Stepping off the bus at Pueblo Bello on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, you sense you’re in a border town. It’s the edge of two worlds, the sewed up seam of two threads of culture weaving, contrasting, interacting. Colombia is home to 83 indigenous tribes that survived the Spanish conquest, and one of the most powerful and cohesive is the Arhuac culture of the Tayrona region. You’ll see the Arhuac in town with their white serapes, tall coned hats, long black hair and beautifully stitched handbags slung across lean shoulders. They’ll rarely meet your gaze, looking down or off to the side, avoiding attention and gliding past with a cool effortlessness. You’ll be tempted to follow them into the hills, hire a car and probe further into their land, to Nabusimake, the spiritual center of the Arhuac kingdom and the place where they say the sun was born.
I was privileged to visit the Arhuac capital, to be given a glimpse into the culture and philosophy. The journey began with a ritual cleansing by the spiritual leader (mamo) in a botanical garden replete with medicinal herbs, including coca – such an unassuming little plant that has been blamed for so much. An offering of leaves from my village (Tucson) was exchanged for corn husk from Nabusimake as a symbol of sharing and goodwill. The Arhuac refer to themselves as “older brothers” and to all outsiders as “younger brothers”. Their reality is charged with a sense of oneness and harmony with nature. Greed, survival of the fittest, ego entrapments, and the exploitation of natural resources at the expense of the environment are sicknesses of being that the Arhuac cannot comprehend or suffer with patience. Even their intricately stitched handbags represent the weaving of thoughts into reality with each knot, and a balance between the male energy (the bag) and the female (the stitcher). Likewise, when the men take a pinch of coca and seashell, which they prepare in a poporo gourd (and which makes them high for most of the day), it represents the balance of female (the gourd) and the male (the chewer). All endeavours strive for balance, harmony and unity with nature and one another.
The Arhuac have survived a difficult history. Conquistadors plundered the Sierra Nevada for gold, extinguishing other tribes in the area and almost decimating the Arhuac. Christian missionaries squelched Arhuac faith and language in exchange for Spanish and Catholicism. Militant leftists like FARC forcibly recruited young Arhuac men to fight their guerrilla battles, and right-wing paramilitary groups massacred the Arhuac, viewing them as leftist sympathizers. It's not surprising the Arhuac vigorously defend their culture.
Although I was granted entrance by the mamo and spent the night as a guest of one of the town’s power players, the standing chief wouldn’t allow me to shoot images or interview people within Nabusimake’s walls. The pueblo of grass roofed buildings, round river-stone plazas, and pre-Colombian magic was off limits to the camera-clad gringo.
My Plan B involved a trip to the Arhuac high school on the hill; the exuberance and curiosity of youth overcame Arhuac inhibitions and allowed me some precious insights. The most poignant was a chat with the principal, a man well-versed in a two-pronged curriculum of firstly Arhuac and secondly Western traditions. There will always be conflict, he told me, as long as the Arhuac look, think and live differently to those from the West. Respect (for self and others) and communication are the only possible solutions, all else leads to tension. Westerners who visit Nabusimake are usually considered to have a different mentality and a palpable lack of regard for Arhuac values, so although travelers are suffered in Nabusimake, they are not wanted. It’s hard to blame a people for striving to protect their integrity and way of life, and perhaps my latent white-guilt causes me to side for the underdog in a struggle which has never seemed just. Nabusimake should remain the Arhuac sanctuary it is; give it some space, people.
But Pueblo Bello seems a perfect seam between the two worlds, a place to open your awareness to another way of living.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Colombia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.