A Journey Beyond the Trail - La Esperanza Rural School, Vergara, Colombia
My mobile’s alarm rings. It wakes me abruptly with the same ringtone I hear each morning back in London. The ringtone that wakes me to rise’n shine for work. I open my eyes and turn it off, lifting my head I realize it’s pitch black and I am in a foreign land. The day is about to break over this beautiful and innocent realm. Still dark, I get dressed, have a bite for breakfast as I rush for the motorbike. I am all set for a trip of a lifetime, for this morning and for the day I will journey with my friend Carlos on a journey up and along a mountain trail to a remote rural Colombian school called La Esperanza (meaning Hope). Carlos just so happens to be this school’s one and only English teacher and lives two hours bike ride away from the town I was visiting in the same department called Cundinamarca. The school is some 120 kilometres journey from Colombia’s capital Bogota from where I'd arrived earlier.
I am not a professional writer and don’t have much experience in writing articles such as this or any at all. Please go easy on me for any grammar or spelling mistakes. I took a Sony HX5 digital compact camera for all the pictures and videos I took. My little hobby is to take geotagged pictures of places I visit. I've used used my Google map maker account along with the accurate GPS data from the pictures to list the school on google maps in the correct place. You can see the precise listing here. All my geotagged photos from this school are available on panoramio here.
I mounted the 125cc Yamaha motorbike as a passenger to Carlos and we set off on this journey that would open my eyes to a world true to many rural Colombians living here. We set course on Cundinamarca’s number 50 highway due East. On this smooth road, we touch speeds of 80 kilometres per hour. This was actually my first time on a motorbike and as a passenger, all I had for stability were two handles either side of my bum. To tell you the truth, I was scared but soon got used to it. In comparison, this was nothing compared to the dangerous heights we would soon climb through on this journey.
We left this highway for the dirt roads that would bring us to our final destination, the remote school. We make a petrol stop before passing a fairly large but still very remote town Nocaima. A beautiful town with a gorgeous church, bang smack in the middle. We didn’t have time to stop this way but would make time on the way back to investigate. The road from here put us through long and short curves with us almost always heading upwards with very few downhills. Carlos who travels these roads twice a day to and from work knows the area inside out. He hoots his horn at almost all we pass and they in turn always give us a friendly wave back. Being the areas’ cool English teacher he has a great rapport with the locals.
After climbing from 800 meters to over 1100 meters and counting, we come to some very treacherous roads. Going at a decent speed, as we have to get to school before the pupils, we come close to vertical drops off of the edge of our road. The road we were travelling had many upon many bends in it with short descents followed by long climbs. The road is busy with mainly local farmers and their mules. It was the sugarcane harvest after all. The areas we travelled through were not deserted, it was rather sporadically populated with us passing a good number of small roadside houses and huts. The less vertical land was being cultivated and put to good productive use. Passing a group of houses we get set upon by half a dozen dogs that give chase, with their bark seemingly far worse than their bite we simply give gas and leave them in the dust.
As we neared our peak altitudes of around 1600m, daylight breaks and hits the peaks of the mountains and hills all around us. The sight of "El Cerro de Teresa" (Teresa's Hill) being the local region's highest mountain, really was a sight like no other. Carlos explains some of its ancient histories to me. Apparently, It was a focus of the lands’ original people (the Chibcha and more precisely the Muisca tribe), as a place of worship. The people would travel from regions all round to offer up gold. He also told me of a local US military man that came to the region after retiring from the US army. This person became very interested in the history of the place as well as the Chibcha’s focus of interest in this particular mountain. As far as we know, he found no real riches, although we doubt that was the purpose in any case.
Taking a mini stop and stepping to the edge of the road, I peer out to the West where Carlos is pointing out the notorious Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Huge amounts of smoke are billowing out into the heavens above. Carlos explains it’s violent history to be me, Most notably it’s eruption in 1985 resulting in 25,000 deaths in what became the Armero tragedy. Putting this horror to the back of my mind, I wonder at its awesome power. With it being significantly far away, it still impresses this Englishman. As a kid, volcanoes played no real part in my life, unlike the locals here who thought nothing much of it. On June the 30th, two weeks after leaving Colombia the volcano erupted triggering the evacuation of 2,300 people from the volcano’s nearest regions of Caldas and Tolima thankfully (the people I met on this trip were unaffected).
Coming close to the school we overtake a number of jeeps all carrying school kids for the day's lessons. Carlos explains that this is a service set up to bring children from further afield. Saving a lot of legwork, they evidently prove very popular. The school is finally within sight and I look down over a small valley that we will go through. From my altitude, I can see the peak of the hill upon which the school is perched and it’s possible to see people ascending upon it from all directions. This school really does serve the local community with a wide area around. The closer we get the more crowded the road gets with children. Some shout out English words and sentences to show off to their English teacher, Carlos replies simply by saying, “Have you done your homework?”. Yes, yes, yes... comes the reply in every case.
Pulling up to the gates of the school we come to a halt and I dismount the bike as we go to push it under a fairly large shelter that’s used by the school jeeps. The area seems to work as a meeting place for the kids before heading to school. There’s a small shop that served cold and hot drinks including beer, forming a sort of pub for the local men during the evenings. On taking in the surroundings and the trip we just undertook my eyes are drawn to five fairly beautiful looking cockerels. It took me awhile for my mind to click. But looking at each of them I realize why they are tied meters distance apart from each other with strong string to the supporting pillars of the shelter. These cockerels were to be used for the controversial undertaking of cock flights! This is a rural area with hard people, I wasn’t surprised that this sort of thing would still be happening. I guess with time and different opportunities being offered by this school that such undertakings will die with the older generations. The space is also used for the much loved Colombian sport of Tejo, it comes from the pre-Hispanic Chibcha people.
Entering the building and making our way to the teachers room on the first floor, I get plenty of stares and confident kids coming up to me. “How are you?” nearly all of them ask me. “I am fine” comes my reply. Upon which they typically giggled and ran off. In amongst the teachers I am welcomed by their grammar, science, information technology and agriculture teachers. All speak good English but are busy preparing for their day’s classes, Carlos included. I take a short opportunity to peer out the window, seeing yet more children arriving in jeeps. This really is a busy hive of activity for the local area. Some groups of children are perched up outside the room looking to see what their new guest is up to. I peer back at them with a smile and wave. After which the lady from the shop comes up with an English teacup and saucer, in it filled with sweet warm agua de panela. Agua de panela is a local customary hot drink that is basically sugarcane extract mixed with hot water. It’s sweet but has a very mild taste to it.
Making our way to the first classroom of the day we were greeted by twenty-eight eager English students. Carlos shouts out an energetic “Good Morning” to the students, all of which shout back “Good Morning Teacher”. I am impressed, taking a seat in the front corner of the classroom I feel all their eyes on me. Glancing back at them, their eyes dart away and a smile grows on their faces. I sense the concentration levels are low and knowing it’s most probably due to myself. So, I engage myself with the lesson. Carlos brings me in to explain myself, where I come from, what I do and how I like Colombia... The children forget their words with excitement but Carlos calms them down and we start going through everyone’s questions. The boys all ask football questions. The girls ask me questions about British food and how I like Colombia's offering. It all progresses on until I end up discussing double deckers and our Great royal family. The Falkland island issue doesn't come up but had it I'd have set the right on the Malvinas. No sooner has this lesson started till it’s now finished. We spend a good proportion of time exchanging our email addresses.
Changing to another class for the what turns out to be the same bout of English. In this one, a young boy called Daniel sporting a smart German national football top (The very same as one I've got) challenges me to a game, which I accept for break time. This class has some real characters and I make friends with another lad called Andres who speaks impressive English. There are all interested in my life back in London. In no time the class is finish and we all make off for a break. My mind turns to the football challenge and I look to find the boys that gave it to me big and honour it. But it turns out that this day is the turn of the girls to use the playground. The girls were too shy to play football with me so I walked the school socializing with everyone I met. I was eventually introduced to the school's canteen where I met the head dinner lady by the name of Jenny, she was hard at work in the kitchen. The children have a system of accounting for everyone’s meals. Today the responsibility fell on a senior girl who sat herself at the only exit to the small hall. She checked everyone in and out by a list of names she had before her. She wondered at my blue eyes giving me a nice compliment. It not all to normal for people around these parts to have blue eyes such as my own. The children had staple food with great big portions consisting of rice, chicken and a small number of greens. I was impressed that the teachers and children eat together. This would never have happened at my South London School. I toured the grounds and made my way with my entourage of students back to the teachers' room. Here I came to meet the school’s coordinator, Mr Enrique Chacon.
Enrique is a most interesting person and his English is perfect. We talked at length and he explains the history of the school and it’s founding by the Costa Coffee Foundation, Colombian Government and the Coffee Growers Federation. Basically, it's a neat project fulfilling these organizations offering to rural communities. He showed me around the school pointing out initiatives and plans, along with their telemedicine initiative enabling students and locals to connect with doctor’s in the capital. For me he saves the best till last, asking if I’d like to see their sustainable school farming initiative? I save no time in saying a resounding "Yes"! Right then, the continuation of the last English class will be dedicated to the students give me a tour of the school's very own farm. I thank Enrique and we shake hands on the deal. Carlos later tells me that Enrique was the best friend of the formerly mentioned American soldier turned Chibcha gold hunter! Apparently, the soldier on his deathbed asked Enrique for a bottle of coke before his days were numbered. Now I know how Enrique’s English came to be so fluent.
The bells ring and the children return to their classes. Here's a small YouTube video before the class opens to give you a small idea of the scene and the view from the classroom window. Before making the excursion announcement, Carlos made the call for English assignments and returned student’s newly marked work to them. Then he makes the announcement that the students could show me around their much loved and cared for farm and livestock, we all cheered and lept to our feet. Storming out and in no time on the path out of the school yard and down to the valley below. Passing crops of sugarcane we make our way over rugged ground. Never seeing a coffee plant before in all my life, I’m surprised when students pull out notebooks by junior trees with their names tagged to each individually. They take notes and measurements of their plant for some coursework. Next up would be plantain plants with the students taking it upon themselves to explain the growing processes of these plans. It all get’s quite jovial us we verge deeper into the valley and towards the stream therein. Here's a YouTube video of our decent. Crossing it, we go into a field that has at this time an empty man-made fish farm lake. It’s a simple but effective construction involving a simple but large hole in the ground, clad with waterproofing and would be filled with water and fish then introduced. This provides locals with a much-loved source of fresh fish. Fresh fish being something that is not obtainable this far inland away from Colombia’s coasts. Daniel shows me a massive snail picked from the stream. It's as big as my fist! We move on and we pass and massive coffee plantation field. Carlos explains that a portion of the farm's produce is used to fund the continued upkeep of the farm making it all sustainable. Returning back up the hill a different way, we pass the chicken pen and the panela processing machinery. Andres collects some massive avocados for me from a nearby tree. Exhausted we return to school in time for a break again.
With all the children out of the classrooms, I take the opportunity to see what the facilities are like. I make my way to another modern looking outbuilding. Climbing the stairs to its first floor, I see it is heavily secured. Entering the building I am greeted by the school’s IT teacher who gives me a very firm handshake. Being an IT specialist myself we talk at length about the schools’ computer systems. The classroom is well equipped with network connections, high-speed Satellite internet and a fancy projector. Each child has access to a fully functional Windows 7 laptop computer. They are specifically designed with functional and robust usage in mind, all have been supplied by IBM. This being the last class of the day I help to pack up the units, we placed them into a large specially secured room. I asked why the need for such an amount of security? The answer is that the school had been targeted a number of times during which, vast amounts of IT equipment had been stolen. The school now employs a watchman to keep the school secure throughout the night when it otherwise would have been deserted. Still, we take no risks and ensure everything is locked away.
Enjoying the last English lesson, the day comes quickly to an end. Saying a thankful goodbye to the students and teachers we make our war to the school gates where I meet Enrique Chacon. I thanked him for permitting me access to the school and the grounds around. I expressed my delight at having been given such an awesome chance to see something very few tourists would have. He said he’s looking forward to reading this article himself, of which I assured him I would write.
We leave at the same time as the school Jeeps taking the children back out to the rural communities they woke up in. The steep road back up the valley to the main Vergara road proves too steep for our Yamaha 150cc. The motorcycle can’t carry us both. I take the opportunity to walk the hill myself and Carlos rides up atop to wait for me there. Walking up by myself and looking out to the valleys around me, seeing the coffee and panela farms stretching into the distance, I feel a real (but small) sense of Colombia and the life that these people live here. It’s a simple but hard way of life, they, however, hold experiences and assets that we in the developed West take for granted.
Reaching the top I hop back on the motorcycle and we make our way Westward back towards another small town. This one is called Vergara (after the small region it’s in). After about fifteen minutes I see a group of houses with a few children playing in front. Carlos knows the family and we pull over to stop. We say hello and the residents ask me to come into their home. Setting foot inside the house that is perched precariously on the cliff I realize what it is that they are wanting to show me. I see the most amazing view over the region and down into the multiple valleys below. I can see the Volcano and the Platow in the distance. I can also see the different weather conditions from different areas for hundreds of miles around. This really is the most spectacular view I have ever seen in all my days. Really something so awesome that I just cannot put sufficiently into words, nor do my photographs do it any justice. This family, living in some very poor conditions are able to wake to the most heavenly views every day.
We get closer to Vergara, the town takes a small road off of the main Vergara road, we hadn’t passed through it en route to the school. Carlos asks if I’d like to stop by and take a look. Of course, I said yes to that. Pulling into the town we drive through a few small streets built up with one and some cases two-story buildings. Here's a short video I managed to take. We pull into the main square that boasts a wonderful church. We take a small walk around and stop by a baker and afford ourselves some traditional pastries and a bottle of Coca-Cola. The pastries were so nice I went for a second round. Walking back to the motorbike we pass through the town’s main square where Carlos points out the building that hosts the regions education board and where Carlos attends to discuss matters relating the rural schools. I also see a police outpost that has some serious defences in the way of concrete walls with gaps in to return fire. Carlos tells me that the situation is a lot safer now, whereas in the past this would have been a very dangerous place for me to travel too. Colombia is improving beyond words and this has afforded me the chance to visit such a place and to live to tell you about it all. Hopefully, this will be a catalyst to improving the situation further. The more people travelling Colombia will mean the more people can tell others of the wonders it holds.
We mount the bike for the last time as we make the long journey home. The only comfort for me is that the journey is pretty much all downhill. I take every turn in the road with my eyes wide open. I know it’ll be some time if ever for my return here. Back through the hilltops past the houses with the dogs (yes, they chased us again), along the cliff edges and through the last town of Nocaima, and taking a downhill shortcut past some delightfully rich looking new villas,.. we join Cundinamarca’s route 50 back as the sun starts to set slowly.
Pictured above are the good group of students that showed me around their sustainable farm. The names those standing from left to right are Ingrid Bermudez, Cristian Caiced, Jhon Garavito, Andres Salcedo, myself (Stuart Oswald), Yimmy Ramirez, Deiver Estradaad and Adriana Hernandez. Crouched left is Daniel Benavides and Diego Rojas to the right.