In which desert is LA

Get to know Indians in the desert

In this area live the Wayúu, the largest indigenous ethnic group of Colombia (approx. 150,000 inhabitants, 45% of the population of the province of La Guajira) in terms of their number and the value of their handicrafts. The Wayúu have been famous for some time for the brightly colored bags that Shakira and other stars carry in pictures in fashion magazines. In the meantime, Wayúu bags can be bought all over Europe via the Internet and tourists come to the remote region to satisfy their curiosity and go shopping, which in turn is successfully reflected in the state budget.

But who are the Wayúu? What are their customs and where do their traditions come from? I wanted to use my trip to La Guajira to put myself in the shoes of an anthropologist and to have authentic experiences with the indigenous people. I expected something similar to the case of the Maasai in Africa, who, aware of their attractiveness for tourists, have lost part of their essence in the pursuit of commercial success. Fortunately, that didn't happen to the Wayúu.

I arrive in the Wayúu Nouna community outside Maicao, at 30 degrees in the shade and what appears to be a long rainless time. During the dry season, from May to July, there are severe problems with the drought. And the trade winds bring heat waves that are difficult to bear. Community life is simple and rural. The men tend the sheep and goats, others work in the gardens or make espadrilles from strong threads and cords; the women mainly weave and at the same time devote equal attention to their threads, children and chatting with the other women. It is the first time that I hear Wayuunaiki that 97% of Wayúu speak. It is one of the 65 indigenous languages ​​that persist in Colombia despite centuries of colonization. It sounds strong, but musical, strongly emphasizing the words. 32% of the Wayúu population also speak Spanish.

I am approaching a woman I hear speak Spanish. It caught my attention because she used her big toe to help stretch the thread and create the geometric shapes on the bag. Without lifting her eyes from the fabric, she explained to me that there are many types of bags that they call Susu. There is the Susuchon that men use to store their money and tobacco, the everyday Susu, the bag that Shakira has made a trend, made of wool, fine cotton and colorful cords; and larger bags like the kapetera men use to work. Each figure they draw with the strings has a symbolic meaning: a fish eye, a turtle shell, hoof marks of a horse ... The tradition comes from a spider, Wale Kerü, who taught the Wayúu women to weave. Like the Arachne saga, but in an Indian version.

She is a good example of the role women play in the Wayúu community, fundamental in raising children, crafting and spreading the culture and traditions of the people. Women enjoy a high social and political reputation in society. Paradoxically, however, in the otherwise matriarchal family structure, male polygamy is allowed.

The Wayúu are not the only Indian people who inhabit the region in northern Colombia. Other dozen ethnic groups live in areas of difficult access in the foothills of the mountains near the coast. Some of these places are sacred, so the Indians do not allow you to visit them.

When I leave the community, I get back into the off-road vehicle to cross the desert towards Cabo de Vela. Past the salt mines of Manaure, the most important in the whole country and in earlier times the base of the indigenous economy. Up and down the dunes through sand as if I were at the end of the world. And that's really the feeling you have when you approach the cliffs, at sunset, completely alone. Just me and the silence. Just me and the barren landscape that turns red at this evening hour. Just me and the waves of the Caribbean. I took a deep breath and understand that this region of Colombia has a special mystique. La Guajira means switching off from the world we know, made of cement and concrete, spoiled by economic and political interests, to reunite with the purity of the landscape, life and people.