Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Second Home

I love Salento. If I could have a modest house on a hillside in this tiny town, I might never leave. I would find a way to survive on coffee and trout and just be. This might just be my favorite place in the world; it really is enchanted.

I went to Salento for the first time a little over a year ago and finally made it back for a second visit last weekend. I hope it is not the last. Salento is located up in the mountains at relaxing spring-like elevation where short and t-shirts are fine during the sunny days and ponchos are worn after darkness falls. Everywhere smells of coffee, as the area is home to countless plantations, and it is not uncommon to be offered tinto (black coffee) just about anywhere. Trout is the dish of choice as the fish is plentiful in the surrounding streams and farms.

Salento is also just outside of the insanely beautiful and unique Valle de Corora, home of Colombia's national tree, the palma de cera (wax palm).

Last year, my current roommate, Nira, made friends with some of the townsfolk and upon returning this time, one of the families, a 21-year old university student named Andres and his mother, Gloria, insisted we stay with them. Gloria is like that warm-hearted neighbor-lady that will give and give and give and will never except "no" as an answer.
"Oh, so you are coming over for coffee and breakfast?" she will ask.
"Well, we made plans to visit [blank]." you would say.
"So you will be here soon, yes?" will be the response.
"Well, we are..." you will start to say.
"Oh! I am so glad you are coming over! See you soon!" And thus ends the conversation.

Andres is studying English and hopes to become an English teacher. He is the only one of his graduating class to go on to university and you can tell his mother, an elementary school teacher, is incredibly proud of him. Although Andres got to practice a lot of practical English with a couple of fluent speakers, we also got to use a lot of our Spanish while talking with Gloria.

Upon arriving, Gloria and Andres told us that it had been raining for many days. This was true and continued to be true. Every morning the weather was overcast and by noon it was at least drizzling. You just got used to either being wet or maneuvering throughout town under the overhangs and awnings.

On Sunday morning, in honor of there being no rain, temporarily at least, I ventured out to take some dry pictures of the many colored doors and balconies around town. I was just thinking to myself if the rain would ruin this enchanted view I had in my minds eye of Salento. Just as I thought this a young boy came around the corner carrying a closed bucket and asked me if I wanted a buñelo (my favorite Colombian bakery product - like a giant donut hole except greasier). I asked him to clarify and he opens the bucket's lid to reveal dozens of these delicious treats. Just when I started to doubt the magic of this place, a little buñelo boy comes ands rights me. I was quite content wondering the streets munching happily away on my buñelos.

Later the same day I met up with two other teachers from school who were also visiting Salento for the long weekend, Tara and Eila. We hired a Jeep to take us into the Valle de Cocora to see the famous trees. When I visited last year, I rode a horse for four hours through the national park. This time I had aspirations to hike in, find a nice rock in the valley, read a little and do some sketching of the scenery around. Attempt to have an existential moment, if you will, while Tara and Eila explored the area on horseback. After awhile I noticed an ominous looking cloud slowly crawling my direction, so I packed up and hiked back to the entrance where I found an empty restaurant to wait out the rain in. Halfway through me trout and coffee, the girls came back cold and wet and we continued waiting together.

Now, I should note that because of all the rain over the past few weeks, there had been much flash flooding and landslides in the area. Normally the Jeeps can take you all the way up into the park. Because of this, however, when we were en route, the Jeep could only take us halfway because the road had been washed out. Even a good Jeep couldn't traverse this. Fortunately some Jeeps got stuck on the other side when the road washed out and turned into a river so, once we were on the other side, another Jeep could take us the rest of the way. This is what we did - to get to the Valle de Cocora.

While waiting for one of these trapped Jeeps to come back for us, we met three European backpackers, a German girl, and two guys: a Czech and a Swiss. After talking with the soldiers stationed at the park entrance who told us that there were no Jeeps on this side of the washed out road, despite the fact that we all took one in, we decided the best option would be to begin the three-hour walk back to Salento, as the rain had become a light mist for the moment.
An hour into the journey, a bulldozer happens by and offers us a lift. (Side note: Tara informed us that it was actually a "backhoe" but if someone had used that name in a story I, personally, would not have known what they were talking about. Therefore, it is going to be called a "bulldozer.")

The driver of this enormous machine was actually on his way back to Salento and was more than willing to take us all the way there. The catch was that whenever we passed a fallen tree or pile of mud we had to "do work." More accurately, we had to hang on for dear life as the bulldozer scooped huge amounts of earth and debris off the road. At one point I was sure he was attempting to scoop water that was flowing across a low point in the road. Our mini-United Nations crew eventually made it back to town, albeit much wetter and muddier than anticipated; bulldozers don't have wheel guards.

I've taken pictures doing some pretty ridiculous things (canopying, running a marathon, on a bike, etc.) but I opted out of finding my camera while dangling off the side of a bulldozer careening down wet mud-soaked mountain roads. Riding on a bulldozer also adds another mode of transportation to the list of "ways I've gotten around" while in this country.

Back in Salento, I dried off, met Nira for coffee and talked with Gloria and Andres. The next day we awoke early, visited the shops as they opened to get some of the better deals on gifts and coffee products before we headed out.

As the bus was pulling out of town, Nira commented that it always feels as though she is leaving home when she leaves Salento. I have to agree. Maybe next time it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the landslide blocked the road leaving Salento and the bulldozer was nowhere to be found.

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