January 25th, 2018
Having seen other rooms opened for cleaning in my morning venture in the search for breakfast, I am now curious as to what the other rooms are like. I find my room plain, small, the layout somehow annoying, and the bathroom too cramped. It turns out that some rooms have bathrooms that have windows and hence let in natural light, and are laid out in a way that would cause less collisions. Some rooms are smaller, others somewhat larger, offering views over the town that are more appealing than the parking lot I am currently looking out over, and with somewhat nicer furniture.
I decide to move into the room on the third floor, in the northwestern corner, with a better view, slightly softer mattress, lots of natural light, two work surfaces, and a bathroom with a window, and sink, toilet and shower that are positioned in a manner that is far more usable. The wall in the niche outside the room is covered in small rectangular plaques featuring images of London, framed in wood and painted red. And overall I just fancy this room …
Breakfast at Donatella’s, including caldo de costilla, scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, a croissant, and hot chocolate with cinnamon, followed by a solid coffee at Santiamén.
It occurs to me that I haven’t even looked inside the cathedral. Inside, a service is taking place, some sort of an oratory with rock-style music, which seems somewhat strange and unexpected.
The decor is quite stunning, the classic Baroque architectural backdrop whitewashed and adorned with golden medallions radiating decorative tendrils and encasing elaborate initials on a blue background at the apogee of the ceiling, with elliptical medallions with elaborate gilt frames containing paintings flowing along the sides of the arcing ceiling. The Rococo decor is somewhere restrained and yet exuberant, nothing I would have expected in a small town such as this.
On the agenda is a visit to Sutamarchán. I am not sure what to expect, as the place is well known for nothing more than its longaniza, and then there is also some sort of a tomato fest, which seems to amount to a huge orgy involving tomatoes, but it is not happening this time of year.
The minivan to Sutamarchán is supposed to leave from the pedestrian bridge a block from the hotel, and the taxi drivers are at it again today, telling me there is no bus, and that I have to take a taxi. I tell this to the van driver, and he tells me pointedly that what the taxi drivers are doing is illegal. That may be the case, but the country probably has greater problems at the moment. On the other hand, if you follow a Broken Windows policy …
The trip to Sutamarchán follows largely the same route as to Ráquira. It is nonetheless pleasant to see the fecund countryside rush by us as the bus wends its way down the serpentine road into the deep valley, the rejuvenating smell of life seeping through the windows, although invariably deadened by the thick exhaust fumes from a vehicle ahead of us.
The small town we rush through seems to place a lot of focus on grilling the longaniza by the roadside – this can’t be Sutamarchán, could it? Has the driver forgotten that I am getting off here? It turns out it is, and it is a flag stop, as there is no bus station. Hence if I hadn’t asked to be let off, I would have ended up in Tunja. How inspiring!
Less inspiring are the roads leading to the town centre, a dead silence contributing to the town’s utter torpor. With the sun now baking the humble, bougainvillea-laden alleys and barely any human or vehicular movement discernable, I could imagine simply lying down on the pavement and falling asleep here.
The town is not high on character but exceedingly easy-going. The few blocks around the centre tend to feature single-story houses with the classic terracotta tile roofs and colourful adobe walls, with bursts of floral colour. The soaring hillside that provides the backdrop to the town lends it a picturesque quality. The dedication to the humble longaniza doesn’t seem to be apparent anywhere other than the roadside establishments, as the town itself seems to otherwise do as little as possible.
The central plaza is expansive, green, featuring whimsical installations that have not survived the years well. A few human stragglers are present on the expansive plaza, virtually inert. From this vantagepoint, it is clear time has stood still in this town, the sights and feeling of the plaza evoking an entirely different era.
Now that I have circuited the town square several times, I may as well wrap things up with a trip to one of the local longaniza joints. The restaurants feature displays heaped with the local sausage specialties next to grills, with outdoor seating areas set to the back. Their setting is probably the only place in town that does not feel catatonic, given that there are always some visitors present, and the fact that the restaurants are set on the main road between Tunja and Bogota, the commuter minivans running between neighboring towns stopping on a regular basis.
The adage about real estate certainly applies to the longaniza joints in Sutamarchán as well. The places located on the bend of the road heading towards Tunja as well as across the street seem to have a steady flow of customers, while the places further to the west remain empty, despite a man on the street attempting to flag people into his establishment. They all look the same, and all offer the same kind of food, just that they are simply not in the perfect location.
I am hardly very motivated to eat a big pile of grilled sausage, but what the heck. The longaniza is actually fantastic, consisting of small chunks of pork prepared with herbs in a casing. The morcilla is a different story, but then blood pudding is something I enjoy only on specific occasions. And this version is too greasy.
The grilled baby potatoes are delectable, and lastly, the arepa served with the rest is a bit flavorless. But no matter – the longaniza made it all worthwhile, and I made it through the whole plate without getting attacked by the pack of dogs prowling at the edges of the tables and being a general nuisance.
Back in Chiquinquirá, I run into an elderly aboriginal woman leading a donkey onto which are strapped gas canister. Her beaming smile never seems to break as we walk along the road towards the former railway station. She asks me whether people use donkeys in my country, for which I come up with a somewhat elaborate and incorrect explanation. But no matter: the short conversation is warm and affectionate, and just before reaching the station, she is off.
The two-level white and amber Belle Epoque structure on the road to Tunja with the decrepit rail cars sitting at the back was in fact a train station at one point, but the rail line running through Colombia was dismantled generations ago in the insecurities that beset the country. I am told that a plan is in the works to resuscitate the rail line, which will be a major transportation coup for the country, especially considering how inadequate the single gauge roadway is for transporting merchandise. The building, far more ostentatious than anything on display in town other than the cathedral, is now the Casa de la Cultura.
Inside, a series of large photographic prints are on display, intended to showcase the natural beauty of the shorelines of the Guajira, contrasting with the degradation the region has suffered through contemporary history.
Cramped into a room on the side of the building are row upon row of boys in school uniform glued to computer screens, presumably in some sort of lesson. Exhibits presented in glass cases straggle along the main floor as well as the upper level of the well-restored structure, dedicated to pottery finds of pre-Colombian civilizations from the region.
In the park across the street, broad swaths of grass sit adjacent to a wide cobblestoned path and tastefully designed pool, and visited by a scattered group of young people playing soccer or experimenting with their dirt bikes, as well as families with children. At the back, a brightly painted church with large dome, towering over the wide plaza.
An early evening outing to buy some more water. I was warned not to drink tap water, hence I am reverting to one of the worst offenses of traveling, buying bottled water. The sidewalks and buildings are washed in the pale glow of street lamps, supplemented by the bright lights used to illuminate the stores. Crowds ply the streets consisting of mostly young men , in their ubiquitous black jeans, waist-length jackets, swept-up black hair, young men hand-in-hand with their girlfriends, and to a lesser extent families.
Retail establishments and restaurants wait for customers expectantly, although in the end most establishments are not very busy, if not outright empty. The crowds on the street are here to socialize and hang out, rather than consume. Music blares from the casinos and bars, but the apparent liveliness is deceptive, as the establishments are largely empty, while the wait staff stands by hopefully, waiting for the possibility of someone, anyone, to enter and spend money.
The social activity builds on the plazas, but does not involve spending money. The hotels I pass by seem quiet as usual, and for yet another night the El Dorado hotel I am staying in appears desolate.
Dinner at the Donatella feels a bit obligatory, although this evening the meat balls are not right for a number of reasons, the pasta the wrong quality, rice inappropriate for a pasta dish, and the normally excellent soup made with too much corn starch, but what the heck, the food is substantial, and inexpensive.