They Call Me Memphis Mike
A Memphis Native’s Colombian Life
Photographs and text by Michael Evans
Author’s Note: The following text is an edited excerpt from my new book, My Colombia: The First Seven Years, which features a collection of photographs I’ve taken throughout Colombia. See more information about the new book at the end of this article. The article also appears on my website, Michael Evans Photography.
The story of how a Memphis dreamer landed in rural Colombia is too long to tell in detail. After all, I wouldn’t want to bore you. I’ll give you an abstract sketch of what I’ve run into from there to here, but don’t expect it to make any sense.
I sometimes think of life’s chapters as a quilt of mismatched swatches never intended as companions. Over the years I’ve crossed paths with teachers and politicians, celebrities and grifters, leaders and terrorists, humble natives and greedy interlopers. I’ve stayed in luxury hotels and slept rough beside the sea, sold ice to fishermen and helped launch technology. I’ve witnessed political unrest in a foreign nation and marveled at whales in an ocean wilderness. I’ve seen dreams shattered and new visions emerge, industries rise and then fall, nations achieve peace and families tear themselves apart. I’ve felt the rejection of loved ones for returning home and the acceptance of strangers for being an oddity in a rejected land.
If I knew today was my last, I’d tell you I’ve learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. But as proof of my existence, I’d offer you a collection of pictures I’ve taken along the way.
It’s 6:25 a.m. when the clanging bell of the garbage truck awakens me. I stumble through the house heading toward the door, where Buddy waits for me to set him free. He isn’t really my dog, but he thinks he is and thinks my house is his, too. He’ll spend part of his day at the butcher shop, where he’ll get bones and scraps of meat, before going to Señora Amanda’s store, where he’ll sprawl spread-eagled in the middle of the floor, while Amanda’s husband feeds him pieces of salchichón. Such is the life of the most beloved street dog in Barrio Protecho.
I live two houses away from the town’s biggest park, Villa Olímpica. On weekends, from dawn until dusk, the motocross kids rev their engines and leap from one dirt mound to the next, as their neighbors play basketball or tennis, or splash around in the pool. The other day I saw a dog chasing a bull on the soccer field in the middle of a match, which, oddly, isn’t so unusual. From time to time, an old-fashioned circus sets up a tent in the park for a week or two of shows. When they’re in town, I can set my watch by the firing of the cannon that launches an acrobat through the air each night at 7:00 and 10:00 p.m.
Downtown, the main plaza has a park, too, which is why, I suppose, they call it Parque Principal and not Plaza Principal. By the way, the name of this town is Líbano, Colombia, a place most people haven’t heard of before, situated five hours west of Bogotá. To get here by bus from the capital, you have to travel down the end of the plateau, through a narrow valley, over a mountain, through the Magdalena River Valley, and halfway up another mountain. I recommend taking a Dramamine® tablet before you get started and another one in Vianí, the halfway point.
LLíbano sits in the middle of the Tolima Department’s coffee region. The Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia has an office and warehouse here, where farmers deposit their harvests and collect their pay. You probably know of Juan Valdez and his trusty mule, Conchita. Juan isn’t just a fictional character in coffee commercials; he’s the trademarked mascot of the federation — invented in 1969 — and through the magic of casting, he always remains young and fit. And although Juan always looks a little too clean and well-groomed for doing manual labor, his outfit is spot on, because Colombian coffee farmers still wear straw hats and ponchos, still strap machetes to their belts, and some still bring their harvests to market on the backs of mules.
That’s not to say Líbano is behind the times. People here follow trends and keep up with new technologies, but traditions die hard around here. Everyone, except me, has a smartphone, and the cable TV companies recently upgraded their customers to satellite dishes. You’ll find internet cafes in every neighborhood and the government just installed free Wi-Fi in Parque Principal. On the other hand, if you wanted to move a refrigerator from one house to another, you’d call on a horse and wagon team to handle the job.
I still see little kids shooting marbles and spinning wooden tops on sidewalks, while teenagers rocket past them on skateboards. Colombians tend to choose an activity in their youth and stick with it for life. So if you see a kid riding a wheelie on his bike today, he’ll likely graduate to touring gear and full riding attire by the time he’s an adult. August is kite-flying season, and while some folks like to show off their fancy manufactured kit, most people here like to make kites with bamboo strips and craft paper.
As I step back inside after depositing the trash, Cyndi Lou, my glamorous kitty, beckons me to come back to bed for a while and I oblige without hesitation. Buddy comes and goes at will, like a young prince making demands on his court, but Cyndi is my constant companion, except when she’s on a hunt. In the early evening she hovers around the outdoor sink, waiting to leap up and capture moths and beetles that flutter and creep around the light. She’s an insect connoisseur, and instinctively knows what’s safe and what’s not, which is good, because Colombia has flying insects the size of bats.
By 8:00 a.m. the streets are buzzing with vendors. The tamales man peddles by on his bicycle, barking his never-changing spiel, as a produce seller announces the prices of his fruits and veggies. “Plantains, seven for two thousand pesos. Tomatoes, one pound for one thousand pesos. Avocados, one thousand pesos a piece. Fresh mangoes, papaya, bananas, lulo, passion fruit, guanabana…” You’ve probably never heard of some of those fruits, and I hadn’t either, before I moved to Colombia. Most produce comes from family farms or commercial growers in the Magdalena River Valley, one of several agricultural sectors that produce everything from sugar cane to cotton.
Líbano sits above a well-known spot in the valley — notorious, really — where the town of Armero once existed. In 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, sending a giant lahar down the mountainside and into the valley. Unaware of their peril, Armero residents never stood a chance as the massive mudslide engulfed the town, killing 23,000 people. The Red Cross set up an evacuation and triage center in Villa Olímpica, and six inches of ash blanketed Líbano. For days, parents sent their children to school wearing gas masks, and one fearful mother wrote her contact information in permanent marker on the flesh of her son’s back. One of my Colombian relatives told me the harrowing tale of a family member, an Armero resident, who arrived in Líbano wrapped in a blanket, after losing his wife and children, house, and all of his belongings, including his clothes. Today, only a few concrete slabs and a giant cross remain where Armero stood. As I write this story, the volcano belches steam and spits ash, threatening to erupt again.
Mid-afternoon a pair or blue-gray tanagers land in the cordoncillo tree, which towers above the edge of the roof, after making its humble start through a crack in the patio’s concrete. Cyndi Lou pokes her head out from underneath a blanket and peers out the window, captivated by the beautiful birds. Around the corner, dozens of yellow canaries perch on the electrical wires, waiting for the kindly neighbor to toss out a handful of rice, their favorite afternoon treat. Near sunset, a variety of small birds will appear, flying chaotically at first, before ending in a beautifully choreographed finale of thrusts and dives toward airborne insects.
I hear a strange clomping noise and when I glance out the window I see Hushpuppy dolled up in a new pink dress, eating an ice cream cone, and wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes that look at least three sizes too big. My partner and I call her Hushpuppy because as a young child she used to run around almost naked, with her ungroomed hair sticking out in all directions, like the main character — Hushpuppy — in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Today, she’s a beautiful young girl — probably eight or nine years old by now — who commands the attention of all the neighborhood children.
Daily, a group of mothers and their children meets on the sidewalk outside my house. North Americans might call this a “play date” but folks here just consider it a routine. Little Samuel shuffles his feet to propel his plastic bicycle and Wallace toddles around in his cowboy costume. Hushpuppy holds tea parties in front of my door and often steals the water containers I set out for Buddy and his amigos.
In downtown Líbano, Café Moka sits at the corner of Parque Principal. Situated in a traditional colonial-style building, pairs of double doors open to create an open-air setting. Waitresses hop to and fro, taking orders for coffee and desserts, while baristas work in steamy clouds behind a counter adorned with an antique coffee percolator and modern espresso machine. Scattered throughout the café, businesspeople chat about their work, families catch up on life’s happenings, politicians plot their campaign strategies, and coffee farmers sip the fruits of their labor from dainty porcelain cups.
Across the street, under the cover of ancient oak trees draped with Spanish moss, merchants fry potato chips, grill arepas and pinchos, pop popcorn, and swirl soft-serve ice cream from machines powered by generators. In the center of the plaza, children take turns driving miniature electric cars, or riding an old-fashioned toy horse, while dealers hawk everything from used books to leather belts.
The Catholic cathedral occupies one corner of the plaza, its doors opened wide, revealing its ornate alter. Along one side of the plaza sits the vacant remains of the Yep department store, beside the Superdiamante supermarket, where people buy packaged foods from cluttered aisles and overstuffed shelves. At night, revelers will flood the square, drawn by the pounding music of the discos and the lust for love and drink.
Jeeps and old-style chiva buses, with loads of groceries, farm supplies, and bunches of plantains piled high on their roofs, line the streets around the market. Nearby stores cater to farm families with a mishmash of goods: fertilizers, seeds for kitchen gardens, live chicks and ducklings, pet foods and livestock medications, fabrics for making clothes and curtains, and kitchen staples such as rice, panela, lentils, and frijoles.
In the center of the market, folks sell fresh fruits and vegetables, often picked before sunrise and still covered with soil. Along one side, merchants sell burlap coffee sacks, homemade barbeque grills, tinctures, and fresh herbs. The row of herb stands supplies spices for Líbano’s kitchens and plants used in traditional medicines. On New Year’s Day and birthdays, townsfolk prepare a bath with seven types of plants and flowers — a practice I’ve adopted, too — meant to wash away the negativity of the past and promote prosperity and good health for the future.
As the sun fades, Cyndi Lou caresses my ankle, signaling that it’s time for her special treat, a few spoonfuls of tuna. The smell of grilled chorizos wafts past my window from the corner fast food stand and I hear mothers calling their young ones home for dinner. In the distance, Buddy barks at strangers, as the Colombian national anthem plays on televisions sets and radios. A neighbor blasts Vallenato music, as a tiny lizard darts across my wall. The high school marching band practices in the park, while a nearby monastery broadcasts Gregorian chants over its public address system. Later, as my head hits the pillow, a gentle rain will fall on the tin roof, lulling me to sleep.
Another day has passed, not unlike yesterday, or the day before that. But unlike so many other places where I’ve lived, my Andean home reminds me daily that life is all around me. Life makes a sound and has an image and a smell. It’s chaos and ballet, death and birth, war and love, played out at the same time.
This is my Colombia.