On the Road: Buenaventura & San Cipriano

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As I begin writing this post, I’m one of 20 passengers on a commuter bus winding and weaving through the mountainous roads from Cali to Buenaventura. The trip is usually two hours but traffic has made it a 4-hour trip. Since it’s Semana Santa (Holy Week), most people are free from work or school and vacationing for the holiday.  Yet another nearby destination to Cali I’d never visited, Buenaventura is home to one of Colombia’s major ports. It’s also known for it’s large population of African descendants who reside on the land. At first glance, the infrastructure of Buenaventura isn’t as attractive as Cali, who yields skyscrapers and a colorful skyline with mountainous back drops. As I arrive, I can’t help but be reminded of a quote I’d read while researching things to do in Buenaventura. Some of my classmates recommended I visit Ladrilleros for Semana Santa. When I’d googled Ladrilleros, the top result was a side-eye-worthy article written by an Australian blogger:

 “Arriving in Buenaventura and you might as well have arrived somewhere in Africa. The population is black. The streets are dirty. The cityscape and architecture are awful. It’s unorganised, corrupt and parts of the city are very unsafe. Have you ever heard of the “las casas de pique” – the houses where teenagers chop rival gang members to pieces with machetes? Although you’re unlikely to end up in one, these places exist in the poor, stilted neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Buenaventura.”(http://caliadventurer.com/ladrilleros/)

 Entering Buenaventura is indeed much like entering a village in Africa, due to the inevitable sight of melanated folks who look like me. 

Perhaps no harm was meant, but his words were harsh. Even before I’d seen Buenaventura with my own eyes, he’d painted a disastrous image of it to share with the world. It made me uncomfortable that such an ignorant representation was being made of not only Buenaventura, but Africa too. I was especially made uneasy by the fact that it had been the top result from my web search. It’s true, 75% of Colombia’s imports and exports pass through Buenaventura yet it’s not aesthetically appealing to the eye of a typical tourist; like most other parts of Colombia. But I’d already heard about the economic disparities between different regions of the country, especially those regions with high concentrations of black folks.

Just yesterday, I’d attended an event where I learned several facts regarding Afro-Colombian history. I learned that despite the fact that places like Palenque exist, that Afro-Colombians had no national identity until 1991, when their existence was written into the constitution. Palenque is a town in the North of Colombia, near Cartagena, established by escaped slaves 400 years ago; the first independent community of free slaves in the Americas. So knowing what I know about the world – particularly as it relates to people of color – there were no surprises.

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Keeping the history and politics in the back of my mind, I did manage to find the beauty in Buenaventura while being present. Entering Buenaventura is indeed much like entering a village in Africa, due to the inevitable sight of melanated folks who look like me and my family. I not only find it beautiful but astounding that populations of black people dominate entire regions, creating pockets of Africa across the country. Business owners, lawyers, doctors and students are among the people who comprise these communities.

Even though I blend in, I was still advised not to travel there without knowing someone since my accent is a giveaway that I’m not from the area and robberies are a reality all over Colombia. I prefer to take certain precautions I feel necessary to be safe rather than sorry, especially when I encounter strangers. Nearly fluent but rarely accurate in Spanish, I’ve played Brazilian countless times so not to be discovered as “a gringo.”  Mostly because there’s a certain connotation that comes with being a gringo that means you can afford to be ripped off or robbed. 

 I’d been in contact with a friend of a mutual friend who was born and raised in Buenaventura but had been working in Choco until recently moving back home. Let’s call him JR. I had wanted to go to a beach while visiting Buenaventura, but settled for San Cipriano after JR recommended the famous river in the heart of the jungle. I’m a nature enthusiast, so I obliged. When my bus finally arrived, JR received me at the terminal. He’d been waiting there for me for at least two hours but he didn’t seem to be phased by it. After all, we’d been in contact along my commute to the city. We’d made plans to have lunch when I arrived so he asked what I wanted to eat. When I said I wanted seafood, he mentioned that it would be difficult since it was already 5 p.m. and most places may have already closed their lunch booths. Still, he fetched a taxi to take us to La Galleria, an area where seafood is served. The taxi dropped us off in an alley behind a church where people were in fellowship. There were booths set up along the alley, with large pots and rich aromas of raw seafood and home-cooked stews. We were greeted warmly by the sisters who prepared the food there. We each had a fried platano (plantain) with stewed servings of calamari, shrimp and oysters. JR got a serving of turtle, which I tried and was delicious. We ate mostly in silence as I was struggled comprehending much of JR’s rapid Spanish. When it was time to pay I was prepared to contribute my half but JR had invited me and already covered the bill. I was pleased. We spent the rest of the evening catching up, walking along the boardwalk, buying drinks and snacks then eventually watching Netflix before bed.  

The next morning we checked out of the hotel to get breakfast. We went back to the same place we’d eaten yesterday. It was the first time I had shrimp, shark, calamari and turtle for breakfast.

 After breakfast we went looking for transport to take us to San Cipriano. As we walked to the point where we’d meet the minibus, I noticed armed men in military gear guarding the streets. I asked JR why they are there. He told me if they weren’t that people passing thru the area might get robbed. Enough said. When the minibus going in the direction of Córdoba pulled up, I was struck by deja vu when a young boy opened the door, exclaiming “Córdoba, Córdoba!” When I’d lived in South Africa, the same minibuses were the typical forms of public transportation. Passengers had been lured in the same fashion but by grown men exclaiming, “Town,Town,Town!” We got in the minibus and passed our fare up to the driver, just as I had done years ago when commuting in South Africa.

Along the way, we made stops for other passengers heading in the same direction. After 20 minutes, we arrived to Córdoba, the transfer point to San Cipriano. From Córdoba we bought tickets for $12.000 to be transported to San Cipriano in brujas, hand-made motortrain cars. We packed onto wooden benches by the dozens while a motorcycle fueled our journey to the gigantic river deep in the jungle.

We passed several houses where black families were sitting on their porches watching visitors pass. At some point halfway, there were townspeople selling homemade snacks and viche, the official alcoholic beverage of the Pacific coast made from cane sugar.

When we finally arrived to the drop off point, there were several visitors congregating about the small village. We didn’t walk far before we reached a section we wanted to swim in, conveniently located beneath a restaurant serving lunch. We both decided that we’d swim nearby until lunchtime since neither of us are fun to be around when we’re hungry. 

The river was amazing. It had been cloudy most of the morning but the sun shone its rays just in time for us to enter the chilly pool. The water was clear and fresh. About 15 minutes into swimming I noticed a pair of mating dragonflies circling around us. They landed on JR’s shoulder. I tried to hurry back to our backpacks to [carefully] bring my phone in the water to take a picture but they had flown away before I reached. Moments later while JR began chatting with a couple who was sharing a swimming station with us, I floated on my back and listened to the sounds of the river; feeling the pulse of the Earth. With my head under water, there was silence yet here was an aura in the stillness telling me to be calm, be patient and appreciate the beauty around me. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, released and lifted my body out of the water. As I rose, I began walking towards JR when he told me to freeze. The dragonflies had returned. Maybe a different pair but this time they’d landed on my shoulder. I froze and held my position while JR hurried to get his camera. Just as he was ready to snap the picture, they’d flown away. JR still snapped a picture. 

We’d begun taking turns taking pictures of each other in the water. After a few more moments, we’d started to review pictures on JR’s phone when the dragonflies returned once again, landing on top of JR’s phone. I started to wonder if just coincidence alone was attracting these beautiful mating creatures to us. I gazed into the deep red eyes of the one of the dragonflies as JR balanced his hands so not to disturb them. At that moment they flew from his camera to my shoulder, and JR was able to snap a picture just in time. 

At lunch I did some research and found out that dragonflies symbolize transformation and a connection with nature’s spirit. If one lands on you it is said to be a good luck charm.  I suppose time will tell what comes to pass as far as luck goes but I definitely felt connected to nature’s spirit. So connected that we ended up spending the rest of the day becoming acquainted with the jungle and chasing waterfalls before traveling back to Buenaventura and saying our goodbyes. 

Although it was our first time meeting in person and there was a language barrier, I felt comfortable with JR. I’m used to spending more time alone than around people, but I was grateful to have a companion on this trip. JR was not only knowledgeable about Buenaventura, he was also the reason our excursion to San Cipriano went so smoothly. For me, some of the best things to take away from solo traveling are the connections and lasting memories that are created along the way. So, I stand beside the idea that a journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.