We were trundling down Colombia’s main coastal highway in a local bus, fresh from Tayrona Park and on our way to Palomino, when I saw them. Two boys dressed head to toe in white, standing solemnly, their bare feet curling in the dirt. Brothers perhaps; definitely together, members of the same community.
The bus moved on quickly and they were gone again – but their image stuck in my memory for the rest of the journey.
Once we’d reached our hostel, mere steps from the beach, I found out where the boys came from. One of the posters at the entrance, next to the desk where a friendly Colombian checked us into our dorm room, was a poster.
“Visit an indigenous tribe!”
The slogan jostled for space amongst a montage of photos featuring empty swathes of sand, palm trees, and the ruins of the Lost City. The Dreamer hostel where we were staying organised day long outings to visit a local Kogi community – a group of nomads descended from the Tairona people who had successfully managed to preserve their traditions and culture, remaining outside of the modern Colombia.
The idea of taking a tour to meet these people at once fascinated and repulsed me. On the one hand I was really interested in the Kogi and wanted to learn more about them, but I also didn’t want to be a vulgar spectator, staring at a tribe of people like animals in a zoo.
So despite spending the next four nights on the edge of the Caribbean sea at Palomino beach, I abstained from visiting the Kogi.
What I didn’t know was that, in a rather roundabout way, they’d be visiting me.
Seeing the Kogi people – without meaning to
The next time I saw a member of the Kogi, we were wandering up the dirt track from our hostel that led to the main highway. Palomino is a tiny place, marked briefly on the major coastal highway by a stretch of shops and restaurants that take less than ten minutes to walk from end to end.
Off the highway, a few dirt roads lead down to the beach, where the proliferation of hostels and guesthouses exist. But for these, there would barely be a tourist influx in Palomino.
As we stopped at a small tienda to buy a big bottle of water from a teenage girl who looked bored out of her skull, I noticed a man ahead of us, walking slowly through the pink blossom littering the path. He was supported by a younger woman, holding the crook of his arm. They were both wearing white.
We walked past them as she guided him to a red plastic chair outside a small fish shop/pescaderia. I didn’t want to look too long, but my eyes took in details hungrily; the long dark hair they both wore loose, the woven bags slung around their chests, his milky blind eyes, her expression of care.
That lunchtime, as we ate fish soup and drank agua de panela at a Spanish guy’s restaurant, I thought more about those white clad figures, and wondered whether I’d missed out on an opportunity by not visiting the local community.
But I thought back to other ‘meet the locals’ situations I’ve encountered in the past – like visiting members of the Karen Long Necked tribe in northern Thailand, where I felt so ashamed of myself for pandering to such voyeurism – and I was happy with my decision.
Another run in with the Kogi
That evening we walked up to the highway again for a evening snack of arepas con queso at a street stall, when we passed a group of women and children in their white tunics, looking solemn, silent, and a little confused amongst the modern trappings of the coastal Colombians.
A car with a Bogota numberplate pulled up to the side of the road and a man in a crisp grey suit clambered out to grab some food alongside us.
When I looked back, the women and their progeny had melted away.
We spent the rest of the evening spent throwing heavy metal pucks at boxes of sticky grey clay, with two small paper packets of gunpowder propped up against a metal ring in the centre of each box. Playing tejo is a common pastime in Colombia, particularly on the coast – but when it’s set up in a man’s back garden, amongst clucking chickens, tiny kittens, and dogs who seem completely unperturbed by the sound of explosions…
Life is slow in Palomino
Apart from playing with gunpowder, our days in Palomino passed lazily enough.
I lived mostly in my bikini and didn’t stray far from either the sea’s turbulent edges or the calm waters of the hostel swimming pool. Occasionally I checked on a cardboard box in the outdoor kitchen cupboard filled with week-old kittens that the hostel staff were keeping safe.
We walked up to the highway at least once a day, shuffling our feet through the pink blossom littering parts of the path, and picking up small fresh sugar mangos that had fallen from the surrounding trees.
We waved hello to the same sleepy dog that remained unmoving in one specific shadow every time we saw him, and silently rejoiced whenever the driver of a particularly beat up old truck drove past us with his thumb up.
At night, we drank beers, played multiple games of cards, improved on our pool playing techniques and spent one evening on a three hour marathon game of Monopoly, where I realised how brutal a game it can be.
I’d almost forgotten about my fleeting moments with the Kogi until the morning of our last full day in Palomino dawned, when Josh and I went for a walk along the quiet beach.
Meeting the Kogi kids
We strolled through the surf, climbed up the sand banks, marvelled at how empty the beach in front of us was. And then we came across a group of children, eight or nine of them, some sitting in the sand, others floating around in the sea aided by pieces of driftwood and screaming with joy.
There were no adults to be seen; no obvious place they would have come from. Except for the mass of jungle that lay a few metres from the water’s edge.
There were two tiny boys squatting amongst the washed up sea debris, each holding one handle of a blue striped plastic bag filled with shells. They were searching through the debris and picking up various shells; I started doing the same, before giving one of them my handful.
There was no response; just an unblinking gaze for a few seconds, before his eyes snapped back to the bag of shells again.
I found out later that they crush the shells and mix them with coca leaves. I also learnt that the Kogi tribe are apparently not interested in tourists at all.
Lessons learned from not meeting the Kogi
From time to time, you find yourself in places that feel more special than others. Maybe it’s when the tourism hasn’t become too pronounced yet, so there’s an element of “not that many people come here – but I did!” going on.
Other times, it’s when something in that place sparks your imagination in a way you weren’t expecting.I don’t have any pictures of the Kogi people that I encountered, but its strange how much of an impact those few sightings made on me. A group of children on the shore, looking at me solemnly while picking up shells, climbing on aged wooden trunks, paddling furiously in the surf on pieces of driftwood. A blind man being led by a young woman to sit down in a red plastic chair outside a small fish shop. A group of women and children standing in stark contrast with present-day Colombians.
And then there are the moments when you realise something about the way you travel. When you notice that a small place like Palomino makes an impact on you that the stunning landscapes of Tayrona failed to do, simply because you travel more for people than for nature.
Would you sign up for a visit to a local tribe? What do you think about the idea?
About FloraFlora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
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More than 20 years ago, the British documentary film maker Alan Ereira began researching a film about a lost city in the rainforests of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain in the world.
In his book The Heart of the World, Ereira refers to the city’s location as a place “encouragingly known as hell because it was somewhat difficult to move through”.
The description is typical of the shrewd, laid-back charm he brings to the complexities involved in setting up, making and selling a film. In 1990s Colombia it took courage, chutzpah and experience as well as that charm to negotiate warring drug barons, labyrinthine government bureaucracy and a group of massively obstructive nuns. But in the end, the place known as hell proved to be the gateway to a Garden of Eden. And Ereira didn’t just find the lost city. He found a lost civilisation that changed his perception of the universe.
At an early stage in his project, Ereira heard that the Kogi tribe lived in the area of the lost city. Along with two other indigenous tribes, the Arhuaco and the Assario, the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilisation, which flourished in Colombia at the time of the Spanish invasion. They escaped destruction at that time by retreating high into the mountains.
Ereira set himself the difficult task of contacting their mamas or elders. The Kogi are elusive, and, at that time, getting to them required either a four-day hike or a helicopter ride through country controlled by guerillas. The best Ereira could do was to send them a series of messages that he hoped would get through.
A warning to the world
A year later, he received what was effectively a summons, sent by the mamas after grave deliberation. Their motivation was simple: they were afraid. The Kogi call themselves the “elder brothers” of the human race, and believe they are charged with the task of holding the health of the planet in balance. The world’s general population, which the Kogi refer to as the younger brothers, are precipitating a major ecological crisis that threatens the planet’s survival, evidenced by changes the Kogi have witnessed in their mountain environment. Ereira’s messages had arrived just as the tribe was considering how to send a warning to the rest of the world. Now they had their answer: Ereira must make them a film.
That film, also called The Heart of The World, and made for BBC television, became a global sensation. Its final image of an impassive Kogi sealing the bridge that leads to their mountain home symbolised their uncompromising message: “The younger brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die.”
More than 20 years later, The Heart of the World continues to be shown worldwide and its proceeds, along with those of Ereira’s book, fund the Tairona Heritage Trust, founded by Ereira and others to raise money for the purchase of the mamas’ ancient territories. The trust also co-operates with Gonavindua Tairona, a political organisation founded by mamas of the Sierra’s three tribes to represent their interests in the face of increasing western pressures.
The film’s message went unheeded, however, and a few years ago, the Kogi summoned Eirera back and announced that they now understood that we’re incapable of being changed by being spoken to: we learn through our eyes, not our ears. They said a new film had to be made, this time by themselves, with Eirera’s production and distribution know-how, to draw its audience into their worldview and change our understanding of reality.
That film, Aluna, has been controlled by the Kogi themselves, from its conception, content and production to its final edit. (Weeks after the shoot finished, they insisted on reassembling the filming unit at the top of a mountain to shoot a differently nuanced closing sequence.) It is chilling, visually stunning, powerful in its use of metaphor, and surprisingly heartening.
Part of the film’s story follows a journey made by elders of the tribe who left the mountains of Sierra Nevada in Colombia for the first time and travelled to the UK to meet oceanographers and other scientists, who have subsequently sponsored Kogi involvement in international ecological conferences.
University of Oxford professor Alex Rogers, who appears in Aluna, attended its London premiere at Raindance Film Festival in September. Like the Kogi, he’s afraid. The combination of his work on human impacts on the ecology and the evolution of deep-sea ecosystems and his meetings with the mamas has convinced him that our continued interference with Earth’s water systems is crucially damaging.
Prof Jonathan Baillie, a global authority on the status and trends of threatened species, agrees; his work at the Zoological Society of London validates the mamas’ insistence on the interconnectedness of all life on Earth.
On Friday, the Blasket Centre in Dún Chaoin, at the end of the Dingle peninsula, will host the Irish premiere of Aluna. In one of the film’s most most powerful sequences, Richard Ellis, professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, shows a Kogi mama a photo of deep space. It’s a huge image of thousands of white dots on a black background, seen through the Hubble Space Telescope and, so Ellis tells Ereira, invisible to the human eye. The mama considers the photo and then puts his finger on a single dot. “That one’s a star,” he says. That particular dot among the thousands of others is the only star in the photo: the rest are galaxies.
The word “aluna” means “the mind”. The Kogi say that all things have a hidden connection, deriving from their common creation, which the mamas are trained to perceive and support. They speak of “working in aluna”, a process that Ereira describes as “the concentrated thought and memory which forms a bridge between the human spirit and the universe”.
The Kogi believe that aluna, which contains both memory and potential, is also a metaphysical world that governs the physical world’s fertility, and the mamas work to preserve that fertility, in the mind and on a more material level by, for example, performing ritual offerings at specific sites.
Many indigenous peoples worldwide share these two concepts, of an accessible spiritual dimension to the universe and of ritual payment for what is taken from the Earth. Within living memory here in Ireland, Blasket Island fishermen passing a rock that’s still known as An Seanduine (The Old Man) would throw a pinch of tobacco into the ocean, to invoke protection and as thanks for their catch.
Ereira, who will be at the Dún Chaoin centre for the premiere, reckons it’s the perfect venue. The people of the Gaeltacht retain a sense of communal memory and respect for oral tradition. For centuries their island and mainland communities lived with an awareness and understanding of their environment that was both practical and spiritual; and the traditions and customs of the past, though not necessarily still practised, are still passed on in a rich heritage of story, proverb and song. To Ereira, that heritage is important.
Although global distribution deals for cinema and television have been signed, the Kogi want worldwide, non-commercial screenings, initiated from within farming and fishing communities, and promoted online.
Ereira says it’s also important that fishermen and farmers, young and old, will be part of the Blasket Centre’s invited audience, and their voices should be listened to as carefully in the ensuing discussion as those of the environmentalists, politicians and policy-makers.
The Kogi are afraid, he repeats, but they’re also hopeful. Aluna contains both memory and potential. Potentially, we could still work together and get things right.