The Call of the mountains
As I begin to write this piece I am aware that I am still figuring out how to describe succinctly what it is that I am doing here in Colombia. It is, like any creative project, evolving and changing: I am still learning about what an eco-village is in general and figuring out what this journey means to me personally. My reason for coming to Colombia was a wholehearted desire to learn and to see what I could offer…and a curiosity to follow a strong heart calling. Each community that I have visited has made a very personal imprint on me: groups of unique friends that have in common their intention to come together to live and share life in a committed way. In each community I have been met with personal challenges and vulnerability, I have opened to new friendships and connections to new ways of engaging in and with groups and I have been learning about how these groups relate to one another: getting an understanding of the nature of the network of eco-communities that is quintessentially Colombian.
This post is about a community (of new friends) near Armenia: the capital of the tiny department of Quindío, in the Eje Cafetero (the Coffee Axis). The city was the site of a powerful earth quake in 1999 killing over 1,900 people. It is still recovering and many people still differentiate between events that happened before the earthquake and those that happened afterwards. The city was a stop off point for me a number of times as I travelled in the region. I didn’t spend much time there, but I did spend two lovely weeks an hour outside, learning how to make a yurt from scratch and participating in the Colombian eco-community network in their annual “Llamado de los montañas” or “the Llamado” (The call of the mountains).
In late November I had arranged to meet some of the community members of Anthakarana in Armenia to get a lift to their site. The address I was given turned out to be a ballet school, and the first members of the community that I met were three mothers and their kids in a jeep outside the school building. Some had just finished up ballet practice and the others had been swimming. I jumped into the back seat of the jeep and joined the rather hyper mob of kids chatting about birds and vegetables.. as I understood. We drove for a few minutes and the women got out to do some shopping, and I was left babysitting!! Haha! It was a riot to be with this young bunch and not to be able to see them in the dark. They were babbling amongst themselves and firing questions at me about where I came from etc. I couldn’t understand everything they were saying, but figured out that the birds and vegetables were different kinds of costumes for an upcoming ballet performance and I could discern that two of the children had French Spanish accents. Babysitting only lasted a few minutes and then we drove out of the city and up into the mountains away from traffic and city lights onto rough country roads, total darkness and into definite 4-wheel drive country-side.
I arrived to the community in the dark and was given a very brief tour: I was pointed towards the compost toilet and shown my bed in the little loft dorm room, which I had to myself. I had no sense of where I actually was or who was living in the community other than the women and children that I had met in the jeep. I did love the fact that I was sleeping in a loft room and figured I would get a view from there in the morning. The place felt pretty rough around the edges from those first experiences. There had been lots of rain; the site had lots of muddy patches and puddles so my first evening included clambering over slippery mud and old piled up tyres forming a steep stairs down to the compost toilet. I finally settled in for the night and fell asleep to the sound of the rain.
Looking down, from the loft
The next morning I awoke to appreciate my location: scattered small wooden buildings on a sloping site with forest all round and cleared areas with views out and down over rolling hills. There is a wildness and a peace about the place, a sense of really getting away from it all.. the air was sweet and healthy. The sun was strong when it shone it dried up the land quickly, it was chilly in the evenings and in the rainy season, it rains alot!
The living room in Anthakarana
View over Anthakarana
Anthakarana is a small community initiated by Bahmar and his wife Deyanira along with their children and their families: Oriana and Osiris and their children Taini & Sami and Nicholas and Angelica their daughter Alana. There have been changes in the community over the years with other families joining and then some leaving. Currently one other family lives there: Paula, Adrienne, Nagual and Itza. Adrienne is French so their children were the ones with the beautiful French/Spanish accents. Along with the families there are a number of local people who help out on the land and while I was there I was the only volunteer but some people arrived to help prepare for the Llamado.
Although it’s a small community they have a set structure each day with breakfast together at 7:30am, they work until 1 then stop for lunch and the evening meal was around 7pm. During the morning the community worked on site projects together and then in afternoons people did their own tasks. These included tending the community goats and attending to the communities mushroom business. Families lived in their own houses scattered around the five-hectare site and volunteer accommodation was in the little loft dorm space above the community kitchen. Volunteers pay COP15,000 per day (about 4 euros) and work 5 hours per day. While I was there I worked with the community preparing the ground for a new yurt and then helped Fercho build the yurt from scratch! Much to my joy!
Community goats at Anthakarana
Fercho (who has a permaculture project with his partner near Villavicencio, Colombia) trained in bio-construction and was building a yurt from bamboo. We worked each morning and most afternoons and I got to experience the whole process from choosing the appropriate length width and shape of bamboo appropriate for creating the wall and the roof lattice structures, to assembly and troubleshooting. We cut and the pierced each section of bamboo ready for creating the structure. As we had limited access to tools for clamping and cutting we had fun creating our own clamping and measuring system using string, rubber bands and off cuts of bamboo (very McGyver-esque) which after much tweaking was names the Yurt-o-Matic 2000.
I am a little in awe of the beauty of the yurt structure; it originated in Mongolia where they were traditionally created in local timber and joined together using horsehair. The yurts of Mongolia were created to be mobile structures; folding up into easily transportable lattices that are simply unfolded and easily erected. In Mongolia they would have skins for roof and wall covers but we were creating a more open structure with a tarpaulin roof and for the joints (to my dismay) we used plastic cable ties for joining the bamboo pieces, for efficiency.
We got into a creative routine of working each day and I enjoyed the simple rhythm of creating; I realised that I love the craft of creating art buildings and culture. To me architecture is sculpture and the architecture that I wish to create is at this scale: beautifully crafted buildings that are simply created to last, built efficiently and beautifully. It reminds me of the effectiveness, efficiency and elegance of the designs of the Shakers in the US. One of my favourite sites for inspirational architectural design was in Hancock Massachusetts, a few hours drive from Boston where I used to live for many years back in the 90’s. As a young architect then I was drawn to their minimal and graceful approach to craft and now I feel that I am revisiting my real love: working with natural local materials exploring new and old methods creating crafted works that are a joy to live in.
My training as an architect was an education in learning how to work with complex systems, from assimilating the needs and ideas of many people, to understanding site restrictions, bringing together abstract ideas into three dimensional form and learning how to communicate this clearly and in inspiring ways. I loved the training. Real life: work out in offices, was more challenging for me, with mountains of paperwork, understating building legislation, planning permission procedures, building regulations and dealing with a construction system that is honed to reduce cost. I felt that my hands were tied most of the time and as I progressed in my career design time reduced as paperwork increased exponentially. I struggled to figure out how to address the constant pressure to do the work faster and cheaper. I left full time architectural work behind many years ago in favour of creating with my own hands: painting, sculpture and dance. Building this simple, elegant little yurt with others was a fun, nourishing, co-creative joy.
Creating the lattice structure for the Yurt
Our elegant yurt
After working during the day I took time to relax, read or write in the late afternoons and on many of my evenings there we gathered around the fire or in one house or other. As I was there before Christmas we gathered to decorate the Christmas trees in each house, eating traditional Colombian biscuits, singing songs and play hilarious games of charades. Much of our time was spent in telling stories and jokes and in wonderful peels of laughter. I felt my understanding of Spanish took a a great leap while I was there, although also I realise that so much about us is related through our laughter and our willingness to connect. This community were all very much willing and curious to share and communicate. Most of the adults have been involved in street theatre and this showed in their enthusiastic joy in story telling and creative expression.
Storytelling around the fire
So the Yurt was built to be an extra space for the upcoming Llamado. I had heard about his gathering earlier in the year when I was researching for the Colombia journey. Through contact with GEN (The Global Eco-Village Network) and CASA (the Colombian Eco-village network) it had originally been planned that I would be a part of the organisation of the gathering but had learned when I arrived in Colombia that the event had been cancelled due to a problem in communication in the organisation. I had been disappointed , but had continued with my journey and now was delighted to unexpectedly hear that the event, although very significantly scaled down, was now due to go ahead and would take place where I was volunteering!
The Llamado ended up being a pretty small group of about 35-40 people as opposed to its usual 2-300. It was beautiful to meet members of some of the communities that I had visited over the previous months: like Lina and Steffen from Viracocha, Andres his children and Yulucka from Aldea Feliz, and to put some faces to names of people that I had met only via email. I had heard lots about the Llamado and how much fun it was so I was excited to be there. I expected to be a part of lots if ideas sharing workshops but it turned out to be something very different. The gathering went ahead but in essence it was the association meeting for CASA with a few community events attached and I was told that it was nothing like a usual Llamado. The first few days consisted of a rather strict timetable of meetings for an intense group process of exploring themes for CASA to focus on. This ended up in tensions with late night debates and discussions that appeared to get nowhere as I attempted to grasp situations in my broken Spanish. Things finally seemed to get resolved and the group seemed really happy with their progress and the process that they underwent. For me I was surprised at how ‘heady’ the gathering was, and was disappointed in the lack of embodied practices or time for meditation,quiet reflection and creative sharing.
My experience of the gathering was of quite a lot of stress and confusion amongst people. Being an outsider it was interesting, and I was grateful to get a chance to be a part of it; to observe, listen and learn. The most interesting part was meeting the other CASA members and learning through conversations oat meal times about other inspiring projects and communities. I loved to hear how they started, the ideas behind them, how people engaged with inevitable challenges; I love to hear them speak and see the passion for their projects in their eyes! This is the heart of the ‘Llamado’ and the heart of this network: it is the calling to live passionately, creatively and with freedom. I wanted to visit every project and see what their passion was building. I could travel for another year or two easily! And I did love some special moments in this gathering that showed the magical connections in this community: in a night of dancing, an evening of watching old videos of previous Llamado’s and a stunning evening of group drumming!
I was curious and inspired in this gathering to see how old indigenous ways: rituals being maintained. As we sat around often bags of roasted Coca leaves were passed amongst the group: these leaves are chewed and held in the cheek to allow some of the gentle stimulants of the leaf to be released. This is tradition amongst many tribes:
“Coca was (and still is) used by chieftains and shamans to help them to think and to renew and to transmit sacred knowledge because of the effect it had in activating the powers of concentration memory and speech”. Quote from Museo del Oro Bogatá
Also some of the men, while chewing coca, use Poporo: this is the process of using a small hollowed out gourd or pumpkin that is held in the hand, a powder of crushed shells is stored inside and this chalk is added to the coca leaves in the mouth to produce a greater stimulant and also to create a coating that is built up on the gourd. I honestly found it a strange process at first, but respect the idea that in Kogi (an indigenous tribe living in northern Colombia) communities this has been passed from generation to generation; it is a representation of the unity of masculine and feminine creative powers and is a way of remembering the balance of creativity and as such it is used as a reminder in meetings and decision making within a community.
And a third ancient habit that is maintained is the use of a sweet tobacco resin that is placed on the hand and then mixed with a coca powder that is poured into the mouth. These are utterly alien rituals in my history and relate to ancient practices of Shamanism with links to the natural world. A connection that we in Europe have long since forgotten: through a systematic annihilation by the Christian church from the 4th Century and ultimately leading to witch burnings of 1450’s – 17’50’s where hundreds of thousands were executed because of their beliefs, we purged ourselves of most of so many of the simple rituals that reminded us to be humble, and reminded us of our connection to our earth. I feel that so much of the roots of the problems in our world are in our separation from nature. There is so much that we have lost through our dogged determination to rule over it rather than remember that we are in relationship with it. So I warmly welcomed the opportunity to learn about these ancient practices: these ancient ways that are seen as tools for creating and maintaining life in community. (I learned more about the Kogi and their traditions while in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north of the country a few weeks later and will talk about thiem more one of my next blogs.)
Lime-filled Poporo used by the Kogi when chewing coca leaves (Image sourced from internet)
I stayed at Anthakarana in total for two weeks. It felt like a very special immersion into a Colombian family: a family that very much wanted to live in closer connection to the earth, to nature, to the mountains. I am left remember the sense of the call of each person to come together into community, the call to share and learn and the call to remember who they are and to honour the people who have come before them. There is a wholeheartedness in this way of living that is not just about the fact that they build with natural materials, work on the land and eat good food grown from the earth: it is the fact that they do it in connection: with one another as a family and community, with this network of other communities, with the earth and with connection and respect for the lives that have gone before them: the many lives who lived mindfully of the next seven generations to come.
I am deeply grateful for this lovely mountain community: for the warmth with which I was received, the fun that we had in sharing games and stories, the creativity with which they live (in so many aspects: in the homes they have built, in dance, theatre, storytelling, art, food) and in the loving and passionate way in which they have responded to their call to connect in community. I am filled with respect and wonder, and a clearer understanding of why I was called to this country: I know this journey is just the first step of my call to create community.
Campsite during the Llamado
My project of exploring community is fully supported through my creativity: through the sale of my art and by a virtual online community through crowd funding. If you would like to support me on this journey you can check out my art on www.sineadcullen.com or make a donation on my Crowd funding campaign https://www.gofundme.com/LetsCreate or through PayPal by using my email address: email@example.com
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