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Published: November 28th 2008
In the nearly four decades that I've been taking up space on this planet, I've never encountered a place quite as rainy as Salento. Wet seasons in the Amazon can only dream of delivering the quantities of water that the skies above Salento deluged the town with during the four days I was there. There was none of the tropical policy of "afternoons only", with torrential cloudbursts around the clock. To say that it pissed down - a phrase I would hesitate to use in genteel company - would convey a small amount of the frustration that this caused me but would not even begin to hint at quite how monsoonal the experience was. My previous rainiest location, Dali
, was humbled.
In fact the rain was so heavy that the bridge on the main road out of Salento was rendered unusable by the rising level of the river, leaving me cut off from Armenia, a town of dubious delights but harbouring the only bus station from which I could escape the area. And in an ironic twist given how awash with water we were, the supply to Salento was turned off to prevent contamination (or some such - my plumbing
Beans, rice, pork (fat), sausage, plantain, ground beef, fried egg - what's not to like?
Spanish is even worse than my conversational). Thus, as I sat in my room watching slugs inch along the walls to the rhythm of countless pounding raindrops, my hair remained unwashed and a turd stewed, unflushed, in the communal toilet.
I took full advantage of the infrequent bursts of cloudy, dull, but dry weather to investigate the town, and it was unfortunate how unappealing the rain had made it. The main square and surrounding streets were filled with colourfully painted houses and shops that, with even just a glimmer of sunshine, would have looked most picturesque. A lookout over Salento, reached via a flight of steps punctuated by the stations of the cross, would no doubt have been impressive in more summery weather. The mist clinging to the lush green ridges provided atmosphere and a reminder that the moisture in the air was just waiting to precipitate out.
Colombia is the third largest exporter of coffee in the world (cocaine is the other major export that most people might name, but there is also a high-volume trade in cut flowers and pop-up books), and Salento sits in the Zona Cafetera, that part of the country where most of
its coffee growing takes place. One morning, when the rain held off for a couple of hours, I did a tour of a coffee plantation to see the manufacturing process. Frankly it wasn't enormously interesting, but I'm not a coffee drinker so could not have been expected to enjoy it as much as I would, say, a pop-up book farm. Good coffee pickers can earn $25 per day, which doesn't amount to a hill of beans but is still above the national average.
Salento is also a hotbed of tejo
, supposedly Colombia's national sport. This is apparently like a rowdy version of boules, though unfortunately I didn't get to see a game so I only have other people's descriptions. Competitors toss lead weights (tejos
) down an alley that can be 25m long or more, hoping to land in a clay depression in which packets of gunpowder have been placed. Points are awarded for one's tejo
being either the closest to the centre of the clay depression or for exploding one of the gunpowder packets. Mix in regular, obligatory drinking and you have an event that has enough appeal to bring Colombian expats back from around the world in order
to participate in the annual championships.
The long periods of rain made the Internet time-wasting I regularly engage in seem almost excusable. It turned out that on the day I'd left Popayan, there'd been a riot there due to the collapse of a pyramid scheme that had left hundreds of people out of pocket. I recalled seeing crowds hanging around outside of the company's offices in my time there but had had no clue what they were doing. It seems as though pyramid schemes in Colombia sometimes do follow through on their promises as they can be used to launder drug money - though not in this case.
With much of my time having to be spent in the hostel, I was pleased to make friends with the large fluffy white cat also living there, which gladly curled up on my lap and also surprised me one evening by suddenly appearing on one of the rafters in my room. My meals were disappointing, as the food options rarely differed from the meat/carbs template I'd seen elsewhere in the country. I tried a bandeja paisa
, a dish hailing from Medellin that combined rice, beans, sausage, pork fat, ground beef
and a fried egg in a way that left me wondering why on earth I'd thought it might be appetising.
I had hoped to visit a park near Salento containing examples of the wax palm that is Colombia's national tree, but with rain seemingly guaranteed for the foreseeable future I decided to make a break for sunnier climes.
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