Mongui, Colombia


The weekend we were in Colombia was a national 3-day holiday. So Mark planned a visit to the small Andean town of Mongui, NNE of Bogotá, where his close friend Than has a house big enough to host a crowd. Mongui was coincidently celebrating its own annual festival, in which we got to take part.

On the way to Mongui, early Saturday morning, we spotted these cleverly made wheelchairs using plastic lawn chairs as the frame and seat. The decal in the window seems to mention something about the organization, but I don't read Spanish. Impressive ingenuity, eh?

Mongui is about 4hrs drive from Bogotá, a little less if you catch the traffic just right and ignore the speed limits. Than's "hacienda" is the hotel-like structure just to the right of the blue-green plastic in the center of the photo above. The villagers know him as "Beto", as they can't pronounce his name.

In fact, the building was a hotel that had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. Than and a friend started to fix it up themselves, then got the whole village involved. Everyone in town seemed to know "Beto". I suspect he even speaks Spanish with a Mongui accent!

Jen and a guy in a funny hat, in front of Than's, looking over the almost 300 year old stone bridge over a beautiful rocky creek. As the weather is so constant, flooding isn't the problem it would be where I live. The creek was gorgeous and always drew my eye.

Another picture 90° from the previous shot, showing the bridge, and Jen looking across it. It was Mongui's annual "Festival of the Soccer Ball" (as the village's main industry is hand-made Balones — Balon being Spanish for soccer ball).

At one point, the Princesses (gotta have a Queen you know) were given a tour of the bridge and someone overheard them being told that when the church was built a secret passage was constructed from the creek to the basement of the church. An interesting story, but probably not true.

Another shot of Than's house, from the bridge, with the beautiful rocky creek adjoining it. My room was on the top floor, not visible in this photo. It was a Very Cool™ house!

Another shot from the other end of the bridge. The street leading to the center of town was just to the left diagonal up the steps. The bridge itself is closed to vehicle traffic. Just pedestrians, bicyclists and horses. Plus whatever farm animals are being herded along.

See, I told you the bridge was almost 300 years old...

The living room of the house, with one of the many local kids enjoying the library of kid's books in Spanish which Than provides, and sometimes loans out. I'm collecting a box of such books myself to send to him to augment the library. By hanging out, the kids learn some English, and some ask if they can help out with minor household chores.

In return, Than feeds them well (meat is expensive and most of the kids are from very poor families). At one meal, we had 8 village kids eating with us. They were so polite!

Than also tries to get them to understand that doing well in school, and finishing school, is the only sure way they are going to be able to really improve their lives. For some, there is considerable pressure to start work early in life to help the family, particularly if the father is absent.

A photo of the back of the house, with the duck pens. It was so quiet and serene here, with just the soothing sounds of the creek. No vehicle noises here.

The house across the street is for sale. $13,000 or perhaps a fair bit less if you pay cash. Two stories, with a nice view of Than's house and the creek. Mark was inside it awhile back, and said it needed "a lot" of work.

Immediately after arriving in Mongui, we mounted horses to participate in the ride down the hill, and back up again circling through town and ending up in the central plaza. This is the head of the group of 100+ horseback riders coming up the hill.

That's me and Than above. This part was huge big fun, as my horse loved to gallop. And of course when he did, the local young men couldn't let the Gringo get ahead, so they'd break into a gallop too, and even bump into me. Much fun.

Reminded me a bit of flat-track racing, actually. Except for the part about passing around drinking bladders and bottles of home-made liquor and beer.

Heading towards Than's house, actually, where we turned left and rode into town proper. That's Than in the blue t-shirt left-center. I think that's his housekeeper and cook, Marta, behind him. In spite of being a Mongui local, it was her first time on a horse. Note the soldier with automatic weapon standing beside the road.

As soon as we got into town, the locals started hitting the bars. Many didn't even bother getting off their horses. Quite a few were getting their horses to do the "Hi Ho Silver" equivalent of a motorcycle wheelie. The steel-shod horses didn't seem to happy to be doing that on the cobblestones. I saw lots of near falls.

Jen at the edge of the central plaza after the parade. Than and Mark in the lower left of the photo above.

A great shot of Mark and Than, beers in hand, enjoying the celebration. These two guys are always smiling like this. Maybe they know something...

You can't have a Soccer Ball festival without also having a soccer ball making contest. First one finished wins. Some of these people's hands were just flying!

This is how it's done. Two pieces of wood hold the work, while the artisan threads two needles through the pre-punched holes. The leather protects their hands when they pull the thread tight.

A candid shot of some folks my age, in traditional dress.

Definitely not a candid shot. "Who is that grey-bearded Gringo and why is he taking my photo?"

You also need some soccer stars. These two guys were the Colombian and Brazilian National Champions. They could do stuff with soccer balls I didn't know could be done. The guy in the blue jersey could hold the ball between his food and shin and do a standing back-flip without dropping the ball. They could both balance the balls anywhere on their bodies for as long as you want. Or bounce them continually with their feet, knees, shoulders and heads.

Festival treats, from the license plate I'd guess he drove here from some other village. Note that he's on his cellphone. Coverage seemed ok even in Mongui though I didn't have one. All the Embassy and USAID people have special Blackberries with no cameras (no cameras allowed in the US Embassy), and they used them all weekend.

Note the creative decoration on top of the church. The soccer ball by the steps was claimed to be the "World's Largest", at 10.3m in diameter. I wouldn't try to kick it.

Yours truly drinking home made Chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from corn. In this case, by the woman in the white hat to my right rear. I don't think they ferment it by chewing the corn and spitting into it anymore. At least I hope not. Whatever — I didn't get sick. I was surprised it tasted way better than I expected. Fairly drinkable, even. Lala thought I was crazy to even try it. She's way smarter than I, she passed on it.

Me, a local Mongui pre-teen, Lala, Than, Mark, and two more local kids. Just havin' a good time at the party. Ignore the funny hat. It's damn easy to get sunburned at 10,000', and it happens Very Fast.

What's a party without BBQ? Though I must admit we don't do it quite like this back home.

This little guy was so cute! At first he had a wool cap on, then he took it off and just stared at Mark. He's probably never seen a Gringo up close before. There were a lot of tourists in town, but I didn't see any other Norte Americanos besides our small group.

Mark, Nadereh, Lala, Jen, Jay and James Oliver. Jay, Nadereh and Lala also work for USAID.

On Sunday there was a 65km bicycle ride from a nearby town ending in the central plaza of Mongui. Than, Jay and two of the local kids did the ride. Jay (or was it Than?) said it was the hardest ride he'd ever done in his life. I volunteered to get up at O'Dark Thirty and drive them to the start, then bring the car back. Other than not speaking Spanish, not having my passport or drivers license, having the "wrong" plates on the car, and having only driven the road once, I managed to make it back with only a minor side-trip resulting from a brief lack of confidence, quickly corrected.

A frog fountain and Inca art in the central plaza — I couldn't pass up this shot.

I also thought about doing a page just of photos of doors, but you'd probably find it pretty boring. This was one of the best. I think it's actually one of Jen's shots from downtown Mongui (green seems to be the town accent color).

You won't see this scene in Spokane. Note the green paint. And the sleepy horse.

The SBSoC (soccer ball shop of choice) where our group buys their soccer balls. We're a loyal customer base. Lala and I spent hours (a lot of it with her on the phone or querying locals) trying to find the owners to get it opened for business.

Mark and James Oliver lounging in the living room waiting for the next meal.

Lala helping with setting out the food. This was breakfast. The round bread-like things are sorta like home-made donuts.

I was thinking (but never acted on) the idea of playing a game during a meal to see how many countries of the world people at the table had visited. I suspect it would be a huge number. I'll bet that the average adult there spoke 3 languages (or more), even when dragged down by my count of 1. Even the kids spoke multiple languages.

This crowd is all so damn smart, good looking, hard working and every one of them is striving to make the planet a better home for all people, economically, socially and politically. They're committed to their ideals, and not just talking about them at cocktail parties while they work for Procter & Gamble. My daughter is one of them! Makes a father proud.

Jen and Jay and I took a walk one day. Some old stuff in Mongui, this one marked December 31st, 1601. More green accent paint on the buildings.

Foundation of the old church (the one with the secret tunnel), not the newer one with the soccer ball turrets.

Jay walking by the town's only hotel. Some folks said nobody was staying there even though it was festival weekend. Looked cute, though.

The hotel was at the top of this pretty stairway, above the central plaza.

A crummy shot of one of the ends of a Tejo pit. Some call this the national sport of Colombia.   [Here's a YouTube video explaining it in Spanish.]   It involves massive quantities of beer, gunpowder, and throwing 4-5 pound chunks of metal and trying to cause explosions. Generally performed right next to another group of likewise engaged drinkers who might be throwing in your direction. Gotta be fun, right? I think the spots in the photo are particles of clay or gunpowder floating in the air. Sorry about that.

It's kinda like a more macho version of horseshoes. The target is a large slanted square of clay, with a large metal ring just under the center. 4 triangular pieces of white paper filled with gunpowder are placed in a small circle around the center, and the object is to hit that center, and if possible also explode one of the gunpowder packets.

Scoring is 1 point for the team who lands a "tejo" closest to the center. Or 3 points to the team which hits and explodes one of the white triangles. 6 points to the team that lands the tejo dead center, and 9 points for center plus and explosion. First team to 21 wins.

Someone in Bogotá (who didn't play) told us that Tejo is just an excuse to drink beer. He was probably right. We drank quite a lot. Than, wearing a "Tejo Champion of North America" t-shirt (which I think he awarded himself) managed to snatch victory for his team with a 9-pointer when Lala (on my team) tried to thwart his throw.

Lala is a cute drunk. Hell, she's beautiful, drunk or not. But she giggles constantly after 2-3 beers which is very endearing.

Before we started, Mark had the rest of us on his team take some practice shots. Here was his shot. Would have been 6 points but we weren't playing yet. Mark has his own tejo. Of course. Nadereh & Jay's son Julian was an enthusiastic digger-outer of tejos from the thick, sticky clay using a hay-hook shaped gizmo. The burlap bag, lower left, was used to rub the clay off the tejos prior to the next toss.

At first, I thought holding a beer while throwing the tejo was just for balance, or maybe a macho thing. Eventually I realized it was so you could keep track of which beer was yours (as there were so many identical ones sitting everywhere). In this game, you don't buy a beer, you get a case. And square up at the end of the evening by counting the remaining unopened beers from the last case.

A private Tejo court, at a house just down the creek from Than's.

The last day (Monday) we hiked another 1,000' feet up to the Cross on the hill above Mongui. Along the way we encountered this family turning the sod with a wooden plow. The little girl might have been picking up potatoes. Or not.

The start of the switchbacks. 14 of them, each marked with a monument and a place to sit. Climbing is hard at this altitude if you're old and/or out of shape.

Step, step, pant, pant. Repeat. Focus on the next monument for a rest stop.

View from the Cross (though the actual top of the hill was another few hundred feet higher). Jen, me and Mark. Mongui to the left of and way below Jen. The Andes in all directions. Greenish polution in the background from the steel mill or coal burning in Sogamoso.

Another valley above Mongui. For the folks who live up here, Mongui is the Big City which they probably visit only on Sunday (market day) and maybe only every other week. It's a long walk unless you have a horse.

One more shot of me and Jen. Included only because we're both smiling with our eyes open.

The back of the schoolhouse. I included this shot for Wanda, who's a 5th grade teacher. The Colombian government has put satellite dishes in most all the schools so they can have the benefits of the Internet even in more remote locales than Mongui.

Mark and Jen talking with a local woman on the way down the hill.

The drive back to Bogotá wasn't quite so much fun, as it was in the dark, and during the first part it rained hard. As in if you were standing out in it, and had your mouth closed, you'd probably drown.

The second bad part was that everyone was trying to get back to Bogotá after the 3-day holiday, so the roads were crowded. It took us maybe 6 hours to get back. Mark is a very good driver for a non-motorcyclist (meaning he looks way ahead, reacts quickly, and is a bit aggressive/assertive) but even his skill was tested by the monumentally bad driving of too many Colombians that night. I think Jen kept her eyes closed for much of the trip.

The highlight was the half-way point of the trip, where we met up with the rest of the crew (Jay & Nadereh and their kids, and Than and Lala). We all stopped at the same road-side stand for fresh cheese-filled arepas made by this woman on a wood fired grill. I think they were only about $0.30 each. They were very tasty, though we had better the next (our final) day in Bogotá.

All things considered, Jen and I found our long weekend in Mongui the best part of our visit to Colombia. Too bad more people can't experience that, but you'd have to have local knowledge, and good connections, and the average tourist just doesn't have that. We were lucky!

Thank you Than and Lala and Jay and Nadereh and the kids and dogs and especially Mark, who was the consumate host and guide. Love you all!   Namaste...

Copyright © 2009, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.