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Popayan: Carrying the Faith

Popayan, Colombia

Had I been feeling superstitious, I never would have gone in the first place.

There was the dead guy, for starters. Dying, anyways, slumped against the meat display at the carneceria across the street from my apartment, hands clutching the hole in his gut which appeared minutes earlier from a gun which nobody had heard. That could have been a bad sign. But then, at the metro stop in Poblado where I would meet Steve, a bus overturned on the rainy night highway below and one-by-one passangers escaped kicking out emergency windows. Not the best omen for someone about to hop on a bus for eight hours.

Fortunately, I was feeling bold and non-chalant. Life is transient. I had no time to contemplate the broader significance of daily mundane misfortunes.

We materialized in Cali sometime the next morning, groggy from the anti-nausea pills and poor sleep. We drank some coffee. Another hour south by bus brought us to Jamundi, where Steve´s mother welcomed us joyfully. She was the embodiment of all admirable maternal qualities, always making sure we had enough to eat and that Steve´s sweater was pulled down tight and kissing us both on the cheek everytime we left the house.

Jamundi was hot and dry, so we biked to the river and jumped off some rocks, drank a slow beer and chatted with the locals. Then back to town, where Steve introduced me to the heart and soul of Jamundi. One thing that I liked about Steve´s style of cultural introduction from Day One is that, rather than beating around the bush of tourist bullshittery, he takes you straight to the source of what matters most - the food. In accordance with this philosophy, we proceeded to slurp down a couple world famous Jamundi cholados - cups of shaved ice decorated with cuts of fresh fruit and sauced in sweet condensed milk - smiling beneath a harsh midday sun.

Around town, then, to meet the locals. Steve has friends in all circles, representing all aspects of Jamundi personhood, but I quickly saw that each of them have one thing in common: they all like to jam. So we turned up the volume in various jam rooms across town and rocked, funked, and bluesed the day away.

The night we met up with a friend of Steve´s, Catarina, a beautiful young girl who´s recent pregnancy was visible through a tight red dress. We hopped in a taxi and disappeared through the cow fields. Some time later, a vast glowing palace churned over the horizon and came to a halt aside the cab window. We got out. The palace turned out the be the local shopping mall, conveniently located at least twenty minutes from anything.

We sat down at an outdoor bar kiosk called ¨Rock and Pop¨, which would make a great title for a future cult classic about an Elmore Leonard style dope smoking strangler from the midwest with a knack for cherry Tab. The radio played Air Supply and Extreme, not the best dancing music, but it didn´t matter. Catarina, the one girl present, was prohibited to dance lest the baby slip out in the midst of a heated salsa and get lost half-developed amongst high heels and the urgent shuffling of feet.

A couple beers later, the mall began to take effect. Commercial centers have a way of bringing out the shadow side in me, the inner Sundance Kid. A rare hostility beheld me. I felt like Han Solo, an outlaw, liable to cut to the core of you with one well placed remark and slap a hooker with a satin glove on the way out.

I got the creeping urge to destroy everything in sight - demolish the department stores, dismantle the disco, peel the paint from the panaderia, blow up the butchery, disect the drogeria, implode the info booth, trash the television, obliterate the offices, heap the habedaschery - if only to see what remains when the surface is gone, making the whole hoax tick.

The notion was soon forgotten as we breezed back through the bovine barrios to a late night Jamundi. Inside a friend´s house, people sang reggae and country karaoke through a keyboard, liters of volatile aguardiente circulating constantly. The music hit a high note and so did I, so I grabbed the mother of the house and we spun around the living room breaking loose with dance moves that would have launched Catarina´s wee embryo halfway to Aruba.

Then she read my aura. It was straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez tale. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she told me of spells and manipulations, confirmed secret suspicions of malevolence, then gave me a purple crystal for protection and told me to be wary of women, keep an eye on that money!

The next day, at the suggestion of Steve´s father, we hit the highway. He said my be-gringo-ed disposition would put us at an advantage amongst the bustling holiday traffic. He was a man of serious appearance, but, as I would find out over the next week, full of a certain brand of humor. But it must have been no joke, this time, as the third car to pass swooped us up and off we went to Popayan. A half hour later we were milling around the side of the highway, as oblivious as our benefactors as to the mechanical problems which prevented the vehicle from going an inch further. But in no time off we went again, this time in the back of a Jeep which deposited us in Santander, where a bus would take us the hour or so more to Popayan.

The core of Popayan is a colonial downtown dating back over 500 years, everything painted white and not a single traffic signal. A church is visible from any given point and the streets are bustling with indigenous Guambiano vendors, who still wear traditional low-cut witches boots, black and purple shawls, and comical little Charlie Chaplin bowler caps. The town reaches capacity during Semana Santa, aka Holy Week, the latino version of Easter which draws crowds for the Catholic processions, said to be second best in the world after Spain.

We stayed at Steve´s grandparents house, where over the course of the week more family members showed up to take part in the festivities. A maid prepared a lunch each afternoon based on Steve´s grandmother´s recipies - soups of tripe, seasoned meats, patacones with heavenly sauces, and of course, rice and beans.

We also sampled the local specialties around town, the best of which were empanaditas pipian - minitaure empanadas filled with potatoes and mashed peanuts, dipped in a sauce of peanut and aji peppers. These are accompanied by a champu, which looks like a glass full of vomit but takes like sweet, succulent American pie gone liquid and chunky. Finally, there is the chontaduro, an orangish fruit thing with a large black pit which comes from a type of palm. The chontaduro is coverd in honey and salt and tastes somewhat like a fibrous yam. Yum.

Back at the house, Steve´s cousin Paulo filled me in on the history of Semana Santa in Popayan. The tradition dates back 450 years and involves a two or three hour procession of large, heavy ¨pasos¨ carrying lifesize figurines depicting biblical scenes. The pasos are carried by eight ¨cargueros¨, four in the front and four in the back. Paulo´s grandfather had started the tradition in his family line 70 years ago and had carried for 55 years. This would be Paulo´s eighteenth year as a carguero, a role which he took proudly, humbly, and reverently.

¨In reality the pasos are very heavy,¨ Paulo told me, ¨but when you are carrying you don´t feel any pain. You carry with the strength of your heart. You carry with your soul.¨

A few days later I had a chance to carry one of the heavier pasos depicting two women at the feet of Jesus as he carried the cross. I carried for about half a block (next to a man who must have been over fifty and carried for about eight blocks) and felt it in my shoulder for three days. The cargueros, who carry over thirty blocks and several hours, are left with welts which resemble a softball surgically implanted on the collarbone.

The processions began on Tuesday, with the crowd growing larger every night until Friday, which is considered the most important procession. Back at Steve´s grandparents house, everyone was chatting anxiously as Paulo, Steve´s younger brother Christian, and several other family members were dressed in the living room in blue robes and caps. Girlfriends, sisters, and aunts pinned minture wreaths to the white sashes which draped over the robes.

Later, on the streetside, the military band blocks away echoed down the whitewashed corridors. Young boy/girl scouts in blue class A uniforms and arms linked cleared the road followed by street sweepers in dust masks and yellow jumpsuits. Then came the junior police, eight-year olds looking stern in stiff uniforms. Behind them more children in red frilly robes ringing bells, looking like high priests from the inquisition. The band arrived - glockenspielers, booming bass drums, women in heels with hand cymbals, the percussion artillery, then the brass. The music was mournful, militant, and Christmasy - the type of songs you might hear at the funeral of a high-ranking elf who fell valiantly in a hopeless and bloody quagmire with the nefarious grinchlings of the south pole.

The first paso arrived, adorned with candles which Steve´s grandfather makes by hand and depicting one of the Catholic saints surrounded by fresh flowers. The cargueros paused with a faraway look in their eyes and propped the paso up on four poles made from the same palm which produces the starchy chontaduro fruit. More pasos, then, followed by bands playing music which makes you think of the moment Bambi died, politicials, a beaming Miss Colombia (straight from Popayan) waving to the flashing cameras, more pasos depicting Jesus, Mary, the whole cast, a mobile symphony playing a song which evokes images of the last dinosaur collapsing in the middle of a vast desert and, oddly, a Simon and Garfunkle song which Steve later told me has been converted into a tradtional hymnal. The tail of the carnival was brought up by soldiers carrying candles and rifles, and finally, a single street vendor shouting ¨Mani! Mani! Mani!¨

Which means peanuts.

The next day we woke up early-ish and piled into a bus advertising Medellin Rum. Instead of seats there were bar stools lining the open-air sides making plenty of room to dance behind the caged-in divers pit. Somone yanked the generator and the music spewed forth as we wheeled around town, collecting various people who all turned out to be more or less related before zooming off at top volume into the countryside. Like something out of a commercial, someone produced a bottle of rum and we all smiled approvingly as the accordians blared from the speakers. The gang was fairly grinning by the time we pulled up at the hilltop country house.

The women began cooking rice and boiling up a traditional concotion of ¨sancocho¨, a large stew of meats, vegetables, herbs, and really anything you want. The men kept drinking. I fell asleep in a hammock. When I awoke, the grandfathers and uncles were drunk and intrigued by the pale visitor. What was I doing here? How did I like the women? Did I need another rum? Nada mucho, me encantan, y claro que si, Señor!

We passed the day like this - talking, eating, sipping rum - until finally we all heaped back into the party bus and rambled off down the rutty mountain dirt road. We were feeling inspired, it seemed, especially the grandfathers and uncles, who all took to the dance floor, flailing around in an inebriated, stumbling salsa. One of the girls grabbed my hand and someone slapped a straw hat on my head and off we went, twirling recklessly to the beat. At Steve´s urging, I cut loose with The Dance of The Gringo, one of the only true remaining esoteric arts, and wowed the locals with my deft, straight-from-two-decades-ago gyrations.

The next night we took the 11pm bus from Cali. We arrived at the terminal in Medellin early in the morning. The sun had not yet topped the eastern mountains. Coffee vendors roamed the streets. The air was warm and welcoming.

At once I longed for and felt at home.

This Rocked
Good Writing
permalink written by  chaddeal on April 14, 2009 from Popayan, Colombia
from the travel blog: The Great Pan-American Synchronistic Cycle Extravaganza Unlimited
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Wow! What a fascinating, interesting, and fun time - as always, your descriptive writing really drew me in and I almost felt like I was there at times (but didn't quite get a good taste of that rum!). Really enjoyed this writing - from the somber start to the joyful finish. Love, Dad

permalink written by  Steve Deal on April 16, 2009

Hi Chad, I really enjoyed this blog, full of fascinating facts about Semena Santa and the experiences you had in Popayan! Your writing is clever and often makes me lol,ie.laugh out loud :-)!
The photos were good, too, especially of you imbibing the tall glass of fruity "vomit". lol(Love you lots), Ma

permalink written by  Viki Deal on April 16, 2009

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