Meeting the Elder Brothers

It all started around ten years ago, if I remember well Adam from my ex workplace (correct me if I’m wrong) mentioned that he watched an exciting documentary about an indigenous group living in the Columbian mountains and it sounded really interesting so I watched it as well and got hooked. Since than I always dreamed about coming here and meeting them. The documentary can be watched here:
Long story short if you do not have time to watch the doc is that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta next to the Caribbean coast of Colombia is a diverse ecological system, you can find the representation of all the climates in the word from the tropics to the arctic temperatures… desert, steppes… cloud-forest, rain forest, anything really. Living isolated in this mountains is the descendants of the Tyrona civilisation which makes them unique in a sense that they are basically the only one survived the destruction of the spanish. (although the tyrona as a big civilisation collapsed) during the 70’s hundreds of locals where digging the ground here to find gold and other artifacts obviously illegally to sell them on the black market… not just destroying the environment but also pissing off the tribes living hidden in the mountains. One of the digger called Franky (featured at the beginning of the movie) one day ventured further deep in the jungle and found what is now known as Ciudad Perdida, the lost city. He realised that what he found is something really outstanding and instead of tearing and digging it apart, he involved several antripologist and some museums to help with the excavation of the site. Later he became the key figure as well to restore the ruins to its original form, earning the friendship of the indigenous groups still living here.

The tribe now important for our story is the Koguis. They live in big numbers up, hidden in the mountain far, and still closed from the outside word. Their cities (yes they have cities) are still maintaining traditions left behind by the tyrona. They contorl strictly what and who can pass their gates. Usualy outsiders are never allowed to make any contact or to enter their places. They decide what technology to implement to their culture, like they use machetes, some plastic tools, cb radios, solar-panesl and solar powered radios to listen music, but no wired elecricity, lights, television… it is quite interesting that some of them has some mobile phones, but they only use it to listen to some music while walking or working and to take pictures of their fammily but they for example do not track time too much, or also do not use it as comunication tool. To keep the story short around the late 80s early 90s they sent one individual down from the mountain to Santa Marta, to learn spanish as they had a message to the world to tell. They invited a televisio team (bbc) to listen to their piece to say and also to visit their cities. (first time ever an outsider managed to get in an document it)

According to their beliefs their role in the world is to watch and maintain the ecosystem of the whole earth by taking care of their mountain and all the climates inside. They call themself the Elder Brothers, while us who lives outside are the Younger Brothers. In their message they explained that there is something seriously wrong with the environment, the rivers are dried out and the plants are dieing and they are not able to correct this anymore as it was coused by us, the younger ones, so it is our task from now on to solve it. 🙂 on the point, isn’t it!?
To enter the land of Koguis you have to go up in the Santa Marta mountain. The whole area is declared as natural reserve and it is forbidden to visit independently. Only way in is to go with one of the organised hike to Ciudad Perdida. I was not really keen walking with a pack of neo-backpacker on a very touristy hike but as no other way… no other choice. Back than I did not even imagined that I can actually spend some time with the Koguis, I only hoped to meet them on the way while we pass each other. They are known that do not really like anyone venturing to their teritory, not so keen about the tourist trail either. Unlike the Wiwas (an other indegiounos group living there, who are mostly involved with the tourism industry owning several camping and sleeping places, and also one of the four main agency doing the tour), they usualy turn somewhere if you bump into them, or just rushing past next to you head down. No smile, no hello… they have an example village to show it for the tourists who sometimes stops from a safe distance and you can eyeball eatch other from the two side of the tiny fence – a rather strange way to learn about an other culture.

When I was done and way over with Cartagena already, around the same time Susana decided to visit me here as well, she was keen to jump the boat she was sailing with and as never been here (and also as I was constantly talking to her about how cool Colombia is and how much interesting things I wanted to do here) so she took a plane from St. Marteen to Cartagnea, and after a few days in the big city we where already off on the way to Santa Marta. I was careful enough to show her the same documentary as well, so she got hooked to, we where ready for the adventure. The only issue was that I really did not wanted to go with a group, sometimes the tour organizers pile up 20something young fellas, I would consider that a slow and painful execution to listen to the chit-chats and the” I will change the world im so cool, as I brought my guitar for travelling” songs… so as we where checking around one of the companies where actually saying that if we want to go tomorrow it is possible, there is noone so far in the group and they just know the perfect guide for us, one who does not like the crowd either. It was promising, so we came back later with the cash and also to check again if our team grow during the afternoon. By the end one more young German guy, Thomas joined us as well, but we still went for it, as having a group of 3 is still better than 20 and we can easily out-power the poor german fella if he does not acting nicely 😀 but by the end he was a really nice person, quiet, calm, appreciating the forest and the beauties in it.

Next morning we went back to start the adventure, which supposed to be a 4-5 day hike, and to meet our guide Edwin. He seemed friendly and funny but also experienced so we where siting rather satisfied on the back of the truck towards the starting point.
The whole track is very well organised, mules carrying the cargo for food and other utensils, nice camps are set up all the way, cooks finishing the food by the time you arrive, after a few hours of walking you have a resting-place with fresh fruits and cold drinks. Amaizing.
The first day is rather easy, you walk on a broad path, next to mostly agricultural areas a bit of an ascend here and there but usually and easy walk, the biggest issue is the tropical heat. Edwin turned out to be a real good source of information, he is leading tours for more than 30 years, one of the the first, who bought tourist up here. He experienced all the changes and stages of the history around this area, farc, paramilitaries, narco dealers and finally the military taking over. If you watch carefully the pictures there is quite a big deserted areas in the mountain lacking vegetation at all, as we learned this where the ex coca plantations chemically distroyed by the government. I have to say there where quite a few of them.

Edwin also told us the story of his abduction, he was walking up with a group of tourist when the guerillas held him as a hostage and kidnapping several tourist of his group. (as he explained they went for the more prominent countries, so us, portugal and hungary would have been absolutally safe not like poor Thomas) 🙂 after he magically escaped he faced an even bigger problem, he was brought to judge as the part of the abduction, police suspected he helped the guerillas by handing over the tourists. He was freeed by the end but hell of a story it was, he even showed us some pages from the local newspaper with him on the front page.
He also knows a lot about all the dirty activities on the mountain, knows everyone’s past: like one guy who has a hut during the 2nd day where you can have a drink and enjoy some bananas was actually a narco trafficer some time ago, but when he lost his fields he stayed and opened up a small shop next to the trail in the middle of nowhere… he has a wife down the mountain but he newer can leave and visit as than someone else would rob his hut and the goods, and would take over the facility. So he is stacked there, in the middle of absolute nothing just trees, alone, the only activity is the hikers passingby twice a day and sometimes a mule arrives with his stock-refill.
By the end of the first day, we where absolutely professional to identify all different types of coca plants, and also thanks to Edwin we knew in detail what is the best way to produce some really good white stuff from it. He seemed absolutely experienced in this topic, knowing in details how to grow, produce, transport and sell the stuff later. Also it was clear that he has a very special connection with the mountain and ciudad perdida, but we still did not added up the picture yet. 

From the 2nd day the scenery is by far way better, nice secondary jungle, green and lush, and by the end of the day when you enter the indigenous territory it becomes primary forest, full with life, and colours, although Edwin complained that before the tourists started to flock up there where way more variations in the vegetation also way more animals around. It was quite good to hear that in the rainy season, when it is not acessible by tourists (also in november the koguis having a special celebration, that is their “cleaning” period, so the reserve is closed) the tourguides has an association, they come up next to the trecking route collecting all the rubbish and planting new trees.
Although the guides say, that the 2nd day is only hard in the morning this is absolutely not true, so if you are planing to come up here save your energy after lunch as the most challenging part will take place during the afternoon. By the evening we almost died, it was not that hardcore as the one in Cape Verde we did before, but indeed very tireing, a storng ascend, incredible heat and hunidity. Also my knee was not in a good shape, I did not fixed my knee strap too well (I had several accidents with my right knee before) so it was instable and painfull all the way, arriving a good hour later than Susana and Thomas. He was especially fast, running basically. Edwin always stayed behind, stopping everywhere and chatting with everybody, but the path is very clear, and he did this several hundred times, so was catching up with us without any effort.

It was this evening when the whole situation changed.. we where siting having dinner, as usually Edwin was pouring on us all sort of stories and informations (as far as I could see the other groups, he was the only one, staying with the team for the night) so we where chatting there, he told the storries of his father, who was a tourguide here as well, and he used to come here with him while he was a small kid, he showed a book to us as well, about his father, and even he was present on several pictures, and this was the point when we actually realized, that he is the son of Franky, the man who was one of the group who found the place and started the restoration. I actually recognized him on one of the picture based on the documentary movie. I mean how on earth can we be so lucky!? It all become clear is a second. Unbelievable. From this point it did not take long until we started to talk about the koguis, as he and his father are amongs the very few ppl who was living with them. He was full with stories, like the one about the fox dinner. He with his father was invited to the main meeting hut in one of the kogui cities, they where sitting there for an hour or so, around the fire when some of the elders decided that it is dinnertime, they lowered a whole fox which was hanging above them all the time, allready on the skewer ready to eat, when it got nicely grilled everyone cutted a few slice and they just lifted the whole thing again up high to the roof. Like an instant build in grill.

He explained also, that the koguis do not really track time, they connect some agricultural events, with other dates, like the child was born, when they fall one of the banana trees, the tree grew back since once, so the kid is around half a year old. 🙂 if you ask them about their kids, usually they said 2month, but even for the absolute newborn and the ones who was already running around, or they just simply lift their shoulders with that caracteristic look on their face “saying”: ah, outsiders , you don’t understand shit, why is it so important to know how many days passed since the child was born..!? And if you think about it they are right, what does that number really mean? Not much, especially in their world nothing.
Later the evening we asked Edwin with Susana, if there is any way to meet a kogui family, not the ones in the example village, but a real authentic guys. And he actually said: yes, maybe, we have to talk with a mama (shaman)… I could not breath. We really expected a characteristic no, but tought it would be stupid not to ask, and yes, it would have been extremely stupid. Amaizing, sometimes you just have to ask what you want regardless how impossible it seems. I was excited to the core needless to say. How I see is, that for normal folks, like us, he was the only chance, the only person could organize this, no other guide, or other person is in such a good relation with the koguis as him.
Next day the rest went up to Ciudad Perdida and also to have the audience with the mama. Sadly I could not managed it, my knee was very tired and the thousand year old stairs leading up to the site where extreme slippery. Going up would not have been a problem, but coming down could be, and if I break or twist my knee again, than there is not much chance left for my Amazonas expedition later, so I dicided to give it a pass, and rather play safe. I was not really sad, as I’m sure the ruins are nice, but hey, I will possibly meat the koguis!! I could not think anything else.

While the guys went up, I prepared my photo-set in the camp making sure it is all charged and sound, the desired lens is on,… the koguis are know to be not a great fun of photography, so I expected that maybe there will be absolutely no chance for snapping a few, but better be prepared. The mini team returned, they had an audience with a mama, who was doing some magic for rain (there where no rain for weeks)… Edwin was busy on the radio conecting other mamas, and kogui setlements around, it is not straightforward I can tell you to get permission for something like this. That night it was raining heavily. Next morning the word reached us, we have permission to stay one day, and one day only with a small farming village/family relative close to the trail, but obviously we can not visit their cities that is stricktly closed, but we expected that, and having a day with a family is already way more, than what we tought is possible. Maybe it was the rain, maybe the fact that even the mamas really respect Edwin, I do not know… but we where at the right time at the right place. Needless to say, that a custom mission like this also involves cash on the table, a lots of cash on the table basically. As Susana and me where absolutely into it, we decided to invite and pay the share of Thomas as well, as this means some serious changes to the schedule of the hike and we tought it is more fair this way, if we screwed his hike at least we could compensate a bit. I hardly could sleep that night I was so excited. Next morning we went to find the vilage, it did not startedout too well, as when we arrived only the “youngsters” where home, they did not really understood what we do there, as it is extremely unusual for an outsider to be there and also we did not understood as well what they do not understand, so it was a bit of akward start, also the youngsters where not really speaking any spanish. The situation improved immediately when the elders arrived back from the field. They actually forgot to tell to the rest, that we are coming.. anyway, everything was allright from that point.

One of an older member of the family guided us around, the village is extremely small, it is two huts and one family is living there only, they are farmers. He also showed us a ceremonial village closeby. It is strange, they build up a complete village, but nobody is living there (only one family to maintain and watch over the things, it is a rolling role, every month is a different familys task to stay there) and the whole installment is only inhabited during the meetings, when all the mamas and the rest of the koguis from the same region are present and they decide the important things about the coming few weeks. In the kogui culture every area of life and everything has a corresponding mama. Mama can be female or male, no difference. Usually mamas are selected at very early age, not long after birth, they got separated from the family by closing them to an isolated area, usualy a cave, with almost zero light coming in, just enough not to have eye problems later, the mother can visit the kid, and can feed him/her but had to leave after. Selected kids are kept like this for 9 years!!!! Yes, years! Without seeing the outside world, the other mamas visiting them every day teaching them, make sure they have all the necessary knowledge, without ever leaving the cave, they only know the outside world by their description. After 9 years, the elders are picking a day, when the weather is beautiful, the clouds are nice, and the sun will be warm, they guide out the individual from the cave before sunrise, so when he or she will first see the real world it will be the most beautiful experience. Imagine after 9 year, you first see the sunrise above the mountains in its most beautiful stage.
Usually the mamas decide what to adopt from the outside word, also what crop to plant and where, making sure that areas are not over farmed, or exhausted by having the same crop there for years. All the families are working together, for the sake of the comunity, farmers, fishermans, healers, etc… no money involved inside the comunity.
Everybody wears the same cloth, white, no design details, no specific attributes, pure white, the only colourful elements are the bracelets and bags. But more about that later. According to their traditions textile making is the oldest knowledge they learned from the great mother, who created, and is itseld the whole world. If you comit anything bad, and you will be sentenced by the elders, usualy your punishment is that you have to vawe textile, and while you do so, you see the wheel spinning, you think, you think about your mistakes, and about the world itself. Thinking is very important. Everybody usualy is quite quiet, closed, and visibly thinks a lot. For thinking, the man use some help, the poporo. (it is the strange thing he is holding on the picture). So generaly kogui mans are chewing coca. (womens are not allowed, altough they are the ones collecting and toasting it) they keep their suport of leafs in a small bag inside their biger traditional shoulderbag, when two kogui man meet, they do not say hello, they don’t talk, they just silently changing some leafs, and continuing further. Next to chewing the leafs, they use the poporo. It is the representation of the womens womb. And the long stick represents the male counterpart, the instrument is filled with lime originating from a special type of seashell, after it got cremated and crushed to a powder. They take a small piece with the stick, put it to their mouth and lick it from the stick, this will strenghten the effect of the leafes and than they whipe the stick on the top part of the poporo, while it still contains a bit of selva creating a strong limestone coat around the top of the poporo after tens of years of use. The whole process is done while thinking, and it means that their toughts will be than stored in the poporo and as such it represents their woman, so their toughts will be the part of their woman as well. It is a bit hard to expain better and also to understand as well. Check out the decent size of limestone piece on the picture, that is a lots of thinking.

The koguis don’t talk too much, even between each other, even when we asked something the answer was usually a very short yes or no, or something absolutely out of topic. (at least in our interpretation) we usually got that typical look after quite a few questions, yes, indeed, our cultures are far from each other, and our interpretation of the world is entirely different, I never experienced this or at least not to this level. They see, feel, and understend different things, a very interesting experience!
By the evening everybody got relaxed and we all used to each other, we pitched up our hamock’s outside one of the huts. There where quite a few pet around, dogs, cats, pigs… once we asked how is the cat called, and again we got the look 🙂 saying that it is an animal, why should it had a name? I love this things… 🙂 it is just wonderful how different we are.
The absolute favourite minutes happened during the evening. Thomas had his camera with him full with pictures of his travels around the world. He started to show it to everyone. This was a great success, we where all piled up on the same branch, a few gigantic tourists and the tiny (everybody is realy tiny) koguis, wathching memories of an african safari. They enjoyed it a lot! The standars questions where, what is that animal, how is it called, what it is eating, can we eat it, and if it is dangerous or not 🙂 it was lovely, really magical! Can we eat an elefant, or a zebra, or the lion? This hour actualy, while we all where sitting there was something special. One would say in one day you can not learn shit about an other culture. True, no doubt, but if it is only one day possible, I think we gained more than a day, we experienced something absolutely different that night, something worth travelling for. Spending this short amount of time togother still allowed us to experience the feeling of being absolutely different in mind and toughts inspite the fact that our bodies are simmilar in shape if not in size….

Soon enough our hosts got visibly very tired, it was almost 7pm, was time to hit the hays. Next surprise is the big activity during the night, at 3am they all woke up, packed and went working. 3am, in the jungle, I was hardly able to walk in broad daylight, full with mud, slippery stones, all sort of obstruction, but I guess if you spend all your time there, you know all the rocks, leafs, ants.
Next morning Thomas left early, we stayed a bit further, went to visit a magical waterfall the koguis showed us before, their private own waterfall, not far from the village. I collected at least 200 ticks on my right arm, I do not know how it happened, but luckily I managed to whipe almost all of them off before they started feeding on me, but still even after a week I managed to find one or two here and there, I guess they where hiding in my cloths or backpack…
We had a magical time here, time I will never forgot, and not just because I was dreaming about it for soo long, but the strangeness of all the situations we ended up in, and the experience of such a difference in way of thinking still gives me hope for a better future. If there are aliens form an other palnet living among us, I think I found them, they are called the Koguis. We should listen to them.

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