Editors' Choice

Into The Land of The Stone Age Bootlegger

By John Jasberg

On my first day in the Guajira, an arid region in northeastern Colombia, I got off the chilly climatizado bus at an unremarkable junction known as cuatros vias. Four roads—three of them paved—traveling the points of the compass. West to Barranquilla, Colombia's largest port. South to Exxon's enormous Cerrejon coal mine. East into Venezuela, towards Maracaibo, a soupy petropolis. Or north through the Guajira Peninsula, along a branching network of corrugated ruts that ran past the hidden homesteads of the fiercely aloof Wayuu and terminated at sheltered bays and temporary airstrips used by contrabandistas. This was the road I'd be traveling when the truck to Uribia finally showed up.

I sat in the haphazard shade of a thatched ramada and watched as two boys played an all-too-realistic-looking game of DEA agents-and-narcotraficantes with wooden pistols the length of my forearm. Vendors carrying Styrofoam coolers filled with Venezuelan contraband—beer and soft drinks mainly—were deployed along the highway, hurrying onto the pavement like trapdoor spiders anytime a passing car slowed down. The vendors seemed to be Latinos. If the Wayuu were that desperate for money, they didn't let on.

Fifteen minutes and still no truck. A group of hard-bitten Latinos driving south from the peninsula pulled up in a station wagon with Venezuelan plates and ordered Polar, a Venezuelan beer. No Polar, the Wayuu proprietor said with detectable scorn, only Colombian Aguila. The men scowled their best smuggler's scowls and took the Aguilas anyway, spitting out the first mouthful as if it was arsenic, then swigging the rest before it got warm. Thirty-five kilometers from Uribia, one of the smugglers said, double checking the odometer.

Modern Wayuu society is a curious blend of the endemic and the cosmopolitan. The tribal underpinnings remain intact: matrilineal clans of the vulture, boar, and the serpent; persistent nomadism; a cosmology uncomplicated by Copernicus or Galileo. Beginning with the Conquest, however, outside ways have been assimilated. The Spanish brought livestock on their ships and the Wayuu began to herd. More recently, as Latin America developed a taste for Japanese electronics, American smokes, and European booze, the Wayuu became couriers for imported goods flowing legally through the Guajira Free Trade Zone, then into Colombia proper as contraband. The trade in illicit drugs, too, is a money maker. A recent solar eclipse shed some light on the Wayuu belief system. Observers reported that the Indians turned their heads and averted their eyes during the eclipse. The Guajira, it turns out, is populated with single malt scotch drinkers who believe the stars are born when the moon and sun copulate.

The Guajira is often called “lawless,” a misunderstanding reflecting Colombia's unwillingness to police the region, rather than a breakdown of local society. Barely pubescent federales and soldiers, staples of the Colombian highway, were conspicuously absent from the peninsula. Yet strangely, when I left the pavement and the air-conditioned Mercedes buses behind, I entered one of the safest regions of rural Colombia. Wayuu justice, meted out per the ancient calculus of an eye-for-an-eye, was more effective at controlling violence than anything found in Colombia's jungles or mountains.

After a half hour the truck arrived. I moved out from the shade and climbed onto the rear bumper, peering under an overhanging tarp and into the truck bed. Low benches ran along each side, they were jammed with Wayuu, mostly women in voluminous robes. Plastic bags filled with grain, sooty cooking pots, and black market toothpaste covered the floor—the Wayuu were returning from a day in Maicao, a border town with a notoriously laissez faire attitude towards commerce. Though the driver and his assistant spoke to me in Spanish, the passengers used the local tongue. The syllables sounded as ancient as the South American continent.

The assistant threw my bag on the roof, motioning me to sit on the tailgate. We were ready to leave the highway behind. A vendor sold a last can of Polar to an old Wayuu man. Where he's going, I thought, most likely to a house of sticks hidden back among the palo verde and the cactus, cold beer would be a foreign concept. "Jale!," the assistant yelled suddenly, and I grabbed desperately for the superstructure as we lurched off past a charred and accordioned climatizado that had been pulled off the highway.

We reached top speed and I became acquainted with the realities of Guajira travel. The truck bucked like a mustang and a hot wind blew through the back, mocking the memory of those soothing climatizado zephyrs. The noise discouraged conversation and the dust swirled so thickly that some of the women pulled their robes over their faces. I avoided eye contact with the Wayuu, they stared dispassionately at me. Apparently I wasn't the first blue-eyed bobble-headed tourist to hang idiotically from the ceiling of the truck to Uribia.

We slalomed north through a monotony of muted greens, browns, and reds; all of the Guajira, it seemed, was a scrub forest pressed flat beneath a vast blue sky. Along the road we stopped for Indians who waited in the sun or under thatched shelters strung with Wayuu hammocks. The truck always appeared full, but each of the new passengers succeeded in shoehorning themselves onto the benches, into spaces that the women had been hoarding beneath their robes.

All of the Wayuu were visually arresting, they might have been featured in a social studies text, over a caption reading “Colorfully attired South American natives,” but I thought that the piecemeal livery of one old gentleman best symbolized the present-day state of the Wayuu. He wore the straw cowboy and shiny polyester shirt of a salsateca dandy (the shirt design repeating, somewhat comically, the word “gentry”), woven sandals with steel belted soles, and a Wayuu loincloth, a G-string really, with a bright yarn tail that protruded from his buttocks like a wayward tam o'shanter tassel. He seemed to be cultural Centaur—the torso might have known the bright lights of Barranquilla, but the lower body could still travel across the desert and dig a hole for drinking water.

Lacking the Wayuu sense of geography, the land felt empty. Inhospitable scrub stretched to infinity, a few distant wind pumps provided the only hint that a people lived out there. Yet every so often a Wayuu rapped sharply on the sidewall and the driver skidded the truck to a halt. A family would climb off, trading impenetrable humor with the others as they collected their bags. They'd walk off the road, and after a few steps vanish behind the gray-green curtain, leaving the last of the insults hanging in the air. The Wayuu used no furniture; by nightfall they'd be hanging in hammocks, alongside the plastic shopping bags, from the scrub wood rafters of their house.

* * * * *

Two days of truck travel landed me in Cabo de la Vela, a beautifully remote Caribbean village where the Wayuu were content to pass their days fishing, herding goats, and watching their dogs menace stray tourists, calling off the pack only when dismemberment seemed certain. Three hotels—the Snail, the Lobster, and the Squid—stood cheek-by-jowl along Cabo's waterfront. All of them were very basic and very empty. I chose the first one I came to—the Snail—and for a dollar or two strung my hammock on the beach behind it. I was the only guest in town, yet for two days and nights the Snail's Wayuu matron and her daughter lavished me with indifference. They would sell me Johnny Walker Red in the box, but I had to wait an hour for my fish soup. I hadn't come to Cabo for the duty free.

Cabo was hot. I swam or hiked only when the sun was low. The siesta lasted from 9 to 3. I lay in my hammock devouring Lonely Planet like it was pulp fiction, looking up only to watch the occasional drug plane hum across the cobalt sky. The Snail, like most Colombian businesses, lacked change for even the smallest bills. The matron ran a tab for me. On the night before I left, the daughter and I had a long and unfriendly accounting session by lantern light.

* * * * *

On my third and final morning in the Guajira, I left Cabo on the only regularly scheduled transport—the 4:30 a.m. market special to Maicao. Hungry, heat-struck, and desperately short on pesos, I was happy to be leaving. I boarded the truck in starlight, dismissing the voyage ahead with the veteran's nonchalance. My backside had proved roadworthy and I was pleased with the mute détente that I'd established with the Wayuu.

The truck was very nearly full, but by now I was confident enough around the Wayuu to grab myself a seat on one of the benches. The darkness provided me with temporary anonymity, and as we roared off through the night, I leaned back like a contented pasha, propping my feet on some cargo that lay on the floor. As the sky slowly purpled, I realized that my right foot had been resting on the hindquarters of a live goat. The beast was tied tightly at the ankles, and in time, it began to emit tortured bleats. Sufficiently familiar with the digestive habits of traumatized ruminants, I swung my foot away from the goat and onto plastic-wrapped mound that appeared to be a sack of grain. When the mound moved, I decided it must have been one of those brown beach pigs that had shuffled past my hammock back in Cabo.

The sky brightened and the masquerade ended. I discovered that my living ottoman was a reptile, the Wayuu realized that I was a gringo. We bounced towards Uribia in mutual disbelief: me staring at the meter-long sea turtle under my feet, fifteen or so Indians gawking at me.

I now understood the reason for the goat's protests. The turtle's mouth was perfectly positioned to allow for the occasional taste of loin. But not content with goat flesh alone, the turtle had also eaten part of the way through a bag of fresh fish that lay on the floor—surf and turf at its freshest. A booze-scented young Wayuu was sitting next to me. He must have caught the fish, because when he discovered the carnage, he became extremely agitated. Just then, I ceased being a quiet spectator of Wayuu truck theater, and was thrust onstage in the role of the fool.

To my horror, the drunken fisherman began to wave a half-eaten fish in my face while directing a rapid-fire stream of Wayuu at me. The old gringo-and-mullet routine. The audience roared its approval, and my feeble pleading—“en espanol, por favor”—served only to up the comedic ante. Soon, another young man and a woman had joined the vaudeville, I couldn't understand a word of Wayuu, but evidently they were quite funny, judging from the way that the rest of the passengers howled.

Things turned increasingly slapstick when I discovered that I'd dropped my photocopied passport on the floor. It had fallen precisely at the swampy intersection of goat, turtle, and fish. I picked up the passport, it dripped fluids of an indeterminate nature. The slipshod street corner lamination job had allowed the juice to leak into the paper, imparting a fragrance best described as “hot afternoon at a Latin American meat market.” I wiped and sniffed the document, then the fisherman grabbed it from me and passed it through the crowd, where it provoked confused looks and more guffaws.

Just as my tormentor was building to a comedic crescendo, I received divine intervention from above. Without warning, several women on the bench opposite me began shrieking loudly. A liquid rained through the tarp and onto their heads. One woman lunged across the turtle and onto the bench beside me, another curled up on a man's lap. In the excitement and the laughter, everyone forgot about the gringo.

I was baffled at first. The morning was clear and already very hot—what was so upsetting about a little bit of water leaking through the roof? But then, recalling a stop we'd made shortly after leaving Cabo, I suppressed a vengeful smile. It had still been quite dark when we'd pulled over, but in the half-light I'd watched the driver's assistant heave three plastic-wrapped bundles onto the roof. Sacks of grain, I'd thought then. Now I knew better. Somewhere up there, the turtle god of the Wayuu was smiling on me.

John Jasberg is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco, California. More of his travel stories are available on his website www.botcho.com.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.

Read more from Editors' Choice, John Jasberg

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