First Impressions of Villanueva, Colombia

The little city of Villanueva (population about 32,000) is probably not the first place that most foreigners would choose to visit on a trip to Colombia. There are no major tourist draws; no historical sites, no significant museums, events or recreational activities. No airport, no train station, not even a bus terminal. No shopping malls, no major stores, no dermatologists, no live theatre, and only a single small cinema. And yet, when we lived there for three weeks while volunteering, we found that the town had its charms, particularly since it was our introduction to Colombian culture.

If we’d had better access to transportation (time and money), we might have explored the forests near Rio Upia, about 30 miles away, reportedly home to monkeys, among other things. Instead, we were limited to Villanueva (which the natives pronounce “Vijanueva”) and its immediate surroundings. But we at least had access to bicycles, thanks to our hosts, who even replaced one of them with a newer model when it became too decrepit for safe use. They also supplied us with helmets, which made us just about the only people in town to wear them.

And there were many, many bicyclists in town. Bicycles and motorcycles were the preferred means of transportation for the locals. It was not uncommon to see two, three, or even four people on the same bike, transporting an entire family at once in a configuration that brought to mind bears performing in a circus. Even the police got around mostly on motorbikes, and they also doubled up on them. (Incidentally, some of our students informed us that it’s pretty much standard practice to offer the cops a bribe when they stop you for something.) All these two-wheeled conveyances were constantly zooming around, weaving around each other and cars and pedestrians, like participants in some wild video game, and it’s a miracle that they didn’t have any disasters. Despite their apparently uncanny radar, we didn’t trust their skill, and were always very cautious around their wild abandon, and leery of getting creamed crossing the street.

One place we visited was Parque Ecológico Caño Arietes, an old-fashioned swimming hole in a little stream that suddenly becomes a big stream. There were also a few iguanas and quite a variety of birds on the grounds, which delighted Kimberly, who’s developed a real passion for bird watching and photographing. In fact, Villanueva, much to our surprise, turned out to have the most interesting assortment of birds we’ve encountered yet. She even began getting up just before dawn every morning to photograph the dawn and the birds riding it.

Mostly, though, we enjoyed just walking or biking through the streets of town. For such a sleepy little city, Villanueva sure is wide awake, constantly abuzz with activity. People were always out in front of stores or coffee shops or restaurants, or their homes, chatting with friends and neighbors and even strangers. At times, you’d almost get the impression that cell phones hadn’t been discovered here. They have, of course, and virtually everyone has one just as in just about every other corner of the world these days. But people here don’t seem to live on their phones, the way Americans do. The community vibe hearkens back to the days of the public square, the pool hall, and the soda fountain.

On our first Saturday morning in town, we walked past a supermarket that was having some kind of promotional event out front. The festivities included a performance of folk dancing by a young (probably teenage) troupe of dancers who were quite skilled. After we’d watched them perform a couple of dances, they put on another song and each of the dancers recruited a spectator to be a partner for the next dance. As the audience was rather small, it wasn’t terribly surprising that one of the boys invited Kimberly to dance with him. She handed her camera and her cellphone to Dennis, who began recording the spectacle with the latter.

But a few seconds later, a female dancer came over to reel him in. He started to protest that he had two items to hold in his hands and couldn’t dance, but a woman standing beside him (apparently the mother of one of the performers) offered to hold them, and to continue the process of recording the video. So that’s what happened. She did an excellent job of capturing both of us doing our best to keep up with these highly proficient and energetic youngsters. And our respective partners did a phenomenal job of leading and following us as we executed — hopefully in the positive sense of that word — a Colombian folk dance. (We later learned that the particular dance we were doing was not only authentically Colombian, but came specifically from this region of the country.)

This particular supermarket, however, was not especially impressive to those of us accustomed to grocery shopping in the United States. In fact, there was no supermarket anywhere in town that we found really adequate — and most of the stores that are labeled as supermarkets are really just little madre and padre shops. So while there were plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables around, it was difficult to find some of the items that we were accustomed to (although there were two actual health food stores, on the same street). Our diet normally includes a lot of nuts; but in South America, and especially in Colombia, nuts are regarded as a garnish rather than a main ingredient; and you likely will find their meager selection in the spice section. But it’s generally limited to almonds, with perhaps small packages of cashews and Brazil nuts in a few stores; and the prices are not as low as the prices on most other food.

Another staple of our pantry is tea –specifically black tea, which we prefer to buy in loose leaf form rather than bags. But in Colombia, in can be very hard to find black tea of any kind. There’s plenty of green tea, and even green tea flavored with — we kid you not — pineapple. But we had to look all over town to locate any black tea at all — and even then, we had to settle for bags. So we bought a couple of boxes of them to be prepared for hard times. (Later, our hosts gave us two more boxes, so we were really stocked up for nuclear holocaust.)

We had a pretty well-equipped kitchen, where we kept non-perishable food in a cabinet so the birds couldn’t get it — there were several openings between the walls and ceiling through which they could fly whenever they wanted. So could bats; one night we found two of them in the bathroom (or else the same one twice) and successfully relocated them to the great outdoors. The kitchen was next to our bedroom after we moved from the downstairs room into which we originally settled. This was more convenient for us, especially since the room also included a (hand) laundry facility. By the way, we’ve noticed that the laundry detergent favored by most of the locals is a black bar, about three times the size of a bar of soap. So we bought some, and it’s quite handy — it packs easily, and doesn’t spill.

On weekdays, when we were teaching, we had breakfast and lunch provided. On days when we taught at this main campus (Thursday and Friday), breakfast would be served at 7:30 a few doors down, at the house where the school director and her boyfriend lived, and lunch would be served there at noon. On the other days, when we taught at a rural campus, we would have breakfast there upon arrival — at about 8:00; and lunch when we returned, at about 1:00.

The ride to the rural campus, which was very rural indeed, took about an hour because it stopped to pick up students on the way. These were the younger kids. The driver liked to play music as he cruised through the streets and on the rough country roads. He seemed especially fond of Coldplay, and listening to their songs — singing in English in a land where the songs were usually in another tongue — led us to appreciate them more than ever. In particular their song with the odd title of “The Scientist” seemed to set the appropriate mood; we sort of feel like we are, as the lyrics say, “going back to the start”. The driver also had a fondness for rap in English, and a couple of times he played some with lyrics that were not quite appropriate for children the age of his passengers. We reported it to the director, who said he’d already been reprimanded for that once, and she’d speak to him again.

Our morning session at the campus near the cow pastures was 4 hours, with back-to-back sessions of about 45 minutes, minus a 20-minute break. We applied our usual techniques with younger children, performing folktales and using sign language, games and other fun stuff as tools for learning. Then after lunch, we were free for the rest of the day.

On Thursdays and Fridays, our schedule was more spaced out; we might have two back-to-back sessions, or just one, first thing in the morning, then maybe a break of an hour or two, then another session, then another break, and then one more. Thus, though we had plenty of time off, there was not really enough time to go anywhere, so the whole day was committed. But at least we were on different schedules, so during our time off, we didn’t have to arm wrestle over who was going to use the computer. (Next time, we bring one for each of us!)

On Saturday, we got a rude awakening about the lack of privacy on the premises. The cleaning lady came, a Brazilian woman who spoke Portuguese and no English and apparently very little Spanish. She proceeded to clean not only the common areas, but barged right into our room to use the laundry basin to obtain her water. And she showed no respect for limits, even throwing a dirty rug onto one of our beds. To add insult to injury, she tried to give us a sales pitch for some products she was selling made from eucalyptus oil, and evidently good for all manner of ailments. Does everybody hustle in Latin America? (We’d already found a little bottle of this product in the downstairs bedroom. Perhaps one of the previous volunteers succumbed to the pitch, but didn’t like the tonic enough to take it along.) Because of her intrusiveness, we delayed a planned bicycle outing, because we thought we should stick around to make certain she didn’t disturb anything we didn’t want disturbed.

The next day, however, we did bike out to another swimming place and park, a little farther out of town, that had the curious name of Rancho King. It offered bathing in the river, which was rather low at this time, but still refreshing. Some of the little kids swimming there engaged us in their splashing game. By the way, some of our students have reported that many years ago when their parents first came to town, someone found an anaconda down by the river. Fortunately, such critters seem to have been long ago driven away by the encroachment of noisy two-legged mammals on their turf.

Some of the Many Birds of Villanueva

Feb. 11-20 , 2022

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