I love how traveling always teaches you something, there is often a lesson to be learned or a reminder of your faults and prejudices. Salento did that for me. This is a short story of a lesson I learned there…
I had decided on impulse to add Salento to my trip south through Colombia on a recommendation from many travelers on my journey. They told me stories of this mountain village lying in a valley of coffee farms surrounded by towering wax palms. I am a mountain girl at heart, I grew up in cities like St. Petersburg but when my family moved to a farm in the forests of Norway l knew my soul had found its home. Clean air, rolling mists and forest streams always speak to my heart and l wanted to experience that here as well.
So I said goodbye to my new friends in Guatape and 10 hours and 2 buses later l stepped out into the pouring rain outside a cafe. The owner helped me arrange a local taxi which was in fact a open bed jeep, hoisting my backpack into the back I hung on for dear life as the jeep bumped along the dirt road to the hostel I had been recommended. Arriving at a rustic building overlooking the beautiful valley I stepped into the entrance and arranged for a room, the staff did not speak any english which was fine as my Spanish at this point included such necessities as where is the bathroom? But they had vanished as soon as I had got my key and I really couldn’t find the bathroom. I saw a group of girls in the sitting room curled up on the sofa chatting easily. As usual when I first arrive in a new place I felt nervous and shy. Would anyone talk to me? Will they ask me to join them? Will they like me? The familiar self doubt rearing its head, telling me that I wont be accepted. I approached them and asked where the bathroom was, one of the girls, curly hair framing her face and feet tucked casually into another girls lap, answered pointing to a door across the hall. For a moment we stared at each other. I knew this girl, but how? She knew me too it seemed but was not offering up any help. Then it all came back. I had met this girl in the San Blas islands, we had in fact spent a week together on a speedboat expedition along the Darien gap, camping out in islands along the way with a group of about 15 other backpackers. But obviously we had not spoken much. She had not been one of the people I had hung out with. Why? Well probably because I had not bothered to get to know her, she wasn’t in the fun crowd, the ones drinking rum out of coconuts in the sea and playing football drunk on the beach. She had been on the periphery talking to the ones that nobody noticed.
Sometimes I am shallow and in a desire to fit in I had fallen into the pit of choosing the group that seemed cool, as if I was 16 again and hoping to get invited to a party. In fact that very crowd that I had tagged on to and had arranged to travel with after the tour ended I left shortly afterwards. I wasn’t able to keep up with the day drinking and lack of interest in the local people. I was here to see a country and experience a culture, not find the closest party hostel and sit myself at a bar, only meeting fellow travelers.
So that was how I had met and subsequently ignored Marion. My initial judgement of her relegating her to the status of “not interesting”. How wrong I was.
I hung around the common area and overheard that they were going out to play Tejo in town. To the uninitiated Tejo is a Colombian local sport where you throw metal discs at packets of gunpowder which are set into a clay goal posts of sorts. You get points by striking the gunpowder hard enough to set it off. Very hardcore, just going out with the lads to have some beers and set off some gunpowder. No biggie. I looked up hopefully looking for an invite and sure enough she turned to me and invited me to join. So the evening passed in laughter and shrieks of surprise when we managed to set off the gunpowder. I turned out to be terrible and was content to watch most of the time. swinging my legs comfortably on a table happy to be surrounded by people.
On the long walk back from the village I arranged to go with Marion to the Cocora valley the following day as the others had already been. This was the reason l had come and why most people come although it’s not always why they stay. Salento has this way of stealing your heart. The slow pace, mounted cowboys, coffee farms and lush greenness somehow keeping you from moving on. We got up early so that we could be the first on the hiking trail, its a six hour loop, eight if you include the detour to a hummingbird sanctuary and of course detour we would. On that hike we talked and talked, life, love hope dreams, Marion the accountant became Marion the girl who had left her home three years ago to work in London, grey days filling papers and crunching numbers blurring into years. After quitting she decided to travel the world before going home, and yet all she could think about was home. Seeing her parents faces again, feeling the New Zealand air on her face. She had been heartbroken, lost, lonely, mugged at knifepoint and experienced many things on her journey since leaving. She was beautiful, kind and real. I felt terrible.
The Cocora valley was a magical place, one of those moments when you feel you are stepping into a fairytale landscape, almost impossibly beautiful and wild. As we climbed to the top of the viewpoint overlooking the valley, the famous wax palms towering 100s of feet above us I felt more than the beauty of this place I felt an opening in my soul, another layer being peeled away. Another lesson learned. And thankfully I got a second chance. Marion and I ended up travelling together over the next month journeying through Peru and Bolivia. She became my longest traveling companion, the spunky New Zealander with the curly hair and big heart.