Colombia

Quitoro: Real life travel

If you follow a winding dirt road across a one-lane bridge, through a fertile valley and up a steep mountainside two hours south of San Agustin, Colombia, you'll eventually end up in a remote community lodged in a rocky hillside. No more than a few hundred people live in the immediate area, leaving it well off the tourist map and perhaps a few other maps as well. There are a few small stores stocking provisions that the community can't create for itself, and a small square dotted with local homes and a simple chapel. There's a basketball court that moonlights as a soccer field a few nights a week, a butcher shop with no freezers and a small candy store that'll pull out a plastic table and some chairs if you're in the market for a beer. There are no hotels, gas stations or restaurants. No malls, movie theaters or coffee shops. For all the surrounding pueblos, this is the epicenter of life. It acts as the collective center of commerce, a transportation hub and a medium for social interaction. This is Quitoro.

There's a pretty good chance you've never heard of Quitoro. I know I hadn't prior to my recent time as a teacher there. For that matter, I've met a few Colombians who, too, were clueless when I mentioned the name. And although it lacks the historical draws of Cartagena and the raucous nightlife of Cali, I firmly believe that we should all pay it some mind. It's been said by locals and transport drivers alike that I'm the second foreigner in history to visit the area after my program director. I can't be certain this is true, but I choose to indulge in the thought. Believe it or not, truly intrepid travel is becoming quite difficult these days. Being one of the first ones on the scene makes a lot of my previous wonderings feel rehearsed or cued. As travelers, we must forge ahead into uncharted territory when afforded the opportunity.

Like many sections of Southern Colombia, the province of Huila had long been under the dominant thumb of local FARC contingents. The threat of kidnapping managed to scare off travelers for the better part of two decades, whether it was truly a major possibility or not. Needless to say, this region saw very little international traffic for years on end as a result.

Every Wednesday morning for three months straight, I would travel by jeep along the lush mountainside, past farmers, day laborers and livestock to reach the 200 enthusiastic students and many of their families that I was organized to work with as a volunteer educator. Each Friday, teachers would arrive from neighboring mountain communities by jeep or motorbike to attend a three-hour professional development English class that I taught. Every week, I’d receive invites to visit their homes, meet their families and share a meal. My days were filled with inquisitive questions, a succession of stares and a multitude of small grins and smiles. These visits offered up numerous fantastic opportunities to tap into the collective cultural psyche of the community. However, one instance in particular stands apart from the rest.

I was invited last week to the home of a teacher to spend the night with his family. We shared our personal stories over glasses of freshly pressed pineapple juice, while his children played various types of Colombian music for me at deafening volumes. After a few pleasantries, he showed me to my room in a cobweb covered barn near the side of his home. With its simple white walls, aged wooden beams and musky aroma, the room filled me with a sense of a personal history that this family had been sharing on this patch of earth they called home for several decades. I thought about the special moments endemic to my family history and drifted to sleep in another random location I’d now be calling home for the evening.

When I awoke in the morning, I was lead out to an open stable in the side yard. The father of the household then tied off a cow and milked the contents of its utter directly into a glass for me. It was a bit warmer than typically preferred for milk, but the freshness factor held the trump card. We then went inside for a typical breakfast of roasted chicken, white rice and salty soup. We spoke of the unifying and dividing aspects of our worlds, the need to perpetually challenge the intellect, and the importance of a life defining balance. Nearing the end of our conversation, he sauntered to the cupboard, got something out and sat back down beside me. He then gifted me an antique axe head made by the indigenous people that inhabited the region many years before his family did. I protested in every way I could think of, only to be met with relentless conviction. I graciously accepted when I knew further protests would have been considered insulting. The axe head, he said, would remind me of my time in Quitoro and the importance of this journey for me, as well as for the people of his community.

We continued talking, and he asked about my travels and where I had been thus far in life. I shared that I'd had the good fortune to travel through 49 countries, adding that I was greatly looking forward to my time in Colombia. When he inevitably asked why I traveled so much, I told him that I guessed I was looking for something. He told me he had never been more than two days' travel from his home, but that life had afforded him innumerable opportunities to learn and grow, and experience its pulse. He spoke of the beauty of education, the importance of a family and the love it creates, and the need for a man to have a place to call home. He referred to the surrounding land as having everything he needed and a lifetime’s worth of insights found just outside his doorstep.

I've cast myself in every direction I could monetarily afford, with the hopes of finding what he's acquired within a hundred-mile radius of his home. I don't know if he's truly happy with his lot in life or, like many of us, is wearing a mask or veil to conceal his inner turmoil. He did, however, don a look of perfect contentment when he spoke of his land, the growth of his family and the importance of his job. He hasn't needed to travel the world over to open his eyes to the pinpoints of humanity. What would his position have been if he’d ventured to the far ends of the earth? Would the taste of more create a hunger for more? In the grand scheme of things, I guess it doesn’t matter. His speech allowed me to see his life experience and worldly innocence in the same moment. For better or worse, that seems like clarity.

He just may be Quitoro's own version of Immanuel Kant.

About the Author

With family support and encouraging friends, John has travelled to over 50 nations and counting. Using his experience in education to fuel the costs, he’s taught abroad and in New York for almost five years. John continues to pen his travels, while living and working as an educational consultant in New York City.

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 Full name: Republic of Colombia

 Population: 45.24 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Bogota

 Largest city: Bogota

 Area: 1.139 million sq.km. (439,770 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Spanish

 Major religions: Roman Catholic, Other

 Monetary unit: Colombian Peso

 GDP per capita: US $10,100

 Internet domain: .co

 International dialling code: +57

 Source: CIA World Factbook