Navigating the World’s Chessboard in Colombia


DSC07574 (680 x 1000)At the border between Colombia and Ecuador, there lies a cemetery so beautiful that they say it invites one to die. A place where sculpted green giants and doves watch over rows of flowers like Mother Earth’s sentries.

I wander between the headstones at the topiary cemetery in Tulcán. Music drifts through the air as a local Ecuadorian prepares for a funeral. But there is no melancholy in his guitar chords, only peace.

The Colombians I’m with cross themselves as we leave. We hail a taxi and return to the village on the opposite side of the border.
The next afternoon we’re knocking on doors in Las Lajas, Colombia. Only 300 people live here; it’s a village which formed around Las Lajas Sanctuary, one of the most important churches and pilgrimage spots on the continent. Almost all of the houses double as souvenir shops, selling rosaries and Catholic icons to the devout visitors. Like a trail of dominos, the buildings spill down the hill until they reach the sanctuary, which rises out of a deep gorge in a tower of white.

My friend, Diego, has been away for three years. Like many Colombians his age, he left in search of a more secure future. But he’s surprised his mother with a Christmas visit, and now she’s leading us door to door to pop in on his relatives.

“Look who is back!” Each time she says this, Diego steps out of the shadows with a grin on his face and his arms open wide. Nobody can keep their hands off of him.

They’re all hugs and tears.

“It’s been too long,” one aunt says as she passes us aromáticas, herbal tea. She’s in the process of building a new house, and chickens roam around one of the half-constructed rooms while she rummages through the cupboards for something to serve. A plate of crackers end up in front of us, along with a pile of warm wishes.At the next house, we meet a distant relative.

“There’s nothing like seeing family again,” the old man says as he too offers us tea and crackers.

I gaze at the black-and-white family portraits on the wall. Other than a crucifix, they’re the only decoration in the room. Some 6000 km away, my family’s house sits cluttered with stacks of books, knick-knacks, and one too many overpriced souvenirs. But when was the last time someone dropped in on us for a spontaneous visit? In Canada, day-timers and e-mails set our schedules. Even our family reunion was planned via Facebook.

After three more houses, three more cups of tea, and more crackers than I can count, we make it to the sanctuary. Diego points out the hundreds of plaques, hung to recognize the miracles that reportedly took place nearby. In the 18th century, a local indigenous woman sought shelter from a storm here with her deaf-mute daughter. While the two hid in a cave, the Virgin is said to have appeared to them, curing the young daughter. A chapel was built to commemorate the spot. The current church, a neo-Gothic basilica, was completed in 1949.

As we cross the bridge over the gorge, I notice a cluster of Quechua pilgrims at the edge of the river. After a long journey from somewhere in Ecuador, they must be weary. Their babies are howling and their clothes are dirty. They cleanse themselves in the icy water before entering the sanctuary.
“Isn’t it impressive?” Diego asks. I can’t tell if he’s talking about the church or the river or the stunning beauty of the gorge, so I just nod.
But as I stand there, I think of the pilgrims and the cups of tea and all of the people in the world coming and going. My mind drifts back to the topiary cemetery, back to the pruned sentinels which hover between hundreds of identical vaulted graves. I recall an Italian proverb that was carved onto a sign between the rows: “After the game, the pawn and the king return to the same box.” As I stare out over the hills, at the array of fields that stretch out and away from here, I know it’s time to consider my next move.

About the Author: Ellen Keith is a Canadian freelancer who is currently based in Amsterdam. Between her travels, she’s working on her MFA in creative writing through the University of British Columbia.

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