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).


  1. ‘When you have a wife you have to look after her, you have to work for her, make clothes for her, you have to care for her, you mustn’t ever hit her or treat her badly. Now receiving this poporo you must think about these things. If you want a woman you have to speak well too, you have to talk to her parents asking their permission, then you can talk to the girl, ask her to give you water, speak well to her. Yes, you have to care for her a lot. You should take her with you to bathe, collect firewood for her, and get food for her. You must look after a woman well. ...... And now that you’re going to receive a woman you should build your own house separately, you can’t go on living with the other boys. You’ll live separately with your wife, work for her, bring food for her, so that she can cook, you’ve got to look after your woman, you really have to care for her, you must bring her food, bring her meat, buy her chickens and pigs so that she eats well. Give her animals, and when you go off to collect firewood come back quickly. Don’t wander about looking after other women, other people’s women. You’ve got your own woman and you have to look after her. When you’ve received your poporo, you have to act responsibly, you mustn’t go on playing about with other children, you have to be responsible. Towards Mamas, comisarios and cabos you have to act respectfully.’ (Ereira 1990: 90-91).

  2. "Around a boy’s 14th birthday, our spiritual leader, the Mamo calls us in, teaches us how to use it, and reminds us of our deepest truths. This is our custom, this is our culture, we use it all day as a visual representation of who we are–men. We are men, we protect the earth, we fulfill my role as a man to my wife. Sex is power when you have discipline, when it is only pleasure there is no wisdom. All day long as I 'poporo' I am reaffirming my spiritual promise to be an Arhuaco, an indigenous man.”


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