La Aussie gringa in Colombia – accelerated Spanish

I was very happy I’d gone home for the short trip. A sad farewell but comforting to discover some facts that point to Uncle Ron’s death more likely being  unintentional.  Mental illness comes in many guises and sadly most of us don’t have the understanding and tools to equip us to detect and help where we can.  An area very much deserving of the effort going into community education. 

Well, it was no short trip back to Palermo. After 40 hours airline travel, a one hour trip into Medellin and a 3 hour drive out to Palermo, with Paula’s non-English speaking cousin Elkin, I had to jump on a horse to get up to Las Delicias with my gear. You just never know what’s going to happen next in Colombia!

The next morning I was getting ready to head down to meet Paula in Palermo. Valentina and her little girlfriends were using our patio table to do their homework. One of them wandered over to my room and said something containing the words piedra, caminar, casa and anaconda. Now you don’t have to be any expert in the Spanish language to get a grasp of what that involved. Given my phobia of snakes this could be the shortest trip to Palermo ever! I tried to communicate with Cruz Elena to confirm there was an anaconda on a rock on the walk up to the house. “Si, si, grande”. Again, not what I want to hear!

Just as my heart rate is rising at incredible speed Paula phones to find out when I’m coming to town. Ahhh….like never – where’s the helicopter! In what must have seemed a garbled message I relayed what I thought they’d said. She was well aware of my phobia having been told by me on my arrival to Colombia not to tell me if she saw a snake unless it was necessary for my own safety. I pass her over to Cruz Elena. Again “Si, si”. Not good! Paula confirms with me the girls did see a snake and that it was very big but it was on the short cut the girls take through the paddock, which I had declined to take for what now seem well founded reasons.

I steel myself and head off down the hill. I jumped many a time at little sounds and the sight of blackened sticks that appeared on the path but made it down without a sighting to my great relief. Will only be taking the hike up in daylight now so given its a 30 minute climb I’ll need to keep ahead of myself with my planning!

It was an easy day in town eating, drinking and chatting with the locals (or mainly ‘listening in my case).

Of course I was happy for Paula to take the lead in the hike up the hill that afternoon Yes, it might come as a shock but I’m not above sacrificing a friend or two in a bid to preserve my sanity!

Paula had the earthmoving operator in while I was back in Australia. I really felt the block needed more cutting for the house pad to maximise the wonderful view that was available. We chatted about it and did a bit more playing with the pad siting until Paula was relatively happy. I also asked that she consult her engineer friend, Carlos, as he seemed to have a creative but practical approach from what I’d observed so far.

A big storm rolled in that night. The rainy season had arrived so the storms were apparently nightly. We had a huge lightening strike at what felt like metres from us with both of letting out a scream and grabbing each other. With that Paula went to bed and I stayed up to enjoy the show – I knew jet lag was going to prevent immediate sleep anyway.

A visit to nearby Tamesis the following day was highly productive with the purchase of a lock for my room and a thin foam mattress that would hopefully enable me to sleep a bit better. We also dropped into the mother of one of Paula’s boyfriends from her school years. We ended up giving them some design advice as they were midway into a renovation and were struggling to work out where to put their bathroom given the walls that had now been constructed. Not great planners these Colombians. It’s a ‘get started and work it out along the way approach’. This approach was going to be costly as our strongly recommended solution involved cutting a hole for a doorway in the newly constructed masonry wall!

After the big food shop there was no other choice but a jeep ride up to Las Delicias. The slipping and sliding of the jeep in 4WD confirmed there was no chance of either of us making it up there in a car without risking our lives! The anaconda wins on this one!

The next day was spent mainly in the square. Juan Pablo had attempted to take off with my backpack in his haste to catch his bus – my cries of “Juan Pablo mi mochilla, mi mochilla” had him returning embarrassed by his mistake.

Later that night over a few beers at Las Delicias with Carlos and Tato I started discussions with Tato on a possible art commission. Tato is a talented artist with his art being commissioned from all around the world but of course struggled with the usual low income of an artist. I thought of piece of art by Tato might be a nice momento of my trip.  His forte is the beautiful birds and foliage of South America. Cliffy’s contribution to the decision-making through the suggestion of a nude was later withdrawn when I mentioned I was good with that as Tato was not a bad looking rooster!

The next couple of days were spent at our house on the hill as I tried to sort out my visa issues. It looked like I had to get the identification card because I had the business visa and that I was up for a $250 penalty for not getting it within the required 15 days. A bit of a blow as $250 was what I was spending each week to live in Colombia. I started to think through my strategy for getting to Manizales to sort it all out. The upside to that was that I hadn’t yet visited this mountainous university town and it was close to the famed coffee region of Colombia, which was also home to Cocora Valley – forest of the world’s tallest wax palms.

The rain was really settling in and it was reeking havoc on the dirt road that leads to Paula’s place, which is the road delivery trucks would need to use. Paula commandeered her friend Tato and a couple of other workers to help build a trench down the side of the road to channel the water and plant a few fruit trees on the block. Of course it didn’t rain for days after that.

Later in the day we found out that a naturist country house owner had introduced anacondas into the region. Apparently they get up to five metres in length and very thick. Great; la Aussie gringa strangled to death in Antioquian department of Colombia. I was getting very encouraged to explore other areas while Paula waited for the builder to start.

We had Elkin and Diana’s eldest son, Juan Estavan, staying with us up at Las Delicias. Seems he’d chosen the peace and quiet of the finca to cook up a storm during his holidays. Was lovely to hear some classical music being enjoyed by a young twenty something. 

I had delayed my trip to Manizales long enough to go to the annual Santa la Cruz mass that everyone had been talking about. It was half about the mass and half about how you get there (being an atheist I was driven by the latter). The privileged would go by horse, some by car and then those of us crazy enough, by foot. Paula had secured one of her cousin’s horses albeit the less lively one that I had ridden.

I got down to Palermo bright and early in preparation to meet some walking buddies (or at least I was hoping I’d have some given its a five to six hour walk each way). I arrive to the happy greeting of “ah Lettie” from Lilia. Paula’s mum was the only person I’d ever let get away with using the traditional shortened name for Letitia. Alas that day my fellow walkers would also slip into its use … without objection from me.

Turns out I wasn’t early enough and my potential walking buddies had already set off. I scoffed down the last of my breakfast and jumped on the back of a motor bike to catch the group.

Half way down the road my akubra flies off – not the best head protection for a fall on the rocky roads.

I meet up with my walking buddies. Lucci (resident of the lake house), her sister Marta and their friends Nelson and Diana. Lucci spends part of her year in Miami so speaks English quite well.

We do a bit of immediate bonding with questions on whether we ride the kangaroos in Australia. I initially convey to them ‘only in the suburbs because of the traffic in the city’ but then fill them in on the true facts. I also think it might be a short hike with my new friends as they ask me questions about religion in Australia and my particular faith…had to come clean to these Catholics that I was in fact an atheist. To my delight I don’t become an outcast. 

I was forced yet again to rely on my Spanish and I wasn’t doing too bad. I’d actually managed to get an understanding of Nelson’s occupation and the production at the Tamesis water treatment facility, his workplace, all on my own. Feeling proud of myself!  I was always grateful when people used a slower speech, which is not at all customary in Colombia.

After five hours of uphill walking we arrived at the mass location, high up into the mountains. Enough time to have a few cerveca at the nearby Fonda … thankfully Marta’s partner was there with his car to take us the five minutes drive as I was beat!  Fun times at the Fonda watching some school kids getting into their dance – some liked to get a good bum wiggle up and others less so.

We then take our spot on the hill and the towns’ people start to pile into the natural amphitheatre. My new little friend Yehson (‘Jason’) turns up. We’d become buddies since I’d paid for him and his friends to have a bit of internet access at the general store a few days before.

Our crew starts to open their plantain wrapped lunch and I pull out my pre-prepared salad and tostadas. I see the curious faces as I spread my vegemite so I explain we grow up on the stuff and that it’s a great source of vitamin B. Everyone gets a taste on some tostadas – they’re not sold on it. Nelson decides it’s made from kangaroo poo.

A bag of beers arrive to Lucci – should be an interesting walk home – thank goodness it’s all down hill!

The mass starts. It involves saying a particular verse over and over again until ‘Jesus’ (‘hesoos’) has been said a thousand times and the distribution of the sacraments. I don’t make it to the end without needing to pee! I join Lucci when she says she’s going to the bathroom. Hadn’t quite picked up it was going to be a small clearing in the rainforest full of ticks. I was really hoping I wouldn’t end up with an unauthorized passenger as I wasn’t sure who I’d get to do the extraction …should be evident what I mean!

It had stuck me today just how devoutly religious Colombians are. Nearly everyone wears a cross or a medallion of a saint. Funny dice hang alongside rosary beads, few people go past a roadside spiritual statue without crossing themselves, houses are filled with biblical statues snd paintings and candles burn in honour of their religious leaders. The church bells ring regularly with mass held numerous times a day and the priest uses the church loud speaker to preach god’s lessons to his parishioners. It strikes me that the level of workshop is akin to that of what we see in our Muslim community.

We start to head back to town in Marta’s car but the beautiful landscape (that gives Switzerland a good run for its money) is calling me so I get out half way and jog/walk my way down.

Today I felt like I had been treated as a member of the community and not just a traveller passing through (though I doubt they’ve had any of those anyway). The smiles from the people who recognised me and the shy kids who were now asking me to help them learn English was gratefully welcomed.

I had hardly seen Paula through the day as she’d been enjoying time with her fellow riders and, I discover later in the evening, partaking in bucket loads of aguadiente. 

This Aussie gringa was beat and had an early morning bus off to La Pintada and then another to Manizales so it was buenos noches from me!

Back up to Las Delicias – the house in the clouds

Paula siting the house pad with the Farallones looking on

Another visit to the lovely Tamesis library

The mountaintop Christa Rey statue looks down over the Tamesis school

The bells of the chapel went jingle jangle…Palermo Cathedral

Bamboo – the go to material when you run out of formwork props

Appreciating the lovely old Tamesis houses

Our temporary resident chef, Juan Estavan, prepares the family’s lunches for the Santa La Cuz mass


Great spot to stop for morning tea on the Santa La Cruz hike – with Lucci, Marta, Diana and Nelson

Now you see it, now you don’t!

Four hours into the hike Nelson informs us its just behind that mountain

Some residential coffee drying

The local truckdriver cooks up some large pots of fare for the locals

The scene is set for mass. The proud constructor of the cross (some 40 years ago) introduces himself to us while we’re wsiting for the formalities to commence.

Great view of Rio Cauca

My little friend Yehson finds me on the mountain

…and the countdown to 1 000 begins!

A cowboy in the making…

The fiesta on the mountain

The trip home begins – Palermo becons in the distance


Coffee plant

The cowboys’ companions never too far away

Even the town’s matriachs don’t mind an aguadiente or three!

The fincas collecting their horses after a big day

About Teesh

Out and about, living life to its fullest.
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