Daily Archives: April 2, 2011

Guamal And The Morenos

Pedro Moreno showing us the first of several steps in the production of panela

Sometimes you go around the corner and what you come across is nice surprise.

I was in Supia, Colombia, hanging out with Mauricio Mellan of Bogota, Colombia, and Katrin Vollmer of Munich, Germany. We had driven three hours south from Medellin to go check out Colombia’s coffee-growing region. Mauricio also grew up in Supia and still has a family house there. When I met Mauricio in Bogota – those early readers of this blog will recall that he was my second host in Colombia – I had expressed interest in going to a coffee “finca” or farm. And now it was about to happen.

We arrived in Supia a bit later in the afternoon than we had intended. Mauricio had some car trouble – a nail in a tire – that required repair before we set out on the winding mountain roads and down to the valley on our way to Supia. I was surprised to see that Supia was much larger than I had imagined. Katrin also said she expected a smaller town. Maybe we both had been in Colombia too long, because not long ago I would have considered Supia a small town. But in my two months touring the country I had seen much smaller pueblos. In comparison, Supia felt larger, but it still had that small town vibe.

Mixing and shaping stage

First order of business in Supia, of course, party! They call it rumbiando in Colombia. Colombians love to party! And, ahem, to drink! I can’t hang with this crowd when it comes to alcohol consumption. Two beers, three tops, and I’m done! I’m such a lightweight, yes, I know. And good thing I know.

But before the partying started, Mauricio mentioned that there was a small town not far named Guamal and that there was a time in the town’s history all the residents were black, descendants of African slaves. That got my interest and so we went. And glad I did.

There we met several men sitting on the steps of the church near the square. The church, Santa Lucia, dates back to the 1800s and on its exterior wall has the history of Guamal and its inhabitants. Most of the residents of Guamal have the surname Moreno because they took the name of their slavemaster, Josefa Moreno, who freed them long before Colombia declared slavery illegal. The land that is now known as Guamal was once also land owned by Josefa. The inscription on the church is written in the African language the slaves spoke and declares that they were brought from Mozambique.

As we walked around the town, I stopped to say hello to the group of men sitting on the church steps. I introduced myself as a visitor from the United States and the conversation and history lesson began. The men talked about their history and surname and had a good chuckle about all of them having the same last name even if they were not directly related. We chatted like old friends, sharing laughs and discussing each other’s countries. Pedro Moreno, one of the elders among the group, said the town held a celebration when Barack Obama was elected. Blacks across Colombia, in fact, did the same. Despite this, one of the men in the group said he did not know there were black people in the United States. He was surprised to see a black person from America.

Freshly made and ready for market

As the conversation progressed, Mauricio asked about panela production. Panela is a natural sweetener culled from sugar cane. They said they were making some now and we were welcomed to go see. A great opportunity to see a product so widely used in Colombia.

On our way we walked passed a very old cemetery and one of the men said they were slaves buried there. I vowed to return to check out the cemetery in the light of day.

We walked through the town with residents staring, of course wondering who were these strangers. But everybody was really nice and friendly. We descended down a dark sloping hill and there we found the panela in full production. It was great to see. But more joyous was getting to know these men with such a rich history. So I say, if you come to Colombia, put Guamal on your list. You will learn so much and leave enriched.

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Personal Space

I’ve said it before but for the record I’ll say again that there is no such thing as “personal space” beyond the United States. This notion that you own the air and a certain distance – 360 degrees around you that should not be violated – is an American invention and unwritten rule that billions of people in other countries find incomprehensible, ignore daily, and are perfectly okay with it.

Every day in Colombia, I’m reminded of this. I am standing on the train, there is plenty of space all over the place, and yet a woman chooses to stand right in front of me – face to face – and I’m screaming in my head “PERSONAL SPACE INVASION!!!” and she is seemingly not having a problem at all with the fact she’s standing practically nose to nose.

If you want "personal space" try an isolated and desolate beach, such as this one in Tayrona Park, Colombia

Sticking with the Metro for another example, I sit down and there is an empty seat between me and this man yapping on his cell phone. He decides, what the hell, the seat is empty so he’ll just stretch his free arm across it. Only problem is, as he talks on the phone he also talks with his hand laying across the back of the seat and that hand has gone way beyond my “personal space” touching my shoulder. I shift away a bit but I’m pinned in by the glass to my right. Each time I feel his hand, I look over annoyed but he doesn’t get it. Finally, I gesture for him to move his arm back to where it belongs, in his own space. Still yapping on the phone, he looks at me as if clueless of what I’m trying to say. He finally gets it and moves. We do stupid things while on cell phones, so this may just have been a function of his cell phone distraction, but still.

Next day I’m sitting in an empty coffee shop and four people walk in. Instead of choosing to sit at a table far away, they choose the table next to mine and proceed to make a nuisance of themselves by shifting the table closer to mine to accommodate more of their arriving friends. Pretty soon I’m pretty much pinned in. I guess they liked this table next to mine much better, but I who grew up with the whole personal space thing just don’t get it.

What personal space are you talking about fool? It's carnaval! The Carnavalada, Barranquilla, Colombia

On a park bench later that evening, I’m chilling, watching the world go by. Several other park benches are empty and guest which bench woman chooses? It happens on the bus. It happens in restaurants. It happens everywhere. The reality is personal space is not an issue with the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s because much of the world lives in confined spaces to start with. They are crammed into cities, share small huts with large families and must coexist in such close proximity. I’ve seen it in Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and now South America.

Truth is, like the cold showers I’ve had to endure every day, I’ve grown sort of used to giving up my personal space. Unless the person is being obnoxious like the guy on the train, I embrace the fact that people are comfortable enough with each other to stand so close to strangers. But I still in my head hum that anthem of personal space by The Police: “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…” Hmmm… those guys are Brits, aren’t they? Maybe we as American inherited the whole “personal space” thing from the Brits.

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