A potent brew of Jewish, Spanish, and Colombian influences has cooked up the flavorful, friendly, and fervently religious “Paisa” culture. The astonishing warmth and caring of the Paisa people gives the Antiochian hills they inhabit their unique charm and beauty. Thirteen years ago, this cocktail of natural richness and cultural vivacity gave birth to an extraordinary community that we delightedly consider our newly adopted family: “The Sons and Daughters of Fiat.”
Encountering “Ave Maria,” the motherhouse of The Sons and Daughters of Fiat, spelt the beginning of the end of our ride through the Americas. Since disembarking the Gitana III in Cartagena we had felt the weight of profound exhaustion, which was accompanied a diminishing capacity to engage positively and wholeheartedly with each new situation we found ourselves in. This indicated the need for a break from the traveling and a reassessment (after 10 months) of our desire to keep pedaling. We were open to the possibility of either renting a room for a month in one of the mountain towns we were going to pass through or finding a religious community that would be open to having us stay for a while.
A little research into the region around Medellin revealed that a town called La Ceja, a day’s ride out of Medellin, was home to a large cluster of religious communities. So, with open minds as to what we might encounter, we began to pedal along mercifully cool mountain lanes in their direction. The first town we encountered was called El Retiro (literally “The Retreat”). This was a good omen given our quarry. The town is nestled among steep mountains and sits on a healthy incline so that from the central square you can see all the houses spilling down to the river below. Its small size and rustic feel charmed us into enquiring as to any rooms that might be available. We met some locals and visited some homes but drew a blank. It was a half-hearted enquiry, so there was little disappointment as we got back on the bikes to continue.
We decided to take the steeper and shorter route towards La Ceja. Pulling out of the main square, we tried to pick up momentum heading up the steep lane. After 30 seconds, however, I had to stop to catch my breath. Looking around, my eye caught sight of a sign saying “Ave Maria.” Next to it was a schedule advertising when the nuns were able to receive visitors. It happened to be one of those times, so we decided to knock on the door just in case they had any ideas for our retreat.
We did not expect the huge smile, excitement, and enthusiastic welcome that greeted us. Maricella instantly beckoned us in. We looked doubtfully at the bikes laden with all our gear, but this only made her fling the doors wider and help us haul everything into their home. Moments later we were sat around a table, with cookies and juice before us, making introductions with the three nuns who lived there. We explained how we had left Canada 10 months ago on our bicycles and now felt the need to recharge. “Wow, what an incredible story!” exclaimed Maryely the superior of the house, “well, we have the perfect place for you! Our motherhouse is only forty minutes up the road and it’s on a beautiful farm. You can stay as long as you like, don’t worry about cost… the mother is very generous!” It sounded perfect, thank God.
We pulled up Google maps in order to find a route and scribbled down the directions. A beautiful ride through the hills along winding lanes brought us to the gate of “Ave Maria.” Our welcome was no less exuberant than we experienced in El Retiro, only this time there were 50 nuns! Making a predictable assumption, the first thing they did was feed us. The traditional dish of bean stew, sweet plantain, and avocado they served us was instantly, and has remained, our favorite. With appetites well satisfied we took a tour of the convent and were pointed towards the brother’s house that sits on the opposite side of the valley. The setting was every bit as beautiful as the sisters had made out and the overwhelmingly generous welcome made us feel instantly at ease.
The first night in Ave Maria we had the chance to make a proper introduction to the whole community. They wanted to spend the whole evening hearing our story and getting to know us. We discovered that their special charism is singing, dancing, and acting. Having shared a song with us, they looked expectantly at Sarah and I. It was our turn. Sarah bravely broke out into a rendition of Elton John’s “Your song,” while I hid behind my guitar and improvised a couple of tunes. The rest, as they say, is history. We are now like family, not only included in everything, but also given (sometimes embarrassingly) the best of everything they have to offer. Every time we have made plans to leave there have been too many compelling reasons to stay and we have always found ourselves returning.
For the first week the sisters were adamant that we relax and recuperate. All our needs were taken care of and we were not allowed to contribute towards the daily chores. I slept for a few days and then began to run and practice yoga for the first time since we left. I unpacked my things, started reading, communicating with friends and family, and spending time in meditation and prayer. It was exactly what we needed and better than anything we could have imagined. The tranquility you would expect in a convent, however, tended to be reserved for prayers and meals and happily abandoned in between. We had never had such an intense social experience. We made many introductions due to the constant flow of visitors to the convent and had our work cut out trying to get to know all the nuns and brothers. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious. Given half a chance they would plan for us to visit their favorite sites or call their family and friends so that we could go and visit their hometowns. We quickly realized that by being at Ave Maria we would not need to travel so much because Colombia would come to us!
We have stayed in Ave Maria for around three months in total. Although I wish I could share the experience with you, I don’t know where to begin! It really is one of those things that have to be experienced in order to be fully understood. It has been an immersion into a world that has literally changed who we are and how we see our lives and ourselves. The relationships cultivated among members of the community, especially with the founder and mother superior, Alicia, have been central to us experiencing such a profound shift. The deepening of these relationships, and accompanying self-insight, has made each moment of our stay meaningful and prevented us from being able leave!