Cold Lands, Hot Lands

It’s hard to believe that in a single country, Colombia, the land can have two diametrically opposed temperatures, and that depending on where you happen to be, you are either an outsider or a dead man. The story told by Ramiro (the man who could slice open a wound needing seventy-eight stitches) scorches and freezes, like the two climates. Seventy-eight stitches. Ramiro talks about the time he had to swing his machete in self-defense, over there in Tarazá, in the hottest zone of Antioquia, the Bajo Cauca, where the guerrilla and the paramilitaries fuck-up your life. The machete blow was such that the poor guy needed seventy-eight stitches.

He tells the story in passing, as he is driving a new ox up the mountain, or a calf that serves as an ox, which every now and then he calls Cristóbal. “Tobaaaal,” he goads it on, and the ox obeys and doesn’t complain when, with a practiced, precise motion, he places on its back three drums of milk that he retrieved from the sixteen Holstein cows he just milked. Ramiro lives on a farm that’s a twenty-minute walk from the road on a path paved with stones, which offers a view of the mountains and the sky with rose-colored clouds. The beauty of the milk path, in what Ramiro calls the cold lands. He, the ex-coca leaf farmer and drug runner, is from the hot lands.

“Seventy-eight stitches,” he says.

“Wow!” is my only answer, partly because I’m impressed, and partly because it’s all I can say on the second hill we’re climbing to deliver the milk to the storage tank, after walking a kilometer up and downhill. On the recording I made with my cell phone you can hear me breathing like an old man.

“It was me and him, I opened his chest here, right here…” and he draws a line across his shirt to show how he sliced the other man’s entire torso.

“But...he survived?” I ask, incredulous.

“Yeah, it was incredible, but the man was breathing,” he explains, and one imagines the man’s organs, pulsating, resisting death.

“And then the paramilitaries jumped me and took my machete away.”

Alfredo Srur, Geovany no quiere ser Rambo

It was a Sunday. We decided to leave Medellin to visit some villages and the farm where my boyfriend’s family raises dairy cows. My brother-in-law lent us his car. My sister-in-law, a veterinarian, drives like no one else: for eight years she’s been taking this winding road that leaves behind the landscape of the brick-red city nestled on the hillsides of the Valle de Aburrá. My boyfriend’s family, like many families in Antioquia, invests in cows. The veterinarian—a charming woman who is close to fifty but doesn’t look it—roams through the mountains like a young calf. Like all veterinarians, she’s full of stories: she knows the countryside and its ins-and-outs like the back of her hand, this unbearable Gaza Strip all sides can kill you in what in Colombia is called the “armed conflict”—something that has happened to the majority of her friends. Tiz, a veterinarian, is also a survivor.

“Tóbal!” Ramiro commands the ox.

“Tóbal!” his four-year-old son repeats. 

We arrive in Tiz’s village just after noon. First we pass through a town where we stop for some potato-filled empanadas that by tradition are sold at the door to the church before Mass. The church bells ring, and the altar boy walks by with young widows, all dressed in black and holding a rosary in their hands. It’s the Day of Atonement. Then, in the next town, San Pedro de los Milagros, with its immense cathedral, the streets are packed with the faithful. A procession with the Black Christ, a relic from the 1700s kept in a museum, is assembling. At the church door, men wearing hats and rubber boots gather to talk. They’ve come down from their farms for provisions and maybe a little something to drink. Ramiro usually comes down to the village every fifteen days. On arriving, I saw from a distance an image from a Renaissance painting: children with their mother and father under a canopy. The father is milking a cow. The children play with the cows as if they were dogs. I greeted them and collapsed, exhausted, on the grass, and stayed there, lying in the sun, for the first thirty minutes, until I recovered. They were talking about la Manuela, a pregnant cow that would give birth that night, though at that point things seemed to be going slowly.

“And I arrived, and eight days later the man… My cousin, the traitor, the one I slashed with a machete, came to make peace with me. And I said, look mister, you’re no cousin of mine, I mean, you’re nothing to me, not a friend, not a cousin, nothing. I’ll return the greeting if you make one, but otherwise, don’t think I’ll speak to you again. About fifteen days later he sent someone with a machete. He caught me sleeping, my head on a bar counter. When I woke up I was in Yarumal, slashed seven times.

“He attacked you?”

“That’s right.”

“And after what your cousin did, you recovered?”

“Yeah, more or less….I was cut here—” and he points to what looks like a branding mark on his face. “And here on my shoulder, and this one, right down to the bone—” on his hand. “I’m a little bent over, but I still have the strength to milk cows.”

“Shit, that must have hurt.”

Behind us walk his three children, his wife, and the landowner, Tiz.

“They put Ramiro together again so that he could live, they gathered up the pieces and stuck them together,” Tiz says, and everyone laughs.

“And he’s better than ever, right?” I ask.

“Well, at least he learned something…” Tiz says.

“At least he learned his lesson,” Ramiro’s wife adds.

Back in those days the life of this campesino from the cold lands was different.

“I was a mule driver. Here’s where I put the bag of rice...”

It’s a private joke. The bag of rice was the bag of basic paste that would travel on secret roads from a township called “El 15” to a farm six hours away by foot. When the two women say he learned something, they mean he learned what his life was worth: that is, working illegally, as part of the narco machine, whatever it’s called, he knew he could get killed at any moment. He sums it up: “If you’re tough, if you get involved, you either die or you have to kill to get out alive.” And before he was a “mule driver” he was a raspachín, a boy who harvested—literally, “scraped”—coca leaf. That’s how he learned what he calls the bad life, or the life of crime.

“That money is pure evil. If they say you have to kill this guy, you go kill him and get paid. If you don’t, you’ll be killed. Now, on the other hand, you take the little you make on these cows and you can throw parties, you have enough to buy your things and send your mother some money. Three hundred thousand pesos every two weeks from this work is worth more than a million pesos every two weeks from the other.”

“And you can enjoy them,” Tiz adds.

“And you can enjoy them, without fear, without anything,” Ramiro says.

“What’s more dangerous, harvesting the coca leaf or transporting it?”

“It’s the same. But if she’s a guerrilla—” and he uses his wife as an example — “and she gives me three bags, if I’m a drug runner I can’t say no. I have to take them. Later on the army will ask me, whose is this? ‘This is so-and-so’s, they’re sending it to x place.’ Either way I’m dead, by one or the other.”

We arrive at the large drum where the milk is stored. Tiz shares it with another campesino in the area, and while Ramiro and I are deep in conversation, a boy no more than fourteen years old appears with his own ox and three full cans of milk. They call him El Sarco, Green Eyes. He’s not from the mountains, either, but he’s become part of the place. He escaped, as have so many others, from the violence elsewhere. Ramiro explains that you may be from the hot lands, but you can’t go back any longer. He says he’s an outsider there. It’s been four years since he’s seen his mother, but he sends her a monthly allowance and bought her a cell phone; they talk all the time.

“One of my brothers works in a gas station and another lives near my mother, but they don’t help her at all. Two were killed because they left the army and the guerrillas were afraid they’d become paramilitaries. One was killed by a stray bullet.”

We talk for a long time about cows and about sunsets. And one arrives, its light glowing between the clouds, in colors that one believes, that one imagines, to be somewhat unreal. There is a stark contrast between its beauty and those lives. I think: there must be to an outsider. Outsider, that word we don’t use here. That word that seems worth recovering. To be an outsider, to stop being an outsider. To be from the hot lands. To fly away to the cold lands. Ramiro knows it well.


Translated by Margaret B. Carson