Ocatvio and the witch


'We have a problem,’ warned Adriano. ‘Octavio says the mango tree is haunted.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, he is convinced it is inhabited by a witch.’

The mango tree in question took pride of place in the courtyard at Rancho Grande, the abandoned coffee farm we bought in 2001.

With coffee prices at an all time low and guerrillas kidnapping anybody rich enough to own a refrigerator, nobody wanted a farm, let alone a coffee farm.

Rancho Grande was close to the town of Anserma Caldas, in the heart of the Eje Cafetera; the coffee growing region of Colombia. It had a principal house, three other houses, stables, a bar and a swimming pool; all evidence of the high lifestyle enjoyed by the previous owner before he was forced to spend more than a year captive in the jungle, and the coffee market crashed.

The farm had been surrendered to the bank, which then had it on its books for six years, during which time the house stood empty and the many hectares of old coffee became encrusted with weeds.

It was very affordable and would give us somewhere to stay when we came to Colombia. We made a silly offer, and it was accepted.

Octavio, who looked after the animals—pigs, chickens, ducks, geese—and acted as caretaker in our absence, was our only employee.

The mango tree was decades old and as tall as the house, but had never borne fruit. In fact, the local legend was that our mango tree was gay. Octavio thought this very funny, especially as the new Patrons were too. But he gave it some care and attention and within a month it was flowering.

Our gay mango tree was producing fruit. If that wasn’t some sort of sign, I don’t know what it was. Magic maybe? I thought back to my García Márquez books and wondered.

However, by then I already knew that one should never take anything for granted when it comes to Colombia.

My relationship with Colombia really started in October 1985 when I met Adriano. We had both arrived in London earlier that year—me from Sydney, Australia, and he from Anserma—and what started from a chance encounter continues to this day.

At that time, Adriano had very little English and I spoke no Spanish. I also knew very little about Colombia. What I did know resulted from the time I had battled with Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude some years earlier. I eventually finished it after such a protracted period that I’d forgotten how it started.

On our first date, I invited a friend of mine along as she spoke Spanish (along with five other languages) and could act as interpreter. I also bought a book entitled Learn Spanish in Three Months. I still have it, and it’s not true.

Adriano and I visited Australia in 1987 and 1988, but it wasn’t until 1990 that I first ventured to Colombia. Certainly we had talked about going, but there didn’t seem to be too pressing a need, in my mind anyway. I was quite happy to commit to “looking forward” to a visit, some time in the future. When my bluff was called, I had no choice but to agree.

Friends in the UK were horrified. It was the height of the drug wars; presidential candidate Luis Galán had been assassinated the previous August; Pablo Escobar was locked in mortal combat with the government; bombs were going off in Medellin and Bogotá; sicarios (hit-men) were assassinating everyone from judges through to journalists, and here were Adriano and I heading off into the midst of it. I can’t deny a certain amount of trepidation.

What transpired was a wonderful experience. We hired a car and drove 8,000 kilometres, from one end of Colombia to the other. We descended from temperate plateaus to tropical valleys, feeling the temperature climb from 16 to 33 degrees Celsius in the space of 30 minutes. We took mountain roads that climbed up through the clouds; followed immense river valleys; traversed grassy plains that reminded me of dairy pastureland in New South Wales; passed massive volcanoes and were enveloped in tropical rainforest. We pushed south into Ecuador to reach as far as Baños, bordering the Amazon, and north until we were standing on the massive walls of the historic city of Cartagena, looking out over the Caribbean.

Over the course of those 8,000 kilometres we suffered eight flat tires and I put on three kilos. The roads were very rough in places; the hospitality overwhelming everywhere. I had a certain amount of acclimatization to endure, such as giving up trying to plan anything more than an hour ahead, and being prepared to dance after dinner, even if I didn’t know how to lead, but overall it was a deeply satisfying and enjoyable journey. Incidentally, in Cartagena, in just a few days, I read Love in the Time of Cholera, and understood for the first time that magic realism is not a literary conceit.

So it was with that lingering memory of magic in mind that I encouraged Adriano in his search for an apartment, house or small farm, in or around Anserma, which we could buy.

And as a result we acquired Rancho Grande—and the bewitched mango tree.

Was there really a witch as Octavio claimed, or was it just a delusion that we could turn into a magical García Márquez moment?

The answer might be obvious to you, but as I had discovered, witches do exist in Colombia, and not just in folklore and legend. Every town has at least one, and they are usually pretty busy providing spells, potions and remedies for a myriad of conditions, both natural and supernatural. Local people often consult a witch if they want someone to fall in love with them, and also if they want to get even with someone who has fallen out of love with them. In the case of a separating couple, it is not unusual for each party to have their own witch, casting spells against their former partner and protecting them from being cursed in return.

A so-called “witch” has even been elected to parliament in Colombia.

Regina Betancourt, commonly known as Regina Once, was a presidential candidate in the 1994 Colombian Presidential Elections. This “witch,” more formally called a mentalist and spiritualist, was the leader of the Unitarian Methapolitic Movement (Movimiento Unitario Metapolitico). Her symbol was the witch’s traditional mode of transport—a broom. Regina Once vowed to use her broom to sweep away the garbage of corruption plaguing politics and government. I believe she was a member of Congress for a period.

Electing a witch to Congress may seem a bit exotic, but it is no more bizarre than the Italians electing porn star Ilona “La Ciccolina” Staller as an MP. Granted, La Ciccolina used to bare her breasts to boost her popularity. Regina Once didn’t do that but she has, by many reports, been levitating since she was eleven, so I suppose it’s only natural that she might aspire to high office by appealing to floating voters.

The first time I encountered this supernatural side to Colombia was during the first week of my first visit to the country back in 1990.

We had driven from Bogotá to Tóbia, which was then a small village situated at the junction of the Tóbia and Negro rivers, separated from its neighbouring town by a 30-foot bridge. These days I understand it is a holiday destination and centre for adventure sports such as white water rafting and canoeing.

Tóbia was very small; one street lined with shops and houses. It sits in a river valley, surrounded by high hills that might easily be mountains. They weren’t high enough to be snow capped, but they were certainly high enough to be impressive. Halfway up one was a large white cross, placed there to protect the pueblo from landslides. On a lower hill, however, across the Rio Negro, is a smaller cross, erected above a cave in which the Devil used to sing. The entire population of Tóbia, led by the priest, exorcised the site and the cross protects them from the Devil’s return.

I was told this tale over a beer with some local friends in one of the town’s two cantinas. Just as Jorge (who has lived in Tóbia all his life, and took part in the exorcism) reached the climax of the story, there was a loud explosion next door. It was my first time in Colombia, my first time outside of Bogotá, in the midst of the drug wars, and there was a loud explosion. Well, what would you have thought? I suppose you might have said, ‘Obviously a game of tejo?’ And you would have been right, but as it was, I only just avoided dropping my beer and staved off the almost irresistible desire to throw myself onto the floor.

“Tejo” is a very popular game in Colombia, certainly in the Paisa region, which is our region. It is a cross between bowls and boules, played with similar balls, but with a very Colombian twist. The object, as in the other games, is to throw your ball as close to the target as possible. The closest ball or balls, win the round. The difference with tejo is that a direct hit on the target makes it explode (thanks to a charge of gunpowder) providing a satisfying “bang” for the players, and a mild panic attack for nearby first-time visitors.

As it turned out we spent the night in Tóbia. The following day, the town was going to celebrate the Festival de Caña, which is held on the Feast of St Peter, and Jorge was going to be busy all afternoon building the bullring for the fiesta. We decided to have lunch and head back to Bogotá. There was only one restaurant in Tóbia however, and they only offered chicken, and it wasn’t yet ready. In fact it was still running around the yard at the back, so they asked us to come back later.

We helped Jorge for a while, holding bamboo poles while he lashed them together to form the fence for the Plaza de Toros. The next day, those boys who were foolhardy or drunk enough would prove their machismo by tormenting some young bulls for the entertainment of the rest of the town. It was not a question of life or death, for the bulls at least; more like an annoying afternoon. The boys however could, and often did, get injured. But hey, what was a festival without some drama?

We eventually ate the chicken around 8.00pm, and it was one of the meals I remember best from that first trip; a wonderful flavour accompanied by delightfully friendly service. All the drinks we had enjoyed throughout the day, and continued to enjoy as the night wore on, precluded driving anywhere, and Jorge and his wife Miriam invited us to stay the night.

Saturday morning, the day of the fiesta, started at 6.00am with the whoosh and crack of fireworks. Our morning ablutions were performed in the slightly chilly Rio Negro, and as we dried off on the rocky bank, warming up in the morning sunshine, I gazed at the cave with its protective cross and wondered what the Devil’s singing voice and his song had been like. Apparently everyone in town had heard it, and they were exercised enough for an exorcism.

More recently, we heard another story of the supernatural from a taxi driver who was bringing us back to Rancho Grande from a weekend visit to Pereira, the nearest city.

It seems that another taxi driver was driving along a back road on the outskirts of the city, through an area famous for evil deeds and unexplained phenomena, when his headlights picked up a large black cat in the middle of the road. He braked and it leapt onto his bonnet. It had horns. In an instant, it got in through his open window and shredded him, his clothes, and the interior of his cab, with its claws. The police answered his distress radio call to find him unconscious, shredded, but with money, valuables and gun (taxi drivers often have one) all present and correct. He came to, in hospital, remembering only what I have related here.

I asked our taxi driver what he thought had happened, and he said it was a mystery, but privately he thought that it was the devil, whom he believes resides in that bad area, taking a personal hand in bedevilling mankind. According to the television news, the police think the driver may have been drugged by a potential thief, but cannot explain any of the associated details.

However, it is not only elsewhere that strange phenomena occur. We heard that the Devil has been manifesting himself in Anserma, appearing as a butterfly with a one-metre wide wingspan and a horned satanic head. Apart from being huge, the wings also sport numbers that change as they flap. The reactions to this apparition are varied. On one hand, people are terrified and cross themselves to ward off evil, and on the other, they jot down the numbers appearing on the wings and use them for lotto entries. No news yet of anyone becoming possessed or winning big, but it is still early days.

Curiously, even the hard-bitten realists tend to believe in the paranormal. Adriano’s father, Don Narciso, ex-police sergeant and long term coffee farmer, suffers from arthritis and was telling us that a man told him he had been cursed by a witch and that he, the man, had the cure.

‘What was the cure?’ I asked, thinking that belief might overcome infirmity.

‘To give the man a load of money,’ snorted Don Narciso, ‘and he would lift the spell. I would rather keep the arthritis. At least it didn’t cost me anything.’ I was right about belief, just wrong about what defined the articles of faith.

And I was sure there was some natural explanation for the witch that Octavio believed resided in our mango tree.

For some time apparently, there had been an intermittent rustling and disturbance up in the leaves of the tree.

‘Birds,’ I said.

‘No, a witch,’ exclaimed Octavio.

‘A possum,’ I suggested.

‘A witch!’ insisted Octavio. What’s more, he complained that the witch was laughing at him. On hearing this, the conviction that the bedevilment was more likely to be in Octavio’s head than in the mango tree was becoming stronger. Octavio, in our experience, was a nice guy, very good with the animals, a tireless worker, and honest, but not overly bright. As with many agricultural workers, his education had not taken up too much of his youth.

Our friend Andrew was visiting from London and was intrigued by the suggestion that witches might actually exist, let alone inhabit the mango tree. Many discussions about superstition and the supernatural took place of an evening as we swung in our hammocks and sipped our gin and tonics.

Adriano was less skeptical, having encountered inexplicable phenomena in his youth. He had once dreamt that a friend from school was standing at the foot of his bed. The next day, the friend announced that he could travel outside his body and that his spirit had visited Adriano the night before, describing the circumstances exactly as Adriano had dreamt them. An unnoticed physical visit would have been impossible, what with the gates, fences, locked doors and windows, not to mention Bless, the German Shepherd guard dog, so maybe he really could leave his body. Adriano kept an open mind.

Octavio was certain, however, that magic happens and the witch in the mango tree, with all the rustling and bustling, was taking the piss. He was so enraged that at one point he rushed out brandishing our shotgun, ready to blast the bruja back to where she came from.

Calm prevailed and the gun was returned to its cupboard, but the issue hung in the air. Andrew, a sculptor and rationalist, pondered the matter over a few more drinks and eventually went and stood under the mango tree peering into its canopy, still now except for the gentle movement of the Spanish Moss that hung from its branches and which reacts to the slightest breeze.

‘So witch?’ he shouted. ‘Are you there? Show yourself!’

At that, there was a splash in the pool just around the corner. It was a quiet night and the sound reverberated around the courtyard. Andrew rushed to see what had made the noise and found a large guava bobbing in the pool, with ripples emanating out from it towards the edge of the pool. Not so strange except for the fact that there are no guava trees around the pool, nor anywhere near it. Octavio announced that the witch had quit the tree and the guava signified her departure. The disturbance in the leaves stopped and all was calm thereafter.

Andrew was very perplexed, his confidence not quite as unshakeable. Was the peripatetic guava a sign of supernatural manifestation, or just an act of nature? He left for London soon after, still pondering the imponderable.

We eventually decided that the whole episode had a rather mundane explanation. Fruit bats were visiting the mango tree and causing the disturbance that had so disturbed Octavio, and it was most likely one of those fruit bats that dropped the guava while flying over the pool, losing a tasty snack and sewing fear and confusion amongst the household.

Of course Octavio would have none of it, and anyway witches often turned themselves into bats, everyone knows that; just as everyone who has read his books knows that Gabriel García Márquez had a great imagination. Or maybe he was just writing what he knew—recounting what to us is inexplicable, but which in Colombia is part of the daily warp and weft of life.

What do I believe?

What I believe is that it’s easy to think that we can judge fact from fantasy; that we know what is possible and what is impossible; and that there is always a logical explanation for everything.

What I know is, that when I am in Colombia, whether I understand it or not, I am always glad to be alive.

Barry Max Wills

Barry Max Wills is half Australian, half British and half Colombian. For the past 35 years he has been a freelance writer for the corporate sector, writing everything from EXPO pavilion visitor experiences to print, films, videos and speeches, for clients in Europe, Asia and Australia. For the past 13 years, however, he also has been a coffee farmer and Colombian neophyte; avidly looking, listening and learning as he and his partner Adriano navigate the passion, peril and pleasure involved in growing fine Arabica coffee in the Colombian Andes.

Very much a stranger in a strange land, Barry has not only learnt to dance to a different beat but has also documented the process, along with his ever-evolving relationship with his adopted country, in his Letters From Colombia, an ongoing narrative enjoyed by several hundred subscribers on three continents. In response to demands from readers, Letters From Colombia are currently being expanded and developed into a book. You can see more at LettersFromColombia.com


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