The hand of man has not been idle here. Foolishly busy sometimes, sometimes the hand of man has done that for which it may be justly congratulated. They’ve built a reservoir up near lake Guatavita by drowning out a long valley. In the valley used to be the ancient, colonial town of Guatavita. In the 1960’s they decided to drown the town and rebuilt it higher up the slope. I was skeptical about the pleasantness of such a recent, pre-planned town. But a pleasant surprise is the new town of Guatavita.
The sense I get of Karhide, from Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, was the sense I got in the architecture and layout of the new town of Guatavita. The center is a series of paved courtyards and plazas connected by stairs and archways and immured by buildings with wide white walls all of which seem awfully thick. It has no great sense of angularity, but rather the corners and turns are gently rounded—or at least enough of them are to suggest that all of them are. It is a pleasing combination of the colonial architecture, a sense of the 1960’s imparted in the rounded edges and modern effects, and altogether one of the most ingenious places I have been in. A strange, successful synthesis of ancient and modern, which is probably why it suggests to me the imaginary location Le Guin dreamed up.
Colombian cuisine is not the most exhilarating, but it tends to be filling. We had ajiaco in Guatavita and what it lacked in quality it supplied in quantity. I eat ajiaco because it is part of the culture of Cundinamarca and an integral part of one’s experience of being here, but I also eat it out of a permanent curiosity to find out why it is the locals are so enthusiastic about it. Their enthusiasm is real: that it can possibly be roused by potato soup with chicken and capers to which they also add avocado is one of life’s most persistent mysteries. I have found ajiaco most satisfying on a damp evening, especially when aji is added unto it, but I have not managed to wake within myself anything resembling the hearty craving locals appear to experience. It is as baffling to me as the practice in the USA of eating turkey, mashed potatoes and similarly bland food.
When the Muisca boy reared to succeed the old chieftain was being prepared for his ritual bath, he would be covered with honey, turpentine derived from the frailejones (campers destroyed the frailejones near Guatavita lake by using them to light campfires), and another vegetable derivation. Once covered with this sticky ointment, they would carefully blow gold dust all over his body and so he would appear: el dorado. At sunrise his raft would be waiting in the middle of the lake, and the first rays of the sun would shine on him in splendor. It was a magnificent gesture.
In the morning sun the golden figure would cast his offerings into the lake and then dive in himself, entering the womb of the world as the golden seed of the sun, entering also the realm of his ancestors, the dead. He would then emerge, and in the consciousness of his people he was reborn and came really joined with tradition, bearing with him anew the ancient wisdom with which to rule.
Strange the ways of the world. Seeing these things, the Spanish, allies of the chieftain of Guatavita turned on the people that built the twelve initial huts that served to found Santa Fe de Bogota and exploited their venerated lake. Of course it was a superstition, but what poetry and significance destroyed in the name of mere avarice! Sooner or later, of course, the avarice of man would have been at that lake’s treasures and the pagan reverence and awe which kept the treasures of the lake safe before the conquest, the terrible delimitation between the sacred realm of the gods and the common realm of man’s daily life would have been profaned. Now the vultures circle over the quiet waters of the recovering lake and in the adjoining fields, cattle ruminate.
The lands are still there, the ecologists restore what they can, the peasants live where they can, and those of us who can afford to go traveling to such places for the present have the opportunity.
Photos: Katrina Zartman