I must say that although this Thanksgiving was not the most traditional I´ve spent, it was one that made me truly joyful. As about fifteen of us sat down at the long table on my friend Katie´s terrace and began to pass around the spinach rice, ratatouille, orange-soy chicken (cooked by yours truly), and, yes, jellied cranberry sauce that made up our Thanksgiving meal, I felt incredibly blessed. The evening was full of laughter and story-telling, and as I sat back for a moment, I could do nothing but smile. The people at that table may not have been my blood relatives, but many were becoming part of my newly adopted caleña family.
As I briefly mentioned before, the Sunday to Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, I made a trip down to the department of Nariño with Katie and her friend Eva. Eva, I must state clearly in writing, is super-cool. After a relaxed Friday night out with Colombian friends and Saturday night rocking one of Cali´s most well-known salsa clubs with some fellow extranjeros, we departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning for Pasto. Although the nearly nine hour bus ride required a near constant grip on my arm rest due to the winding mountain roads, the spectacular views made it all quite worth-while. The Nariño landscape lays thousands of meters high in the Andes, a patchwork of contrasting dark and light greens made up of fields of potatoes and other root crops. The scenery kept me mesmerized for hours. Adding to the natural wonders were two very unique lake excursions – one to Laguna de la Cocha and the other to Laguna Verde. I´m going to let the pictures do most of the talking here. Laguna de la Cocha sits next to a small town that is some sort of Dutch, Nova Scotian, Latin American like mixture. The homes are simple and made of wood but brightly painted and gushing with flowers. Delicious trout, beautiful boat-rides, enlightened conversation – it was quite the day. Laguna Verde rests at almost 4,000 meters of elevation inside the crated of a volcano. The journey wasn´t exactly a walk in the park. We hired a cab to take us most of the way up but we still had to hike six kilometers in a rather upwardly fashion which at altitudes where portable electronic devices can be safely used on airplanes, included a lot of huffing and puffing along with some killer headaches. We had reached the 4,000 meters marker and decided to take a breather. Three steps later our moths were wide open in amazement. Inside the crater of this volcano was a bright turquoise-green lake, lined with a sulfur white coast – all in the middle of nowhere. Quite stunning.
While the natural wonders were the highlights of the trip, experiencing an entirely new Colombia in cultural terms was also quite fascinating. Sitting on the border with Ecuador, Nariño is worlds away from Cali caliente. Ethnically, the people are much more indigenous, they eat cuy (guinea pig) like it’s going out of style and Andean pipe music is the standard fare, although salsa and vallenato are certainly contenders as well. People who intrinsically share more with Northern Ecuadorians still take pride in things Colombian. It is a funny combination that turns out to be neither quintessentially Colombian nor (as I can tell so far) Ecuadorian, but something all of its own.
The one excursion I have failed to mention on our Nariño adventure was our sort of pilgrimage to El Santuario de las Lajas. Set down in a gorge with a waterfall on the opposite side, it is a wonder. The sanctuary is built directly against the cliff which forms the church´s fourth wall. According to the tale, the sanctuary was originally constructed after a mother and her young deaf-mute daughter were passing through the dangerous gorge during a storm and sought refuge in between two large slabs of the cliff. ¨La mestiza me llama¨ stated the daughter. A miracle. ¨La mestiza¨ was understood to be the Virgin Mary in one of the many forms she seems to take throughout Latin America. As one descends the path to reach the sanctuary, the rocky walls are lined with plaques from Colombian and Ecuadorian pilgrims thanking the virgin for miracles and answered prayers. There is certainly a special aura about the whole place and all three of us were very taken with it. After our initial awe had slightly subsided, we began to speak with a priest about the history of the church, possible indigenous-Catholic fusions, and the story of the Angel Rafael and Tobias, which I had never heard before but is apparently in the apocrypha. This shared experience inspired many religious and theological conversations amongst the three of us which I must say I really enjoyed and have extrapolated to my days in Quito as I continue to observe Catholic churches and cathedrals demonstrating a syncretism with Christian belief and indigenous symbolism and understanding.