Buga: Week 247

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

Barret was out on the balcony with a cold glass of beer. I laid down on the double bed and listened to the motorcycles drive by on the street below. I’d heard that sound before, years ago, the echo of small engines bouncing off brick buildings and fading into a maze of narrow streets. It’s the sound of a South American vacation.

Balcony view from the Buga Hostel and Brewery: Buga, Colombia

During a four-day weekend, Barret and I had traveled three hours south of Manizales to a small town not quite on the tourist trail. Buga had a dry December heat and an influx of pilgrims visiting the Basilica del Señor de los Milagros. The plaza surrounding the church was filled with gift shops, old men selling lotto tickets and anyone else looking for a miracle.

Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

The pews were packed on a Sunday afternoon and the line to pray at the feet of the black Jesus only shortened during mass. The revered Señor de los Milagros, famous for the color of its material and its skirts, was visible through a glass panel behind the pulpit.

Leaving the basilica, we walked out onto Calle 4. It was filled with relic shopkeepers eager to usher us into their stores.

Exvoto plaques for Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

Off of Carrera 14a was a museum dedicated to the basilica. The majority of the walls were dedicated to exvotos. These are offerings that the public gives in honor of blessings received. They came in a variety of forms – from marble plaques to letters sent with military medals or baby clothes.

Parque Cabal, a few blocks over, was filled with iguanas. A booth selling cholados was set up at the southern corner of the park. Manizales is too cold for shaved ice desserts, but not Buga. The ice was sweetened with generous portions of fruit and covered in condensed milk.

Iguana in Parque Cabal: Buga, Colombia

After dinner with a friend, Barret and I spent the rest of the evening on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. The afternoon heat lingered into the evening and the lights from the Basilica shone in the distance.

My friend had told me, “now that you two are here, there are three times as many foreigners in Buga.” She was almost right about that. Buga is a small town draped in Spanish moss, but there were a few other foreigners in the hostel who had already discovered its charm.

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

About: Buga Hostel & Brewery

About: Basilica del Señor de los Milagros

Colombian Campfire Stories: Week 241

Lookout tower at Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo: Manizales, Colombia

The entrance to Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo was hidden at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac. Of all the nature reserves in Manizales, this one is one of the quieter ones.

A large bamboo tower stood close to the entrance and contained two small rooms where the park wardens lived. At the very top was a platform with pleather chairs and a beautiful view of the valley below.

Every now and then the park hosts paranormal nights, and this was the reason my friends and I visited the park after work on a Monday. After watching the sunset we moved towards the growing pile of firewood. Twenty-somethings began arriving with motorcycle helmets in hand and many of them had also brought bags of candy and peanuts to pass around the campfire.

Steep staircase at Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo: Manizales, Colombia

Once a large enough group had assembled, the main speaker introduced himself. He wore loose jeans and a white shirt that stretched across his belly. Because he had been a priest for twelve years, what followed was a very bizarre blend of mysticism and Catholicism.

After recounting a moment where he had been dragged back to earth after flying through a rainbow-colored tunnel towards the gates of heaven, the speaker turned the conversation to one of the most dangerous markets in Manizales.

La Galleria is famous for its cheap deals and rough atmosphere, but it apparently is also known for its witch market. Concerning this, I learned that casual sex is dangerous because socks and underwear can be compromised. Anyone with bad intentions could wash said items and use that water to make manipulative potions.

And what would be the best method to avoid this? This is obviously where Catholicism came into play as the answer was to avoid sex.

Scopalmine- aka Devil’s Breath- was also mentioned and it’s a much more credible threat because it actually a drug that erases memory and turns people passive and acquiescent. In fact, it was used during the cold war as a truth serum.

Scopalmine resembles cocaine but it need only be blown into one’s face for the drug to take effect and the victim to be susceptible to outside influence. It can also used for the infamous paseo millonario– which is when friendly strangers drag you arround town for a quick visit to all the best ATMs.

The discussion got even more interesting when the floor opened up for a Q&A. I had taken it for granted that all the others were as skeptical as me, but I soon realized I was wrong. Not only was the audience all ears, but they started asking some wacky questions.

Beautiful sunset at Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo: Manizales, Colombia

Do babies have a direct celestial connection to God? -They do.

Why don’t the babies remember their direct celestial connection? -They grow up.

What colors are in my aura? -White, grey and red.

About two hours into the evening there was a ten minute break after which the speaker was going to attempt to call up a spirit. My friends and I decided to leave because as a rule of thumb, we only like to raise the spirits on the weekend. And we were hungry.

The campfire stories were not at all like what I was expecting, however it was interesting to experience the superstitious side of Manizales. I don’t think I will ever look at dirty bras the same way.

View from the lookout tower at Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo: Manizales, Colombia

How to get to Ecoparque Regional Alcázares-Arenillo: Catch a blue buseta that lists La Aurora as a destination. Get off at Calle 5 & Carrera 22 – this is just outside downtown Manizales and the Plaza de Toros.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá: Week 223

Inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I spent my first two weeks in Colombia at a teacher’s orientation in Bogotá. Monday to Friday was filled with activities- from teaching methods to applying for national ID cards. Most of it went smoothly and most of it required being up early in the morning.

By the time the first weekend rolled around, I was more than ready for some sightseeing. I was also feeling a bit lazy, so when the program coordinators announced that they had chartered a bus to Zipaquirá, I was happy I didn’t have to plan anything.

Zipaquirá is a small town about an hour outside of Bogotá and it is famous for the Salt Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was opened to the public in 1995 and, as its name suggests, it was built inside an underground salt mine.

Two women praying inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I have been to an underground church in the past, so I thought I had an idea of what it might look like- the passageways would be dim and the walls would be roughly hewn. However, that was about where the similarities ended.

Main nave of the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

For starters, the scale of Salt Cathedral was massive. I had been satisfied with the first few rooms I saw and it took awhile for me to realize that those were only the Stations of the Cross. We hadn’t even gotten to the main nave! If only my Spanish were better, I might have been able to relay some of the interesting facts that I’m sure we were told.

The gift shops at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

The other thing that surprised me the most though was the shopping arcade. There were tons of emerald shops, booths that sold religious salt figurines, and anything else that could benefit from the addition of a little Virgin Mary.

It was going to be awhile till I got my first paycheck, so I decided to save my money and instead purchase an arepa from the underground cafe- La Tienda del Minero. The restaurant was decorated like a 1970s living room and had the lighting of a TV sitcom. I kicked back with a few other teachers and just absorbed the surroundings.

The underground cafe at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I hadn’t arrived in Bogotá with high expectations of the capital city. Everyone I had spoken to had told me to get out as soon as I could. However, after a week in the city, I realized I was actually enjoying it. I was glad I’d eventually be living in Manizales, but for now I was in a nice dark salt mine, surrounded by good company and Catholic guilt, and eating a delicious arepa. You can’t ask for anything more than that.

About: The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

Sri Venkateswara Temple: Week 198

Detail from the main entrance of the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

The site in Helensburgh was declared divine because, “it is said the gods always play where groves are, near rivers, mountains, and springs and in towns with pleasure-gardens.” – Brihatsamhita

In the late morning light, the gleaming white surfaces of the Sri Venkateswara Temple glowed bright and stark against the surrounding forest. Barefoot worshipers and tourists scrambled across the hot marble terrace.  They posed for photos in front of the towering main entrance and retreated inside when their feet began to burn. Across the way, in the shade of eucalypts, visitors placed their shoes on tiered wooden racks. Sulphur-crested cockatoos shrieked in the highest branches overlooking the small northern gardens.

Courtyard of Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

Barret, Shweta, Bryan and I followed the steady flow of people from the hot courtyard into the cool hallway where the dense aroma of incense hung in the air. Although Barret and I had never been in a Hindu temple before, there was something very familiar and comforting in that scent. It reminds me of cluttered Catholic churches in Dublin and the ash-covered shrines in Macau.

Inside the Sri Venkateswara Temple were shirtless priests with gold necklaces and bright cloths wrapped around their waists. They assisted worshipers with certain poojas (prayer rituals) and, when not called upon, performed their own duties or relaxed on benches scattered throughout the building.

Postcard from the Sri Venkateswara Temple shop: Helensburgh, Australia

Outside the main hall was a chart that listed the various costs of priest-assisted poojas. Depending on who one prayed to, the benefits ranged from ‘considerate improvement in education’ to ‘eventuate auspiciousness and/or to accomplish righteous things.’ Every church has their way of collecting funds from their worshipers, but there was something about this chart that reminded me of a home-improvement project and the priests flitting about the temple were helpful associates at a hardware store.

My friend Shweta wanted to perform an Archana pooja for Lord Vishnu. Archana is a shorter pooja in which the names of one’s family are recited for blessings. The four of us went up together and Shweta gave a metal bowl filled with fruit, holy basil, flowers and incense to a priest who had been seated against the wall. He asked for our names and began to chant.

At the end we cupped our hands to waft the smoke of burning incense over our face and then the priest poured a small amount of sweet water into our hands for us to drink. He pointed out two pots of sandalwood paste for us to use for the tilaka. However when Barret and I hesitated, he stepped towards us to put a tan dot on our forehead and followed it with a scarlet one.View from Stanwell Tops: Australia

It’d been awhile since the last time Shweta visited the Sri Venkateswara Temple, but she fondly remembered one of the most beautiful places to visit afterwards- Stanwell Tops. We were sitting on the grassy bank that overlooked the beautiful coastline when I noticed a family that I’d seen at the temple.

Varahamihira, the author of the Brihatsamhita, was also an astronomer and mathematician who discovered some of the trigonometric formulas I studied in school. Given his talent and numerous contributions to the court of the legendary ruler Yashodharman Vikramaditya, I think it’s safe to say that Varahamihira knew what he was talking about when he described the kind of land that gods love to play in. The Sri Venkateswara Temple could not have been built in a more heavenly environment.

Barret outside the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh: Australia

How to get to the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Take the train from Central Station to Wollongong and get off at Helensburgh Railway Station. From there it is about 2 km to the temple. Buses leave from Helensburgh Railway Station every hour from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.

Antenna Documentary Film Festival: Week 188

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

It’s nighttime at the Pheasant Valley Motor Lodge. A middle aged man with a suit and tie is using the phone when a wide-set man enters the room wearing a fedora and trench coat. The sparse room has a TV, two beds, two pictures, two lamps and two armchairs.

The middle aged man puts down the phone. His short blond hair is cow-licked and slicked back. “How’d ya do Charlie?” He asks.

This setup could play out in a million different ways, but what ensues is a discussion about Bibles. These men travel door to door selling Bibles.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

In 1968 the Maysles brothers filmed a documentary called Salesman. Not only did they pioneer the art of the documentary, but they also captured a slice of Americana that now only exists in the Criterion Collection.

The documentary begins by following a group of four men as they knock on doors during the middle of winter. The snow is banked high, a car fishtails ahead on the road, and the days are short. A searchlight scans the quiet suburban landscape for an address that might be interested in a gold embossed version of “the best seller in the world.”

From New England to the wide open streets of Miami, these men struggle with new cities and new quotas. The Gipper, The Rabbit, The Badger, and The Bull. In the morning they share breakfast and a cigarette; in the evening they share two motel rooms.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

In Chicago their fleshy, blond haired boss delivers an encouraging message. The audience sits attentively with poised cigarettes; the women are seated in the back.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

“Money is being made in the Bible business. It’s a fabulous business. It’s a good business. All I can say to people who aren’t making the money- it’s their fault.

Just keep that in mind. The money’s out there- go out and get it.

I for one am sick and tired of haggling with you people and pleading with you to get you to do what’s good for you. And what’s good for us.

If you see some missing faces here, we eliminated a few men. Not because we were mad at them. Not because we didn’t like them. Not because we didn’t need the few sales that they made. But it’s a question of the sour apple spoiling the barrel.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

Certain guys have a habit of getting a couple of beers and flying off the howl and badging people around and throwing their weight around.

I want to go on record and I want to tell you all that the next man that gets off base with me- I’m gonna tag him out. The ball game’s over. You got a job to do.”

Of all the documentaries playing at the Antenna Documetary Festival in Sydney, I chose to see Salesman because the Maysles Brothers have such an eye for quirky details.

When I think of being on the road, I think of freedom, blue skies and adventure. However, before the digital age, there were men with pot bellies and mortgages and wives that worried about how fast their husbands drove. Careers were made from the thrill and the dread of knocking on a stranger’s door.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

“Well you can see how this will be an inspiration in the home.”

The customer is quiet, her child tinkers with the piano keys. “I just couldn’t afford it now… being swamped with medical bills.” At $49.95, the Bible is an inspirational burden.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

“You won’t run into people like me all the time. You’re gonna have to work haaader.” The Rabbit and The Gipper are seated around a young woman with dark glasses and a nasal accent.

“But you men are doing fine. I like to see men out, you know, doing things on their own. Get away from companies, get away from people over you.”

The salesmen nod their heads. Yes. It’s good to be independent. It’s good to do what you please.

Salesman film still by the Maysles Brothers

About: The Antenna Documentary Film Festival

About: Salesman

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