I‘ve just returned from La Guajira, that desert wilderness we all forget to visit in the top corner of Colombia and, as usual, I had a lovely time because I also forget to visit Colombia’s forgotten corners – mostly because I am too lazy to leave the capital and I get nervous when it’s difficult to find a Juan Valdez.
I’m joking of course and this was my third visit to La Guajira – my first in a Wayuu village though, which is why I’m writing. I went to visit a remarkable Wayuu woman we’ll call Leidy, who runs a sort of “about us” tourism business designed to give the rest of us a few clues about the lives of these indigenous people.
I call it a “tourism business” and Leidy, who is about forty and lives among 55 members of her extended family in the desert outside Riohacha, is always on her cellphone and has aspirations towards a website. But in reality the project feels more like an adult street lemonade stand – where everyone just gets on with their lives for the long intervals between anyone actually passing through.
Leidy welcomes visitors into her kitchen, rustles up fried goat or frichii (the Wayuu generally don’t bother skinning the animal, they just chop it up and cook it) and then calls upon a few volunteers to demonstrate crafts, drumming and dancing. But the main attraction is Leidy herself, mostly because she is so funny and frank and taught me more about Wayuu culture in a few hours than I could have learned in any book.
She sat in her chinchorro hammock (they take about three months to weave and cost two million pesos, or around $1,000) wearing a beautiful manta (a long and colourful Wayuu dress adorned with ornaments) which made me feel distinctly under-dressed in t-shirt and shorts, until she admitted that she had only bothered with her best frock for my visit and would usually be as relaxed as me.
I interviewed her for about half an hour then we gossiped about other things. She told me the Wayuu were ambivalent about tourism until arijunas (non-Wayuu folk, including other Colombians) began to ask about buying mochilas and seeing the Wayuu drum and dance and she realised they might as well open the doors and educate people a little (a proper Wayuu dance is a serious deal by the way and lasts 24 hours, so they keep the distinction between that and a 20-minute demonstration) It all seems to be working – Leidy and her family, who have a purpose and a business, certainly seem happier than many of the other Wayuu I’ve met, who tended to lean more towards the depressed, bitter side of things.
“Everyone is different,” she shrugs. “In every culture there are people who are happy and want to work and people who are not, but that’s life. For my part, I love talking and meeting new people so I love what I do. People always seem to go away from here feeling happier too.”
“I feel happier,” I said, wondering if that was less to do with Leidy and more to do with the three cups of chirinchi she made me drink, a Wayuu spirit that is certainly stronger than my usual glass of red.
“You people are just so elegant,” she laughed. “The foreign ones like you. Even the way you sit is elegant. I want your neck. Your neck is long and slim,” she said, laughing and pointing to her own neck, which was slightly more generous than mine. “Still,” she said. “You probably shouldn’t get any thinner.”
From body parts we naturally moved on to discuss marriage, mostly because foreigners tend to be a bit obsessed with the fact Wayuu men still offer goats to the family of their bride-to-be.
“They’re not selling their daughters for goats,” Leidy says dismissively. “It’s just a gift, you know, a tradition. It’s the way things have always been.”
“Anyway, are you married?” she asked me. “You seem very young.”
“You seem very young,” I replied, thinking that for a woman ten years older than me, she had less than a tenth of my lines. “Are you married?”
“Yes, but I don’t see my husband very much, that’s the trick,” she giggled. Then she leant forward and laughed loudly in my ear.
“I don’t sleep with my husband,” she said. “I prefer to have my chinchorro all to myself. Making babies is a momentary thing, of course. But who actually wants to share their bed with anyone?”
Now among Colombians, and foreigners like me who are aware of their existence, the Wayuu are famous for two things. One is the goat/wedding gift thing and the other is the fact men are allowed to take more than one wife. That was not something I’d really thought about, until that day I spent with Leidy’s family – eating her goat, drinking her chirinchi, hearing her stories, hearing her laugh.
But I spent the rest of the evening, and my entire flight back to Bogotá, thinking only about that.
“How was your trip?” my boyfriend asked, when I arrived home to the full, freezing force of the city.
“It was great. I met this amazing Wayuu woman. She told me how they live and it makes a lot of sense,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” my boyfriend replied smirking, as he bent to pick up a pile of dirty laundry from the floor.
“Does that mean I’m allowed to have four wives now?”
“Actually, it does,” I said, bending to help. “Because if you want to live the way they do, you’ll have to find four times the money to support your wives and I’ll only have to do a quarter of the housework.”
I watched the mathematics flicker visibly across his face.
“Hmmmmm,” he said, reaching for the detergent.
“Perhaps we’re better off as we are.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.