Alan’s Colombia Diary
Santa Marta 16 November 6.30am
My last morning in Colombia. I arrived in Santa Marta yesterday and was brought to the Irotama as a guest in a new tower, with a vast apartment overlooking the sea and the infinity pool. The terrace has a hammock and a jacuzzi. Such is life as a guest of the owner, the delightful Ana Maria Diaz, and her husband. I have finally discovered the glamour of film production. Just as well I have no time to enjoy it!
They hosted a lunch for me which included leading figures from local environmental bodies as well as Lucas Drieir and Mauricio Blanco from Gonawindua Tayrona and Bibiana, the forest expert from the film who organised its first showing in Santa Marta and whose foundation has done important research on the state of the sea around here.
There was one other guest, Mama Alejandro, who I thought I had not seen before. I was told he was the Mama from the archaeological site of Pueblito in the Tairona Park, and that a Kogi community had been established there four years ago. I was puzzled. There had been a community there when I filmed in 1990. The question was put to him and he beamed. Yes indeed., and he had been Mama there But they had then been thrown out. Now they are back. I remembered. The park authority had argued that the Kogi were damaging the site. In fact, of course, it was they and the tourism they promoted that were and still are damaging it. And then the penny finally dropped. I recognised him, he recognised me. We had last met in 1990. A few days after I had last met Alvaro Soto. Circles were closing.
Ana Maria’s lunch was a networking event, joining local environmental organisational dots, interspersed with explanations of the family connection between some of the guests and other people I know. Such, I was told, is the nature of the Colombian bourgeoisie. While we ate the hotel staff battled LAN airways on my behalf, trying to check me in to my flight today. LAN had risen to the occasion in the way I have come to expect, saying my reservation had been cancelled due to a (nonexistent) change to my schedule. After about 90 minutes of telephone wrestling my boarding pass appeared.
Eventually Lucas, Mauricio, the Mama and I retired to my rooms to talk about the next step. I had expected other Mamas but their consultations had warned them that more disasters were coming swiftly unless they did a great deal of work right now in the Sierra. But Mama Alejandro was there, and he was important. I was told that he has problems with keeping warm when he goes to the higher sites, and since Maria Elvira had made me the unexpected gift of a fine ruana I gave him my old one. I could not carry two. To my surprise he reacted as no Kogi I have met before reacted. He said “But I have nothing to give in return”. Gifts from younger brothers are accepted as a right. Gifts within the community are part of a system called Zingoneshi, the pattern of exchange in human society and nature, which the Spanish thought of as trade. It is the basis of life in the Sierra.
Before we parted, I told him the price that came with the ruana. Work! Alejandro is the man to do it. From his base at Pueblitio he has travelled widely in Peru and the USA, including visiting the communities in Lake Titicaca (who were deliberately isolated and who I have seen opening up to tourism for the first time, in a carefully managed way), to Machu Picchu, where I have seen how tourism has swept the ground clean and damaged what remains, and he has visited the Hopi, who retain their indigenous identity and tradition while engaging with the white man’s world. We discussed how the Kogi could now participate more in worldwide action to take care of the earth, while we watched the sky darken and a phenomenal tempest appear, pouring rain and lightning over Santa Marta, 8 km away.
So we talked about encouraging people in all countries to form associations to befriend their own river and their own countryside, woodland or landscape. The Mamas will help them. They will communicate directly with all who ask, responding to each group’s pictures of what they are protecting. They will consult and advise. A new movement is being born from Gonwindua, this mountain. Go-na-win-dua means the place where all life is anticipated and quickened, the place which nurtures the birth of all things. They say the foot of the mountain is the origin of the thread that connects all nature and all of us.
Now, Mama Alejandro says, the Mamas will consider how, in practical terms, they will do this – and make clear that what comes backvwhen people ask for help is truly from them. Meantime the associations, Friend of the River, Friend of the Wood, of the Forest, of the Field, of the Desert, should grow and go to work. And the Mamas will speak to them
The great storm has ended. My plane is boarding.
Bogota Saturday 15 November 6.30am
Yesterday I was interviewed by the magazine Semana Sostenible and then went to the University of the Andes. For lunch I met up with the composer of Aluna’s music, the hugely talented and delightful Alejandro Ramirez Rojas, and we then went to the auditorium for a technical check.
The space is impressively appointed and rather huge. I was warned that we were starting the showing in the middle of the Colombia-USA soccer match and at the start of a holiday weekend so it might be rather empty, but in the event it was so full I was told that they had to close the doors and stop people coming in.
The showing was a delight, the audience enthusiasm at the end was magnificent. The Q&A was led by university luminaries and Aluna is clearly being treated as important. I was told that its rating on IMDB has risen to 9.1, which makes it the third highest rated film after The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather, but that is obviously not going to last long. Still, it is rather encouraging just now!
I was asked, as I often am in Q&As, whether we can ever learn the magical power of the Mamas. My answer is that the Kogi are not magicians but are deep thinkers who have some scientific knowledge that we have still to learn, acquired through intimate proximity with and careful learning from, what we call nature. They are actually more rational than us and they have to use words like “sacred” when talking to us because we don’t understand what they would really like to convey.
Trying to explain to us the impact of the destruction of the hill of Hukulkwe was, for them, like trying to explain the effect of tearing down a nuclear reactor to people who have not discovered the science behind it, so they were reduced to saying “don’t do that – it’s sacred!”. But we went ahead and built Puerto Brisa anyway.
I have been told that the prodigious storm and unprecedented ball lightning coincided with the first shipment from the port.
I am also asked what we should do next. I suggest a good first step would be to form associations that adopt rivers, to protect and defend them. The film ends by saying that we do not need to change our lives but we must protect the rivers. It is good advice, I think.
Now I must say goodbye to my wonderful hosts, the elegant, and delightful Maria Elvira Soto and her kindly husband Jose Alejandro, a farmer who reminds me of a genial Desperate Dan.
Back to the Mamas.
Bogotá Friday 14 November 8.00am
Yesterday began with an email confirming that I have been awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the University of Wales Trinity St David. For many years the Tairona Heritage Trust was hosted by the University’s college at Lampeter and they have suggested they could do so again, which would be marvellous.
I had lunch with Alvaro Soto, the archaeologist who played a large role in the restoration of the Lost City and appeared in From the Heart of the World. It was the first time we have met since 1990. He lives in an astonishing apartment in the densely wooded mountain overlooking Bogotá, with huge windows that make the place a spacious and spectacular eyrie.
Aluna is about water and the need to protect rivers and Alvaro has spent years travelling the world’s river systems, examining them by boat and light aircraft, exploring the connections between them and reviewing their present condition. On the way he has made extraordinary discoveries about the possibility of transcontinental navigations and experienced a few other remarkable happenstances, such as discovering and acquiring the ‘lost’ archive of Simon Bolivar’s papers, and literally stumbling over evidence of an unknown 60,000 year old palaeolithic human presence in Burma. We discussed the unprecedented and horrific ball lightning event in the Sierra, and why it has not been accurately reported by media who had an eyewitness account (they preferred to say it was a lightning strike, not really credible on a thatched house below the level of the surrounding trees). We agreed that it is necessary for someone to go to Ramon Gil in his almost inaccessible retreat and record his description.
Alvaro says he is willing to work with the Kogi on a river and land management plan for the Sierra if they want. That is good, obviously.
I then went to the Aluna screening, again at Mundo Wok, which was filled to bursting. Many of the audience were connected to Schumacher College’s extension course here in Holistic Science, so do not need much convincing of the Kogi message. I first had dinner with some of them, prepared by Mundo Wok’s very serious orientally inspired chefs, accompanied by some saki That was a mistake, as my system was still coping with the altitude. Bogota is twice the altitude of the highest point in Britain, and I was on the 3rd floor of the restaurant. (The English expression ‘the mile high club’ can have no meaning to Bogotá’s inhabitants).
I was not at my brightest in the Q&A. I was also disturbed by a conversation with some mycologists who are here for a conference and showed me truly horrific images of insects taken over by parasitic funghi. It reminded me of the giant puffballs in Sax Rohmer’s 1913 story The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu, but they had never heard of that. Scared me as a child.
Bogota Thursday 13 November 9am
Yesterday I went to show Aluna in a large private University in Cali, Universidad Javerian. I arrived to find that there was no HD connection to the projector, which has become a common issue, but the university technicians got on the case and rigged everything very quickly.
With exams just ended people had been dubious about the audience size, but in fact there were well over 100 in the auditorium – may be many more, I am not sure. About 20 of those were students bussed in from a school in a very tough and impoverished area of Cali, exactly the audience Aluna addresses. Their response was strong and urgent – what must we do?
I was given lunch at the University in a dining rom with the students who had arranged the showing, who were delightful. Then to the airport to get to Bogota, where I was collected and taken to a remarkable restaurant with its own cinema, Mondo Wok. It is run by a graduate of Schumacher College, and their work on creating the Cali and Bogota showings has been great.
At the end I was asked about the gold thread – why did the Kogi come to London for it? I had been asked the same question in the morning. It was clearly the question of the day. I explained that they needed to understand how it was made, by whom, and what it consists of, and that is why they had to be present. There are few places in the world that can do it. The thread is a fine polymer filament wrapped firstly in copper, then in silver and finally in a very thin layer of gold. It contains very little gold, just as the gold Tairona macaw in the film contains little gold.
Tairona gold is actually tumbago, copper mixed with a little gold. When the object is made it was copper coloured, and was then treated to dissolve the copper from the surface. How they did this without having any acid has been a mystery. The Kogi had taken me to a warm volcanic spring near Cienega, now threatened by a road and a railway, and said that entering the water was life-enhancing and curative. Water is of course a direct link to the mother.
Professor Alex Rogers pointed out to me that the acidity of the volcanic lakes in the region is sufficient to do the job, so the Tairona probably immersed their copper-coloured creations and when they recovered them they looked totally different, shining gold. The object had been transformed with a surface of incorruptible gold and would now never decay, and this had been done not by humans but by the Mother, in the water. This must have been a well understood alchemy as the Tairona deliberately produced tumbago with different copper-gold colourings, which must have been produced by different lengths of immersion.
Cali. Wednesday 12 Nov. 6.15am.
Yesterday was a pretty busy day. My invitation to Cali had come from Yihad Ghattas, a young and delightful artisan baker, one of a number of Colombians who studied at Schumacher College and are inspired by the Kogi. He had arranged two showings at the cinema museum, Cinewood.
The remarkable enthusiastic woman who found and recorded the Colombian voiceover artists for this version (and who directed me into speaking a decent Spanish commentary), Diana Perez, arranged a bigger showing at the University. This meant split-second timing, which went awry as soon as Avianca announced a 1 hour delay on my flight.
Yihad took me from the airport to Caliwood where I was interviewed by the regional paper El Pais, the national El Tiempo and the local TV station. Under the entirely false impression that I had been witty and entertaining (these are very polite people) I was then taken through gummed-up traffic to a University auditorium where 120 people were waiting to see the film.
Afterwards, I was then transported back across the city for a 9pm showing at Caliwood, where the audience was twice the size of the little theatre space and full of enthusiasm.
Bed soon after midnight, to Yihad’s mother’s beautiful home. Just time to check in for today’s flight before collapsing. Woke this morning to the sound of a downpour. This is supposed to be the dry season, and it ain’t. The climate change has arrived. Everyone, from the audience and the press, asks the same question. Can a film change anything?
I speak about the Mamas’s belief that this film was made in response to a demand by the earth itself, and describe how each day’s filming was directed by the Mamas’ daily consultation with the bubbles of the divining bowl. But what happens next is simply down to us. We know what to do, and not to do. Aluna helps us understand, but that is where the film ends and our responsibility takes over.
Time for breakfast.
Santa Marta airport. Tuesday 11 Nov. 8.30am.
Yesterday the Kogi Mamas were up early visiting a woman who had some kind of health problem, probably sickness, and they were going to help. I was invited to join them but needed some sleep.
I was impressed by their sense of public service to local individuals which seemed unexpected. When I arrived at the Casa Indígena in mid-morning they were waiting with a huge haul of spectacular Tairona funerary pottery – burial urns, pots (some rather large) which had been made to hold gold pieces, and a large painted and apparently glazed pottery ocharina in the form of a very big spiral shell. These, they had told the woman were the cause of her trouble and needed to be restored to the descendants of the dead. I understood more clearly their sense of public service and expect the cure to be a success.
We then discussed Aluna. The Mamas were genuinely delighted with it but wanted to know what I would do to promote it globally. I showed them the Amazon and ITunes sites, and explained that the companies selling it now had a vested interest in promoting it. I also told Gonawindua Tairona that it needs to get its web presence up and running and promote the film itself. That was recognised and agreed. We shall see.
Our parting was emotional, which was a real surprise. Manuel and Shibolata hugged me with real feeling. I have never before experienced personal warmth from Mamas in the 25 years I have worked with them. Definitely time to leave!
Monday 10 November 9:30am
Just back from the splendid breakfast at the Irotama after a dip in the warm sea. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken!
Last night was the public showing of Aluna in the Centre Cultural in Santa Marta, a fine old Colonial building in what is said to be the oldest surviving city in America. The film was set up in the open courtyard, with a hundred seats around an old tree facing the screen. There was a downpour in the afternoon and conventional wisdom declared that the seats would be hard to fill. Samarios don’t go out on Sunday night, publicity had been a bit last-minute, no-one wants to watch a 90 minute documentary in the rain… So we were told.
In fact they had to find an extra 120 seats and it was a dry evening.
This was a memorial to the victims of October’s tragedies: to Jacinto, the murdered son of Santos Sauna, head of the indigenous government organisation Gonawindua Tairona, to the Arhouaco woman and children buried in an avalanche and to the eleven Wiwa burned to death by lightning in their ceremonial house.
I spoke first, expressing the hope that these tragedies, which may all be connected to environmental issues, could become a springboard from which the arguments in Aluna are turned into policy using the nature-management wisdom of the indigenous people. Mama Manuel spoke next, followed by an Arhuaco leader named Cayetano. Then, bang on cue, Mama Shibolata arrived with his 14 year old son from the Sierra, took the microphone and introduced the film with charismatic force. Ninety minutes later the audience gave rapturous applause, tears streaming down many faces.
Ramon Gill was in the Wiwa gathering when the lightning appeared. He describes a brilliant light entering the door, growing, and travelling round the dark interior. As it touched each person they sighed and fell and the fire grew. His son was among them. Utterly terrified, he was convinced he saw a fiery face and stood to do battle with it. By then the whole structure was an inferno. He and the three other leaders sitting with him were unharmed but 11 were dead and 17 hurt. Ball lightning, I suppose?
Now I must go to the Casa Indigena.
Sunday 9 November
Up at 5.30 to go with Kogi to make the ‘pagamento’ that Mama Manuel says is required. I was told that in discussions among the Mamas it was said that I was given the great weight of the Mother’s troubles to carry, which was represented as a mochila, a large bag, which I carry on my back with the strap around my forehead. In Hebrew I guess it corresponds to a mitzvah, the blessing and honour which is also a burden and obligation. I was also compared, to my bewilderment, with Mulkueike. This does not seem a good fit. Mulkueike is the mythic ancestor of a Kogi lineage. He is the youngest of the four sons of the Mother, so he can be seen as a younger brother, but he is also a jaguar being and represents the sun. The nuhue (ceremonial house) is the place of his hearth and where he has his seat.
Mulkueike has no beard but I do share his taste in headgear:
When I was sitting in Mama Juan Mamacatan’s nuhue above Domingueka, comfortably settled on the wooden stool-bench Mama-seat that I was offered, I observed that here I felt very secure in our conversation and was well seated. I seem to have been taken a little too much at my word, but it is clear that there is a deep satisfaction with the film.
We walked a couple of kilometres along the beach to a lagoon in a mangrove swamp, where large iguanas sat in the trees taking breakfast in the company of long-legged birds. As well as the six Kogi there was Peter, Lucas and Peter’s wife Bibiana, the forestry expert in the film and organiser of last night’s showing. We stood on a wooden bridge and were each given a cotton twist in which to place our recollections of our journeys to this moment. I was told to recollect every moment of anxiety, doubt and trouble in the making of ALUNA. Then we each made an anti clockwise rotation, turning our Iife-spindles and continuing the thread.
Mama Manuel then offered the cotton twists to the water to make our payment.
At this point I raised the question of the cotton threads around my wrists. Such threads are called seguranzas, and are thought to offer or symbolise protection, but that is not how I thought of mine. I referred to them only as handcuffs. They were tied on, each by a different Mama, on the day the film wrapped. They stayed on through the whole time of editing and struggling with distribution. Now the process was over, the film had come back to the Sierra, and so had I. It was time, I thought, to be released. There was a consultation and it was agreed. My handcuffs were cut off. Mama Manuel said he will carry them back and a larger consultation will determine where they are paid back to the Mother.
I returned with them all to the hotel for the Irotama’s gift to us of a free breakfast. And I a free man. Maybe
Saturday 8 Nov 11pm
Tonight was the showing in the Universities Cooperativa in Santa Marta. To my delight, Mama Manuel arrived with his son, as well as another Mama and Silvestre, and a young highly capable and sophisticated Kogi who I did not know. Manuel gave an introduction translated by Silvestre, about the need to protect the Sierra, and I spoke about why the film avoids the concept “sacred”. There were enough technical problems with the screen and projector to make the showing nearly two hours late but then a large audience sat rapt, and by the end some (including one hardened anthropologist)’were in tears. I have never had so many people want to be photographed with me before.
The Irotama has provided rooms free of charge for all the Kogi. Manuel tells me that I have to go with him at 6am up a local hill to make a pagamento. It’s now after midnight. Goodnight.
Saturday 8 Nov
It does seem odd that just at this minute the Foreign Office decided to celebrate the disastrous British assault on Cartagena in 1741 by having Prince Charles lay a plaque there a few days ago. It is not surprising that it has now been smashed and officially removed after a local outcry. The largest naval force that had ever been assembled by Britain was sent to make an amphibious assault that was meant to seize Spain’s Caribbean empire to enrich the South Sea Company and British slave traders. A tiny defence force, almost all of whom perished, saw off this vast and bungled attack. Most of the dead fell to disease and starvation, victims of their own force’s planning and logistics. The local defenders are remembered and commemorated here as heroes.
It is bewildering to see the goodwill given to the British Crown demolished in this way. Lady Di was so admired here that many Colombians named their daughters after her. “Diana” is a hugely popular name, and owing to some linguistic confusion, “Lady” is even more popular. “Charles”, however, won’t make it now.
I have just had a call from Peter.
He is transporting Mama Manuel to this evening’s showing and the Mama wanted to say hello. He sounds enthusiastic. I must set off.
Friday 7 November 1pm
The Irotama Hotel, Santa Marta
I am now in my hotel room in Santa Marta, having returned from a swift visit to the Sierra to show Aluna to some of the Kogi.
On landing yesterday I was met by Lucas Dreier, the American anthropologist who has been helping set up the showings here. He took me to the Irotama, which is hosting my stay here free of charge. I have stayed here many times and the welcome was effusive. After lunch (when I was clucked over and force-fed nourishing broth, for which I am grateful) the Gonawindua vehicle arrived. We picked up Lucas and essential shopping – hammocks, toilet paper, water, biscuits, a cellphone. And a Macbook to run the film. Lucas has been thinking of buying one for ages, apparently. Now he has one.
We drove up to Dumingueka, a frontier town constructed for the Kogi with the help of the State about 12 years ago. Unlike older Kogi towns it is designed to be accessible by road, but that road has now decayed so dramatically that it required a specialist vehicle and driver, and even so we got stuck a couple of times. It was intended for meetings with outside officials but that no longer happens. The government built brick facilities with solar power and corrugated roofs. These include a school, a library and a toilet block. Some distance away, and never accessible by road, is the indigenous town.
School buildings at Dumingueka
We arrived after dark. The library has been gifted a brand new 60 inch plasma screen and some 40 people watched. Many did not speak Spanish but they could still follow the film with noisy enthusiasm. One began to cry. He was Alejo, 19 years old and now married to Fransisca. It seems that Mama Shibulata picked two candidates to marry her and she enthusiastically selected Alejo as being not only beautiful but supportive in her work learning to be a Saga, a female Mama. They now have a small daughter and seem very happy. Alejo has come to Santa Marta for the showings and is staying in my room.
Up at 5.30 this morning to go with Lucas to visit Mama Juan Mamacatan, living above the town on the other side of the river. He said that there have been many sudden deaths in the last 18 months, culminating in October’s disasters, and the Mamas have predictions of worse to come. They will not travel to Santa Marta this weekend but will stay making an intense programme of offerings in the Sierra to stave off catastrophe. They will come down later, before I return to England, for a private meeting to plan what should be done to build on this awful situation.
The Mamas confess to being worried, even scared. These will be interesting days.
Thursday 6 November
Got to Bogota fine then tried to check in on LAN for final section of the flight. This was impossible as LAN had, on their own initiative, cancelled my reservation. That took over 2 hrs and meant a short night. I was rescued by my wonderful hosts, Maria Elvira Soto and her husband. Now in the airport lounge LAN have confiscated my hand baggage as overweight, despite the fact that it travelled as hand baggage on the previous legs. I begin to harbour bad jet-lagged thoughts about LAN.
Wednesday 5 November
Late yesterday I was told that on arrival in Santa Marta I am going straight into the Sierra to show Aluna in the new Kogi frontier town of Dumingueka. Since I only have hand baggage this puts a strain on my rolling bag – I have found space for a sheet sleeping bag and towel and will wear a ruana to use as a blanket. Someone will have to find me a hammock.All the material is ready. With the unstinting help of a wonderful team in the UK and Colombia, I have a version of Aluna without subtitles, voiced entirely in Colombian Spanish, for showing to local audiences, and two cinema quality copies on hard drives in my bag. I am flying to Bogota via Miami on American Airlines with just one hour to disembark, clear customs and immigration and get to the next flight’s gate. Discussing this with the cabin crew I am astonished to learn that they take the message of Aluna and the purpose of this journey very seriously indeed. One brings me a photocopy of a very substantial article from the New York Times magazine on the destruction caused to the state of Louisiana by oil and gas extraction and the ruthless political war waged by the companies concerned to evade responsibility. The crew will do whatever they can think of to help me arrive in Bogota on time.