Pa’ La Guajira?

There was only one way it could begin.

“Are you a singer?” a tiny voice asked, from behind the seat on our flight to Valledupar.

“Yes,” my boyfriend smiled, turning to the little girl. “Are you?”

“No,” she giggled. “My grandfather is.”

The pair chatted in rapid costeño before my boyfriend turned to me.

“Her grandfather is Jorge Oñate,” he grinned. “Do you know who that is?”

“Of course,” I said (I would never admit that the only reason I can place one of the country’s most famous vallenato singers is because I am a huge fan of another singer, who always name-checks the maestro in his songs. Nor would I admit that I was already amused by Valledupar. On our half-full flight there were no less than three famous singers)

Like all good grandfathers, Jorge Oñate was waiting at the airport where my boyfriend introduced us.

“I should have had my photograph taken with him,” I said later, as we waited for a taxi.

“Yes, you should!” my boyfriend replied, aghast. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to see Jorge Oñate?”

Well that gave me the giggles. In one sentence my boyfriend had managed to make Jorge Oñate sound like a leopard on safari – I mean, you can see all of the giraffes and hippos you want, but big cats don’t happen every day do they? And if you have ever been to Valledupar, you will know that it is hot, surrounded by vast, mountain-ringed plains and not-at-all unlike the heart of Africa.

I was still amused (and mentally writing my vallenato “Big Five”) when we went out to dinner that evening and the first person we saw was Jorge Oñate.

“God loves you,” my boyfriend laughed, taking the photograph.

The following day we went for lunch in the middle of nowhere and walked past a crowd of people screaming at a small, circular arena.

“Whatever you do, keep your sunglasses on,” my boyfriend muttered, deliberately walking in front of me.

“Is that a cock fight?” I squealed. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez country Vicki,” he said sternly. “Now keep your sunglasses on.”

Of course it was far too late and I am far too tall and far too blonde and soon this excitable, half-drunk, sun-saturated group of, well, men were insisting I took a seat in the front row. They were no match for my claustrophobia though and it’s lucky I am so risk-adverse and refused to sit in the thick of things, because the fight didn’t end when one cock pecked the other to death. Oh no. It ended when one of the owners jumped into the ring and took a swing at the other, taking half the crowd with him. My boyfriend and I made a run for it.

“That’s why I didn’t want to sit at the front,” I panted.

“That’s why I told you to keep your sunglasses on,” he panted back, which was probably going a bit far. I mean, you might be able to hide your blue eyes but the rest is pretty much out there.

And it wasn’t even that bad. For all the claims about the sexism in this part of the world, in one week we only had one dicey moment – when my boyfriend introduced me to a friend or a family member or someone and the man looked me up and down, turned immediately to my boyfriend and said: “Uf. She’s beautiful, hermano. I congratulate you.”

(There was an awkward pause which my ever-gallant boyfriend filled by telling the man I was a writer. We both watched as the man tried and failed to process this modern-day piece of information and eventually just discarded it altogether)

It was impossible for me not to fall in love with Valledupar though. Not because I love the heat and the music and because everyone was kind to me. Not because my boyfriend is the consummate costeño who would move every tree in his tierra if he thought it would make me happy. Not because the city is enveloped in a landscape that is wild and rugged and open and screams of the never-ending space, peace and freedom every writer craves. But because for all my English uptight-ness, my blue eyes, my formal dresses and my love for Bogotá, the coast is one place where I have always felt at home.

On our last day we drove to the tiny town, in the south of La Guajira, where my boyfriend’s family are from. We drove lazily through the streets, slowed by the fierce sun and the fact I wanted to absorb every landmark, every memory, the sight of every cow roaming free beside us.

“People here must lose their cows all the time,” I wondered, as yet another nomad cow began to graze in the small, dusty plaza.

“I have an Aunt,” my boyfriend replied. “She doesn’t have any land but she does have cows. So everyone knows that if a cow is wandering free around here, well, it must belong to her.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that. My boyfriend laughed.

“You are going to write about all this aren’t you?” he said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“I love it,” I replied, surprised.

He laughed again and turned up the radio.

“I knew you would,” he said.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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8 Comments

  1. Arnold Shoon

    I remember when I first came to Valledupar in 2006…it surely seemed like the wild west… Now I live here semi permanently and enjoy the different pace of life… And a ripe mango off the tree after a swim in the Rio guatapurri. Thx for writing about my new adopted home.

  2. Meghan Johnson

    “’This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez country Vicki,’ he said sternly. ‘Now keep your sunglasses on.’”

    Now this made me laugh! … And made me miss la costa something terrible.

  3. lsan8440

    My wife and I with our son and daughter just got back from the Festival Vallenato; we spent four nights living like vampires, going out at dusk, coming home at dawn, sleeping during the day. I love Valledupar and the area. My godfather/brother-in-law is from Villanueva, so when we were kids we use to spend several weeks every year in the area. Love it, cockfights and all.

  4. cassandragambill

    What a trip! I can’t help but wonder about the colorful details you must have left out 🙂

    Also,what is it with all of the Vallenato connections? On our recent trip to Cartagena, a friend of my boyfriend’s family knew a famous Vallenato singer and somehow snagged us his apartment for the weekend. We paid, of course, but it worked out much better than staying in a stuffy hotel. I kept shaking my head and wondering how we ended up with such a cool view!

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