With Love and Light: a Diary from the Desert

The following is an adaptation of a diary I wrote during the four days I spent travelling around the Guajira Peninsula, the northernmost part of South America, with a friend. Sam was feeling ill and not up to coming so I wrote the diary for him, as a way of sharing my experience.

 

Day 1.

We’ve arrived in Cabo de la Vela. The sun is setting now. I’m swaying in a brightly coloured hammock, as the sea becomes a deeper blue the more the sky is streaked with orange and pink.

After we left you in Palomino, we trudged up to the main road in the blinding heat and pretty quickly got on a bus to the small city of Riohacha. Maybe a couple of hours later (and one funny conversation involving a woman drawing a picture of a taxi on a pad of paper, before realising I understood Spanish) we were climbing into a shared taxi to get from Riohacha to Uribia.

Uribia was a dusty place, we only really saw the market street: fruit shacks, shops piled high with ‘supplies’ (a.k.a. biscuits and tiny sealed bags of water) and pick-up trucks with precarious piles of boxes and luggage balanced on their roofs. After buying our own supplies for the next few days, we climbed into the back of a truck (along with an engine, 8+ large boxes full of eggs amongst other items and several other people) and set off.

The journey was one of extremes. The intense yellow of the pancake-flat desert, beneath the vivid blue of the sky. We could see the smudges of a low mountain range to one side and glimpses of the sea to the other. Sometimes the flat plain turned into a thick cacti and shrub forest, with so much litter caught in the plants.

After a while we stopped at a collection of really basic shacks; an assortment of planks, bits of metal and plastic used to make the walls. And the rusty remains of a wheelchair balanced on the roof of one (nope, no idea why).

Over the next hour or so, we stopped maybe six or seven times to shed parts of our truckload, but eventually we arrived in the village of Cabo de la Vela, just before the engine loaded in the back succeeded in squashing me into a corner.It was easy to find a place to stay, a local strung up hammocks for us on the second floor of his restaurant, covered with a corrugated roof but otherwise open.

So here I am, swinging in my rasta-coloured hammock, the darkness fast pushing away the light, and the streetlamps along the main (only) road (sandy track) lighting up this tiny settlement.

Day 2.

I woke up early to find I was facing sunrise. No contact lenses in meant that the sky seemed to be ablaze with orange.

Last night, after I wrote to you, we went for a wander to find food and see the village a bit. The guidebook makes it sound like this village is really end of the line. Maybe it’s because I’ve been away a while now, but getting here wasn’t as ridiculously difficult as I thought (comparable to the difficulty of being off the gringo trail in Bolivia, I’d say, but now I have better Spanish, and therefore fewer moments of utter confusion). And the village itself has electricity everywhere, even one bulb hanging from the roof where our hammocks are strung up, another thing I wasn’t expecting. From what I could tell in the streetlamp-lit darkness, the village is a sand track lined on either side: towards the sea there were wood and reed constructions consisting of a roof and one wall (the wind is pretty ferocious here in the evenings), and on the other side, restaurants and small shops. A couple of things I have noticed: firstly, the woman here wear these long dresses, really loose and always brightly coloured, with patterns of flowers, or something natural. And secondly, we’re back to a higher level of gender assumptions than I have been experiencing recently, though the consequences of this aren’t always negative (when we arrived in Uribia, for example, Kev was swamped by eight guys when he got out of the car, all trying to sell him the next leg of our journey, whereas I just got out and stood quietly to one side).

Women selling mochillas, shoulder bags worn across the body by the Wayuu

Women in Cabo de la Vela selling mochillas, shoulder bags worn across the body by the Wayuu

It was pretty nippy in the night. Wore all my tops, pulled my buff up to my eyes and my cap down low over my face, and used my sarong and towel as a blanket. I must have been a strange, faceless sight. But it did the trick. A very drunk local wandered up to our floor at some point in the night. Kev dealt with him well, attempting to reply to his incoherent mumbling and offering him water, and I stayed quiet, just muttering the odd translation every now and then. We had a couple of visits from him throughout the night.

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We’re at the beach now. After breakfast (frosties and UHT milk in a tupperware box we begged from the restaurant), Kev walked all the way along the beach and an hour later I took a motorbike taxi to meet him at El Faro, the light tower. At first, the motorbike streamed past the beach shacks and restaurants of the village, but then the buildings thinned out, so that there was only the desert to one side, and the beach on the other, with the odd palm leave thatched shack and a boat here and there on the sand. With the polarised glass of my sunglasses, the glare of the sun became sunlight on a sea of vivid turquoise and deep blue patches. Utterly stunning.

We drove along the carretera (track through the low cactus shrubbery) until we came to the end of the promontory. There was a small hillock, with the light tower at the top and a small shack (roof on supports) for shade at the bottom. Next to the shack, there were two women crouched in the sun, wearing the bright dresses of the area and with blackened faces (which as Gabriel García Márquez informed me recently in the novel I’m reading at the moment, is because they were using grey mud as sun protection). The beach here, next to the light tower, is a small, crescent-curve of sand backed by low greeny-black cliffs. There are only maybe twenty-five people here. For quite a while, I sat on the sand right by the sea’s edge, where the foam came fizzing to meet me, and thought about you and Jo. _DSC5717 (Large)I wish I could share this with you both. The effect of the sun and the scenery means that right now I’m in a dream-like state. The sun is so hot that the light seems almost white, and the only sounds are the waves breaking, the wind, and the odd machete swipe from a group of three guys camped in a nearby corner of the beach who are using dry thorny sprigs to fuel a fire to cook over.

Palomino, and you, seem a long way away. If you were here too, we would stay here several days I reckon. Til our souls were stretched as flat as the desert, and we were somehow transformed by the place, a little.

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It’s dark now. We just got back from dinner. We moved accommodation to stay on the beach, two hammocks strung up beneath the roof of a (cactus?) wood shack on the sand. The family who live here have so many kids, who ran around with Kevin’s iPad when we arrived, making videos of themselves waving ‘hola’ at the camera and leaping about on the beach.

So, to continue from where I left off in the afternoon. After a couple of hours we moved beaches from the crescent to Playa de Azucar. To get there, the two of us balanced on the back of a mototaxi which bumpily drove us across a swath of desert, and suddenly the sand changed colour and we were stood looking over an ochre yellow beach tumbling into the rich blue of the sea. We climbed the 100m pointy hill overlooking the beach, and got buffeted about by the wind as we gazed over the landscape.

Off for a very early night before an early wake up tomorrow. Καληνύχτα.

Day 3.

Right now I’m sat alone, on a beach of hard, flat, burnt-yellow sand looking out across Hondita Bay.

This morning we got up at five. The rest of our group didn’t, however, so we sat outside the designated restaurant in the dark for a while before a jeep, and then the rest of the group, turned up.

The ride was a bumpy one. I was sat right at the back next to a French couple, Marge and Yann, and the Marge’s head kept smacking on the roof, we were bouncing around so much. The desert alternated between wide flat plains, and low, dense, thorny forests. We passed by a small freshwater lake, shining like a mirage, with a small group of flamingos delicately wading through the shallow water.

Then, we came to the shores of a green sea. The boat ride was pretty short but spectacular. The sea seemed more like a lake, surrounded by yellow cliffs, the coastline runkled around us so that it was difficult to tell whether the cliffs we were passing were islands, headlands or small peninsulas. When I saw a map on the wall of our accommodation later it made more sense. It is almost like a lake, with only a tiny opening connecting it to the sea, the bay inside like a hidden jasper-green gem. As we approached our destination, the large kites of kitesurfers wheeled above us, and one guy sped over the waves close to us and leapt into the air giving us a cocky peace sign mid-jump. Kevin pronounced him a ‘wanker’ but was grinning at the audacity of the move, but I was struck by the perfection of the leap, the moment of suspension in the blue air above the green sea and golden cliffs.

Our accommodation, when we arrived, was in fact more fancy than Cabo de la Vela, by virtue of the fact that it had flushing toilets with loo roll, as well as actual buildings (admittedly made of mud/sand, but more sturdy than thin cactus wood). We’re going to be sleeping in two of a series of bright hammocks out the back, covered with a roof and protected with one wall.

A Wayuu house we passed during our wander

Kev and I set off to explore. We wandered off in one direction, picking our way through the cacti and thorny bushes. We passed a couple of conglomerations of mud shacks but otherwise it was simply the arid desert, framed on both sides by green sea. The ground was scattered with bones (like the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, but less dramatic and more realistically proportioned), mostly goats and fish I think, and dotted with the huge shells of seasnails, sometimes the size of my hand. I picked up one and kept swapping it for the largest and most beautiful. I normally wouldn’t take a seashell, but seeing as these were in the middle of the desert not the beach, and there were hundreds along the path we took alone, I decided to make an exception.

Kevin carried on walking, hoping to get to the mouth of the bay and I walked back a short way, to this beach, which I particularly liked for a small curve of mangroves to one side a few metres out to sea. By this point I was carrying five large snailshells, so I cleaned them out and lined them up on the sand. I know which one is for you.

I like being by myself, especially in a place where I can’t see another human nor any evidence of one. Just the ochre cliffs, the hard flat beach, the mangroves, and across the green sea, the runkled shores of the other side of the bay.

You would have burnt like the white boy you are in this heat.

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I’m perched on the edge of my hammock right now. Not a fan of this hostel. There are at least 60 hammocks, plus a few rooms, and when we got back from our exploration this morning, the eating area was so packed that food was an hour plus wait, so we had to go without before our tour (I ate supplies we bought before so that I wouldn’t go all hangry [hungry + angry] on Kevin).

Our tour was great though, for two reasons. Firstly, where we went. Stood in the back of a truck with wooden sides, bit like an open cattle truck, we bounced along the paths through the desert. We stopped by Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of the entire continent (stereotypical jumping traveller photo to show you), then a look out across the bay, and finally the dunes, huge, fine-sand dunes which immediately dropped into the ocean. I bounded down (others in our group chose to roll, either like a kebab or roley-poleying like a wheel all the way down), then went for a dip. By this point we were all very hungry from our missed lunch, and ready to head back.

The second reason the tour was great, was our group. Besides us two, there was the French couple and two Colombiano couples, so most of the time we spoke Spanish. The Colombians (well, 3x Colombians, and one Czech who has lived in Bogota for several years) made for a lively group. We learnt slang, listened to music from around Colombia on their phone as we drove back to the hostel, and I found myself wishing you were here because you would have had a great time of it.

When we went to order food, once we were back at the hostel, we found two green pet parrots sat on the low kitchen roof, and then people’s arms, mimicking human laughter, a squawking ‘ha, ha ha!’ which made the considerable audience laugh in response, an endless cackling cycle of laughter.

Day 4.

We’ve just arrived back in Cabo de la Vela, an interesting morning considering all we’ve done is travel.

A cockerel crowing as it wandered amid the hammocks woke everyone up at 5 and persisted to ensure no one fell back asleep. So, by seven we were all ready to go. The boat ride back across the bay passed without incident, slower than on the way there as this time the boat was weighed down by more people, but that only meant the prow was lower and I could see out forwards. So beautiful, the blue, the ochre, the green, in strips across my vision.

All that is left of the village of Portete

It was the jeep ride after that which was somewhat eventful. After a while of bouncing through the desert, we stopped on the shores of another bay. There was a pile of black ashes close to where we had parked up and the ruins of a few mud houses a short way away. This was what remained of the village of Portete. In 2002, the right wing paramilitary slaughtered every single one of the 100+ inhabitants because they refuse to pay them ‘tax’ on the narcotraffic they were funnelling through the village.

Not too long afterwards we came to a queue of several jeeps travelling in the opposite direction, pulled over by a few army guys. Sat in the very back and unable to understand their rapid Spanish, I didn’t understand what it was about until we pulled away again. Apparently over the last few weeks, the bodies of children from around here have been turning up without organs, so the army were checking all vehicles, and one jeep had refused. Felt like thud back to earth. The Czech guy, Radim, explained to us a bit about the Wayuu people who inhabit the peninsula. Colombian laws don’t apply to the Guajira peninsula. The army comes in for higher matters (which the child murders count as) but generally justice is internal. At Punta Gallinas, for example the three hostels are owned and run by one family and in Cabo de la Vela there are only a handful of families. There is a chief and all decisions and adjudication goes through him. No one else can build on their land, and even they themselves must ask for permission from the chief. The men can have multiple wives (paid for in goats and money, a woman’s minimum value determined by how much her mother was worth). Radim told us that an anecdote from Camarones, an indigenous village between Riohacha and Palomino, where they had stayed for a night recently. There was a murder a few weeks back, one man killed another (he didn’t know the reason why), and so a friend of the victim killed the murderer, and it was considered sorted. When I asked how they were certain who the murderer was, Radim said he’d asked the same thing and the answer was ‘we all knew’.

We were returning via a shorter route than the one we travelled to get there, and so, for a while, there were ‘roadblocks’ (thin rope strung across the road and fixed to trees) created by kids of the area. The driver paid them each a small tip to get through, evidently because he was taking us, outsiders, across their land.

Once we were out of roadblock region, we came to another conglomeration of several vehicles. There had just been a robbery a short way up the road and as several cars belonged to Colombians from other parts of the country, they were afraid to continue (with our native driver the thieves, outsiders, would not target our vehicle apparently). After a few minutes we came to a set of train tracks, and the car which had been robbed was pulled over there. Everyone got out to help, offering phones for calls etc., and I saw a teenager and kid (less than 10 years old) sat in the back of the car, crying. The dad said four men had held them up at gunpoint, taking their documents, phone and money. A pick-up truck which had also pulled over offered to help; the stolen phones had GPS, so the teenager and mother hopped into the truck along with several army guys (they had no transport besides a tank…) and they drove off to track the thieves.

All this in the space of less than two hours.

Our driver had to get back fast to do another run in the afternoon, so begging our forgiveness, he sped up, demonstrating his exceptional driving, though the speedy ride was extremely brain-rattling and spine-thudding.

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I thought the journey home would be uneventful from there, but the trend set on the journey back to Cabo continued. After the eight of us ate in Cabo (lobsters for most of the others, and due to an egg shortage in the village, very little for me), we said goodbye to the Colombians and Czech, who are making their way back to Bogota on their motorbikes over the next 2 or 3 days. Kev and I, along with the French couple, jumped into the back of a pick-up truck. The driver wanted to get to Uribia within an hour, so we were soon zooming through the open desert, clutching the bars of the roof cage, as the hot air rushed past us and our bodies’ shock absorption was put to the test. We passed a motorbike parked up, and realised it was two of our friends.Our driver, having obviously spotted their waving, turned around and drove back to help, our explanations that they were our ‘amigos’ being good enough for him. A passing jeep stopped too, and after much discussion and gesticulating, the 6 or 7 men present lifted the motorbike into the back of our pick-up. We climbed in around it, plus two extra people now, and sped off, quickly regaining our previous speed.

After a while we passed the jeep which had stopped to help with the motorbike, its bonnet up. As a freight train with 150 carriages of coal passed (yes, I painstakingly counted them, though the exploitation of the peninsula’s resources is a story for another time), more discussion concerning vehicular logistics ensued, then we set of again, now towing the jeep behind us. Our speedy journey to Uribia had turned into ‘leave no man behind’, as Kevin put it, and we arrived in town a cumbersome entourage of multiple vehicles. We then actually said goodbye to the Colombians and climbed into a shared taxi headed for Riohacha, an uneventful journey besides a touch of sleepy drooling on Kev’s part.

In Riohacha we found a pick-up truck heading towards Palomino. As it left the city, more and more passengers climbed aboard until we numbered twenty-two people, one baby and one large golden retriever. We were packed in tight, squashed on all the benches, some people on the laps of others, some sat on stools in the ‘aisle’. The attention of the people in the back moved between the antics of the dog, the 10-month-old baby who all the women cooed over and passed around, and a conversation Kev and I were having with a Colombian in English, which therefore made it utterly fascinating. I related a few anecdotes from our day’s travel, and the Colombian translated for his girlfriend, as the whole truckload listened in, whilst pretending not to.

Eventually, 12 hours after we had left Punta Gallinas and the harsh, feral, wildly beautiful landscape of the peninsula, we were walking down the dusty track through Palomino towards the hostel, towards you.

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