A Summer in Colombia
The Catholic faith binds disparate groups
In his celebrated book, Travels With Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote: “the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill.” Kapuscinski’s wise observation helps revisit my own travel to Colombia this summer, with the clarity of distance.
As he shadowed Herodotus during his travels, Kapuscinski took the gloves off. Gaze beyond the pointlessness of casual tourism, the endless clicking of selfies, and the night binges, and we can discover something more profound.
This is the intent with which I set off to Colombia. Where would it lead me? Would I be better aware of our inter- locking humanity? Surely, it would be something more profound than cyber connectivity?
There were so many crisscrossing experiences that a particular one is hard to pinpoint. Who would have thought that a distant land like Colombia would set me thinking about India’s history, and its imagined communities?
Colombian society might be in the evolutionary cycle that India experienced before the Common Era, when a person living in the subcontinent was not identified as Indian in the way we understand it to- day. Colombia is where history, anthropology and memory mix, to create new cultural patterns that defy existing notions of race and identity.
In India we think less of race and more of religion, caste and language. Not so in Colombia. The Catholic faith binds disparate groups. There is no caste (class lines are visible), and Spanish has obliterated indigenous languages. Race is salient, in a reverse way, as revulsion towards the “white” depredation.
Thus, even light- skinned Colombians dislike being called white. Being a self- confessed non- white is a political badge of honour. This may confuse us in India, where skin tone is meticulously observed. In Colombia, the anti- colonial history is taught not as a struggle between whites and the rest, but as a conflict between a distant overlord (Spain), and a Colombian- born person.
Africans were brought in as slaves, so there are Afro- Colombians along the north- eastern coast, with a small Arab- born community. City- bred whites have pushed the indigenous people to river valleys and rain forests. Mulattos are proof of the black- white encounter. This is not merely peaceful co- existence; new blood lines are being created. Race flips over into the nests of others, creating a non- race. Indians, in contrast, are colour- conscious, and stratified.
Being colour- blind puts Colombians heads- up against the white Spanish conquerors. I saw so many skin tones, so many features, and so much of mixing of races that there does not seem to be a rigid social hierarchy. This is a culture figuring itself out. Yet, Colombians also wave the flag of settled cultures, with an argumentative tradition, Iike India’s.
Even though colour is not an issue politically, it injects itself subtly into households, creating a class system. We had dinner at the home of a distinguished scholar- administrator from a leading university. My host and his children are white. They are wealthy enough for his daughter to have gone to a bilingual international IB school. The housekeeper is Afro- Colombian.
My host told me they “hate” Spain. He gave the usual reasons: genocide, loot, extermination of culture and blanking out of memory. His daughter was more forgiving. There is no need for Colombians to remain psychologically imbalanced by victimhood; there is also some good in Spain, she asserted. The youths of India may feel the same about the British.
It is by moving away from Bogota that we get a clearer sense of Colombia’s diversity. My journey into the rain forest began at Leticia, a town bordering Brazil and Peru, with mostly indigenous people, and few “whites.” Just like in India, colonialism’s impact was the greatest along the coast where urban settlements emerged. The countryside is what the world was meant to be like.
A name like Leticia is straight from Western tradition, but still an implant. It is like what a frontier town might have been on the west bank of the Indus river 2,500 years ago, before sedentary cultures, with the ever- expanding urge to consume, unbalanced the environment. To counter this, Ashoka actually introduced elements of a welfare state, and alongside, Jainism preached austerity.
Spanish has been implanted on the soil of Leticia, just as Sanskrit must have been implanted on the Indo- Gangetic plain. In India, differences of occupation, race and colour were formalized into caste. In Leticia, I did not see a Spanish or African- looking person. They are the original inhabitants of the land. Only Marco, the son of the owner of the company, Amazon Jungle Trips, from whom we bought the tour, looks European.
Our guide, Maico, told us his mother is from the Kechowa tribe, the largest tribal community in Peru, and his parents left their ancestral land for work. Having cut links with the indigenous language zone, they mingled with other people who spoke different languages, incomprehensible to each other, and communicated in Spanish. Just as English links our states, so does Spanish link South America.
Maico has superb hand- eye co- ordination. He knows his surroundings at his fingertips. People here must have worked out a way of making peace with the environment. Maico knows the easiest way to spot an alligator at night is to look for a shiny dot in the marshes. This is the alligator’s eye, always open and curious, but the animal’s giveaway. For an alligator, vision can be its graveyard.
In the rainforest, I learnt that water is no less contentious than land. Even rivers, where soil and border markers can disappear during flooding, cannot douse nationalism. In the 1930s Peru conceded Leticia to Colombia in a difficult negotiation. But the contest remained, causing a little war, arbitration by the League of Nations, and the ultimate award to Colombia.
In Leticia, water features define political boundaries. That is why each boat, or “port” in the rainforest where I spent five days, flies the flag of the nation to which it belongs- primarily Colombia or Peru. Yet, water is not just disruptive- it is also our sustainer. Without it, there would be no civilization, either in Colombia or Peru, or in India.
(Jitendra Nath Misra is a retired ambassador. He advises the Government of Odisha on Sports and teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia).
(Cover Photograph: The rainbow river of Colombia)