This is the story of a man who is originally from the capital of Choco, and the serendipitous story about how he made it out of Quibdo, got an education, was a professional athlete and now teaches the youth of Manizales in English. Pride, heritage, courage, resilience, these are all words which characterize the story of El Choco and her children. Hidden deep in the jungles at the Pacific coast region of Colombia lies the regional capital of Quibdo. The people who live there have everything going against them in spite of the peaceful spirit which dwells within them. Here is a glimpse into the life, culture and beliefs of the Afro-Colombian culture of Quibdo.
Note: The civil war in Colombia has long been split up into regional territories which are outside of federal control. One of the most visible scars of this conflict is the Department of El Choco. This corridor of dense jungle contains some of the most rugged and dangerous parts of Colombia. Quibdo which lies in the center of it all has seen cartel violence, guerilla violence, government scape goat violence, and the list goes on. Many areas outside of Quibdo are still a constant threat for road bandits, and paramilitary outposts.
I recently met with an acquaintance of mine from when I was teaching English in a private school. His name is Erick Abadia, originally of Quibdo, a resident of Manizales. He met with me over lunch to share his experiences growing up in such a hot conflict zone, people he grew up with, and his own success story about how he made it out of the jungle and into an education, pro sports and English as a second language.
Erick, is a tall drink of water, handsome but not arrogant or over-the-top in appearance, athletic. My poor little baby Daniel was terrified of him the whole time he was here. Thinking back I think this was the first time he had ever met such a tall and black guy. It is good for Daniel to experience this from a young age, I hope he will grow up a heart which is open to all types of people. I hope he will be an open minded traveler.
Let’s see what Erick has to say about the culture and life in the jungles of El Choco:
Open Minded Traveler: What is Choco like? How did you feel growing up there?
Erick: The people are very poor. Anyone who can afford it sends their children away to study in other places with more opportunity and better schools. When I was 12 I got my chance. I was playing basketball. One night after a game against Medellin a man was asking to speak with my mother and I. He was a scout from Cali, and they wanted me to come play for them. My mom agreed and that next season I was in Cali.
Open Minded Traveler: What is the culture like?
Erick: Many people think that Chocoanos, they like to party, get crazy, act wild. That isn’t quite so true. We have very talented people. The music is very easy for us, it’s a natural talent. I used to play ball with the kids from ChocQuibTown. I am very proud of them and their efforts to help Choco. They aren’t the only ones, Grupo Niche and Guayacan, are two salsa bands, very famous, which are also from Quibdo. We have San Pacho too.
Open Minded Traveler: What is the story behind San Pacho?
Erick: San Pacho is a big celebration every year, a pacifist celebration of brotherhood. It is in August. The festival started with St. Francis de Asisi an Italian monk who was one of the most famous figures of Roman Catholic history. The most notable connection was the love of animals, peace and nature which characterized St. Francis of Assisi. The people of Choco, they relate to that. Here everyone prays to St. Francis, maybe too much.
Open Minded Traveler: How do you celebrate San Pacho?
Erick: Every day the party starts at midnight. At 4 am a district (or neighborhood) of Quibdo will receive a stick called “baston de mando” or “baston Franciscano.” When the neighborhood receives the stick then it is their day to party. They have already decorated and now all day there is music, drinking and celebration. The party ends with a holy mass at 5:30. The crazy thing is people will drink, get crazy and celebrate, but then stop and go to mass. It is an amazing celebration, a very peaceful spirit typically surrounds the festivities.
Open Minded Traveler: Outside of San Pacho, are there things to do in Quibdo?
Erick: Yes, the rivers. We have the Tutunendo, a big river with very clean water in the middle of the jungle. The jungle is so green that the river looks green too. You can rent a boat and about 20 minutes away you arrive at “Sal de Fruta” (Fruit Salt) waterfall. It is very impressive. It looks like when you drop a piece of fruit into a drink and the bubbles come up from the fruit. So beautiful. It is only 10,000 pesos to go there and the boat man will hang out and wait for you, everyone is very kind and relaxed. This area is also very safe.
Open Minded Traveler: What about the reason we are told to stay away from Quibdo? The danger? The guerilla?
Erick: Unfortunately, they still kidnap. Quibdo is in the middle of so many problems. We have the FARC, the Urbanos, the ELN, all these different groups which fight with each other and we are often caught in the middle. Unemployment is also a problem, there are no jobs, nothing to do, people have nothing to live for. We have a saying “There is nothing else to do but pray.”
Open Minded Traveler: And the Peace Accord with FARC? Will that make any difference for the people of Quibdo?
Erick: Ha ha, they aren’t from Quibdo. They are FARC from other places, the FARC here is never going to just stop doing business and violence. If the government truly wants peace, they will build schools and colleges, they would bring education and jobs.
Open Minded Traveler: What about your own story? How did you find a way to leave Quibdo?
Erick: I was 12 years old and practicing basketball. After a game with Medellin there was a scout. From then onwards I went to Cali and then Ibague to play basketball. Later I made the professional basketball team in Manizales. At first we were not welcome, people told us “Go back to Quibdo where you belong.” People came to our apartment and threw things at us, called us names. But then, we started to win games and we became a success. Suddenly, we were first in line at the bank, people wanted to give us free meals at restaurants, everyone changed their minds. It’s been difficult, but not impossible. It is very hard to be Chocoano (from El Choco), in Colombia.
Open Minded Traveler: But, you are a teacher now, how did you make that transition from pro-basketball to teaching?
Erick: I played a lot of basketball, but at the same time I was preparing myself. I knew that I wanted to be a P.E. teacher. As my basketball career started to wind down I went over to a school and spoke with them, see what I could do. They hired me. I like it there.
Open Minded Traveler: You speak good English. How did that come about?
Erick: We had Americans who would come down and play for American teams. I started talking to them and they helped me learn. I was offered scholarships a few times to universities in the US. Indiana State wanted me, but I thought I was in love and I turned them down to stay in Manizales. My English became really important when one day at the school, they came to us and said “Next year everyone must speak English.” They had changed to be an International School. I was the only teacher who stayed.
Open Minded Traveler: You have overcome so many things, and had the opportunity to do so much. How do you feel about everything that you have accomplished?
Erick: As I said before “It is difficult, but not impossible.” I am really proud. Proud of Choco. Proud of my friends in ChocQuibTown.
Speaking with Erick gave me some amazing insights into the life and culture of Choco. This is a region of Colombia which is so isolated, so shunned, and feared greatly. When I mention my journeys to this place I get this mixture of amazement and worry. People say I am crazy, it’s so dangerous there etc. However, I know that inside of Choco, there is a beating heart which is waiting to show itself to the world. I truly hope that in the upcoming years things will continue to change in order to open this region up to visitors.
Which brings me to the question we haven’t quite answered yet. Is Choco safe for tourism?
Choco is safe for TRAVELERS but NOT Tourists. You must have a certain culture and level of experience under your belt to handle this place. Situational awareness is a must. Constant vigilance of where you are and who you are there with. You must be respectful of the people and the place. When we cross a dangerous street we do it carefully. Choco is the same. It is not impossible to cross this dangerous place, but you must do it carefully. Semana Santa is coming up soon, and I will return to Choco once again. I am discussing with my husband the possibility of visiting a FARC controlled pueblo named Italia. I want to see if I can do it. Maybe I will go, take pictures, eat lunch and leave. Maybe someone will talk to me about their life there. My karate instructor and the self-defense instructor tell me, “There is no self-defense for guerilla. You avoid the places where they are. You don’t go there.” And they are probably right. From all my previous interviews I have learned two things about dealing with guerilla/paramilitary:
1. Tell the truth. Answer whatever question they ask. They will find out the truth anyways, and to be caught in a lie is death.
2. Don’t buy them a coffee or invite them to dinner. You tell them what they want to know and you leave as soon as they allow you to. Overtures of friendship or kindness can result in the guerilla camping out on your back doorstep. They are like stray dogs which bite. You avoid them when possible and be very careful with them if avoidance is not an option. Even worse, you don’t want people to think you are friends with them, because then you will be considered one of them.
Go to discover the peaceful spirit.
The Department of El Choco is a peaceful place which has been invaded by violence. When you are below the jungle canopy and you see the bright floral colors, intense verdant greenery, the brown leafy floor, vines hanging and birds calling, you are in a peaceful place. There is a spirit of peace in this place. I have felt it, my husband feels it. Even my son has this happy aura when we are up in the mountains high above Rio Yngara. People need to visit this place so they can feel the cool freshness of potable water springs, the warbling calls of Oropendulas, and the beautiful symmetry of the cacao mazorca (or cocoa pod). When you connect to this place it cleanses your spirit and rejuvenates your inner spirit. If the world knew of the treasures inside the jungle they would understand exactly why we must protect these places. We need to raise awareness about the invasive land-raping cause by mining, the exploitation from multinational resource companies stealing her water, destroying her ecosystem and enslaving the simple country folks who carry the sputtering torch of tradition. It’s time to bring teachers, students and healers to this land, no more war, bloodshed and violence. Enamorate del Choco (Fall in love with Choco).