Four hours on the bus passed quickly, despite frequent swerves to dodge the heaps of soil burped onto the road by landslides, largely thanks to Tetris on my new shit phone. Who needs apps?
I was met from the chicken bus by Gloria and Oscar. Oscar is the town notary and lives in a spacious house just off the centre of town. Gloria was already installed as his guest and he invited me to stay too. Just as well since there isn’t a hostel, hotel, bunk house or even campsite in Vegachi. Out in the proper sticks – hoorah!
Not only was it the proper sticks, only Gloria spoke English. Deep breath, and…immerse. Challenging, in a good way. Time to learn. And fast. Armed with mi biblia (dictionary; we are inseparable), the book of Spanish verbs, some ‘teach yourself Spanish’ podcasts and fierce determination, I set about my task.
The first couple of days were frustrating. I could understand approximately 30% of what was being said and couldn’t keep pace with the conversations enough to be able to participate. Gloria had to help out with countless translations: I considered stamping my feet and giving up.
But then, after two days of looking baffled, it started to come together. I began to understand more. I started to recognise patterns. My knowledge of tenses went from two to five. Yippee! The vocabulary and local dialect started stay in my head. I could understand a little more of the rapid-fire Spanish being flung around me. I accepted that I was going to say stupid things and just hoped that they weren’t too rude or smutty. Being the local curiosity was a stroke of luck for learning the lingo – everyone wanted to stop for a juice or coffee and ask questions. Everyone had unending reserves of patience when I looked at them blankly or asked them to speak slower.
I spent my days touring around the local area, enjoying rico leisurely lunches, meeting lots of people and studying. Vegachi is a beautiful rural community based on the mining industry and some agriculture. Sugarcane and the processing of it used to keep the town alive but that industry has faded away. It’s middle of the road in terms of wealth – not rich, not poor. One day I saw the kids coming out of school, each with their standard issue bag of food, as much a public spirited gesture as a sign of need. Everyone seems happy and healthy and there is a massive sense of community. It pleased me enormously to see genuine cowboys wandering down the street and I openly marvelled at the selection of noble, dazzling white sombreros.
One of the wealthiest ladies locally inherited a family fortune from success in sugarcane farming. You wouldn’t know to look at her that she was any different to anyone else chatting on the street, dressed as she was in wellies and an old T-shirt, but she had donated the land that the hospital has been built on and was preparing the paperwork to donate more land for an old peoples’ home. When she was a child she couldn’t understand why the other kids at school didn’t have as much food as her family so she would empty the fridge and distribute the contents to her classmates. Today, probably in her 60s, she is every bit as lovely
Alejandro, one of Gloria’s friends, and his uncle took me for a mini-tour (it didn’t take long) of the valley, laughing that my Spanish was so shaky that ‘I could call you curse words and I wouldn’t kill your smile’. Ah, but it’s true!
We called in to see some of the haciendas and fincas, small-scale farms producing modest quantities of local fruits, coca and sugar cane. Little gems. Don Oscar’s parents have a gorgeous, peaceful place up on the hill just at the edge of the town where I hung out with some of the family one afternoon.
Oscar works like a demon, often waking before 6am to start on his notary work and continuing with other projects late into the night. He still would make time to chatter with me and dig out books of local interest. In the evening, he introduced me to the Colombian fruit salad – your average fruit salad with ice cream…and cheese sprinkled on top. Sounds vile but swift became my new snack of choice.
The municipal swimming pool was one of my favourite places to hang out. Getting there involved crossing the river and walking for 15 minutes up a mud track mostly used by tuktuks and motorbikes transporting people around town. Several of them offered me lifts as I walked. What do they call a tuktuk in this part of the world? Moto-raton – motor mouse.
The pool is in a field on a bend in the river, more or less in the middle of the countryside and so tranquil that people like to gather for drinks and occasional asados in the evenings. One day school sports day was just finishing (with cakes?!) as I pitched up: ‘Is everyone in England as tall as you?’ one of the girls asked me.
I would do some leisurely laps and chill out watching birds with bright yellow, blue and red chests swooping and dancing over the water as the sun sank. However was I going to leave?