Happiness Is Clean Water, A Room With A Bed, And Wi-Fi

words + photos by Shannyn Sollitt*                          


Three weeks without electricity wasn't the hard part. It was the pig and chickens in the kitchen, and the family of chickens next to my bed making grumbling baby chicken sounds beneath their mother's wings every time I moved.  It rains a lot at this time of year. They have to go somewhere indoors, and so does the pig that also made nocturnal grunting and farting sounds.  

I maneuvered to set up my bed in their quadrant. I was grateful not to have to sleep with the workers, or in a hammock over the rest of the family, or on the floor with the fleas.  When it is dark at 5:30 p.m. and the rooster crows at 3:30 a.m., it is a big deal where one spends that much time in oscuro. (Such a great Spanish word for darkness!).  

I chose to sleep with the animals rather than people. I could pop on my headlamp in the middle of the night and converse with my best friend, write in my diary, and work on translating a beautiful piece on the People of the Sierra Nevada, written by a Swiss priest in Spanish. The book was a gift to Asdrubal's father, the Governor of the Arhuaco for the past 20 years.  

The headlamp worked great until the moths started pecking at my eyes. I named the pig Wilbur in honor of Charlotte the spider. I developed deep compassion for him when people threw rocks because they didn't like where he was at the moment. He appreciated having his belly scratched. No one else was kind to him.

My decision to leave Asdrubal's farm ultimately became a question of clean water - well, clean in general. When I first arrived, I stayed with Gladdis, the curandera (healer) who lived in a newish type house with her husband and three kids in the central village area about an hour hike from the farm of Asdrubal and his family. This "health house,” with a new metal roof, and a cement floor, was bought from a colonizer. The night I arrived it rained and they were catching water in a little bucket. They shared the water with me. Gladdis stressed that most of the water was not clean and the people suffered from it. The last time I was there, I had purified water in a clear plastic bottle in the sun that shone on it all day, (UV purification), but this time - no sun. The fresh-caught rainwater tasted lovely.  

Asdrubal had some new metal roofing at his farm (coffee, cacao, mandarin, plantain) to use for a new house. The first thing I did at his farm, after claiming a bed space, was set the piece of clean roofing so it could catch water in a bucket. This was considered an insult. Each house has its own collection tank that holds water from a reservoir above. Obviously it was not safe: the kids, one and three years old, had these weird rashes, and so did Ester, Asdrubal's wife.  She bathed the kids in herbs every day and was fastidious about keeping their clothes clean, which occupied much of her time, as the place was really muddy and yucky. But she kept throwing out my fresh rainwater.

After several days without rain, I was out of water and hiking high above the farm in a wonderland of worn trails that led to people's houses - hours and hours away from one another.  I took a chance and drank from a broken reservoir pipe – a really bad idea.  In the rainy season water comes gushing down trails that have animal poop, and other giardia-carrying waste, and flows into the open cement tanks that hold the reservoir water.  

I realized it was time to take the sodium chlorite formula - a powerful purification compound that has the side effect of inducing a purge from both ends. The upside was that I could take this opportunity to leave Asdrubal’s. I had been trying to leave for days, but they wanted to keep me there and failed to provide me with the mule to carry my stuff away. I had learned all about the coffee and the cacao harvest and drying process and looked after the kids like a granny, while Ester cooked for three workers and washed clothes ad nauseam. Asdrubal rarely showed up. He had me bring the video camera so I could shoot, but he was too busy. I captured some wonderful footage, but not enough. He gave me a very important book that I spent time with, translating and studying Spanish. Hiking in the higher elevations was the absolute highlight, discovering amazing intentionally planted food forests and shooting photos I could use in the video.  

Asdrubal has become the "Minister of Finance" for this community, a big task.  He has the divination of the "Mamas" to help him.  This particular Arhuaco community has developed a cooperative to sell their organic coffee and other crops and gain some economic power so they can afford to buy their own land, like the colonizers do. They have a store where both the Arhuaco and colonizers come to buy, but the store could never raise sufficient money to buy enough stuff to sell. Instead, the people go to the closest city, Valledupar, in an unbelievably funky truck or jeep that occasionally operates as a bus and takes two hours.  Asdrubal asked to borrow money so he could develop an account and purchase enough goods to get the store going. I loaned him $600, and we went there with a truckload of stuff.  I realized that a trash factory had opened up. Basura is the Spanish word for trash. Basura is a gigantic problem throughout the populated area of the Sierra - even without the basura factory store.  

After I got sick, I went to stay with my friends in the village and was able to accomplish good things in a couple days with them. The professor, Leoardo, and I collaborated to teach the kids about trash.  It was precious to see them in their white traditional clothes picking up trash in the immediate area of the school and cooperative. Then we sorted it into recyclable, burnable, and basura. It was a huge pile. The Earth began to breathe where they had cleared it, and the feeling of spaciousness visceral. The kids could feel it too. On October 13, 2010, we began the environmental reclamation of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  

Hopefully the idea will spread. Many people come through the community, as many trails split there and they hold traditional festivals.  In Valledupar I found a recycling center that pays for recycled goods and this will provide some funds for the school kids to buy notebooks and pens; a win-win.

Gladdis, the curandera, is also trained in Western Medicine. She uses it when a condition has gone beyond the reach of herbs and ability to heal a spiritual malaise.  When they run out of rainwater she boils water— religiously. She has seen the river water in a microscope. Water boiled over fire tastes like smoked water, not really good—but worth it. The number-one cause of infant mortality is diarrhea from contaminated water. I heard her often say to the people at the clinic, "You have to boil your water!" 

I told Asdrubal that my friends had given me money and I would leave $300 for two water collection tanks from the new metal roofs on the school and the clinic. Gladdis was jazzed! She kept exclaiming, "Agua es vida!"  

People could use the recycled plastic bottles from the soda they buy in the store to carry the water home.  The kids would have clean drinking water at the school. Once the people tasted the difference, they might not even want to buy the soda. This could really transform the health problems of a huge number of people.  A lot of water comes out of the heavens and, when it does, the streets in Valledupar become rivers of basura.  I found a place in Valledupar that sells water catchment tanks.  Three hundred dollars was enough money to buy two 1,000-liter tanks with fittings and three trash recycling bins, with enough left for a small donation to the school.

I brought with me little solar-charged pathway lamps from Home Depot (well, China, really). They were a hit. There are no windows in the houses. The children woke up in the middle of the night in total darkness. That little sharp LED tiny bulb held back the total darkness and bathed the place in soft cool dim light. The Mama approved of them. They were charged by the sun and burned the whole night.  I couldn't carry many, and I divided them between two communities. I would love to find a way to get a big pile of them to the store, along with the LED headlamps - they loved those too!

Not a minute too soon, Western comfort opened her arms. I am glad to be regaining my equilibrium back in Santa Marta, ensconced in a cute little hotel room, an oasis of cleanliness and comfort – with a real bed and Wi-Fi, so I can watch Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey make their deal for the Rally for Sanity in D.C.  - I want to be there! I watched Amy Goodman interview the late superhero of alternative energy from Germany, Hermann Scheer.  Bless his heart!  This was the first spoken English I heard in weeks.

I just came back from a night stroll along the city beach, with bathtub-temperature water. Maybe I'll dip in the pool to cool down before bed.  It has been hot! I have one real friend here. This time maybe I'll make more.


 View photo gallery 


*Author’s Note: 

Arhuacos are one of four Indigenous cultures who live in the first mountain of the Andes, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, along with the Kogi, Wiwa, Kanguamo. These peoples believe that they live at the “Heart of the World”, and through the practices of the Mamas or high priests, they “maintain equilibrium at the Heart of the World.”  After the horrors of the Spanish conquest in the 1500’s the Tayrona peoples retreated into isolation, but over the past 40 years colonization has encroached upon their ancestral territory. One of the groups, the Kanguamo, has lost its language and has become homogenized with the dominant culture, and a second tribe, the Wiwa, with only 1,700 native speakers, is now facing a similar fate. 


The creative collaborations with my friend Asdrubal flourished into many years of interaction and support for the Tayrona peoples that ultimately led to me being invited by the leader of the Wiwa, Ramon Gil, to come to help record the Wiwa language and culture in danger of extinction and to archive on video the stores of the elders. The Arhuaco are the most dominant of the Tayrona peoples with 18,000 speakers. They are finding ways to gain economic control of their ancestral territory that is continually being sold to colonizers by the Colombian government. Colonos cut the forest, plant mono-crops in rows, use fertilizers and pesticides, or otherwise denude the land with cattle. The traditional life of Tayrona peoples and the practice of the Mamas have protected the magnificent treasure of the natural world of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The compromises that the people are making to fit into western culture come with a cost to their traditional way of life.


This article arose from a letter to friends at the beginning of a 6-month journey to bring my skills as a media artist to the assist the Tayrona people. This is a brief personal account of my initial experience. You can follow my process of discovery and empowerment for the Indigenous world at http://notesfromtheheartoftheworld.blogspot.com/




Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...