When you set out to travel you have no idea the impact it will have on your life, how the places you see, and people you meet will forever change you. When I was living in Colombia, I intentionally did not discuss one of the most influential people I met while there, as he was a bit of a novelty to some.
There was a young kid, maybe 17 at the time, who was working at the campground I stayed at. He was indigenous, born high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, part of the Wiwa tribe, one of several fiercely independent tribes from the Tayrona area which lived in seclusion from the outside world. He had to leave the mountains, as well as his family around the age of 12 to go to school and make some money. No one would have ever predicted myself, a young guy from upstate NY would ever cross paths with this kid from high in the Colombian mountains, nor how much he would impact my life.
The 1st month there we barely looked at each other. if I said hi, I wouldn’t get any more than an “hola” back. I assumed he did not like me, a gringo who was on vacation, not working, just lounging around surfing and seeing the world, and I couldn’t blame him, if I were in his position I wouldn’t like myself either. But I was also intimidated by him, knowing he was from such an independent tribe, sure I couldn’t understand his Spanish even if we did talk to each other, and knowing his life couldn’t be more different than mine. One day I was heading into town with some Colombian friends, they invited him along but I heard him say something about not having money for the bus. I could see he wanted to go along on the trip, so for whatever reason, I told him I would pay for him this time.
We went and hung out in Tagonga, but even then he and I kept a bit of distance. Later in the day we jumped on the bus to return home. He happened to be sitting next to me, so I gave it a go and started talking to him. We couldn’t communicate well, but as usual well enough with the words I did know, combined with sign language, and working things out enough to get out ideas across. Hell, I even found out he knew 20 or so English words….Son of a bitch, you’ve been holding out on me! I knew he didn’t know what that meant, but we both laughed since it was obvious I am hilarious. I have no idea what we talked about, but we spent the whole bus ride laughing, he had suddenly let down his guard and and I found a young child like attitude that meshed well with my own despite a 15 year difference between us. After that day we became close, he would stop by the van everyday to chat, probably just didn’t want to work, but either way I grew to enjoy the visits, to practice my Spanish, and to just laugh about life. He was a good kid, never saw him causing trouble, and always seemed happy.
His being Wiwa, (I thought he was a Kogi, to this gringo they were all the same) was not the sole reason others sometimes treated him as a novelty, no this Wiwa was an amazing surfer, the only surfer of all the Tayrona tribes. While there were not many gringos that came through where I stayed, there were enough, and many times they would pose with him for novelty pics, the Wiwa surfista. He was amazing in the water, and the connection they claim to have with the earth made even this hippy hating guy question this spiritual connection, as it was clear he had a unique relationship with the sea. He was so good in fact, that just after I left, he won the Colombian National Championship in the amateur division…he had clearly been watching me surf and taking notes. But none of this mattered to me. While an amazing surfer, always flying across the waves with an enormous smile on his face, none of that matterd to me, he was simply my friend.
My favorite conversation with him was when I asked what he had thought when he arrived at the sea, and 1st saw the others surfing. Without hesitation…”Rediculoso”, haha, I laughed hard at that and still do to this day, expecting a completely different response due to how great he was. But he quickly gave in, born high in the mountains, he was destined for the sea.
I grew very close with a group of Colombians while there, and plan on seeing them all again some day, but for whatever reason he made the largest impact on me. We kept in touch and talked on facebook every few months, laughing and joking about the same old things, and asking when I would return. Just last week he posted a pic of his new motorcycle, I asked him where his helmet was, and got a pic the next day, still wearing his board shirts, t-shirt, and sandals. I left it alone, he didn’t have any money, and the mentality is different down there, everyone rides like that, partly due to poverty, partly mentality.
I often though about when I would return to Colombia, and how I had planned on keeping it a secret, so that I could stay at the campground up the street, hike down the beach and chill in the trees, waiting for him to go out with the others for their daily surf, so I could paddle out and surprise him. Sadly yesterday he lost his life in a motorcycle accident, and I will never get that chance. As hard as it has been, even with tears slowly streaming down my face, I cannot help at times to smile and laugh as I reminisce of the brief times we shared while I was there.
I happen to be in South America on Vacation, riding around Ecuador, flights to Colombia were 3 times the price so it was somewhere new this time. I am loving my time here, and being here I have been reminiscing about all of them, and my time in South America. Suddenly I went from flying high and loving life, to getting bitch slapped in the face. I don’t know if being here has made it worse, I don’t think it would have mattered, but to be back in that mentality, to be so close, and yet so far away is certainly difficult. To see the love pour onto the facebook pages is no surprise, and I cannot imagine the pain of those who have watched him grow up to be the person he was. But I am very thankful to have experienced the brief time we shared.