A Colombian Encounter

 

Sitting in a café with a friend high in the Colombian Andes, we had nothing to do but look across the village plaza and wait.

“How do you know she will come?” my friend asked after several hours.

“She’ll come,” I said. There was no way to contact the shepherd we were waiting for. “We just need to wait.”

Little had changed in the two years since I had last visited. Old men in home-spun parkas strolled across the cobbled plaza in the shadow of a stone convent. A group of teenagers kicked a soccer ball down a narrow street. In the distance, mountains were capped with snow. Behind us, slopes rose above the village into clouds, where the páramo, a rare alpine landscape, acted as a giant sponge which returned water to the village in tumbling rivers.

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Little had changed, that is, but for the boy leading a donkey across the plaza. His hair still fell down his back in a long black ponytail, and he walked with the swagger of a six-year-old returning from a day tending sheep in mountain pastures. When the donkey pooped on the plaza and an old man stopped to chide the boy, we watched the boy deftly convince the man to share candy from his pocket. But, from the café, I could see that the boy had grown several inches since I had last seen him.

“I know that kid,” I told my friend. “His name is Benjamin. His mom will be coming soon.”

We stood, paid, and went to find the boy’s mother. In my pocket I felt the key to her house, which she had given me with a tearful farewell two years before. She had approached me and several traveling friends as we sat on the plaza fountain, quickly inviting us to stay in her home. I had remained with her family for ten days, exploring the surrounding mountains and accompanying her to milk cows and tend sheep. At the time, I had been traveling south on a trans-America bicycle journey. Now, I was heading north to conduct research in Mexico. I could not travel through this part of the world without paying her family a visit.

Leaving the café, my friend and I followed a road sloping down to a river. The buildings on either side of us were whitewashed, red tile roofs and olive-green shutters complimenting rhododendrons filling the windows. The air was fragrant with flowers and eucalyptus trees.

Rounding a corner, we found Benjamin’s mother crossing a stone bridge with her daughter, Isabella. The mother was timeless, black hair framing a weathered face above her parka. The daughter had grown, with sharp features and long hair spilling over her blue sweater. As we approached, the mother looked up.

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“Yonny?” She asked, unfazed. Yonny, is my easily-pronounced Spanish nickname.

“Hola, Olga,” I said, holding the key.

“It has been a long time,” said Olga, continuing down the street. “Come. It is time for dinner. How long will you be staying this time?”

In Colombia, it is common for people to tell visitors that the real danger is that you will never leave.  In that small Andean village, a piece of my heart never left.

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