• conqueredbycolombia


'"It isn't of any consequence," said the young man, in truth a little uneasy about his umbrella.'

In Marinilla the villagers are so devout that unless you have been queuing to join the procession since the break of dawn, you will have no hope of seeing what you are processing behind should you attempt to join in later. The women turn out in their finest clothes, and you do not have to look far to see elderly ladies festooned with 1940s Schiaparelli-esque hats and giant necklaces whose weight reminds them of Christ's journey as he was forced to carry his cross.

We sat in a restaurant off the square whose balconies were closed both out of respect and out of the fear that the weight of so many expectant souls might cause the entire building to collapse. Mouthing to the waiter above the ever less distant chants the word “churrasco”, I was told by my companion that “eating red meat on holy Friday was something only done by brazen sinners”, but the choice proved beyond temptation at these words, and so soon I found myself accompanied in my order.

It is quite something to hear the oncoming brigade of the religious faithful of Marinilla. The entire building pulsated with their footsteps, and as the trolley arrived with the sizzling steaks and alcoholic refreshments I began to notice the unhappy glances of the villagers who sat besides us in the restaurant. “Drinking alcohol, especially so early on Holy Friday is also something only done by sinners,” the companion added. A woman began to shake her head in our direction, and another man kept turning around to look at us in disgust and confusion before writing us off as 'foreigners', or perhaps worse, as 'day tourists who were "villaging" '.

I didn't feel like a tourist, though. ¿How many hours had I clocked up in this village, Marinilla? I started to count, but my thought was interrupted by the question: ¿does Marinilla mean 'Little Marín? ¿Did it? ¿Once upon a time? In the church it was said (and not whispered) to me, "you cannot connect with this, it's like being with a fucking tourist," and inside I began to burn with a rage lurid as cinders. Ochre and mahogany red was my temper. I was so angry at those words but couldn't decide whether it was because they were true or because they weren't. So much sudden energy and yet my anger never lasted.

Caressing the streets, once again that peculiar mix of an architecture which revealed how things had been, and how they had got stuck without the least improvement. White colonial buildings with imposing rafters and green paintwork, and then every other house collapsing from within or from above. Still I looked out for the protests that never came, for someone local to say 'this isn't ok!', but no one ever seems to mind. It is because the people here are more or less happy, and a house from the 1800s is not their priority. What they care about is the joy of the now, family, and having modern luxuries. In a place where people and places disappear quickly and without warning, this is what progress has become. No one trusts 'The State' to spend their taxes wisely and fairly, and so people look out merely for themselves and their immediate family, leaving public spaces to collapse entirely, or so as to be mere fantasies which never materialize.

The entire plaza was now a swarm of paisa togetherness. In such situations, I can only enjoy being a spectator, because my presence is so 'other'. Priests made Mass in front of thousands as we drank on a 'canteen' balcony, even the villagers who slept through the spitting rain and biblical fragments absorbed the Easter message. They knew The Passion, and therefore the Easter Mass had only to jog their memory, because religiosity was latent in them at all times, and not spoilt by Protestant ideas like frugality and a hatred for vanity. 'I love this balcony!' I kept realizing over and over again, and my love began to weigh the already heaving balcony down until the companion had a sudden panic attack intuiting the whole thing could suddenly give way.

- "Let's go before we become dust," he said. "I can't breathe. We might die any second. It was nice, but I can't stand imagining the catastrophe a second longer."

- "It would be a nice way to die," I reflected.

- "No, it wouldn't. Why do you always say such extravagant things? It's unbearable."

There was no arguing about such a topic. Death will always just happen and planning it was useless and the opposite of whatever being spiritual is.

This typical Semana Santa in East Antioquia weather.

Rain coming and going.

All of us oscillating between fever and chills.

All of us recovering from tropical viruses.

Sweating from incantation and lust

And the pressure to be on holiday when holy experiences are never a rest...


It would be wonderful to be a sinner and not care. In truth, a steak and a little clear yellow costeñita are not sins but symbols. Then I was further warned: "sexual intimacy on Holy Friday is somewhere between discouraged and forbidden. Even kissing is risky. The cheek 'might' be ok. The lips... There is a myth in fact, that if you make love on Holy Friday, 'it gets stuck inside'. Forever".

- "What do you mean?"

- "Exactly what I said. Didn't you listen? You never listen. It gets stuck inside forever."

- "But what do you mean by, 'forever'?"

- "For all eternity."

- "But what if they decide they don't like one another?"

- "Tough luck. There is no separating the couple after that. The prostitutes know it, and so they don't work today. They are afraid to."

- I laughed.

- "I don't know why you are laughing. Prostitutes and the Mafia are the most devout. They know these things and should be trusted. It's not a laughing matter."

I believed what I was told; this in itself was the evidence I was neither a tourist nor foreign after all.

Now we were all queuing with a coffee sprayed with brandy. Yes. Brandy in Marinilla comes in the spray bottle, the kind of which used by gardeners to treat plants with plagues. In the line, newspapers circulated and everyone tried not to talk about politics. I learned that talking about politics becomes inevitable in Colombia once you have been standing next to the same stranger for over forty five minutes. A very dangerous moment can evolve, and the best thing to do is take turns to walk away from the line for a little break, here and there, so that tensions dissolve, and sparks do not ignite. You don't know who the other person is. Who they know. What they believe. You think you do, but everyone knows everyone here and it's a game of chess. Private exchanges simply don't happen. It is better to assume everything you say and do is publicly engraved. That The Romans are always listening.

In Colombia politics is everywhere, but for the most part people try to avoid it, for obvious reasons. Only the irrepressible push on regardless, unable to restrain themselves. I left half of my coffee undrunk as the orchestra tuned up in the restored chapel upon which we all leant our ill bodies. I didn't want to get too fired up. I played 'the dumb foreigner, and the dumb woman, and the person who didn't speak much Spanish', which is my strategy in such situations."

I am only a silly English woman. What do I know? What 'could' I know?

It is so easy to pretend to be stupid when you are a woman in Antioquia. But there was a man - just the one - who had always seen through this.

- "Do you think I am stupid? Don't insult me."

- "What do you mean?"

- "See! There it is! You pretending you don't understand a thing when you perfectly well do. it drives me mad. Don't pretend that I don't know that you know. It's an insult to me. And I won't tolerate any kind of insult."

The sweats were returning. In England I always thought that 'tropical illnesses' sounded like an exaggeration. Surely they are like any British flu?', I always imagined. They aren't. Illnesses here, particularly in Semana Santa always come and go and come back again worse the second and third time around. Amongst the remains of processions and plans for subsequent ones, Marinilla became surreal and swampy. 

I'm better now.

I'm on the mend.

O no! My back is soaked again and those dreams of terrifying decaying barrios in the old centre of Medellín and visions of witchcraft and the spells cast upon me I can never undo have returned to haunt me.

The purpose of our queuing was the religious music festival in Semana Santa; that, and to see the chapel that was always closed to evade vandalism. Normally I only peered through the keyhole.

- "Do you see anything, Emma?"

- "Yes. Kind of."

- "No, you don't. Why don't you just say you can't see a damn thing? Grrrrrrr!"

All the best churches were like this - locked away and inaccessible like esoteric knowledge. The Capilla de Jesús Nazareno is a small colonial church perhaps the most beautiful of any church I have ever visited. Elegant in its simplicity. Alluring in its scent. The smell of Nueva Granada.

I had never heard the Stabat Mater of Karl Jenkins before. In fact, I had never heard of Karl Jenkins. It was the most curious fusion of Englishness and Orientalism - so much so that my ears became reeds in the breeze. This kind of music is important to listen to, because then God and Meaning is undeniable.

But Colombia and her karmic cyclical politics returned in the form of the storm at the window. For like colonial houses, the church had windows with little wooden bars on her and shutters, and when  a terrific crashing thunderstorm began, at first sending droplets of freshness across our dengue brows, next came spine tingling wafts of ice, until an attendant began slamming the shutters on the spectators outside who had not been so fortunate to secure a seat like us 'the privileged'.

- "O how sad!" I exclaimed between movements, as the faces of the villagers crying out for culture disappeared from our view at the windows and their fingers which had been gripping the bars were sliced off in a thunderbolt. But then, rebelliously, several of them began forcing open the shutters again sending ripples of change across the entire concert and the drama of the music, which was already making us week, motionless. Two feverish hands reaching out for one another to understand how the other felt amongst all this noise, musical and otherwise. 

A pretty but damaged walking stick-style umbrella hang from the pew in front, and a question I had asked God earlier I knew to be answered as I recalled a scene from my favorite novel:

"I suppose my umbrella will be alright," he was thinking. "I don't really mind about it. I will think about music instead. I suppose my umbrella will be all right."

- Howards End Chapter 5.

E. M. Forster

A stranger sits besides Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast at the musical recital Music and Meaning - in this BBC adaptation of a scene from Howards End, Helen and Leonard are united permanently by an incident involving his anxiety and love for his beloved but injured umbrella

Marinilla, Antioquia, Colombia at night as seen through the rains of Semana Santa

© 2018 by Conquered by Colombia.

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