On the actual holiday, the Monday after the night’s festivities, they like to go to the river. The method of transportation is a truck. I’m not sure I ever saw many of these in the USA but they’re more common than a pick-up here. The cab is like a pickup and the back is an extremely high flat bed (about a meter and a half off the ground). The idea with the bed is that it is above the tires and there’s no interruption in its flatness. These beds have sides which can usually be dismantled, and then the covering rods that hold a tarp arched over the top.

So they put things in it, they stick chairs in the back, everybody eventually crowds in and they take off. The truck fords streams, winds through dirt roads, and finally gets everybody to a good spot along a good river where they all climb out and set up what needs to be set up.

A What They Eat

The first thing we did was to eat the tamales before they went bad. I’m not sure why we didn’t have them for breakfast, but we didn’t. We had arepas and hot chocolate. I think the reason we ate the tamales upon arrival was that it was eleven and there was no hope of lunch being ready by twelve—when they usually eat. Besides the fact they don’t keep to well in that weather.

At the same time, the fire was being lit, the water was put on, and after the tamales we were found peeling platanos, peeling yuca, and the pot began to fill up. Another pot full of rice was on hand but I doubt it was heated. The soup has to be hot, but not the main dish. They served the soup in bowls and followed the soup up with the ‘dry’, the same kind of thing that was in the soup on a plate.

They’d killed three chickens the day before, and probably done some cooking of them. They boiled some of it, or perhaps only the third chicken, and then pulled it out of the pot and roasted it by the coals. No table cloths, no napkins, when somebody was done the bowl was rinsed to serve another person, the spoon washed in the river and put into use again. All very practical.

B What They Do

They prepare the food. The eat the food. The kids play in the water from the first minute to the last—largely unsupervised, the way of all happy childhoods. There might be a soccer game. They get into the river and do things like wrestle with the current, watch the smaller kids and talk.

One of the things I wasn’t told was that while the river has a sandy bathing spot, it also has very rocky places which is why most of them wear shoes to get into the river. I didn’t have shoes, got carried by the strong current, and spent a long while in the rocky part trying to extricate myself. It was like rock climbing, only with the current supplying double gravity. I would get myself a handhold that didn’t give (you’d grab a rock and it could come away), get a foot on a rock that was steady, and try to work my way up-river. It was strenuous. Then you wanted to rest, but it was difficult. The current would switch and I would become imbalanced. I’d try to reestablish my hold, get a rock that gave way, and was tumbled back. I tried to stand up a couple of times, but standing barefoot on rocks in a current is difficult.

Eventually I emerged, but it was a while. And it was instructive: the current against which I fought so long it felt like all my life was like time against which we maintain a hold before it sweeps us down river. There was very little rest and I thought it was much like life. One is in it struggling and waiting to get out. I was sore for the next two days.

I watched the sun shining through the foliage and shining on the waters sometimes when I could rest (I have realized that even when one is most struggling, and perhaps especially then, the beauties of the world are poignant). The trees were tall overhead, and the waters of the river were not cold. It was a different place altogether, one to which I returned after some twenty years. I’d been in Colombian rivers when I was a kid and still have memories of that. I had been in a crystal clear Mexican river when I was 14, which experience made me forever eschew the swimming pool. Swimming pools are nice in hot weather, but I prefer a river or thermal waters. Now I’ve done both here.

Another of the great things of that trip was the landscape we traversed. We went through rice fields stretching bright green along the distances to the marching mountains. We saw some lower mountains out of which the river ran, round and almost forming bluffs. The clouds came and went that day so that we had blue sky and purple, dark horizons.

C In Which Spirit It Is Done

It is a peculiarly Colombian thing to do: the truck, lunch in a pot (it’s no different from the way our lunch was cooked over a wood fire every other day, but they also did coffee on the fire at the river and it had the taste of wood smoke), the disorder, the general expectations, the collaborative effort. Why—I wondered—do Colombians love so much to do things in a disorganized, haphazard way? And I think it is because they enjoy meeting the eventualities and triumphing over them spontaneously, besides the chaos in their minds. The best parts for them of that ride in the truck was when it hit a bump and shook everybody: they clutched, they grabbed the vital things, they maintained their place and they laughed. And everything was that way: where to build the fire, how, how to serve everybody, when to leave, who was where and what.

It is a great part of Colombia that they enjoy eventualities and seem to refuse to prepare for them because they like meeting them head on. It was this way in the bus terminal: they were very cheerful about there not being buses and the glory of finding one, or searching and asking and spying out an opportunity. They like not controlling everything. I believe our picnic was planned according to a great, vague idea that has been repeating itself for as long as they’ve had trucks to take them, and perhaps before in wagons. The splendid incarnation of the food, the swimming, the good time with their ingenuity and resourcefulness seemed to be the main pleasure. And it was, spontaneity and all.

They are resourceful people and impromptu is the mode of operation they most relish. It is not the only reason, but I left with the idea it is one of the great reasons this country is the way it is.

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