The bell rang in hurried strokes from the front of the chapel. The nuns stopped what they were doing: mopping floors, raking leaves, chatting in hushed tones, and rushed to the community room for an impromptu meeting. ‘Sara, venga!’ one sister said to me. ‘The meeting is for you too!’
Once all the nuns were crammed together in the little common room, the Mother Alicia looked around and smiled. ‘There is a surprise for all of you,’ said the Mother. In true Colombian style nuns didn’t wait to hear what the surprise was before erupting into cheers and clapping. After they quieted down the mother began again. ‘On Saturday we’re going on a summer vacation to a farm in the Eje Cafetero.’ The same group of nuns who routinely gather in silence each morning and evening transformed into a raving and rowdy crowd as shouts of joy raucously spread through the room. ‘And Sarah and Jacques are coming with us,’ she finished. The noise grew as their stamping feet joined the cheering.
As its name, Coffee Region, suggests, the Eje Cafetero is the main area of coffee production in the country, as well as famed as one of the most beautiful areas of Colombia. The nuns spent the following days packing up warehouse quantities of potato chips, cookies, little chocolate cakes, juices, bread, and hunks of frozen beef. Some of the younger sisters had never been on a ‘paseo’ or vacation before, others were returning to their home lands, and most were just excited to go on an adventure.
On Saturday afternoon over 60 nuns (and us) grabbed their packed lunches of plantains, boiled pork and rice, and piled into a 50 passenger bus. Backpacks and mattresses spilled into all available corners and, once the seats ran out, nuns started sitting single file along the aisle as well –with blankets close to hand in case they should need hiding during a surprise police inspection. We were going to the family farm of Brother Daniel, a 10 hour drive away from the monastery. After Brother Daniel started the trip with a prayer and a song, people sank into their seats to watch the scenery grow thicker and more tropical as we wove out of the mountains. Every few minutes someone would yell out ‘Sara! Jacques! Look!’ and point wildly to a mountain, valley or river they didn’t want us to miss on our cross-country tour.
At midnight the bus turned off the highway onto a narrow gravel road and stopped. We were at a little bamboo river bridge made that the bus would certainly break if it tried to cross. With typical cheerful style, everyone grabbed their backpacks from the bus and emerged into the humid night air for the 20-minute walk uphill to the family farmhouse. The sky was luminous above a high canopy of tropical trees and the singing, light-flashing bugs that surrounded us gave the sense of having landed in Neverland.
At the monastery there are always guests, prayer groups, or visitors wandering around and the nuns are constantly on the move to accommodate them between their own community times and responsibilities. But at the farm they were able to relax, sing, read, wander around, and be completely themselves at all moments. One group would cook on the outside kitchen and fire, another would sweep up, and everyone else would either look around the beautiful and immense landscape that surrounds Daniel’s plantain and banana farm, find a quiet corner to read, or splash in the pool in their ‘nun suits’—leotards of all colours with little swim caps. In the afternoon one of the brothers in the community, Hermano Giovani, who stayed with Jacques for the week in the cottage next door, would come over to say mass and the main open, wall-less front room of the farm-turned-chapel. At night the social rhythm would repeat itself, with most of the community either in the kitchen or the swimming pool, except on the few occasions where frogs infested the pool or bats would find their way into the house (or stuck onto the side of the odd habit-clad sister), in which case the house would turn into a shrieking carnival!
One day we took a group expedition down to the river after breakfast. Jacques and I had explored it the day before, so with twenty nuns in tow, we led the group down the dirt road and to the cliff edge just above the river. I thought it might be a bit dangerous for everyone to climb down the unstable slope but when I asked one of the sisters she said ‘No way, let’s do it!’ and confidently slid down. Soon we had a human ladder formed and were passing nuns safely down one by one. Some of the more cautious or older nuns stayed back, and when everyone had jumped in the water and climbed back up the slope again, the sisters who didn’t go down were waiting with popsicles for us all. The nuns laughed, sang, and chatted as they walked back, and all the villagers unabashedly stoped stared open mouthed at the long row of habit-clad women along the road.
A serious cause for celebration was a surprise donation by the government and Daniel’s family of 60 tickets to the Parque del Café, a famous amusement park nearby. As the nuns piled out of the bus and into the park they organized themselves into ‘Team Extreme’ or Equipo Extremo—those wanting to go on all the crazy and extreme rides, and Equipo Tranquilo (much fewer) wanting a more relaxed pace to the day. The mother, who apparently enjoyed a bit of speed herself, was whisked off and pushed down the slope on her wheelchair by one of the sisters, while the rest started sprinting to the rides so as not to waste any time in the day!
The other visitors in the park stopped to stare at groups of young nuns running wildly around the park to each of the rides with their veils flapping in the wind. They lined up several times back-to-back for the roller coasters or the rocket-type ride that shoots one 50 meters into the air, some only stopped momentarily because of quite literally turning green! Even the most reserved and pious screamed until they had no more voice—which in the end took several days to recover.
By the end of the day the sisters had won the hearts of the staff and fellow park-goers alike, who waved furiously as the nun-bus pulled away, thanking them for making them smile so much.
On the way back we stopped at some natural hot springs replete with its own tropical waterfall. I accompanied Sister Maria-Virginia, the eldest of the nuns, between the different hot pools, and had to feign bravery when she insisted that I accompany her in plunging beneath the icy-cold showers every 5 minutes.
In grand style we finally arrived back at the monastery at 4am after waiting through several Farc (guerrilla rebels) police checks and mining protest roadblocks along the way. The roads in the south of Colombia are especially dangerous to drive at night and many of us nervously held our breath throughout the ride home. Needless to say we were happy to be back in our mountain-monastery hideaway. It was a bizarre, amazing, and slightly surreal holiday, and unimaginably random!