when we arrived. All the buildings were being given final licks of paint, and the churches were all setting up the large tableaux which would be carried in the parade. These baroque style churches all have nearly life size religious images in niches along the sides of the church, whatever image of the Virgen is particularly central to that church, the apostles and other saints, and depictions of Jesus at various stages of his martyrdom. Some of these had been taken out and mounted on elaborate carrying frames, very heavy, and surrounded by other religious imagery. On the night of the Procession in which this particular image will be paraded, it is surrounded by banks of flowers in a colour appropriate to each day: White for Tuesday, Pink for Wednesday, Red for Thursday, and Purple for Friday. The flower arrangements are spectacular. Gold paint was being renewed, flesh was being dusted and wiped, and the images were being clothed. We had seen them beginning this process when we were in Mompox where we watched Palm Sunday being celebrated.
As we wandered to the main Plaza overlooked by the Basilica, the primary church though far from the most beautiful, we realized crowds were assembling and everyone was carrying bunches of foliage — a palm frond, a piece of eucalyptus, some rosemary, and something floral. Aha, something is up here we thought, an outdoor stage fronted the Basilica steps, and viewing stands lined the other side of the Plaza. A large Police Band filed out of a truck and began to line up by the stage, it turned out to be the (apparently) famous Popayan Police Marching Band. When they struck up for a bit of a rehearsal, the decibel level of the many drums was electrifying, babies cried, dogs barked and everyone jumped!  
A priest and various acolytes came out, and he led the crowd in singing the most charming hymn they always sing at the end of the Mass here, and often as they are waiting for Mass to begin. Everyone knows the words, it is a simple song of many verses, and the priest calls out the prompt for the next verse (a bit like “The Wheels on the Bus” but much more tuneful.) We really like the singing with the Masses here, not hymns as we know them, and no need for hymnals, we find it seems very inclusive, though no less devout, people here are very much Catholics. Rarely does anyone pass a church or a shrine on the street without crossing him or herself.
  After that bit of a warm up, the police band struck up again, nearly deafening us all as they were standing still, and one of the tableaux was carried in accompanied by many religious persons. The crowd waved their fronds and continued singing. Along came the archbishop, accompanied by two dignitaries and a whack of extremely serious looking soldiers, in full combat gear bandoliered in bullets, and carrying very scary looking assault rifles. Though I must say those big guns have become a common sight to us in this part of the country and we are becoming blasé like the Colombians. Assisted by some very cute altar boys, the Archbishop began to preach a Mass which was quite lengthy, though we departed quietly after the first prayer with the excuse that our Spanish simply is not up to the task.
We had a great time wandering the picturesque narrow streets of the town, visiting some historic houses with small museos, looking into all the historic churches and generally enjoying the fiesta like ambiance. When we discovered that the first of the mighty Processions would take place on Tuesday and would pass directly under our balcony, we were ecstatic. Tuesday night we were back in our room well in advance of the 8 pm start time as the hotel desk man had told us that crowds would be so extreme around the door of the hotel that we would be unable to get in.  
  The Procession was spectacular. A group priests marched past first holding a large golden cross. Right behind came the Police Marching Band, the volume being much more bearable from our balcony. They also had slightly less reliance on the drums, and played a most melodic version of El Condor Pasa on the xylophones and the brasses. Everyone walked in wedding procession style, one step at a time, most wearing for the band I would have thought. As the procession filed along a steady stream of people carrying lighted candles lined the sides of the route, walking along with the procession. Some were kids in school uniforms, various organizations, but many were ordinary people in regular clothes who I think had just signed up to carry the candles. Extremely effective. Soon the first tableaux came into view, carried by 8 men holding the carrying poles on their shoulders. A terrible job, but apparently a great honour. They wore long navy robes, belted in white with navy head coverings and white indigenous style straw sandals. When the procession paused, as it did at regular intervals, they immediately inserted props on the outer four carrying poles, though it was still hard work to steady the whole thing while they waited. A young boy in similar dress had the job of making sure the many candles flanking the images on all sides were kept alight. Quite difficult despite the stillness of the evening. Each of the tableaux was preceded by a young woman in traditional dress carrying a smoking brazier full of aromatic herbs.
  Interspersed along the route were many other musical groups. It was quite ingenious the way a whole symphony orchestra was pushed along on a sort of trolley, the violinists walked, while the cellos and the oboes rode, the double basses themselves rode the trolley while the people playing them walked along behind sawing away as they went. A lovely choir went by, singing away following their organist whose organ was being pushed along by men on either side. Since they stopped so much, every person on the route had a chance to appreciate the music which was lovely. And of course to them, the images representing the events of Holy Week from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, we assume the Resurrection will take place on Sunday, are extremely important. Quite the amazing event, the whole thing took 2 1/2 hours to pass us, but they must have been on the route for 4 hours as we were near the beginning. Cannot imagine how the carriers of the heavy tableaux were able to do it!
  The other noteworthy thing we did in Popayan was take a day trip to the Silvia Tuesday market in a nearby indigenous town. We hired a guide to take us, and though he spoke only Spanish, we had a wonderful day and were able to clear up a lot of information we were unclear on. (Really the level of our understood Spanish has improved unbelievably, it is just too bad we speak so horrendously). We learned a great deal about two different important topics for this country: the conditions of the indigena population, and the history of the guerrilla uprising (the Farq). 
Wilson our guide, had been a policeman for 22 years before retiring and taking up guiding. He was in the anti guerrilla squad for years during the worst of the conflict and in the intelligence division for the last 8 years of his career. He attributed his grey hair and wrinkles to his experiences, and that is probably not an exaggeration, this part of Colombia was off limits for years due to the guerrilla warfare. Popayan was cut off for much of the time, and the road we took from there to San Agustin not useable due to guerrilla activity. We discussed the current negotiations between the guerrillas and the Farq, the deadline for resolution having passed this week. He assured us he had up to date information and they are still working on the plan (in Havana interestingly enough.). The military and police presence is extreme in this area, with check points sandbagged to 8 feet high armed by really scary looking armed guards. Wilson kept assuring us that it was to make Colombians feel safe and that he understood that for us, unused to visible weapons as we are, the impression might be frightening, but it was mostly a sort of bizarre public relations gesture…. Interestingly, as with everyone we have discussed this topic with so far, he dropped the volume of his voice when talking about the Farq.
  The indigena in this area seem more like the group in Otavalo in northern Ecuador (which is very near here) rather than like the poverty stricken groups we saw in the Andes there. I think the same is true in other parts of Colombia, though this is the only indigenous area we have really been in, this is not the country so much for indigenous culture. The group at the Silvia weekly Tuesday market were from the Guambiano group, quite well off with their agricultural pursuits. They are guaranteed their autonomy over their lands, their culture, the right to their own hospitals, schools, and traditions, preservation of language and clothing etc., by the Colombian constitution. Certainly the people at the Silvia Market were a good looking group, none of the obvious poverty of the similar Guamote Market in Andean Ecuador. For lunch we went to a Trout Farm (a common thing here, the government thought it might convince the indigenous to switch from coca cultivation to trout) where Colombians like to catch their trout and then have it cooked for them. We just had a ridiculously cheap and delicious trout lunch without doing any work. Since this is the biggest holiday week of the year in Colombia we are having a very interesting time observing the Colombian middle class on holiday — very prosperous and very numerous!
Moving south east to San Agustin next, an area of very important and interesting archeological sites. We saw many artifacts from this area in the Museo de Oro in Bogota. We are leaving our beautiful historic mansion for a Finca (farm) which sounds pretty comfortable. Should be interesting.

Salento:  Wax Palms and Coffee

Peaceful green Salento — what a respite after the busy streets of Medellin. Our plane landed in Armenia about an hour’s drive by taxi from Salento, all up hill and progressively cooler as we went. Salento is all green — many shades of green, with coffee plantations, cattle grazing lands, and lush jungle side by side. The traditional houses of the town itself are brightly painted and it is one of those hillside places where everywhere you want to go seems to be up a steep hill — of course you never notice the downhill sections.


 The main street, or Camino Real, is lined with tourist shops and small cafes intended for Colombians who flock here on weekends and holidays for fresh air and shopping. Foreign tourists come to hike the Valle de Cocoro where the wax palm, Colombia’s impossibly high national “tree” abounds, to tour coffee fincas, and to make other forays into the impossibly lush jungle abounding in birds and unique plant life. Your intrepid correspondents managed all three, plus a good amount of dining.

  Don Eduardo’s (aka Tim’s) Coffee Finca was fun and entertaining even though we have visited more professional coffee plantations in the past. Tim is an eccentric transplanted Englishman with 5 dogs and an impossibly hare brained scheme to make himself into the owner of a “boutique” coffee farm. So far he makes his income from the daily tours he gives, and providing the tour groups with cups of the coffee he produces takes all his product. But he has a vision… 

  Our group comprised 4 young Europeans and us and entailed donning ill-fitting rubber boots (mine immediately gave me several dog flea bites) for the muddy trek to the Finca itself. Along the way Tim berated the dogs for rough housing and entertained us with information about various kinds of coffee, what various terms mean, and the various factors that impact taste and value of the final product. Coffee is a huge export for Colombia, when the coffee prices tanked 15 years ago the farmers’ protest shut down the whole country for 3 days and the government had to start subsidizing production. The tour finished after 3 hours with a young man roasting their best beans and all of us having another cup of coffee.

  The next day we set off early with a guide we had arranged, to do the Valle of Cocoro loop trail. The guide was worried about our foot gear, we were worried about his pace as the trail is very steep in places and usually takes 5 hours. In the end neither of us needed to worry, the Tevas performed as usual, we didn’t even get that muddy though he stepped into a mud patch half way up his boots, and he was so concerned not to hurry us that we ended up having to urge him on so as not to miss the last jeep back to town. There are no taxis in Salento, the mode of transport is a fleet of well maintained Willys Jeeps from WW2. They don’t go fast but they manage to convey 10 or 12 people up the steep road to the trail head, about 15 kilometres from the town. Pedro insisted that we sit in front with the driver in honour of our advanced age. No one complained though 4 of 5 were standing on the back hanging on to the roof bar.

  Pedro was a sweet and naive young man, somehow we always find them and they always gravitate to me to tell me about their sad and lonely love life. To give him credit, he was a fount of information about medicinal and other plants (his grandmother is a herbalist), birds (and he was great at spotting them) the life cycle of the wax Palm (palms are of course not actually trees which makes it ironic that they are Colombia’s national trees) and the history of the region. However when he began reading me his love poems off his phone, written in Spanish of course but he translated as he went, we began to roll our eyes at each other.  

As we walked the rocky trail at the beginning we were passed by trains of mules taking supplies in to isolated farms, and met similar trains loaded with milk containers headed for market. We crossed 7 Indiana Jones style suspension bridges, very wobbly but not scary as there were cables either side to steady on, and one place where we crossed on a large log, usually I hate those but this one had a cable suspended alongside for a handhold.

  Soon the trail got steep and we eventually emerged at a little farm where the people collect a small fee with which they maintain the trail and bridges, and in exchange we got a hunk of fresh cheese and a hot sugar cane and pineapple drink. They had suspended hummingbird feeders all around their porch and the birds were flocking to them. Europeans are mad for hummingbirds since they are a phenomenon of the Americas so cameras were snapping wildly. We like them too but saw so many species in Ecuador, there were only 3 at these feeders but apparently 7 in the park.

On to the really steep bit, which the guide had called “the wall of pain” really exaggerating things, with a number of stops to gather breath we made it up easily and on to another farm with a viewpoint of the largest peak in the area. Of course at that point fog blew in and all was obscured but we didn’t care, it was awfully pretty light with the mists wrapping the tops of the 60 meter wax palms and drifting along the green slopes below the peak. On the way up we saw a quetzal which we had struggled to see in Guatemala where it is the national bird, and a beautiful bird with a long barbed tail called a Barranquillo. The Colombian national bird is the Andean Condor and though they are often spotted on this trail we were not so lucky.

  The way back to the jeeps was an hour through fields of grazing dairy cattle and their calves. The main agricultural activity of the area is dairy production and it is lucrative, the farmhouses are gorgeous with idyllic views. As we hustled Pedro along on this bit, he kept trying to pause (really the man couldn’t walk and talk at the same time) to tell us traditional jokes of the area, most of which required a lengthy preamble to assure me that they were a bit rude but Senor would appreciate them (they weren’t and he didn’t.)

Not to rest on our accomplishments, or to give our aching quads a chance to recuperate, off we went next day to a private nature reserve run by another eccentric but younger Englishman and his Colombian buddy. They somehow came up with the idea of doing an eco project together when they met travelling in Africa, Nick came to Colombia to visit his friend and they decided to do it here. Neither had a biology background but this project was much more organized and impressive in terms of its viability than the coffee Finca. They were 7 years in to transforming a piece of untamed jungle into a sustainable reserve with trails so they can show people around but a strong ethos of non interference with the natural order. They are building a little village of huts so that people can come to stay and study, very well done and professional, again all accomplished with their own study and learning, neither of them was an engineer either. Not sure how viable the thing would be as a hostel, it is 5 or 6 kilometers from town and another hour into the jungle on a very narrow slippery mud trail to the “village” (just think of rolling suitcases…) but I could see study groups getting involved. They have received endorsement from the Colombian Parks Department which is highly organized, so biologists visit them every 6 months and stay for weeks collecting data and making suggestions. A lonely life for them but they were brimming with enthusiasm.

  Four days went by quickly for us, it would be a lovely place to stay longer. As we were leaving on a Saturday the plaza was being transformed into a fair ground with food trucks, beer tents, and dance floors, and every available open space had sprouted “Parquadero” signs for the influx of Colombians expected for the Semana Santa or Easter week holidays. Non planners that we are, we did not realize Easter was part of our trip, and we did not know that everything shuts down for a week in honour of this most important of holidays in a strongly Catholic country.  

Next stop Popayan, site of the second most elaborate Semana Santa celebration in the world (number one is Seville, Spain) where we would have needed to book up to a year in advance for a hotel room over the Thursday to Sunday weekend. So we will look in on this reputedly stunning white colonial city and then leave before the real fun begins. Some day we will do some research ahead…maybe.

Miraculous Medellin

A quick flight brought us to Medellin from Cartagena shortly after noon. We had booked a small hotel in the El Poblado neighbourhood, an area of a zillion bars, restaurants, and hostels, considered a safe place for tourists to stay as the main historic centre is not. Medellin has a wonderful Metro system which makes the city readily accessible wherever you stay.  

  Immediately tried out the Metro to head down town to Plaza Botero, a large park area outside the major art museum littered with massive Botero sculptures. Seems so incongruous to see all these huge forms, naked and attired humans, animals, historic figures — with the usual passers by, fruit sellers, tourists and so on wandering among them dwarfed by their monstrous forms. It is considered good luck to touch them, so many of the rounded forms are shiny from being rubbed. Later we went inside the adjacent Museo de Antioquia which houses a large collection of Botero’s work as well as works by modern Columbian artists. Botero donated his work to the museum over a number of years, and donated many of the modern paintings as well from his own collection.  

  Next morning we hustled down to the Poblado Metro Station early to meet up with a walking tour called Comuna 13. We were the only participants and it turned into a highlight of our stay. Comuna 13 is a neighbourhood, or barrio, that experienced extreme violence during the height of the terrible period during the late ’80’s to early 2000’s when parts of Medellin were basically in the midst of a 3 way war between the drug lords, the para military groups and the resistance groups. At that time Medellin had the highest murder rate in the world. That it is now a relatively safe city seems like a miracle.

Medellin is divided into various comunas. The area where we stayed in Poblado is one of the highest income areas, Comuna 13 among the poorest. Comuna 13 comprises an area of slum housing, originally all squatters’ shacks, which stretches high up a hill side above the city. In 1985 there was tremendous displacement of people from other areas of Colombia due to ongoing conflict and economic instability. There are still 9 million displaced people in Colombia. Many of these displaced gravitated to Medellin and began erecting tin roofed shacks on the open hillsides around the city. When Medellin’s violence became extreme, the people of this barrio where caught in the middle — if they supported one group, the other group killed them, if they supported neither, they were picked off anyway. Pablo Escobar’s cartel exacerbated the situation by paying both the para militaries and the resistance groups to move drugs through the jungle and into bordering countries while encouraging the warfare between them. A lot of the coffee growing families switched to coca plantations and hired para military groups for protection. Thousands died or disappeared, caught in the crossfire.

  In the midst of the violence, community activists began working on solutions to improve the lives of the people without displacing them. When the government finally arrested and imprisoned various kingpins of the drug cartels, extradited some to the U.S., and finally tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar, progress began to be made. Innovative plans were worked out whereby squatters who had lived in their houses for 10 years were considered to own them, and to pay small taxes based entirely on income level. Social housing was constructed on the land seized from drug families. To access the barrios more safely and efficiently a whole series of cable car stations were put in from the top of the Metro system. And even more interesting, a series of six escalators was installed to access Comuna 13. Well lighted and lined by children’s playgrounds, community libraries, new hospitals purpose built to serve the needs of the barrios, they revolutionized the community. All the initiatives came out of the community and were financed by the mayor’s office. The infrastructure is ultra modern, amazingly clean and well maintained, as is the Metro itself, of which Medelliners are vocally proud.

  We went with the guide up the Metro to the top, continued higher and higher on the cable cars (just like the ones at Whistler) took a small bus to the bottom of Comuna 13 and continued by escalator up and up to the top. We visited the community library and the hospital, as well as some of the initiatives like free music practice rooms for kids, gyms and playing fields. All at the community’s behest, and lovingly maintained. A poignant touch is the local cemetery, colourfully painted with graffiti (wonderful graffiti in the area, none of it defaced) in a hopeful theme, the walls hung with plastic bottles full of soil and plants, each to commemorate one of the “disappeared” whom the community lost during the violence.

  A very innovative and inspired vision of social planning to house the poor and homeless, the philosophy is that every person is entitled to a home, no matter what their income level, and that this housing should be provided in the neighbourhood of the people, not in some other place, and at the behest of the community members who make all the decisions about location and design.

  The planned 3 hour tour turned into 4 1/2 as our guide was very eager to answer our questions and seemed pleased that we had so many. We ended up with a mini graffiti tour after I mentioned our new found interest in the art form, and he told us much more of the history of the violence in the city than he usually does because we had so many questions to ask. We were extremely well pleased with the day.

  Our second day we visited the Botanical Garden and the University area, and ate a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant associated with the garden. It was a Sunday, and Medellin, like Bogota, closes down the roads so that people can bike, roller blade, walk dogs, run, and just generally meet friends and hang out all through the city. The garden was full of families, having picnics, huge groups doing yoga and even belly dancing classes, and tons of groups just walking in the peaceful surrounds, steps from a Metro station. Great chance to observe Colombians having a Sunday out.

  A short stay by our standards, and we only decided to include Medellin in our itinerary belatedly, but we are so glad we did. So much of what has been done here is inspiring, city planners flock here for conferences apparently, and it seems that much of what has been done provides a great model for solutions to some of our problems. It takes a willingness to listen to those whose lives are involved, and generous funding by government. None of this was cheap, and all of it was done at the highest of standards both in the buildings and the equipment provided. Maintenance and cleanliness are the highest priority here in all public areas, and the pride engendered is obvious. As we rode the Metro, many people asked us what we thought of it. When we exclaimed our praise, people often said, “It is the heart of our city, it is our culture.” An interesting way to view public transit!

Off now for something completely different, the Zona Cafeteria or Coffee Zone. We are going to Salento, a small town high in the hills, in the heart of coffee growing and adjacent to a huge cloud forest park full of Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm. Cool and peaceful, we are looking forward to it.