Seven o’ clock and it’s up and go. Today we are going to make our final approach to Ciudad Perdida. We start our hike through the jungle in a fresh, pleasant temperature. One more time the absence of mosquitoes is a perfect gift for the traveller, and so are the wonderful views of the forested mountains. Everywhere one can turn his head there is total solitude and birds singing, while the colours and shapes of the jungle, ever changing, are deeply moving and tell many stories to the ones who know how to listen.
The track is initially gently rolling up and down, but after the first hour things suddenly change: for forty minutes we climb again and it is a steep ascent, like the first day, but our legs answer more willingly, either because the tough ascent of the first day took the rust off them or because it is earlier today and the path we walk under tree shelter. We sweat, silently swear and grind our teeth as we go up, but we get it done. When we stop, out of the huge backpack of one of the porters appear pineapples and bananas to reward us after the struggle. He is the youngest of the porters that accompany us, merely a boy, a tough heroic 12 years old who never stops, smiles, complains. I think of my own son of 12 and I realize how our civilization is totally gone soft.
We resume our hiking and soon enough we reach a small Kogi settlement. Castro says he will ask the Chief to show us how the Kogi brew a liquor from fermented sugar cane and then maybe we can taste this rare speciality. He goes to confer with the Chief but soon he is back, all apologetic: it is a no go, there is nothing he can do. The wife of the boss is sick with a strong fever, so no outsiders are to be allowed in the circular thatched hut where the couple resides with a considerable amount of children.
Then Castro asks: “Would anyone have medication for the Chief’s wife?”, so here I go, suddenly turned into a jungle doctor. I enter the Chief’s hut with my pack of meds, trying to look the part while a dozen Kogi stare at me wordless. I finally manage to fish out my Tachipirina drops, originally from mamma’s closet in Rome, and I put 20 drops in water for the sick woman to drink. She swallows, everybody stares, nobody says anything and I start to feel like those western missionaries in the wild men village of Hollywood memory. Then the Chief gets up, leaves and quickly re-enters the hut with a small plastic bag in his hands. He gives it to me, then, while everyone is still speechless, I am asked to leave.
When Castro sees the goods he says it is coca leaves; the gift, apparently, is a big one. I share the leaves with my fellow travellers while Castro explains how to chew them, as to release the alkaloid contained in them, and then to spit them out without swallowing as they could make you sick. So we resume our pace, at a faster pace now, like the native Americans of old, supported by the wave of adrenaline created by the alkaloid as it enters our system. Sure thing it’s a lot easier to overcome the steeper hills and bear the heat now fallen on the wonderful Colombian mountains all around.
When the conquistadores discovered the particular effect of coca leaves on people, they used them to work the local indigenous population to death. The best part of the 10000 Tayrona people that originally populated the area where exterminated through inhuman work conditions, starvation, diseases, war.
I remember this information from my pre-trek reading as I walk through an open patch where the forest has been cleared. Here the Kogi practice their sustenance farming. A small boy in his typical white Kogi dress, with the inevitable white brown-striped Kogi sack hanging from his side, approaches me. He signals towards my baseball cap, an orange NYPD hat made in Nicaragua that I bought on a previous trip. He then gives me a big inviting smile that says it all: leave me your hat gringo! I obviously fall for it and my head is now unprotected from the sun, while the little Kogi runs like hell to show the amazing gift he got from a white man passing by with his rucksack on.
Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011
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