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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.