March 7, 2018
Knowing that the bus service to Tamara is not particularly good, it may be a poor idea to spend the morning attempting to catch up on writing before leaving my air-conditioned enclave and enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Violetas restaurant, followed by a coffee. The intent was to visit the Yucafé coffee roasting place on Calle 6, but not only it, but pretty much everything on the block is closed. So much for working hours …
Traversing the Parque Ramon Nonato Perez and Parque Santander, I am back on Calle 8, where at least the Tueste locale is open. More importantly, I am told at the buseta staging area that I will have to wait until 2 pm for the buseta to Tamara, but there is apparently a buseta that leaves for Nunchia just before 1. Forget Tamara: go to Nunchia instead. I have 3/4 of an hour to return to the hotel and take care of business prior to rejoining the touts selling their modest wares to the largely disinterested if not far too poor passengers, and wait for the transport to Nunchia.
The road to Nunchia begins in the same manner as to Paz de Ariporo, navigating the periphery of the foothills to the northeast from the north side of the river, but well before the encruce to Trinidad, branches to the north, and begins rising gradually into a spectacular scenery replete with subtropical foliage, stunning vistas of the undulating emerald mountains that will eventually rise up to the highlands of Boyacá. The road weaves gently, then progresses into tighter serpentines, every curve bringing new views of the radiant beauty of the hilly countryside around us.
As beautiful as some of the towns I have seen in Casanare heretofore, Nunchia is simply the most stunning, a small, largely colonial-style proposition whose cobblestone alleys culminate in the emerald slopes of the surrounding hills. The town’s low buildings are colourfully adorned, laden with blooming hibiscus, bougainvillea and other exotic flowers. The feeling of the town is utterly relaxed.
The heavy haze of Yopal is nowhere to be seen, and instead, the brilliant cerulean sky is alive with wildly formed white cumulus tufts. Shallow steps lead to a modest church set amongst the palm trees on the parque principal, much of the rest of the parque lined with low adobe structures crowned with terracotta tiling and perfectly-maintained cobblestone terraces on the ground.
The town is small but expansive, the low profile of the historic buildings that line the alleys almost overwhelmed by the enormous sky and exaggerated cumulus stacks. The few people on the streets of the bucolic town are very friendly – I can imagine feeling very happy about life if I lived here as well! I find the contrast between Yopal and the small towns ringing it to the north in the Monte Llanero interesting – for that matter, the towns are all quite different as well.
Wandering one of the charming streets in the immediate vicinity, I hear voices, in fact, strains of the traditional music of the region. Through an opening I see that the adjacent building is some sort of school, centered on an expansive courtyard, lined with rooms and groupings of young locals. I am waved into the building; I slip inside, and am suddenly taking a tour of one of the region’s premier joropo schools.
I am told that a lot of value is placed on young people being educated in local culture, in particular, the joropo music. Each of the groups of young people gathered around the courtyard is dedicated to playing a particular instrument or musical activity. These include dancing, singing, playing the harp, maracas, and various other guitar-like instruments central to joropo.
The idea that young people, in fact, children, are learning this music at the school could be deceptive or misleading, inasmuch as the talent and skill I see from many of the students is spectacular. I simply find it hard to believe people in these very young age groups can be such incredible musicians. The women singing, for example, demonstrate astonishing voices, their range and power incredible. They are accompanied by musicians on stringed instruments, presumably their teachers, their singing soaring across the spacious rooms and ample courtyard.
But I shouldn’t dwell on just one group: each of the groups of young people gathered at the school demonstrate superlative talent and are worth watching. As powerful as the sound of their instrument is, the harp players are unfortunately taking a break from their playing, so I will have to find another group to entertain me. The children practicing their dance moves are sweet, what they lack in technique and maturity they make up for in intention. And as much as I am fascinated and appreciative of the music these young people produce, I am also conscious that I have become the attraction of the moment – and distraction – for the students who should be intent on improving their musical skills.
Students are intent on learning the characteristic chords of the joropo music on the bandola, bandolin, cuatro and tres, and older men, probably teachers, accompany students on the same instruments. Alejandro Castro is one example, playing the cuatro as accompaniment for his very young students learning the intricacies of the maracas, which provide an important rhythmic underpinning to joropo. While the musical training is obviously serious, the young age of the participants provides obvious challenges when it comes to concentration, but I am nonetheless surprised at the excellence of their playing.
One grouping is dedicated to ensemble playing, which I would assume consists of students who are advanced enough in their skills. Again, the players are hardly of a very advanced age, but the music they play is astonishing in its beauty. I am so lucky and thankful to have been able to visit this school dedicated to some of the most amazing music that Colombia produces. That I stumbled on the school in this small town in the Monte Llanero is just incredible.
In another room, a teacher is guiding a boy on playing what looks like a cuatro, the student playing a smaller version of the instrument, and with an astonishing dexterity and precision. Again, I shake my head at the talent and skill on display at such a young age. Later, the teacher switches to bandola, the rapid strumming of his instrument accompanying a young maraca player.
I finally manage to leave the colegio with the music teachers. They gather in their private microbus while I amble up the street to the parque, only to see that a small bus is getting ready to leave. I thought the bus left at 5:30 pm? That is the last one – this one leaves now. I repeatedly ask whether I have time to buy chocolate at the cafe in the corner, but while I am given vague assurances, the bus begins inching forward. Forget the chocolate – it was too expensive anyway!
We proceed slowly towards the entrance of town, letting even more passengers onto the already full bus, then pick up speed, winding uphill, then downhill again towards the main road, the stunning vistas of lush vegetation erupting amidst the low hills bathed in golden late afternoon light, the continuous curves of the road revealing an unfolding panorama of dramatic hillsides, exotic species of flora hugging the roadside. The lower we descend, the higher the peaks of the green hills soar above us, and then we are on the main road, with nothing but the flat late afternoon llanura spread out before us, the tendrils of clouds cloaked in swaths of pink and orange as dusk approaches. And once back in town, I just want to rest in the luxury of my spacious hotel room …
Later on, I finally leave the hotel room, utterly unmotivated, but it is early enough, and I haven’t found enough ways of procrastinating to the point that it would be too late. I would like to visit a gym, but there is a hitch: the issue isn’t really that of gyms closing early, but restaurants typically closing early, so that I wouldn’t be able to eat once I return from the gym, although it does seem there are signs of life further to the south of town where the gym I intended on visiting is located.
Consistent with the aesthetics of Yopal, the space the gym inhabits is vast, and yet the equipment is … hard to place, functional, yet of incongruous and slightly tortuous design, difficult to use, and quite fragile. And the space is not even ventilated, which is pretty shocking, given that we are in the tropics. No ventilation, no air conditioning, and not even open windows.
Within short order I am drenched in sweat trying to work my way around the strange equipment configurations. All eyes turn my way when I enter the facility, and soon after having begun my workout, a young woman working at the facility insists on doing a short video of my workout routine, which I find amazing, if not embarrassing.
Leaving the facility at 9:45 pm should pretty much be a guarantee of not being able to find food, and yet Carrera 14 in this neck of the woods proves to be the hub for late night revellers, with a bakery, a number of bars, and a small food court with a burger joint, parilla grill, and pizza place. I could go into another diatribe about how horrible the culinary options here are, but the real problem is that they are really quite similar to small town America. I opt for a pizza, then quickly regret my choice, as a post-workout meal should be rich in protein. Yet the pizza I am given is surprisingly good. Good pizza, good late night locales – what more can you ask for?
The cab driver seems intent on getting me to the destination I asked for, until he pulls up to the vast Gran Plaza Alcaraván, which I had no idea could possibly exist in a place like Yopal. ‘What is this?’ I ask him. ‘The Exito is here. You wanted to go to the Exito.’ ‘I told you to go to Calle 10, where the Exito is located, around Carrera 20.’ ‘The Exito is here’ he repeats. I lean over and shout at him ‘THE EXITO ON CALLE 10!’ He continues ‘but the Exito is located here.’ Things degenerate, as I only have so much patience. I still want to get some work done this evening, and this stupidity is just wasting my time. Even at my intended destination, he stops randomly prior to the stop I requested, prompting more yelling.
On the other hand, I had a reasonable nocturnal tour of Yopal, and there are a surprising amount of small bars, street food stands, and even restaurants open throughout the city. And yet most of these places are pretty much well worth avoiding, simply due to the bad quality of food and even alcohol they serve.
And at the hotel, the front door is locked, a sign is posted on the door with a cell phone number, and the office lights upstairs are off. I had told the night receptionist specifically that I was going to the gym and would eat afterwards. I press what I think is the buzzer and knock on the door. No response. Fuming, I cross the street with the slip of paper, asking the revellers to call the number for me. They are somewhat shocked at my anger, but I am frankly fed up with getting locked out of the hotel at not even that late because the night receptionist comes to work to sleep. And it’s not like I hadn’t asked him to be sure to stay awake.
The locals in the bar are apologetic, telling me that Colombians don’t take work that seriously, that they tend to take a laid back attitude to work. They mean well, but my reaction is severe, largely because it denigrates so many of the people who take their work very seriously here, irrespective of how modest it may be. No, the problem is that the person in question is lazy, useless and should be fired. He finally answers the phone, demanding an explanation as to who is calling.
Seeing him leaning out the window, I hurl abuse at him. He finally comes downstairs, and I don’t abate. I would fire you on the spot …
The day in Nunchia was amazing; the evening, however, was a fiasco …