pointing toward something bigger

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Pigeons congregate outside the cathedral one early morning in Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva is a quaint colonial village in the mountains approximately 3 hours from Bogotá. The buildings in the town, all white with green doors and clay roofs, line cobblestone streets that extend from the central plaza.  In the center of this small town sits the largest plaza in South America. Smooth foottrails have been worn into the stones of the plaza from paths that generations have daily tread. I woke early the days that I was there to watch the town wake up. There was no rushing here.  Each morning at the plaza was a slow awakening that eventually blossomed into a hub of activity that lasted well into the night.  The central focus of this town is no different from many Latin American villages.  It is the church.  Since I was there just before Christmas, there were events daily at the cathedral in the plaza.  From my hostel I could hear chanting early in the mornings.  Children sang at novenas on the front steps in the evenings.  There is a relationship to the church in the activities of this town – and relationships among locals play out daily just beyond its doors.

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Station X. Jesus is stripped of his garments. Each station leading to the cathedral was packed with symbology. Here the shape of the cross as a hole in the cave wall symbolizes the removal of Christ’s clothing.

On our way to Villa de Leyva, we stopped in Zipaquirá, to see the Catedral de Sal.  What a magnificent sight!  Deep below the ground, 180m (590ft) below ground to be exact, in an old salt mine, a cathedral was built.  As we descended down the path, we passed the Stations of the Cross, artfully interpreted and built, all out of salt, with some marble sculptures here and there.  The path led to a huge cavern converted into a cathedral.  A luminous cross behind the altar towered over the large room.  Scars from the pick axes that mined for salt in another time mark the walls and ceilings.

Behind the altar of the sanctuary, a large cross towers above my friend, Maria.

Behind the altar of the sanctuary, a large cross towers above my friend, Maria.

How does something like this come to be?  Originally an area was carved in the mine as a place for miners to pray.  And from there it grew…and grew, eventually into a large cathedral in the early 1930s. Structural compromises lead to the closing of the older cathedral, and in the 1990s, the current cathedral was built as a replacement, below the original. It is a stunning creation, a means to glorify God. (In addition to being a tourist attraction, services are held here every Sunday.) Of course, as lots of tourist driven places go, even those that are intended for higher purposes, there is also a Disneyland aspect to this place.  But the glory has not been lost even in the midst of the light shows and concession stands.

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Jaime Rodriguez Roldan relaxes in his livingroom near Villa de Leyva.

A short distance outside Villa de Leyva we were introduced to a different seeker of sorts.  Jaime Rodriguez Roldan has built is house on a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.  These aren’t just any mountains. They serve as the backdrop of the creation story for the indigenous peoples here, the Muiscas.  At the base of this mythologically and culturally rich landscape, Jaime has created an assembly of symbolic items from many native traditions, with origins in North and South America.  Among many other things, he has built a labyrinth, which is how we came to be in his presence.  (There is a registry of labyrinths worldwide.  My friend Chris’s mother had built one in Galveston, Texas years ago, so he looks for registered labyrinths in his travels.)  There was a natural beauty in the environment that Jaime has created for himself and his family there.  While a lot lost in translation, both between his Spanish and my moderate understanding of it and between his ayahuasca-influenced inspiration and my perspective from the world I was standing in, it was undeniably a powerful place to experience, packed with symbolism and earth driven design.

Jaime prepares Chris for entering the labyrinth.

Jaime prepares Chris for entering the labyrinth.

These three places, with their own attempts of pointing toward God, brought in me nostalgic thoughts of Santa Fe.  The historic architecture, the presence of grand old churches, the connection to indigenous peoples and the respect for the magical land that surrounds them…these places hold much in common. As I was experiencing this new town in a foreign land, there was a comfortable familiarity that quietly hummed within me.  Maybe it was not the places in and of themselves that brought that on, but the God who created each of them and whose glory is seen in different manifestations in all that is here, if we’re looking.

A mandala outside Jaime’s home lies at the base of the mountains thought by the Muiscas to be the origin of life on earth.

A mandala outside Jaime’s home lies at the base of the mountains thought by the Muiscas to be the origin of life on earth.

taking in the sights…and the flavors of colombia

Fruit and fish, plantains and potatoes, corn and coconut…these are some of the treasures of Colombian cuisine.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the country and seeing different takes on staple foods in each region I visited.

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A food vendor serves grilled meats at the beach in Santa Marta.

It is clear that people here are connected to and through their food.  Street vendors selling fruit, ice cream, meats and arepas were ubiquitous in every town I visited.  In the evenings, as the people congregated in plazas and parques, the air was filled with the melding of aromas from the various vendors.  During the day, fruit vendors sold multiple types of mangoes as well as other fruits, an array of juices, and coconuts.  There’s no excuse to go hungry here….fresh food is at every turn.

Away from the cities, it was not uncommon to see people working the land and livestock to provide food for those in town.  During a hike, I crossed paths with a man bringing milk into town in large stainless steel containers mounted on donkeys.  This was the first of many similar scenes I saw, particularly in the Cafetera area, where many of the coffee farms and dairies are located.  While visiting a small cafe near Villa de Leyva, some friends and I encountered a woman skinning a pig.  It was such a beautiful scene, as light filtered into the room and she methodically processed this animal that would provide nourishment for many.

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A man makes the journey from his finca with milk to sale in town, near Salento.

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A woman processes a pig near Villa de Leyva (left). Mangoes for sale are a common sight on the streets of Cartagena (right).

Fresh fish was plentiful in the coastal towns of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Cabo de la Vela.  In Cartagena, La Cevicheria served some incredible ceviche with shrimp, fish, conch, and octopus. Even though it was one of the higher priced meals during my time in Colombia, I could not help but return to eat there again my last night in town.  Fried fish served with arroz con coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains) is a typical meal in coastal areas.  In the Guajira area, we had several of these meals, where the only thing that varied was the type of fish. It was all incredibly tasty.

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Fried fish with arroz con coco near Cabo del la Vela is a meal typical of the area (left). Mixed ceviche in Cartagena was a special treat at La Cevicheria (right).

Arepas and patacones are two foods present throughout the country.  Patacones are fried thinly flattened plantain patties.  While in the coast they are small and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in La Cafetera, they are the size of a large plate and served as vehicles for any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and salsas.  Corn based arepas vary greatly between regions.  In La Cafetera, they resemble thick grilled corn tortillas, covered with meats, cheese, vegetables, or just butter.  On the coast and in the regions around Bogotá, instead of piling food on top of the arepas, they are stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or sweet creamy cheese.  Many of these are grilled as well, but others are deep-fried.  I made it my personal mission to try as many combinations as I could…within reason, of course!

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Arepas near Manizales in La Cafetera are served with butter alongside eggs for breakfast (left). In Santa Marta, a street food vender sells grilled arepas filled with chicken or eggs to hungry beach goers (right).

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Patacones with chicken, cheese, and salsa serves as a filling dinner at the cafe-lined plaza in Salento.

a colorful life

Like much of Latin America, Colombia is a place bursting with color.  From the vibrant green hillsides, to the crystal blue waters, to the multicolored murals, the colors of Colombia are a feast for the eyes.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131228-01The green landscape of the coffee region from my plane window as it descends into Armenia.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131221-01Buildings in Ráquira are accented with murals depicting the culture and history of the area.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131227-07A woman walks by a colorful mural in Cartagena’s historic Getsemani neighborhood.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131221-08A shopkeeper in Ráquira sweeps the street before she opens for business.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131223-02Daily life in the quiet but vibrant village of Manaure, in La Guajira.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131220-03The country is not all bright pinks and blues.  The colonial village of Villa de Leyva, with its cobblestone streets and whitewashed walls, takes one to another time.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131224-04A statue of the Virgin Mary looks over the Caribbean Sea, near Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira.

a colorful colombian christmas

The Christmas light displays in Colombia are a sight to behold.  While I did not make it to Medellin during this trip, which is considered to have the most extravagant displays in the country, the festive lights I did see where very impressive.  Each place I visited during the holiday season expressed the character of the town through their unique displays.  Everyday I felt a childlike excitement well up in me as the sun went down, the lights turned on, and the people came out to congregate in the public areas adorned with sparkles of color and light.

JDavidsonBlog131217-01The trees of Bogotá’s Independence Park are dripping with lights as locals and vendors stroll underneath.

JDavidsonBlog131217-02A giant Christmas tree towers over other larger than life displays along one of Bogotá’s busy streets.

The elegance of Cartagena’s historic center shines through the white lights covering the clock tower at the city’s entrance.

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A long promenade alongside the Caribbean Sea in Santa Marta contains a multitude of festive sea creatures and palm trees, with exuberant children interspersed among the marine themed lightscape.

Ice cream vendors stay very busy in this seaside park where many families come to enjoy the displays and the warm Caribbean nights.

A young man stands quietly reminding those visiting the park in Santa Marta to be respectful of the city’s holiday display.

Two Young Girls Villa de Leyva ColombiaIn the small village of Villa de Leyva, novenas took place in different parts of the town each night.  Here two young friends who sang at the evening’s service, pause in front of a street-side nativity.

Police officers in Villa de Leyva ColombiaLocal police officers join in the holiday spirit during the novenas in Villa de Leyva.

Plaza in Villa de Leyva at Christmastime
Beauty through simplicity characterizes the light-outlined plaza in Villa de Leyva. This display compliments the town’s all-white architecture perfectly.