March 25, 2018
I wake up exceedingly early, but judging by the silence in the house, the owner has left already. I really want to start the day early, go shopping, then see the town and take in any events pertaining to the Semana Santa, but also want to wait for her to return so that I can ensure that I understand how to go through the whole door opening and locking process.
I am awake, and yet completely exhausted. I don’t quite feel right, which could be a result of lack of sleep, my back still being out of sorts, a somewhat unclear situation in this AirBnB, or the two Pekinese lodged on the balcony of the house across the street yelping furiously, ad nauseum.
My first stop is the fruteria, which is fortunately just down the block, the modest selection of fruit and vegetables also matched with affordable prices, well, for me, at least. Baby potatoes, cucumbers, ripe tomatoe, a nice big pineapple, sweet onions, small poblano peppers, tomate de arbol, and some granadilla as luxury.
Mercedes, the owner of the AirBnB, admonishes me about having left the inner gate open. ‘Never leave the gate open’, she tells me firmly. I acknowledge her statement, also considering that perhaps her level of security here is overkill. At the same, the gates involve a process that I don’t associate with any value judgement – if she wants me to keep everything locked and closed, that’s fine with me. It also comes down to the perennial security-related backdrop that informs the way Colombians live.
The revelry at the Santa Inés begins early, worshippers gathering in front of the church, clasping woven palms, then in a portentous moment, the handful of people waving their woven palm fronds march solemnly down the street, the group almost entirely aged. This should be a dead giveaway for the fact that it is Palm Sunday, that is, one of the most important events in the Semana Santa. And yet here I am, planning on going to the Exito and the fruteria to stock up on groceries.
Palm Sunday falls on the Sunday before Easter and commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It signals the last week of Lent and the beginning of the Semana Santa. The procession of the faithful carrying palms represents the palm branches that were scattered in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.
The area around the Exito is bustling, a veritable hub of life, but as everywhere else, when I see a lot of people gravitating to a single place, I scrutinize the crowd to determine whether there are any elements that may be questionable. Profiling anyone? But the shopping experience will have to wait, because it turns out that the supermarket is located on the edge of the core area, the white-washed palaces stretching out before me towards the area of the Parque Caldas.
I see throngs parading in the street in the distance, and as I approach, it turns out that the Palm Sunday procession is in full swing in the centre, large crowds gathered on the streets in the blocks closest to the parque, particularly on the bleachers, watching the parade carrying the statue of Jesus (or is it Mary?) towards the cathedral, with various military regiments, including a brass band, assorted clergy, and the general public, all carrying the woven palm leaves. Visitors around me bear cameras and are jockeying for position to take the best shots: and guess who didn’t bring his camera along?
Back at the Exito, the usual quandary arises, largely since there is so much choice – and yet there is little choice, or rather, most of the merchandise I would never consider buying. Yes, there is a much bigger outlet next to the bus station, but I don’t want to have to make a purpose-driven trip to the bus station just to see what the Exito may have. And then it is too easy to spend my time cooking.
Mercedes has been bustling furiously around the house, and given that she needs to be at the airport in time for her flight to Medellín, I shouldn’t keep her busy with idle questions. In any case, I have ample work to do on my own account. It is time to go, and she calls a taxi, or rather, attempts to. But her attempts are frustrated, as she is put on hold, her calls are disconnected, the cab that was supposed to have come never arrives. The tension grows, and it seems wiser for me to go out onto the street and try flagging a taxi down a block away where there is more traffic. And finally a taxi does slow down, the driver asking me where 1-13 is … well, you are the taxi we ordered. Mercedes is relieved, I throw her heavy suitcase into the cab, and she is finally off to see her daughter in Medellín.
Having bought the groceries, seen Mercedes off, now I can to work, wrapping up yesterday’s journal entry, making a blog posting. I hear loud crashing outside. I walk over to the window and my heart sinks. Where it was bright and sunny earlier on, it is now heavily overcast, and the noise I heard was thunder. It will rain, and more importantly, it is now very dark, and it is highly unlikely the skies will clear before the late afternoon sets in, meaning that the day is shot for photography.
The coffee at the Cafe La Plazuela is incredibly good, another fabulous variant on that chocolatey, rich beverage that I have experienced elsewhere.
I walk along Calle 5, admiring the whitewashed palacios, looking into some of the very few cafes and stores that are open. Between closed wrought iron gates I see a courtyard with table set out with artisanal goods. The man at the gate tells me this gate is used to exit the exhibition, and to enter, I have to come in from the other side. I look at him in disbelief – anyone in this country would beg you to look at the souvenirs you are flogging, rather than make you have to walk around the block for the privilge of doing so. Needless to say, I keep walking. Further to the east on Calle 5, there is another artisanal market, laid out on cobblestoned portion of the street closed off to traffic.
More hippie arts and crafts, most of the goods on display the same things sold elsewhere, with a few minor exceptions. The jewelry could be interesting, but it tends to be repetitive, and it is not clear how much of the more elaborate work is hand made, as it has somewhat of a massproduced feel to it. What stands out is the stand with T-shirts, featuring images of murals from around the country, definitely a very unique vehicle for conveying a powerful memory of Colombia. However, some of the images are obscure, and then also don’t convey the background reality to the viewer as to where the images originate. Out of context, they are simply images on T-shirts. I promise to come back …
In front of one of the many neo-Classical (or neo-Baroque) structures in the city, posters announcing a music festival for the Semana Santa, of what turns out to be a palette ranging from early music to Classical, presented by a mix of European and Latin American consorts. The idea of attending such a concert here leaves me baffled, as it so far from the musical idiom I experience here on a daily basis. ‘How about if I attend one of the concerts and listen to Vallenato on my headphones?’ I suggest. The reaction to my ridiculous comment is somewhat priceless, more smirking that the expected contempt, but then Colombians always have a sense of humour. The concert today promises to be fantastic, although due to my incredible organizational skills, I have missed most of it. But there are more concerts during the day, although from reviewing the program, it looks like they may be colliding with church celebrations. Oh well …
On the plaza before the Puente Del Humilladero is a street market of – you guessed it – more tourist claptrap, although this market has more of a hippie flavour, but also includes vendors selling what I take to be local sweets. I would love to indulge myself and yet traveling through the country you are constantly beset by an onslaught of sugar, and even though I have a bit of a sweet tooth, I am just fed up with the sugar/starch paradigm that defines the already relatively uninspiring cuisine. The artisanry on sale, on the other hand, is more of the usual dross. The traditional Colombian bags are an exception, gorgeous and authentic, but then everyone sells them through the country, and unless you adhere a solidly hippie social etiquette, you would never use them back home. The generic Bolivian pan flutes playing make me want to run for cover …
The environment is gorgeous, a departure from the rectilinear grid that makes up the rest of the centre of town. Terrace lawns emanate from the buildings facing the canal, from which the graceful brick bridge reaches over to the presumably less desirable part of town to the north. The views are beautiful, but the light is simply far too dark to take in reasonably good shots. A block to the north is the Teatro Guillermo Valencia, one of the venues for the music festival held during the Semana Santa. So much for the expensive camera!
I return to the tourist office on the Parque Caldas, where the lone police officer tells me that the last program with the schedule for the Semana Santa has been given away. But at 8 am tomorrow there will be a new supply available. Fair enough … but then the information is also available online, isn’t it? From the pamphlets laid out on the small table behind him, I can see that the office also provide information for the departamento. I have my hesitations regarding traveling to the outback of Cauca, as it is apparently one of the most troubled areas of Colombia, but the police officer assures me that other than a few specific pockets of the administrative area, it has settled down considerably, good news for locals more than anything.
It turns out that many of the sites can be taken in on a day trip from Popayán, including even the Parque Nacional Natural Puracé, for which there is a 3 1/2 hour hike which illustrates some of the parks best attractions, including sightings of the Andean condor. A hike to the top of the Puracé volcano can be added onto the hike, but it would mean leaving very early in the morning, as the climb to the top requires an additional five hours. Another option even closer to town is to the Coconuco hot springs. All of these possibilities seem very attractive ways of filling the days in the next week, particularly on days the Easter celebrations take place in the evening.
There is a heavy police presence here, towards the centre the streets literally lined with police. On the Parque Caldas, there are even military police with machine guns. I imagine the amount of policing isn’t happening because they have nothing else to do, the message being that under no circumstances will the kind of behavior be tolerated that the area is known for. And yet I see virtually no foreigners on the street, only locals. Are they shacked up in their hotels, ready to emerge at precisely the right time? The hotels here are certainly very high caliber, at least from what I can from the street.
Another thing is amply apparent in traversing the whitewashed colonial core of the city – the hotels here are first class, the bulk near the Parque Caldas set in ostentatious Spanish palaces. These places are huge, with very high ceilings, and probably occupy buildings originally built centuries ago. Whatever they are charging, it is worth it, as the experience is about as authentic as one could expect. I imagine that the guests are hiding in their luxurious hotel rooms, as there is little trace of of foreigners on the street. In fact, as the light becomes lower and the demographic visible changes, it may be a good idea for me to make my way back to the comfort of my home as well.
For all that I have heard about how amazing restaurants here are, there are virtually none open, and the few that are hardly look that memorable. Add to the mix a few asaderos, parillas and arepa places, and the Semana Santa is not shaping up to much culinarily. Well, it is – because I will be cooking at home, what will turn out to be far superior to anything I could get in restaurants.
I hear people calling me, which I am sure of because they do so in broken English. Unless I am approached in a way that appears safe, all bets are off. For one, anything that could amount to being in anyway trapped by parties with untoward intentions. Once in a questionable situation, it may not be easy to get out.
I wander around the streets as dusk sets in, waiting for the inevitable transition that Colombian towns make to the evening revelry, even on Sundays. But I am not seeing it happening, as the streets largely remain empty. Of course, different towns have unique schedules, but I should probably return home and do something constructive, like make dinner and get some work done, rather than just linger around or seek out one of the three reasonably good restaurants in town to eat.
So, what will dinner be … chicken breasts sauteed in olive oil, with fresh poblano, tomato, Spanish onion, garlic and fresh thyme in tomato de arbol and cream sauce, on a bed of pasta. Yes, very easy to make, and no, there is virtually no chance of finding anything of this quality in town …
Colombia has a big problem: untrained dogs. Dogs that just bark relentlessly, public nuisance in the extreme …