While volunteering on an organic farm in the mountains of Colombia, a traveler witnesses the rage, love, and passion of her host and learns what it means to maintain a sense of hope.
An insistent bleat cuts through the rain, which is pounding the tin roof with the fervor of a rock concert finale. The goat pen is visible from the open kitchen, and through the wood slats, I can see Wayra lying on her side, her legs splayed and amber eyes bulging. Another bleat comes, this one tenuous, a frayed violin string of a sound.
“Wayra esta dando la luz!” another volunteer shouts. Wayra is giving birth! I drop the knife that I have been using to cube Bok choy stems and fumble for my raincoat, which, despite being brand new, is not waterproof by Colombian downpour standards. I scramble out of the kitchen, and my rainboots skid through the mud, nearly sending me toppling into the farm duck, who is ambling unconcerned through the rain.
The pen is perched on the edge of a verdant hillside, overlooking prehistorically large tree ferns, terraced gardens, and the distant twinkle of towns in the valley below. A thick fog has settled on the mountain like cream on fresh milk, giving the impression that the little goat pen is suspended in the clouds.
The baby has already arrived, and she huddles in one corner of the pen, her mascarpone fur coated in a sticky yellow film. She lets out a tiny staccato puff of a sneeze, and Wayra begins cleaning the film from under her chin and around her head with quick, forceful licks, causing the baby’s ears to flop up and down to the rhythm of the cleaning.
Cris steps inside the pen and crouches on the blood and poop and slime-covered floor. He uses a t-shirt to help Wayra clean the baby off and ensure there is no unexpected bleeding. The baby reaches its head between Cris’s legs. “No, no tengo la leche, mi amor. No soy tu mama,” he coos, gently moving the baby’s head from between his legs and guiding it beneath Wayra’s belly. I don’t have milk, my love, I’m not your mama.
Cris’s black hair is cropped short and peppered with gray. He has a wide bear face, a coarse fishnet beard, and a smile that spreads like butter on toast after tripping you up with a joke. A sea turtle tattoos one forearm and a corn husk the other, the corn husk one of a pair with his partner’s. A portraitist might render him leaning against the porch railing looking out at the hillside, a cigarette stamped between his lips, back slightly hunched, brow furrowed in an expression that could be read as pensive, though you would know it was tainted with rage.
He and his partner moved from Medellin ten years ago to pursue life in the mountains, renouncing politics (everyone was corrupt) and the comforts of city life and seeking to live in partnership with the earth. Their vegetable farm combines all manner of regenerative agricultural techniques, wasting nothing and employing a relational understanding of plants, nutrients, and soil in lieu of pesticides or insecticides. Compost is made from horse, goat, and chicken poop, food scraps, grass clippings sprayed with yeast, and campfire ash. Structures are built from wood, dirt, horse poop, pine needles, coffee bags, and empty glass bottles, with only the odd material (corrugated sheet metal, shingles) procured from nearby towns. Water is piped from the river, and though they are served by the electric grid, they hope to build a hydroelectric system. There are no roads to the farm, requiring one to trek an hour up or down steep stone and mud paths made long ago by indigenous peoples.
One of the colorful, hand-painted signs peppering the farm reads: “No es más rico quien más tiene, sino el que menos necesita.” The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least. Another, inside the composting toilet, reads: “Bienvenido al trono de la igualdad.” Welcome to the throne of equality.
I have been living and working on their farm for over a month, helping to mulch, plant, weed, machete trails, build structures, and play with their one-year-old baby.
As Cris tends to the baby goat, murmuring to her in low tones and shooing the dogs away with colorful cuss words, I am reminded of a conversation we had one night over lentils and rice, one equally tender and rough.
We had begun dinner listening to Bella Ciao, then segued into folk songs protesting dictatorships and violent conflicts across Latin America. Cris’s eyes misted over as he mourned poets and songwriters who had faced persecution and death for their art.
“They call my generation the ‘lost generation,’” he had said, “because so many of us died in the war.”
He was referring to the Colombian civil armed conflict, an asymmetrical 50-year war that left up to 220,000 Colombians dead, 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced. A war borne from simmering social and political inequalities that boiled into violence between Communist guerrillas (farmers and students) and far-right paramilitaries (landowning elites, business owners, drug cartels, and the Colombian military). Parties on all sides turned to drug trafficking to fund their activities, and all committed violent atrocities. The conflict officially ended with a peace agreement reached only in 2016.
“After having a gun held to my head, after watching people die in the street and surviving only because some son of a bitch decided not to pull the trigger…” Cris took a drag of his cigarette and turned to blow the smoke out of the open kitchen. “I decided to live life exactly as I wanted.” He tapped his cigarette onto the side of the table, and ash fell to the dirt. “I like that phrase, ‘live every day like it’s your last.’”
After dinner, we made a fire in the dirt outside the kitchen and passed around a liter of aguardiente. Smoke seethed from the damp wood, and we sat silently, pondering the fighting flames. When they seemed as if they would splutter out altogether, one of us would fan the fire with a dented pot lid, raising crimson tongues from the dead.
Haunted, acoustic fingerpicking lifted Facundo Cabral’s operatic tenor, which seemed to command even the dogs to stillness. He spoke of cities getting rich off oil but dying of thirst, of poverty being the most expensive thing in existence.
Cabral, an Argentine folk singer and peace activist, was exiled during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship for his music.
With his eyes trained on the fire, Cris sang along, his voice like a hand rubbed raw from smearing coarse mud on walls. I could hear in it the way he tucked plants into the ground as if he were putting children to bed (“Recuerden, con mucho amor, ¡son bebés! Que te vayas muy bien, lechugita.” Remember, with lots of love, they’re babies! Take care, little lettuce. The way he said grace to Pachamama and gave thanks for all the plants and creatures and microorganisms, for the sun and the wind and the rain. I could hear in it the way he cursed Israel and fell into sultry moods contemplating all those who had been killed in Palestine. The way his face twisted speaking of corruption and corporations, of human greed and destruction, the way it glowed speaking of anarchy. I could hear in it his refusal to let animal blood pass his lips, the tender kisses he pressed into his baby’s cheeks, the charred remains of every cigarette.
Facundo Cabral’s voice dripped with knowing melancholy – “La violencia trae violencia, y nunca esperanza.” Violence brings violence and never hope.
Cabral was gunned down in 2011 on his way to a concert in Guatemala City.
As the fire burned down to its embers, we began to peel off for bed, leaving Cris alone under the stars, accompanied by the dogs, the voices of revolutionaries, and another liter of aguardiente.
While Cris mopped the pen’s floor, Wayra nibbled at her placenta, and the baby tried out her new legs, scrabbling across the wood. He bent down to stroke the baby’s head, musing about potential names. He tossed out “Catrina,” referencing the symbol of the Mexican Día de los Muertos celebration of life and death. When he’s in a mood, later, he will suggest we name her “Palestina.”
But in the end, he settles on Lluvia. Rain. Apt, since she was born in the midst of a rainstorm, and because her mother is named Wind. He will spend hours today with that baby and mama, and when he’s done cleaning and helping Lluvia take her first steps and learn to take milk, he will crouch outside the pen, simply watching.
Watching him, you would know that though violence doesn’t bring hope, hope can survive violence. That loving this hard is an act of resistance.