Happy Easter everybody and I would like to share an Easter story from the seventies.
I was a teenager in the wild sixties and before you ask, yes I did inhale; but I digress. The transition from the fifties to the sixties was turbulent : as a child in the fifties we grew up in a time of trust and a time of plenty and even the poor folks like us lived a good and simple life. When we entered the sixties we became self indulgent and much more complicated as a society but I managed not to drop out and kept to the mainstream path; got an education in electronics and did many useful and productive projects for the private and public sectors. But as the seventies matured I had this built up wanderlust that screamed at me from morning until night like some flashback from the sixties.
So 1976 was my time to spread my wings and explore the world and I took the opportunity.
I arrived in Barranquilla Columbia and stayed in the only hotel that I had booked in advance and it was not a Holiday Inn. If I wanted a taste of danger and excitement I got it. As the taxi pulled up to the hotel I saw was two large barn-like wooden doors and a sign above saying Hotel Victoria. I went to jump out of the cab; the driver screamed No. He honked the horn a few times until a long narrow flap in the gate opened and two pairs of eyes stared out. A few moments later the gate opened and two men with shotguns game out and stood beside the cab. Then a young man came out to get my bags and I was told I could now leave the cab.
This port town was a little tougher then I had wanted so I shortened my stay and made my way to the most delicious of the Colombian seaside resorts, Cartagena. It was not too long before I had company. I met new friends in Cartagena on a trip from a Colombian university I was delighted with my good fortune; they were fun to be with, knew English and was very interested in Canada and me. I had just won the lottery again and together we explored Cartagena, a city whose architecture was more Spanish than in Spain and played on the white sands of Bocagrande. After about a week, one of them decided to show me that Colombia was more than just fun and sun. We traveled by bus from Cartagena to Bogotá and then on to Colombia’s third largest city, Cali.
Traveling through the Colombia’s small winding mountain roads on a bus was an adventure onto itself. My friend told me that in Colombia the military used the public transportation system and most of the time the bus we were on would be filled with soldiers. This paticular group of combat soldiers was frightening and they made it clear that they did not like me. At each stop, as the bus broke down often, they got progressively more hostile with me “the gringo” until I brought out my Canadian passport. It was an old trick, but thankfully it worked.
With a gleeful “Canadiense” I was adopted as a friend and given a slug of a national drink called aguardiente, a fascinating mixture of anise and alcohol. It was very strong and very difficult to drink, but it seemed better than getting beaten up or worse by these soldiers that were around us all the time. In fact, by then I had surmised that Colombia was a very dangerous country and I felt safer that we had had made some new friends that carried guns. Like Canada, Colombia was in the process of going through its own massive cultural and political changes and those changes meant that danger lurked everywhere in this South American paradise.
Throughout the seventies, Colombia’s illegal drug trade grew steadily, as the drug cartels amassed huge amounts of money, weapons, and influence. The 1970’s also saw the growth of leftist guerrilla groups such as May 19th movement (M-19) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) along with a number of other violent organizations. If I wanted danger I was right in the middle of it, but somehow that strange feeling of invincibility kept me from being too alarmed.
One night my friend asked me if I wanted to accompany her to a political rally. I had always had an interest in International politics, and I accepted. I had been intrigued with Colombia’s political history, because of its rich mix of military juntas and assassinations, since the 1948 Inter-American Conference. This led to a decade of civil strife, martial law and violent riots, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We bussed to the rally, with the usual contingent of soldiers around us, and I became a stronger Canadian as a result.
The rally turned out to be for the communist party and quite a radical event. I wondered what Bill Porter might say if he had seen me at a rally screening a Cuban-funded film that had a Gerald Ford look-alike slaughtering children. A few thousand communist Colombians were cheering the film. It was a highly flammable night as the crowd started to chant “Kill America.” I, for reasons of personal safety, kept my blue eyes down and my gringo mouth shut. It was a time of true patriotic awakening for this young Ottawa- born technologist and I realized, deep inside my heart that Canada was the best and safest place in the world to live and prosper. It was another wonderful lesson that you can only achieve through travel. When we reached the bus and saw the usual contingent of soldiers, I felt somewhat relieved and safe.
After leaving the rally we made that long bus ride back to her father’s house in Cali and my EASTER STORY begins
It was the Holy week of Easter in Colombia and as we drew closer to the city of Cali , which sits almost a thousand meters above sea-level, I noticed a steady stream of peasants walking along the side of the highway. In tribute to the crucifixion of Christ these true Christians would walk 10 to 30 miles to reach the Monumento de las Tres Cruces. These three mountain top crosses would be where the pilgrimage would end. Entire families would make this journey during the Semana Santa, which was the most important Catholic religious festival in Colombia. The week begins on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and goes through to Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday). Each day of the week had its own rituals and saw processions through the streets with participants on their knees or carrying large wooden crosses. I had the opportunity to witness families expressing their devotion and commitment to their faith. They made the harsh trek over foothills and mountains to come to this mountain top and give thanks. At the time, I remember admiring their willpower and their dedication, which obviously filled them with spiritual inner peace.
Once in Cali, thousands upon thousands would hike to the top of the western mountains to pray at the feet of the giant crosses that overlooked the city. They would pray as individuals from the pilgrimage acted out the 12 Stations of the Cross. At the top, they would continue to silently pray as priests spoke the last seven words—las siete palabras– of Jesus: forgive, father, abandoned, thirst, mother/son, paradise and finished. These seven words were considered to summarize the entire Christian message. These simple people had faith and they were at peace in their souls. Although, it would take years for the true impact of Easter in Colombia to affect me, it was another gentle awakening of our need to have faith. And to see the simple yet magnificent sacrifice was a lesson in life and another reminder of how good we have it due to God’s will.
Years later in 1994, my friend Connie called me at home in Ottawa. It had been a long time and I was married with two children. She said she had thought of me often and wanted to see how my life had turned out. She was also married with two children and had moved to Florida to work in the plant importing business. It was clear she had enjoyed the challenge of tracking me down and she invited us to visit Florida. We exchanged pleasantries and I remembered that wonderful Easter in Colmbia when the term sacrifice was etched into my soul.
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