La Guajira (Part 4)


It was dark and very early when we left for the sea. We drove through Valledupar in darkness and passed the coal mine and as the sky lightened the mountains appeared as a high black silhouette against it. With the sun came the heat of the day and the road continued through the valley, through dusty pastureland and then following along a river it was green and lush and there were rice patties. We left the river and climbed a low pass and descending into the next valley the road was broken and pot-holed and her brother swerved and braked and it was very rough driving.

Passing us were convoys of pickup trucks with plastic barrels stacked high on their wagons. Her brother said they were smugglers bringing gasoline into Colombia from Venezuela. They had made their drop and were rushing back for the frontier.

The road forked and turned to dirt and broken asphalt and we entered a pueblo of rundown cinderblock homes. Along the dirt road men were selling the smuggled gasoline from plastic barrels. We stopped opposite an abandoned service station and her brother got out to negotiate the price with a young man. Up the road a team of men were breaking apart the asphalt with a jackhammer. The jack-hammering was very loud and the air was very dusty and the whole pueblo smelled strongly of gasoline.

It was late morning when we made the coast at Riohacha. The beaches at the north of the city were empty and said to be polluted and the sea broke in a long gray line along the sand. There were some Arhuaco men selling artisanales on the boardwalk and we stopped and got out to look at the mochilas and jewelry.

The Arhuaco were short and long-haired and dressed in white tunics and pants and wore a white conical hat called the tutusoma.* They did not speak much Spanish other than the prices and chewed at the coca leaves they held in their cheeks. Each man held a long-necked gourd called a poporo and as they watched us each dipped a black rod into his gourd, covering the end in a white powder which they then put into their mouths. Then they gently rubbed their rods, wet with saliva and powder, along the neck of the gourds.** The youngest of the Arhuaco tried hard to interest us in his mochilas but he wanted too much for the hand knit bags and we did not buy anything.

We left Riohacha and drove east across a long and arid plain. It was noon now and very bright and goats wandered through the sandy scrub and across the road. To the left, through the heat-light, you could just make out the blue of the Caribbean Sea. We drove another thirty kilometers and turned off onto a one-track dirt road that led back to a Wayuu settlement along the sea. There were five of the Wayuu homes called caserios and a boy ran out and directed us to park before a thatch-roofed hutch along the beach.

It was very hot and we sat down at a wooden table in the shade of the hutch and ordered beer from the Wayuu boy. The water was emerald green and clear and the white sand was bright in the sun. There were fishing skiffs tied off in the deeper water. We were the only ones at the beach. The boy returned with the bottled beer and we asked about lunch and if he had fish but he did not know Spanish well enough to understand. We were hungry but the beer was cold and it tasted delicious in the heat.

* The tutusoma is meant to symbolize the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta which the Arhuaco consider holy and have pledged to protect. The Arhuaco believe these mountains to be the heart of the world and that the well-being of the world depends upon them. By protecting these mountains the Arhuaco protect the world.

** The white substance inside the poporo is a powdered lime made of burnt sea shells from the Caribbean coast. The coca leaf when chewed with powdered lime becomes a mild narcotic. Only Arhuaco men are allowed to use the poporo and its ritual is intended to symbolize a woman: “The hole in the top is penetrated by the poporo stick. The powder of burned sea-shells inside is the essence of fertility, and for a boy to grow to manhood he must learn to feed on that. That, and the coca leaves, harvested only by women, will make him fit to father children and tend the land -- to develop a relationship with a woman in the flesh, and with the Mother Earth. The poporo is the mark of civilization. Eating from it reminds a man of what he is, and keeps him in harmony with the Great Mother. The ring of calc which builds up around the rim is saliva (the fresh water of the body) mixed with shell-dust (the seed of Serankua, dua, the seed of all life). Created during contemplation, by thoughtfully licking the stick and rubbing it on the neck of the gourd, this calc is also described as a book: ‘We write our thoughts in it.’” (The Heart of the World, Alan Ereira, 1990).



“But was the spirit of the soil his friend? The plant that is cut down one year, yet grows again the next did this miracle make him religious and silent? The stones, and the heather, and the branches of trees, and the grass, and the woods, and the wind, and the great heaven of all the universe were these his friends?”Hamsun, Look Back on Happiness

“But what then does it mean to be aware of the world as a miracle at some times and not at others?” Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics

50. Man lives in denial of so many miracles. That the plant that sustains him grows again after he has harvested from it. That the world exists. Instead he turns these miracles into facts, items for textbooks and academic journals; facts to be assembled into theories. The facts of science deny the world its miracle and thereby remove man’s responsibility to it. The plant becomes a resource and not a mysterious gift. The plant becomes a source of income, a way to place himself higher in the economic typology of men.

51. That man should feel religiously about the world is the most important fact of all. It is the fact that destroys all other facts. It is the fact for which there is no science. But for science to exist it is the first fact that must ignored.

59. The gods required man to remark upon the miraculous, to be in awe of it. Without man there is no one to admire the miracle, to give thanks, and to make great art to celebrate it. Without man the gods are lonely. That men are bound to the world is a miracle, and it is only through the gods that they are so bound.

65. Science removes man from the world. Science destroys its miracle. And science is never silent: it is always boasting of what it has explained and will explain. Through science man divests himself of responsibility for the world, for man’s responsibility for the world is itself miraculous.


La Guajira (Part 2)

[Part 1, Part 3]

All the men had names that began with ‘Rafael.’ It was a family tradition. There was Rafael-Andres, Rafael-Gregorio, Rafael-Miguel, Rafael-Francisco and two other Rafaels that I did not remember. They all worked in the coal mine, working twelve hour shifts day or night four days each week. On their days off the Rafaels drank whisky together. Her father, who was Rafael-Gregorio, was president of the miner’s syndicate. He motioned for my attention and drew up his shirt to reveal a pistol tucked in his waistband.

Los Guajiros son gente de la palabra. We are people of the word,” he said proudly.

Three other Rafaels lifted their shirts to reveal pistols. It is necessary, explained her father. There had been one attempt against his life and a cousin had been assassinated three years ago. It was some business related to his position as head of the syndicate.

“The assassin is not known,” said the one called Rafael-Andres.

“But we will know him one day,” said the one called Rafael-Miguel and patted his revolver.

“Yes, we will. Por Dios, we will,” said the one called Rafael-Francisco.

A mototaxista pulled up and a cousin I had been told about joined us under the mango tree. He was called Leonardo and, true to what I was told, his head was abnormally large. At birth there had been water inside the cranium that had swollen his head and stunted the growth of his brain. Leonardo was now physically a man but had the mental ability of a small boy. He spoke with his jaw clenched and he was not allowed to drink the whisky, but he was good natured and even as the others made jokes on him he grinned happily.*

We drank whisky under the mango tree all through the afternoon and into the night. When we said goodbye the vallenato had stopped playing at the corner bar and the domino players had gone home. We drank four bottles of whisky and we were all well drunk and happy and we promised to do it again.

* The shape and size of his head reminded me of Placido Polanco, a fine and professional hitter and third baseman for the Phillies and formerly of the Detroit Tigers. I have long wondered about Mr Polcano’s large head and whether his batting helmet is specially prepared for him, though I do not believe Mr Polanco to have the mental ability of a small boy or to suffer any mental disorder.

La Guajira (Part 3)

[Part 1, Part 2]

That night in bed we made love carefully, to not disturb her mother, and when we finished a cool breeze blew in through the window. The breeze felt good against our sweaty bodies.

Cielo,” she whispered. “I want to make a home for us.”

I didn't say anything.

“In two years, cielo. I want to make our baby.”

“In two years?”

“In two years I finish the dentistry classes. Mi amor, I want to make a home for us in La Guajira.”

She held me tighter and kissed me. “But your heart is still of stone.” She kissed me again and put her head on my chest.

“What will be his name?” I said finally.

“Our baby is a boy?” She looked up at me. She was smiling.

“He will be.”

“What name do you like?”

“What name is strong?”

“I like Geronimo. Me gusta Geronimo.”

“In my country Geronimo was a great Indian warrior.”

“But do you like it?”

Es raro y fuerte. It is both rare and strong.”

“But do you like it?”

“I like it very much.”

“Geronimo sera un Guajiro, un hombre de verdad de verdad. He will have fear of nobody and nothing nor death even.”

“You will be a very fine mother for him,” I said.

En serio, mi amor? Do you mean it?”

“In seriousness. I mean it.”

Te amo,” she said and she held me very close. “Te amo muchisimo.”


The Last Philosophers

These aphorisms are dedicated to the great quitters of Denver, Colorado, USA. May these men use their newfound freedom for strength.

“Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without “taste,” at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know all at any cost. Philosophic thinking, on the other hand, is ever on the scent of those things which are most worth knowing, the great and important insights.”--Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks

100. The mists are gathering. The gods thought to have long ago perished are in slow return. To guide man’s return back into the darkness of myth, that is the proper task of philosophy today. To prepare him properly for the experience of the divine.

101. The first philosophers looked out from the mist; the last philosophers will be forced to look back into it. It will require the courage of new eyes, eyes that do not turn away or shut when confronted by great suffering and madness; eyes ever open to protect what is reasonable in man from being overrun. And out of this darkness, should man emerge, may these last philosophers have shown him how to live: neither strictly the subject of gods nor strictly the subject of Reason and technology.

103. To see as the first philosopher saw, standing at the threshold of myth and reason, so will the last philosopher. But while the first philosopher envisioned Reason from the vantage point of myth, the last philosopher will grasp myth from the vantage point of Reason.

109. Philosophy was born of myth, but then turned back upon myth and annihilated it. The mythical origins of Reason have today been fully covered over. Reason is believed to be man’s discovery. The gods are silent and withdrawn. The philosopher, like the scientist, no longer listens for them. The gods, despite their power, could not be protected from man.

113. Philosophy’s task, though deeply misunderstood, was to protect the gods from men. In this it failed, with philosophy being progressively drawn towards the scientific and its model of inquiry and explanation. The mythical, for which there is no explanation, was thereby rejected. Scientific successes further confirmed this rejection. Philosophy now sits alongside science and models itself upon it, instead of being that which mediates between science and myth.

119. It began with Plato and the ejection of the tragic poets from the city. He argued the ideal city is one that does not call for the gods through the ritual of tragedy. Indeed, the tragic poet was made an enemy of the State. Yet one day, when Reason has wrecked itself and the godless cities are in disarray, is it not inconceivable to imagine that the task of a new sort of philosopher will be to protect science and Reason from the gods.

125. Philosophy appeared to the Greeks at a time of strength and maturity and health. Philosophy (as that which mediates between Reason and the gods) will now reappear during an epoch of weakness. Who among today’s men is strong enough to hear the god’s call? To understand it? The philosopher is rightly the oracle of the gods.
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