Friday, September 3, 2010

A farm in Chivor

Let's take a trip to a farm in Chivor, in the Tenza valley. Buckle up your life vests for the ferry crossing!

This lake used to be a river running through the valley bottom, but the Chivor dam made it into a long lake (and a huge money-maker first for the State and then for the series of companies they sold it off to).

Since the lake cuts through many municipal zones, the company running the electricity generation from the dam is legally required to provide regular transport for people, animals, and cars across the lake. Here's where you load your car onto the ferry.

Once we get to the other side of the lake, it's maybe a half-hour drive over unpaved road. Despite the lack of pavement, the road is actually in pretty good shape. The Tenza valley's roads remind me of Anna Karenina--all good roads are the same, but each bad road is bad in its own special way. In parts of the Tenza valley the roads are paved but with occasional potholes. I like these the best, because I've gotten accustomed to swerving to avoid the potholes, so it's a smooth ride. Other roads are paved without holes, but there are occasional abrupt dips where a faultline or landslide occurred, and they either paved over it or it never broke the pavement surface. I hate these, because it's hard to tell how deep the dip is, so you think you're going fine, and then there's a violent down-and-up. Often the potholes coincide with these dips, so there is a deep crevice crossing the road, filled with water and mud, and you have to slow to a stop to cross it.

Anyway, eventually we get to the town of Chivor. This is one of the newer towns in the Tenza valley, and consequently the architectural style is "bricks and ugly". Check out the monstrous church.

New as the town is, I believe there once stood a more dignified, adobe church here, which of course had to come down in the name of ugly brick and horrid colors. Progress! This devouring, demolishing philosophy never quits. The relatively new priest's residence adjoining the church eventually had structural problems (surely due to sloppy, careless construction), so instead of righting these, the parish decided to do a sloppy, careless teardown and build a new residence. That was two years ago. Apparently they didn't ask themselves beforehand if there was actually money for a new construction, so now the ugly church is complemented by a wall that looks like a dinosaur took a bite out of it.

Chivor's general architectural ugliness notwithstanding, I enjoyed seeing people hard at work maintaining, building, and improving their town.

And here's a lovely, fragrant orchid planted in the town's main plaza.

Ironically, despite the modernness of today's Chivor, the area has a lot of pre-Spanish history. My wife's tourism project is focusing on this angle to attract people to the town. There are many archeological sites and ancient trails in the area. Here is a monument in the central park showing the Muisca chief that controlled the emerald mines here.

For hundreds of years Chivor has been a major emerald mining region. This of course attracted lots of attention from the Spaniards, who were accustomed only to the small, rare emeralds found in the Old World. Today Colombia produces a little over half of the world's emeralds, and I believe Chivor produces about half of Colombia's emeralds. So we're talking perhaps about a quarter of the world's emeralds produced right here!

The emerald trade has not been an unqualified boon for Chivor. Much of the wealth mined from the area profits Bogota and world markets more than the town itself, which can't even get decent paved roads. Also, the lure of easy money has created a culture where people neglect their crops in favor of a stint at the mines, or a stint digging for Muisca remains and riches to be illegally sold to the highest bidder. The region was one of the most violent in Colombia in past decades, as mine owners (and their private armies) jostled for rights to different mines, paramilitary groups came up from the eastern plains to get a piece of the action, and even narcotraffickers flirted with the idea of entering into the emerald business. Residents of the area recall days when dead bodies would periodically show up floating in the lake, and a given town would hope the bodies would float a bit into another town's territory, so they didn't have to deal with the process of fishing out the body, identifying it, etc.

Luckily, all this has changed a lot. Mine owners and their crews have arrived at an agreed peace, the narcos have taken the message that they're not wanted, and the government presence keeps out paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. People are even starting to rededicate themselves to farming, to a legal, slow-paced pursuit that provides a sure source of sustenance, as opposed to the slim, thrilling prospect of a big find.

From the town of Chivor we meet up with local tourism boosters to go to a nearby farm. We park at one point on the side of the muddy highway, and hike maybe a half mile to the farm. It is not a long hike, but the up-and-down of the narrow, muddy footpath is tiring. I worry especially about if my pregnant wife should slip and fall.

The walk and the countryside remind me of Haiti. Numerous footpaths running to remote farms, far from any major road, cultivated hillsides, and the endless vistas of mountains beyond mountains. It is absolutely stunning.

Finally we arrive at the farm, where we are greeted by the owners with a cup of fresh panela lemonade. My wife sits down with everyone else to talk about different tourism prospects for the area, while I sort of meander about the farm, checking everything out. I am delighted with the diversity of this farm.

It has fruits like lulo. Check out the pretty flowers.

There is a fat, happy pig.

There are tomatoes climbing up the house.

There is a grove of banana trees entangled with vines.

The big-leafed vine is passionfruit (though without any fruit at this time of year), and the avocado-looking thing hanging above it from another vine is guatila. I believe in the US guatila is known as chayote, and you can get it at Mexican grocery stores sometimes. Here's a close-up look of chayote, which in the Tenza valley is a lighter green than elsewhere I've see it.

There's even a coffee bush in amidst everything. Though I don't believe anyone harvests this coffee--there's just not enough to justify it.

Have you seen a banana tree up close before? Actually it's not a tree, but a giant herb, the world's largest. The "trunk" only lasts for one season, and dies back after producing bananas. A shoot grows up and out of the middle of the tree, with a flower at the end. Its purple leaves unfold one by one, leaving female flowers that will produce bananas (or plantains, in this case). After a few layers of these, the purple flower bud only releases male flowers, which give no bananas, hence the bare stretch between the bananas and the flower.

Aside from the small garden around the home, and a few chickens and pigs, often farmers focus only on one major crop in their larger fields. But this farmer has a few activities going on. He grazes cattle on different types of pasture, as well as producing panela and guarapo from sugar cane.

Here is a mosaic of planted pasture for cutting, sugar cane, and natural vegetation.

I am amazed at how steep the planted pasture is in places. Our hosts told us that usually they cut the grass themselves to serve to the cattle, but sometimes they'll tie a cattle to a stake on the hillside to graze.

Here are the cattle grazing a flatter field planted to a different grass species.

You'll notice they're zebu cattle, unlike the cattle in most of the US. Zebus have a hump on their shoulder, a lot of loose skin on their neck, and tend to be longer-legged than European cattle.

Zebus are also very docile. Most of the cattle pictured here are uncastrated males.

European bulls are obnoxious, skittish, temperamental, vicious, so if you're raising them for meat you castrate them. But these zebu bulls are all grazing together peacefully, and don't mind if people pass through their pasture. In Africa I've seen little boys beating on them, climbing on them, yelling at them, and the cattle don't really mind. I can understand why in India they're considered sacred, contemplative.

Next we'll check out the farm's sugarcane. I don't know why in the Tenza valley they plant their cane so far apart. I don't think it's very efficient, because you don't get as much production in a given area. It would be different if they planted other crops between the cane, but I don't think they do.

Here is the mill for squeezing out cane juice. At harvest time, the farmer yokes an ox to either end of the big wood beam on top, and they walk around in a circle, driving the crushing wheels inside the machine. You feed sugar cane in one end, and it comes out the other end, squeezed dry of its juice, which runs down a channel to an evaporation furnace.

Next to the mill of course is a pile of squeezed cane stalks, called bagasse in English.

These stalks serve among other things to fuel the evaporation oven.

You channel the juice getting squeezed from the cane into the cauldron-like depressions on top of the oven, and it thickens to a syrupy consistency. At a certain point you dip a long dipper in and take out dippersful of syrup to pour into molds. When they cool, you have blocks of panela, the unrefined solid molasses we use in Colombia for eating and drinking. Of course you can also just leave the syrup to ferment, thus making guarapo, a sort of cane beer that farmers and workers take along to the fields to refresh themselves.

And what is our host doing with that banana tree and a machete?

Looks like he's cutting leaves, but for what?

Maybe it has something to do with that pot his wife is cooking, with firewood above and below.

Here the wife is searing the banana leaf to make it into a good serving plate.

Turns out she's cooking carne a la caldera for us. This is a typical dish of the Tenza valley. You marinate meat (in this case pork) for a day or so with lots of vinegar and spices, sometimes even beer or guarapo. Then you cook in in a cauldron over (and under) a wood fire for about an hour.

Here is carne a la caldera, all cooked and ready to serve.

With envuelto (corn flour cooked in a purple corn leaf), potatoes, and cassava, served on a banana leaf, with plentiful guacamole on the side.

In case you weren't already convinced that everything on this farm is done with great care and thrift, check out this plastic measuring cup used to serve guarapo. Looks like this cheap plastic cup's handle broke, but instead of throwing it away to buy another, the farmer repaired it with a bit of wood and twine.

The farmers' house is made mainly of tapia pisada, which I believe we call rammed earth in English. It's made by building a mold of wooden boards where you want your wall to be, then ramming in layers of earth to form the wall, after which you remove the wooden mold and go on the the next patch.

There's also a fair amount of adobe in the house. Adobe is pre-cast uncooked mud blocks that you assemble like bricks

The ferry service stops at 6pm, so that night we'll drive miles and miles over unpaved roads in pitch black and driving rain. We barely have gas, so I coast most of the way downhill in neutral, halfway between thrilled and terrified at the urgency of everything. But eventually we get to the main road, and then to Garagoa, where we fill our gas tank and stay for the night. We've had an amazing day!

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