26 September 2012

Taking Pictures of "The Natives"

This is NOT the story of how we accidentally took a 17 mile hike up one side of a big mountain and down the other side. (You can see a map of the hike - with elevation changes! - here.)  It's not about my over-taxed cardiovascular system, and its valiant and ultimately successful efforts to keep my brain oxygenated during the first 300 meters of the hike (we're talking vertical meters: up, of course). Or my legs, which trembled with exhaustion as we stepped our way down a giant boulder staircase, while I wondered every time I committed myself to the next rock: Will this leg, at this moment, support my weght? Or my feet, inside my decade-old tennis shoes, performing like champs up until about mile 15, at which point they both failed catastrophically, sprouting huge and painful blisters.

It's not a story about Ean, who slipped off a rock while crossing a stream in the first few miles of the hike, landing with his full weight on his right thigh muscle. He ended up in the stream, which was shallow and sandy-bottomed - but still, a fear of drowning is hard to reason with. The psychological effects of the accident were magnified on the aforementioned giant boulder staircase, where the same slip and fall might have been deadly. Ean didn't own up to the terror, during the hike, nor to his blisters, rubbed raw in his Keens. And oh by the way, his thigh muscle would have really appreciated a day of taking it easy....

No, I'm not going to whine, here (or hardly at all) about how old and out-of-shape we are. Instead, I really want to talk about "the natives" - los indigenos - the indigenous folk - that we met along the way.

This woman was selling jewelry made of beads and seeds, and we bought a couple of bracelets.  There were amulets painted with the words, "love," and "peace." 
Yes, we DID have their permission to take this picture! Does that make it okay?

"Native" puppy
We did this trip through Magic Tours in Taganga, and our guide was Christian, who speaks great English and has an Australian wife. Christian has made friends with some of los indigenos in el Parque Tayrona, and while we were driving to the park entrance at Calabazo, Christian spoke about the Kogi People with great respect.  (Pronounce Kogi with a long 'o' and a hard 'g'.)  He wanted to tell us a bit about his amigos, and then he evidently planned to foist us upon them. This was news to us. We hadn't actually planned to be foisted upon the Kogi - we only wanted to visit the ruins of a village that was built and inhabited by their ancestors.

Christian: leading the way as we began to hike up into the mountain from Calabazo
We had signed up for a tour of El Pueblito, an archaeological site where a busy Tayrona village called Chairama stood a thousand years ago. Chairama is a more accessible version of La Ciudad Perdida, for those of us who aren't up for a five-day trek through waist-high mud and clouds of dengue-fever-transmitting mosquitoes. (We might be foolhardy, but we ain't suicidal.) Our itinerary for the day included breakfast at the Colombian version of a roadside diner, followed by a hike up to El Pueblito and down to the beach at Cabo San Juan del Guia. After lunch at "Cabo," as all the cool backpacker-people call it, we would walk along the coast to CaƱaveral, whence we would be driven back to Taganga. (This stretch of coast, by the way, is just a few miles east of the Sixth of Five Bays, which I wrote about here.)

Alejandro, a Kogi Mamo, with his poporo
Anyway, Christian has some Kogi friends, and we had the opportunity to meet them and see where they live. The Kogi, we have learned, are one of four indigenous groups here in Colombia that are considered to be direct descendants of the Tayrona (aka Tairona) People. The Tayrona civilization flourished on the coast and in the foothills and mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for probably several hundred years. After about 1000 A.D., the Tayrona withdrew from the coastal regions (maybe scattered by the Caribs), and pockets of the remaining population spread out and into the mountains. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, los indigenos climbed still higher into the mountains.

Christian introduced us to Alejandro, who is a spiritual leader and healer of the Kogi, called a Mamo. Alejandro apparently has several wives and 35 children, scattered about the mountains. He is 65 years old, he told us. In this picture, he is holding his poporo, which he said he has had for about five years.

As Christian explained: Kogi men chew coca leaves, which has a mild stimulating effect. (Yes, this is the same coca that is used to produce cocaine.) The poporo is a gourd vessel where they keep lime - traditionally from crushed sea shells. Apparently the alkalinity intensifies the effect of the coca and makes it more easily absorbed. They use a stick to transfer the lime to the coca wad in their mouths, and then they rub the stick on the outside of the poporo where the extra powder "paste" forms a solid, thick collar.

Christian told us that Alejandro had recently been to a conference in the United States of, or maybe about, indigenous peoples - we couldn't quite figure it out. We tried to picture this guy on an airplane, or staying at the Sheraton, or eating at the local Applebees, but it was too mind boggling. Where in the United States? we asked. At first Alejandro couldn't recall, but Ean guessed: Arizona? Sedona? Yes: Ean, the smart guy with the Kokopelli tattoo, put it together, and that the Kogis' counterparts, in this region, would be the Hopi. Ean asked Alejandro if he had learned anything from the Hopi. Nah, he replied - we just shared some stories. An "aahhhh" moment of cross-cultural clarity: Alejandro had a severely non-western perspective of a "conference."

Besides Alejandro's coca leaves and Alejandro's conference, we talked about Alejandro's cough. He had been sick for at least five days, and he was feeling very weak. Christian offered to bring him some medicine the next day. I wondered if he might be interested in some cough medicine that I had bought back in the Bahamas. "It has codeine in it," I volunteered, "Have you had trouble sleeping?" Yes, his cough had been keeping him up all night, he said. Christian, in addition to translating, was adding his opinion about codeine - definitely, that's what you need: if you can sleep your body will have the chance to heal.... So Alejandro agreed that codeine cough syrup sounded like a good idea. Offering codeine cough syrup to a healer in the middle - literally - of a Coca Mountain: a delicate morsel of delicious irony.

Alejandro said he didn't mind if we took his picture - or pictures of the few of his dozens of children who happened to be "on site" at the moment.

Little girls wear necklaces.
We didn't notice the "Spidey" backpack until we looked at the pictures later.
He said we were welcome to look around the family compound. He laughed when I told him I wanted to take a picture of his chicken, who had a brood of baby chicks. Los pollitos, Christian said.

Sra. Chicken with her brood
After we thanked Alejandro for his hospitality, we hiked on and up. Later, Christian turned off the path and brought us to another family's compound - this one was uninhabited, and a couple of the chozas had padlocks on the doors. Christian told us the Kogi move from place to place.

Coca Plants - this is where codeine cough syrup come from.
Ean: smiling through his pain
Chozas in El Parque Tayrona
We saw and heard water splashing through hoses all around the compound - routed from mountain springs, Christian said - and we walked through the remains of a lush vegetable garden.

A pepper plant flourishing at the base of a faucet
We suspected that this family wasn't planning to be gone very long - or possibly they had friends who were pet-sitting?

"Native" cat
A couple of chickens were roaming around; the "guard dog" was obviously off-duty.
When I crouched to pet this noisy little girl, she climbed right into my lap.
Still later in the day, we ran into one of Alejandro's wives on the trail.  She was accompanied by a boy, two dogs, and a donkey, and she carried a baby on her back, supported by a strap around her forehead, AND she was crocheting a mochila, which is a traditional bag that almost everyone in Colombia carries - los indigenos y otros.  (In the picture, her hands are blurred because she continued her needlework even as she smiled and chatted with Christian and told him that she wouldn't mind a photo.)

The donkey didn't pause to chat.
And on and on, we hiked and hiked.  We visited the ruins of Chairama and the beautiful and dramatic beaches del Parque Tayrona, and lived to tell.

And for two days after the hike, we could barely walk.  We were in SERIOUS pain. We mostly sat around moaning, but I already promised I wouldn't dwell on that part of the story....

We spent our "recovery" days looking through our pictures, doing some internet research on the Tayrona people and their descendants, and processing all we had seen and experienced.  In particular, we were trying to make sense of our interactions with los indigenos.  Ean and I came away with very different impressions.  From my perspective, we had just seen a "slice of life" - of a life very different from any we had known so far, and I was gratified to catch a glimpse.  But Ean countered: we barely scratched the surface.  We didn't really get to know these people.  Ean was particularly regretful that he didn't know enough about the Kogis' spiritual beliefs and practices to ask Alejandro any respectful questions.  As a seminarian for two years, presented with the opportunity to talk with a spiritual leader, he felt woefully under-prepared. He said it was like taking a tour of the Vatican and getting an unexpected audience with the Pope, not knowing anything about Catholicism.

I want to think it was okay - that we were invited, that their relationship with Christian gave us warrant.  But to Ean, these folks are being exploited.  Who are we, to stomp into their homes and take pictures and treat them like some sort of tourist attraction?   Were we really welcome, or were they perhaps just too polite to say otherwise?  We are both struggling with a stereotype, often justified, that "civilized" westerners condescend to "the natives" - the term itself is just one step away from calling them "savages," isn't it?  "We" study "Them" and take photographs - I am envisioning pictures from old issues of National Geographic, of a guy in some African desert with a bone through his nose and a spear in his hand, or a woman standing next to the Amazon River with saggy boobs and missing teeth, a baby on her hip, or maybe a basket on her head.

And yet.  Isn't it a Good Thing, to learn something about people who live very differently than you do?  To learn something from them?  For me, these pictures of the Kogi recall what I believe to be a priceless experience. But even if you didn't meet these folks yourself: don't you feel like you know them, just a little bit, by looking at the photographs?  That's the point, isn't it, of National Geographic?

I'd like to believe that the Kogi consider it a public service, being welcoming to strangers - that they want us to learn about their way of life, that we will be better off for it.  The Kogi, and los otros indigenos who live on the mountain, consider us outsiders to be "Younger Brothers."  They are the "Older Brothers," who live in the Heart of the World and who have a sacred responsibility to keep the world in balance.

In fact, it turns out that the Sedona conference Alejandro attended was organized so that "the civilized world" might benefit from "Heart of the World" understandings.  (Have I mentioned lately, how I LOVE the internet?)  As explained on indigenousnativeamericans.com (are there NON-indigenous Native Americans?):
This lineage of Elders were the only Mayans to survive the Spanish invasions and because of this fact, they are the keepers of the secrets and traditions.  They are Masters of Wisdom.... 
Who would argue, really, that "the civilized world" couldn't use a little wisdom?  The conference was organized by the International Center of Spiritual and Ancestral Wisdom (ICSAW).  Again, according to the website:
Our present age marks the dawn of a new time, which has been foretold by many cultural traditions since the ancient past.  Signs of this era are being witnessed all across the globe, telling us that we need to wake up as a human race and change the way we are living.  The Mamos (high priests and spiritual authorities) of the Kogi and Arhuaco traditions of the Sierra Nevada region of Columbia [sic] are calling together the Dawn of A New Time gathering in Sedona, AZ to bring us an important message for these changing times.
I wish we would have known, before we met Alejandro, about the Dawn of A New Time Gathering.  I would have liked to ask him about the ICSAW and the message he and the other Mamos took to Sedona.  Would he have confirmed that it was the Mamos who "called" the meeting?  Or was it, perhaps, someone else's idea?  What was his motivation for going?

Maybe he would have suggested that I should have paid the $333 registration fee and attended the three day "gathering," if I wanted to get the message - like all the other "civilized" people.  Or, possibly, he would have told me that the message had something to do with treating Mother Earth with care and respect.  Something about living lightly and in peace.  What do I know?  As Ean noted, we barely scratched the surface.  I'm inferring.

Anyway, if Ean wants to talk about exploiting "the natives," I can only respond: our photograph of Alejandro, sitting on his mat, with his poporo, in his own world, is by far a more respectful depiction than the mugshot on the ICSAW website, where he is an unidentified Wise Kogi Elder.

Ean says: that doesn't make it right.  I don't know.  He might not be wrong.


  1. As always ...you have both given me something to think about! Awesome photos!

  2. Thanks! I love these, pictures, too. You can tell I was trying to think it through myself, through writing about it .... no easy answers, though.

  3. Interesting post!. I was taken aback by the "exploiting the natives" charge. It seems to me that visiting someone's country, and having them show interest in and share with visitors is common to all peoples.

    Certainly when visiting Europe or Canada, interacting with those who live and/or are from that area is not considered "exploiting" because the narrative is one of equality (or "they are like us").

    If a new relationship is begun with "I have to be careful not to exploit these people", haven't we already cast a person as victim or somehow in need of paternalistic care? Doesn't that already show a lack of respect?

    Important discussion/issues. THANKS!

    1. I think you've hit upon an important point - you said: if a relationship is begun...

      Were we actually beginning a relationship with these Kogi folks, or were we just looking at them? If the latter, then Ean would say, it's not necessarily exploitive, but probably disrespectful. As for me, probably it hinges on whether we were invited and welcome.

  4. I love these terms "heart of the world," as opposed to the "civilized world," and I love that there is a conference that recognizes that there are things the civilized world could learn from the heart of the world. Ryan and I have explored the question of civilization and whether it really equates with "better," as assumed. There are things we lost along the way, which were sacrificed to make way for the great gains of civilization, of which there were many. But it's wonderful for people to have a glimpse at what was lost and appreciate a life simpler than ours...it helps us question what we have, which is a good thing. I love these photos and the careful question of when tourism is appropriate and respectful, and when it's not.

    1. I worry that the conference organizers are just using the mamos to make a buck - but I don't know, maybe they're sincerely trying to learn and promote learning. I loved your post about becoming "less civilized" as you went down the ICW. Ean and I are figuring out that we are much more competent in the "civilized" world than we are in this one! Living and learning....