March 26, 2018
For some reason I wake up very early, and proceed immediately with my industrious schedule, writing, photo editing, and resolving personal business issues. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be waking up in tranquil and private outpost in suburban Popayán, with a large bedroom and bathroom, the rest of the house including a living room, salon, kitchen, garden room, study and dining room. While I normally suffer from confinement, I am continually trekking from one room to the other, in the end having to feel a particular degree of motivation to leave the house.
The plan for today is to walk around town, take photos, attend the mass at 5 pm, then attend a concert at 6:30 pm. I was going to return to the fruteria, but that will have to wait for another day. Instead, I leave the house in the late morning when the sun is luckily still shining; I need to take as many photos as possible before the rains come in. I meet the neighbor, who is all smiles, but may not necessarily be able to help me if I manage to lock myself out of the house, given the owner’s elaborate locking system.
I decide to walk to town the scenic route, rising on Carrera 1 past the Colegio Melvin Jones (sure it isn’t supposed to be ‘Elvin Jones’?), then through the market area on Calle 5 and the Iglesia La Eremita. The streets in town are now filled with Colombian tourists and locals, flowing in and out of businesses, restaurants and cafes.
The town is a hub of activity, which is refreshing. I wonder what business transpires in this town, other than tourism? Given that it is the capital of the Cauca departamento, government services will probably account for a fair amount of the major employment here. The town centre does not fail to be stunning, definitely one of the jewels of the country, what with its white-washed palaces, Roman arches, courtyards with fountains, wrought-iron balconies and gates.
I feel self-conscious hauling along an expensive camera. There is a strange feel here that I can’t place, not sure if it is me, or the people on the street. And it’s not as if the camera is allowing me to taking photos that are particularly memorable, given the low light typically occurring at this time of year. The rain clouds eventually begin moving in as I am on the plaza. The sun comes back shortly, but its presence is short lived.
The bright flowering trees offer a counterpoint to the white facade and terracotta rooftops. Closer to the plaza, the buildings rise in height, but any opulence hidden from the viewer, the facades characteristic of the Spanish colonial style sheer other than the stone door frames and wrought iron gates enclosing windows. The streets are livened up by vendors of cut fruit, snacks and drinks. The streets in the centre of town are easily walkable, given that the police have barricaded vehicular access to the centre.
The Parque Caldas is alive with people, and yet also reflects a less enfranchised and less occupied demographic, which has the potential of being a more problematic social element as well, given some of the looks I get from people lolling around. In any case, whenever I take photos I look to see where the closest police officer is located, especially given how many are circulating in town at the time.
The bleachers remain erected for the entirety of the Semana Santa, given that big crowds are present for one of the evening’s processions. While the daytime streets attract a certain amount of stragglers, the evening is characterized by a substantial amount of decorum among the masses coming to observe the processions.
A tour around the market and gardens around the Puente Del Humilladero follows, the persistent sunshine provided a perfect opportunity for copious amounts of photos. The market on the centre side of the bridge is fine enough, but the feeling elicited from some of the people loitering on the bridge feels different, engendering more of a sense of caution.
I visit the Negret Modern art museum, which on the surface is beautifully curated museum of a Colombian modern artist originating from Popayán. But there are several issues with the exhibition presented. His work somehow doesn’t work for me, rather than conveying some message that transcends the physical trappings of the work, essential for modern art to achieve some validity, it just comes across as hunks of sheet metal bolted together in contorted shapes, awkward, maladroit, and with nothing to convey. The adjacent presentation of the man’s collection of other artists’ works seems to amount to nothing more than a lot of very derivative and unoriginal work of relatively unknown artists. It probably would not be a good idea to convey what I think about the place to anyone here …
In another stab at local cultural offering, I visit the Museo Guillermo León Valencia, which would in theory be interesting if I was that motivated to find out the intimate details of the life of a former president of Colombia who happened to originate from this town. It could be that he played some critical part in fomenting improvements in the country, but without having any clear talking points to this effect presented to me at the outset of the visit, it may be best to look for some pretty pictures (of which there are none) and move on.
Like every good Colombian town, a decent lunch is offered at innumerable places, and so I am faced with that other quandary, where to eat. Since most food offered for the almuerzo tends to be similar, other than featuring small variants in quality that I could only become aware of after the fact of eating in a particular establishment, I go by the looks and price. Well, in Popayán, lots of places look nice, with some artistic touches, laid out on somewhat romantic terraces, and so on.
In the end I decide on the busy Portales de Sebas, and am not disappointed, as the food is very good. This is where Colombian food is typically good quality as well as value. And on the television suspended at one end of the narrow courtyard, the news, speaking of the likelihood of robberies climbing during Semana Santa, how to secure your house, the fact that leaving places vacant offers a prime target for thieves, then on to other depressing news. The news in Colombia consistently sells an image of ruination, which has little to do with the actuality of day-to-living, probably much more so than elsewhere.
A few rain drops splatter down on me, which I don’t take too seriously. But suddenly, a torrential downpour erupts, mixed with hail. Everyone on the street runs for cover – this is not the kind of rain that umbrellas or protective clothing can stand up to. My refuge of choice is a music store, where I huddle with a few other people, watching the news. The owner of the shop is philosophical about the rain. At least we can watch the news, which is of course never that great, spewing on about more disasters. The store has the cow bells I had seen yesterday, but not printed with hector Lavoe’s name, which is the type I wanted to buy, not that I or anyone I know would want a cow bell.
I wait and wait, but the torrential downpour does not abate. When it finally begins slowing down, I make a run for it. I jump into a bakery for a random strawberry and cream pudding, which turns out to be utterly amazing, then off to my favorite coffee shop in town, the Cafe La Plazuela (not that I have visited more than two so far in town).
Attempting to maintain momentum on this marathon cultural spree, I conclude the series of museum visits with a visit to the Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso, which consists of two components, the heavily guarded collection of historical chalices and monstrances in a round chamber, followed by the two-level gallery of Colombian religious paintings dating back over the centuries. The artifacts are to some extent solid gold, but largely plated, a minority of the items in silver, dating in part to the earliest years of the Spanish conquest.
Artisans were trained early on during the Spanish dominion to replicate the aesthetics of Catholicism using the precious metals and stones the region was known for. Tellingly, the quality of craftmanship and value of materials diminished significantly, not only in the immediate past but well over the last century.
I tell the older woman who came from the Guajira or somewhere like that that I am not crazy about Colombian food, and she is offended. Yes, there are things that are consistently very good, but for the most part, it’s very mediocre. And don’t compare anything to average American food because our mainstream food is garbage. On the other hand, urban areas have sophisticated food you couldn’t dream of here. Only in the likes of the most privileged areas of Bogotá is there a more sophisticated offering, and yet it really only reaches what could gastronomically be considered some minimum standard.
She is aghast at my bluntness, but so what – a bad subject to attempt to bond over!
The museum for religious artifacts consists largely of paintings spread over a series of rooms on two levels of a historical palace. The overarching impression is of badly derivative religious art bearing stylistic traditions that would have been substantially out of date when the works were produced. From a critical perspective, it would be hard to be generous in assessing the work on display. And the Spanish themselves were hardly at the avant garde of art centuries ago to begin with.
There is little redeeming about the work, archaic, not pleasing to look at, but the young volunteers taking pride in presenting the work to visitors need not hear that. I also find it interesting that there is little evidence in the work of the indigenous cultures the Spanish and early colonists effectively wiped out. Of course, the most important part of eradicating a culture is to eliminate all artifacts and documentation pertaining to the culture, to erase evidence of its existence from the face of the earth.
Now time for the concert being offered in the context of the Semana Santa music festival. Apparently, it is supposed to take place today at the Iglesia de San Francisco, but there seems to be nothing. I return back to the ticket office at the Teatro Guillermo Valencia and am told the location is somewhere else, next to the Iglesia de San Jose. In any case, it is not a concert but a workshop. So much for that!
An older woman explains to me in a reassuring voice where I can find the venue, then continues on to tell me I shouldn’t miss the condor sighting in the Purecé national park, en route to San Augustin. If I go early enough (fat chance in my case), I could miss the rains, but given that the rains today were antediluvian, it could be dangerous to be that far out in the monte with the potential of that kind of weather arising.
I guess I can always check the Weather Channel …
I buy some coconut sweets from the market next to the Puente del Humilladero. The market features a variety of snacks and sweets, notably also from the region’s African population. The Cauca departamento that Popayán is capital of is mostly flat, running to the cordillera to the east, but accounts for a large part of the country’s lower Pacific coastline, hence more people of African heritage and more tropical cuisine.
Despite continuously decrying arepas, I decide to have an arepa, which turns out to be the worst ever, apparently with ham and cheese. Not only can I not seem to make out the normally bland contents, but the vendor has added layers of crumbled potato chips, mayonnaise and pineapple syrup, resulting in an improbable and disgusting concoction.
At the Parque Caldas, I wait for the mass to begin at the cathedral at 5 pm, but the church seems virtually empty. Police and soldiers slowly amass around the parque, with copious amounts of street vendors and locals loitering around the park waiting for the last bit of excitement the day can offer before the sun sets, and life takes the inevitable turn. I wait and wait, being sure to position myself near security personnel due to the lingering feeling I get that in their absence, things could get much touchier for a strapping foreigner such as myself. There are virtually no foreign tourists visible here, as has been the case so far in town. But nothing seems to happen …
I visit the tourist office, asking the police officer behind the counter what the deal is with the 5 pm mass and procession. ‘The mass took place at 5 pm in the cathedral’, I am told. ‘No it didn’t’ I respond. ‘Yes it did’. ‘I waited the whole time, and nothing happened. I saw a few people straggling in, but the church was largely empty.’ ‘There was a mass at 5 pm.’ ‘No there wasn’t.’ ‘Anyway, there is no procession, as it’s not on the schedule.’ ‘What – the whole inner city is blocked off for the procession, so how can you tell me there is no procession?’ ‘The Semana Santa organization is in private hands and decides last minute as to what happens here. They print their schedules, so it’s their problem, and we only find out about the details of their plans in the last moment.’
I am incensed at the lack of organization. I could have gone to a concert at 5 pm rather than waste my time waiting for something that wasn’t happening until hours later. ‘I should just wait until the parade starts’, I am told. ‘Or I can visit the churches.’ ‘Most of the churches are always closed.’ ‘No they are not.’ ‘Yes they are.’ ‘Well, they open for mass, anyway.’ ‘Just when it is not appropriate to be wandering around …’
I rant on in frustration, and the police officer I am speaking with takes it all in stride …
I can’t believe the pervasive smell of weed in the streets, something I have not yet encountered in Colombia … despite the fact that marijuana must be quite popular, at least with some segment of the population.
The Easter procession may run several kilometres through town, the trajectory repeated several times, although I am at the moment not quite sure how it will unfold. The procession consists of a succession of floats bearing larger-than-life images of Jesus, Mary, saints, or biblical scenes.
Floats are carried exclusively by young men wearing brown cloaks with white sashes, although there are also carriers wearing only street clothing. The procession occasionally comes to a standstill, the floats rested on supporting staves due to their weight. Occasionally a float has to be dropped to reattach candles that have fallen off.
When the procession recommences, one of the men taps one of the supporting poles, and the men in unison lift the poles supporting the float onto their shoulders, then continue. It would be obviously important to use men of the similar height as carriers. It is also evident that the relatively slender young men may be in over their head in carrying some of these floats. Perhaps several trips to the gym beforehand could help?
Each float is preceded by a woman in a floral gown bearing a wreath of flowers at whose centre is burning incense. It is not clear who is responsible for each individual float – some brotherhood? A physical church?