Felix Böhm

Two weeks with the indigenous Arhuaco in Colombia

September 2022 Home

I spent this year's April to July visiting Central and South America, taking a break from my studies after growing increasingly frustrated with them. Not that the lectures got worse — if anything they got more interesting because I had more freedom of choice during my master's — but I was struggling to find meaning in what appeared to be learning solely for learning's sake, detached from reality, and having little use aside from occupying the mind.

During these four months, I visited Cuba, then bussed south from Costa Rica through Panama and Columbia. A big goal of mine for this trip was to try out new things and to see what else is out there.

I had loads of cool experiences — and naturally a few bad ones as well — but the most fulfilling parts of these four months were my two volunteering stays. For this second one in Colombia, the ad said something about living and farming with a family of indigenous Arhuaco in the middle of nowhere in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.

Well, count me in.

To get to the remote site I hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi. The driver had been organized for me and was a real pro, meaning that he raced through the trail and the eight rivers at full tilt. I was too occupied with raising my feet high enough to at least not get them completely soaked to think about the probability of kissing the next tree.

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the "heart of the world".

The first thing I saw when I arrived at the site were two dusty kids playing outside with a piece of rope. I was offered some food by their mother Guanavia — rice mixed with pasta, beans, and avocado — then she gave me a tour of the area.

There were three buildings for the family: one bedroom, one kitchen, and one for sacred rituals and giving birth. They were, according to tradition, built out of wood and mud, and roofed with palm fronds. Right beside there was an enclosure for the cows and a stable for the goats. A little further were two more houses, one for storage, and one for the volunteers, and a sheltered place to sit around a campfire.

The place had no electricity, no Internet, and no cellphone reception. Drinking water came from the river nearby, the same we also took our baths in.

The other volunteers. The house on the right is the family's bedroom.

The Arhuaco people live relatively scattered across the Sierra Nevada mountains. Apart from Guanavia and her four children, there normally was at least one Mamo — the wise men of the Arhuaco — and Che, a Mamo in training, at the project site. We were between three to eight volunteers.

The next day, I woke up at three o'clock in the morning, together with the other volunteers. We crawled out of our hammocks, switched on our headlamps, and started a steep half-hour hike under the night sky up to the meditation spot over on the next mountain.

We usually meditated for about an hour and a half until the sun rose over the valley we overlooked. During the meditation, we were supposed to feel into any negative feelings that arose, and think closer about why they were there.

At about eight, we ate breakfast. The following four hours we usually spent with machetes in our hands in the plantations, hacking and burning weeds. On other days we picked coca leaves, herded the goats, and roasted and peeled cocoa beans.

Hacking and burning weeds in the cocoa plantation.

After lunch, we had the afternoon to ourselves. I usually read a lot. The other volunteers and I often played with the kids, we made some music, or went for a swim in the river. We also collected lots of avocados and mangoes from the many trees around, probably the best ones I ever ate.

After dinner followed the círculo de fuego. We sat around the fire and, one by one, recounted how our day went and what we thought about in the morning's meditation. One of the Mamos sat with us and gave us advice after we finished talking. After this reflective exercise, I brushed my teeth in the dark before falling into my hammock, tired but content.

The Mamo Eulogio and I on the day I left.

The Arhuaco are very spiritual. They live in close touch with nature and find many things sacred, such as bananas, coca, certain rocks, the sun, the moon, and a couple of stars. They believe that the mountains of the Sierra Nevada are the heart of the world and that they as hermanos mayores — in contrast to all outsiders, the hermanos menores — are its guardians. According to them, much of the pain we feel stems from exploiting nature, and that one has to repent in form of meditations to heal.

During this trip, I discovered volunteering as a great way to travel sustainably. What works well for a week-long vacation does not necessarily work well for a months-long one. The short-lived hostel acquaintances felt pretty shallow after some time, as well did visiting the classic tourist attractions.

Volunteering allowed me to settle down for a few weeks at a time and recharge, make deeper connections with people, and get a real insight into the culture by actually living with locals. But it's also sustainable in the other senses of the word: it's cheap, and it means you're consuming fewer resources by not rushing from one place to the next. And in the best case, you're even helping other people.

During my two weeks with the Arhuaco, I learned a lot about myself that I didn't expect to learn. Volunteering is what fulfilled the goal of this trip for me: to reflect on my life and how to continue after I return. It's what gave the trip meaning and made it feel worthwhile.

For the way down from the mountain, back to civilization, I decided to walk instead of riding the motorcycle rocket again. The city felt overwhelmingly loud and full of distractions. In the West, we have lots of comfort but also seem to always be stressed, always with the next task on our mind.

It's nice to remember that life can be so simple.


Footnotes

  1. I also purposely didn't take my laptop with me and managed to almost completely avoid dealing with anything related to my studies or programming during the trip.
  2. The Arhuaco are one of about a hundred remaining indigenous tribes in Colombia. Indigenous people make up around 4% of the country's population.
  3. I later learned that the rope is the culebra (snake) and that you have to hit it with a stick.
  4. This rice with pasta mix is called arroz con fideos. It doesn't sound like much, but it was delicious.
  5. The coca leaf is an important element of the Arhuaco culture. The leaves are dried over a fire and chewed with lime made from burnt and crushed sea shells. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It takes 2-12 hours for the effect to peak. Coca leaves are the main ingredient in the cocaine production process. Coca in its natural form does not seem to induce addiction.
  6. The Arhuaco have their own language. Some of them learn Spanish when they are older. I speak Spanish reasonably well, enough for simple conversations, but there were a few times I wished I could speak it better. This was one of them.
  7. It's very refreshing to not be constantly asked if you want a taxi ride. And somehow pretty cool when people ask you if you're visiting family if they learn you're from abroad, because why would anybody come to El Molino, Colombia?