The mini van pulled up and Andreas leaned out to shout, “Quick, get in! We’re heading off to my farm.” I ran back to my room to grab a toothbrush and sleeping bag before squeezing into a tiny gap at the back of the heaving van. We set off for the brother’s summer “paseo,” or holiday, which this year was to be in Andreas’ family farm near Cocorna. Only a couple of the more scrupulous brothers were wearing their habits, whereas the rest were sporting their holiday outfits of donated tracksuits. We looked like a football team on tour, with in-house monks for prayer-on-the-go.
Traveling east across the Antioquian hills is like a roller coaster ride, full of steep ascents followed by swooping drops and hair-raising curves. The road occasionally turned into a dirt track littered with potholes and boulders. I was grateful to be wedged between two brothers who absorbed my weight as the van flung me back and forth. We turned onto one such lane that wound along a steep mountainside. Large tropical ferns and palm leaves hung across the red dirt road, and thundering streams could be seen cascading down vertical rock-faces. The lane emerged onto a sharp ridge. Great sweeping valleys filled with dense jungle stretched across to the horizon on both sides. The streams collected into fast flowing rivers that formed silver bands along the valley floor.
Little farms sat along the roadside, some beautifully kept while others looked disheveled or burnt down. “Why are so many of the houses abandoned?” I asked. “About eight years ago this region experienced terrible violence,” brother Daniel responded. “The guerilla fighters terrorized communities and many families fled to Medellin for safety. Some have since returned, but many of the farms have been left abandoned.” We came to a stop, an abandoned home to our right and a charming brick farmhouse with lime green woodwork to our left. I was relieved to see all the brothers looking left as Andreas’ uncle emerged to welcome us. After making introductions he disappeared and reemerged clutching a dead chicken. This appeared to be some kind of “Paisa” welcome, as he had just killed two birds so that we could have a feast later that night!
After all of us had claimed a patch of the floor to sleep on we immediately headed off on an expedition down to the river. The farm was perched on the edge of a steep hill used to cultivate plantains. A repetitive challenge throughout the holiday was making it down the hill without sliding half the way down on your bum. En-route to the river we stopped in on a little panela factory owned by another of Andreas’ uncles. Panela is the Colombian term for unrefined blocks of sugar made from a concentrate of pure sugarcane juice. The factory sits hidden in a field of dense sugar cane and smells like a sweet/candy shop. At one end is a machine that crushes the cane to remove the juice, called guarapo. The guarapo passes into the first of around seven large hot copper basins, where it bubbles away until it becomes thick like caramel. The concentrate is emptied into a wooden trough and beaten until it has a smooth fudge-like consistency and then placed into round moulds before it hardens into a solid cake of sugar. Colombians have an impressive appetite for this sweet honey-sugar, using it as the base for most of their drinks. The brothers wasted no time grabbing handfuls of the panela in its fudge-like state and proceeded to consume it in dangerous quantities.
Energized by practically lethal sugar-highs, the group danced their way down to river and leapt into the rapids. I was both delighted and surprised to find the water refreshingly warm and not the painfully numbing temperature of Canadian rivers. This meant we could, and did, spend all day jumping in and out and sunbathing on the rocks. Looking around at the group of feral young guys exploring without concern made me feel like I had flown to Never-never Land and joined the lost-boys!
The call of hunger drew us back up the hill to the farm in time for dinner. Meals tended to be large stews of meat, potatoes, plantain, and yucca (called “sancocho”) cooked in a giant pot over the outdoor fire. Stew was the perfect antidote after running about in the midday heat and always sent me into a dozy lethargy.
The brothers had arranged to say a mass in the local church each evening after dinner. I would have to shake off my sancocho-induced coma and try to remain focused for a full hour. Rural life out there was very basic. People tended to live in small concrete homes filled with very few possessions and generally lived a subsistence lifestyle, perhaps making a small income from selling panela or excess produce. As a result, the local village contained only a small school with an attached church and “restaurant,” which was kind of soup kitchen where local families could get free meals. The church was a simple white washed hall with a collection of chairs and an alter at the front. There was no electricity, so we had to light as many candles as we could to illuminate the proceedings, but the only way Fr. Giovanni could read the Mass was if a brother used his mobile phone as a torch. Many in the congregation were related to Br. Andreas, so there was an intimate family atmosphere as we prayed in the candlelight.
We stayed on the farm for almost a week. Days were spent exploring, swimming, praying, playing music, and cooking up country stews. On the final day we found a giant waterfall and some of the more crazy brothers jumped into it. The landscape had a magical beauty and was filled an array of exotic insects, amphibians, and birds. It was a truly organic experience. We shared in the simplicity of life of the people, who seemed content riding about on their horses, working in the fields, and having serious contact time with family. The abandoned houses, however, were scars that witnessed to the violence of the previous decade and we had one particular visit during which an older woman shared her grief over loosing three sons and many family members during the fighting. The brothers offered her sincere sympathy and prayers, but it was clear that she and so many others were in the midst of a long process of recovery and healing. As was so often the case in Colombia, the magic and wonder of being in Cocorna was living among these extremes.