Monday, August 31, 2009

Zona Cafetera, Colombia

I am not a religious man, spiritual yes, but there are few things that I worship. False idol, or just another monkey on my back, the coffee bean happens to be one of those things. I blame it on living in Seattle for 15-years. Yes, I know Seattle sells more milk than coffee, but there are a few passionate artisans in the city roasting and serving Seattleites some excellent coffee (please, don’t even mention Starbucks). Therefore, the thought of a trip to the coffee region of Colombia was like a pilgrimage for me.

I left Bogota on Saturday Aug. 22nd. I had applied for more time in Colombia, but was denied, so I needed to start making my way towards the exit. It would be a day trip to get to the town of Salento, in the state of Quindio, aka, Zona Cafetera (coffee district). Once there, I would spend three days exploring the area, before making a dash for Ecuador.

Along the way, I wanted to make a stop in the town of Pereria, at the northern entrance of the Cafetera. For one, there was a statue of Simon Bolivar (the liberator of Colombia from Spain). True, you could throw a rock blindfolded in any one direction and hear a “clink” from hitting a bronzed Bolivar, but this particular interpretation was unique, and bold. The artist, Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, decided to portray the nation’s hero riding bareback into to battle – naked! How he got away with it, I don’t know, but I needed to see it. The other reason for the stop was to see a cathedral I had read about, made out of the local variety of bamboo, Guadua.

While in a coffee shop in Bogota, I came across an article about a Colombian architect who was raised in Colombia’s coffee district, but who now lived and operated out of Bogota. He has spent much of his professional life advocating the use of bamboo in local construction. Interesting enough on it’s own, but Simon Velez also happened to be the architect that designed the pavilion for the, Nomadic Museum, which houses Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow photography exhibit. Together they compose one of the most impactful and beautiful displays of art I have ever experienced. Currently, in Mexico City, I saw it years ago in while it was in Santa Monica.

Because this area of Colombia is prone to earthquakes and tremors, the flexibility of the Guadua bamboo, and it’s regional availability, make the relationship seem ideal. In 1999 an earthquake struck the area and over 1,000 people were killed. Most of the deaths were attributed to the collapse of cement-based structures, while almost all of the structures constructed with bamboo survived. It’s as if Mother Earth is telling man, “Here, use this material, its here for a reason”. However, sadly, Colombia turned a deaf ear to this voice when it adopted many of Los Angles’ seismic regulations and building codes. Bamboo is not ingenious to California, and therefore is not mentioned the building codes. Per the codes, Colombia builders and architects can only use what is listed. It seems as though the regulators chose to ignore the vast differences of the two geographies, and simply took the easiest way out. Colombia could be an international leader in the use of sustainable “timber grass”, but instead chose to follow.

Once in Pereria, I pulled off the street right onto the brick-paved Plaza Bolivar. I flagged over a “Minuto Girl” so I could make a call to the hostel in Salento. I wanted to reserve a private room for the next three nights. In Colombia, if you want to make a call, and you don’t have your own cell phone, you can pay one of these girls, usually wearing a bright colored vest with “MINUTOS” printed across the chest and back. You pay to use one of their several cell phones - like human phone booths really. Meanwhile, a small crowd was starting to form around the bike. (The call didn’t go through.) People were asking the same questions I always get; How fast does it go? How much did it cost? How big is the engine? Where did I come from, and where am I going? Still sitting on the bike, I am having fun with it all, and having some laughs with everyone. I show them the picture of the bamboo cathedral. Several say that it no longer exists. I ask a gentleman who knows a bit of English if he will take my camera over to the Bolivar statue and take a couple of photos for me. There is no way I can leave the bike at this point with the now 20-25 people encircling me. As he walks away I felt some of the others look at me with a, “what kind of idiot are you?” sort of look. It felt like the time at the Nicaraguan border when I gave a young guy a $100 bill (for my border expenses), my passport, and bike title, and told him if he came back within the hour, I would give him a $10 tip. “What kind of idiot am I?”

I kept an eye on my roving camera, and he did come back (just like the kid in Nicaragua did), proud as punch with three pictures of the naked (and emaciated) war hero. Just then, it started to sprinkle and I remembered my Flip video camera was still attached to the light bar – I was shooting the ride that morning along the Autopista del Cafe. I reached over to unscrew it from the mount before it got wet. It wasn’t there. Gone! My mood turned. All of my new found friends were now suspects. I felt betrayed. The camera was shielded from my view by the bike’s handlebars, so I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting. I suspected the Minuto Girl- she had moved to that side of the bike, and now was backing away. I gave her the evil eye, but didn’t verbally accuse her, I couldn’t, I wasn’t completely sure. I wanted out of there. I put my helmet on, zipped up and left. Thinking it over the rest of the day, I should have handled it differently. Next time I will.

I rolled into Salento a bit dejected, but ready to put the camera incident behind me. Six months on the road, and this was my greatest loss to date – not that bad really. The Plantation House hostel was full but I found a small hotel with a large room and private bath for $25 a night. It had a fenced-in lot next door for the bike. Through the hostel, I was able organized a morning tour of a small coffee roasting operation, followed by a hike through the Cocora Valley.

A group of eight of us piled into the old Willy Jeep at 9:00am, two standing on the back bumper, and took the 30-minute drive up to the valley’s entrance. Once on the hiking trail, it meandered up the valley, over log bridges, into rainforest, and finally up into the cloud forest. On the way down, we pasted green fields speckled with Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm. Walking into the open valley, the 200-foot tall palms were spectacular, creating a bizarre and prehistoric setting. Equally impressive as the tree’s spindly height, was its random and spacious placement. Like it was purposely landscaped with that intent in mind. Along with my hiking mates: a couple from Dublin, and another from London we saw hummingbirds, an unknown furry critter, and a worm that could give an anaconda a slither for its money.

Back in town, cold beers were passed around before dinnertime. My favorite spot for dinner had become Lucy’s. The “tipico” menu was a three-course styled meal typical of the area, made up of the typical cuisine: A soup starter of usually a chicken broth base with chicken and root vegetables, a choice of fried trout, grilled chicken, or thinly sliced flank steak, beans or fries, a salad, fried plantains, a small dessert and a glass of the fresh juice of the day – all for $3. The food was fresh and comforting – good home cookin’ – sort of. This style of eating has been my favorite since hitting Central America.

Immediately after getting into town I began visiting the different coffees shops, sampling the goods. For the most part, I hadn’t been that impressed. The trendy espresso shop around the corner pulled a shot that was not hot enough and had a bitter finish. The day before hitting the road I stuck my head into a narrow little shop at the edge of town, and instantly got a good vibe. The man behind the counter was humming along to an old jazz standard, and moving his hips ever so slightly. I ordered, “tinto, por favor”. In Colombia, black coffee is called “tinto” (as is red wine, i.e., “vino tinto”,) which stands for dark, and oftentimes comes already sweetened. Not speaking any English, he asked how strong I wanted it. I flexed my arm hard, slapped my bicep twice, and answered, “muy!”. He ran water through a filter in a large chrome canister (?) He offered me a form of sugar that was a dried powder from a sugarcane reduction (I am guessing), which proved to be rather mild, and nice. The small cup of black coffee was nutty, rich, with a smooth finish – finally! He poured himself a cup and we both sat in silence in some old theatre chairs along one wall. He read from a paperback, and I from my Kindle. It was peaceful…nice. I ordered another.

The next day I stopped by with the loaded bike on the way out of town. I sat down with my GPS unit, working on the day’s destination with my cup of tinto. Pedro came over with the same exact model of GPS, a Garmin 60CSx. I was a bit surprised. He showed me a nearby area speckled with the “waypoints” that he had saved. (Waypoints are stored positions on the unit, so that you can find your way back at a later time.) Speaking only through my broken Spanish, and a photo album of his, I came to learn that his that his coffee is WILD. He, along with friends and family, pick his coffee beans from naturally growing wild bushes in the neighboring mountains. He washes, pulps, dries, mills, and roasts the beans himself, along with his volunteers. The beans are even gathered in handmade woven baskets made by the ingenious people living in the area where he picks his beans. He packages the small batches of beans and sells to restaurants and individuals under the name of, “CafĂ© Reserva Sachamama”.

I stayed much later than planned. Not speaking a common language, we communicated rather well I think. We “talked” about my trip, and his love of books. We took some photos by the bike, and he proudly presented me with a CD filled with electronic books that I could read during my journey. We have emailed several times since (Google Translate has been invaluable on this trip).

Colombia, you will be missed.


(correction: Salento is not at 8,000 ft, but only 6,500 ft - it just felt like 8,000)

Music is the Allman Brother's "Little Martha"


1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how much you can communicate even when you don't know the same language. I had many a conversation when I traveled in South America where we really just pieced together what little we had in common language wise. Great stories!