Smack, smack! Bang, bang!

Writing this from our hostel in Otavalo, Ecuador, where there’s a rare sunny spot, the soccer field in the school next door is about to be occupied by a match (co-ed players, I’m happy to note!) (we have box seats!) and there’s  couple of volcanoes in the distance, foregrounded by bucolic hillside maize fields with cattle and woolly sheep. We’re going to hang out and figure out our general plans for this country named after a technical geographic/cartographic  term.

After Medellin, we went to Guatape (which seems like many moons ago), which is a weekend destination for Medellin, and is next to a reservoir, and the town itself may have been relocated when the reservoir was created in the mid-20th century, and the original town was drowned. (This is also what happened in Guatavita, a weekend destination for Bogota. Old town goes underwater to accomodate a reservoir, and a new town gets built, that is well planned and becomes a tourist attraction. )


Apparently the Guatape reservoir provides 35% of the hydroelectricity for Colombia. So the town might be relatively newly laid out, with tidy streets and homes. The distinctive thing about Guatape is that all the homes and stores have ‘frescoes’ painted/decorating the lower walls. They’re sort of the like square paintings in plaster relief, and are very varied, and colorful (Hence my tweet about Guatape being a good place to own stock in paint companies.)  The frescoes varied from birds to butterflies, and pastoral scenes, variations of the local landmark rock El Pernol, horses, pious icons, chivas. In the cases of businesses, they featured the type of business, i.e. musical instruments for a music shop, ABCs for a school, etc. One business had obviously changed hands, because the frescoes featured a grandfatherly-looking handyman at work, with the tools sold in a hardware store, but the shop had nothing but cuddly stuffed animals and toys on display.


As tourists with unlimited camera memory, we spent most of our time fruitfully walking through every street in photograph every different fresco we could find, like a scavenger hunt of paintings. Afterwards, I counted 100 frames of unique frescoes in my camera. I don’t know if I’ll get around to editing them for posting.

The other attraction in Guatape was El Pernol, otherwise known as the rock. It’s a very distinctive giant boulder, that looks almost out of place in the rest of the landscape. Maybe it had made a left turn a Albuquerque on its way to Yosemite. It looks more distinctive than Half-Dome, being a completely rounded rock; however it is much easier to climb, being a measly 650 steps to the top via a  zig-zagging staircase that looks like a crude stitches on pirate’s  cheek (there’s a convenient vertical crack/seam El Pernol made by the Devil’s machete to fit the stairs in.) And unlike Half-Dome, where you need to apply for a permit months in advance to climb, admission can be had for 10,000 pesos (exit through the souvenir stalls on the way out. I can’t remember if they hawked “I climbed El Pernol  T-shirs. They probably did.)

The scenery is quite pretty going up the stair case, even if you are only seeing the view from one direction, you can see further and further away as you go up higher and higher. At the top, there was a large natural terrace (the top of the rock I relatively flat.) But on top of that, someone had built a brick tower (another 70 steps or so). The tower itself was a bit of eyesore, like a cigarette butt stuck on the top of this beautiful, naturally shaped and rounded rock, when you looked at the rock from far away. But from the top of the tower itself, you could take in the 360 degree view of the reservoir and the surrounding countryside of finca (farms), vacation homes and resorts, which was more impressive than that from the terrace below.

It struck me that, one way to artificially increase the amount of lakefront property available was to create a reservoir, since the body of water will have more nooks and crannies than a natural lake, which is usually a bit more rounded. (Look at a map of Lake Tahoe and Lake Berryessa, and you’ll see what I mean.)

We got to Guatape in the middle of the week, thinking it would be nice and quiet, and we’d hang out with views of a lake, but it turned out to be a public holiday (which we hadn’t been aware of), and the water levels in the reservoir were really low, so it had that parched, slightly forlorn look to it. I asked if there was drought, but was told they had needed to release much more water than usual to generate more power. I’m not sure. In any case, the hostel we were at was heavily booked, and the rooms with views of the water were all taken, leaving us with a very damp, window-less interior room, with horseshoe towel-hooks.

From the main drag of Guatape along the reservoir looked like the water levels had been low for a while now.  There were boats and jet skis marooned on a grassy shore, and the pier ended yards before the waterline that day. Still, there was a festive mood as the day-trippers took over town. The pop-up tented souvenir stalls were all open for business, as was the zip line that stretched from the Malecon, partly over the water to a nearby hill.  It would probably have been more psychologically thrilling if the reservoir was at 100% capacity, to zip over water, but I guess if you fell even on dry land, it would hurt a lot. (The zip line was quite safe!)  We hang out with the rest of the crowd watching the zip-line riders, not so much to see them hurtling through space, but to watch them come to a hard halt impact into the welcome of several layers of hanging vertical futons. Obviously the bigger, and faster zip-liners would hit harder, and smack into two futons like punching bags; the smaller, slower, more timid riders would only bounce off one. There’s something mesmerizing about seeing people crash, but fortunately without any injury or damage.

Almost as entertaining was watching the small boys getting on the landlocked jet-skis and pretending to roll and rumble through the waves, like the way little kids are fobbed off by being allowed to play the arcade video games with flashing ‘GAME OVER” signs, or riding the stationary horse outside the supermarket, because Mom doesn’t want to waste quarters.

We’d hear gun-shots occasionally at night, even when we were in Bogota, but no one ever seemed to find it remarkable.  There was nothing in the news. It turns out what we heard were the games of tejo being played.  Tejo is a local Columbian game, played in bar-settings, the way pool, billiards or darts is played in bars, mostly by men. When we were in Salento, the manager of the hostel we were staying at rounded up a dozen of us tourists to introduce us to the game. It turns out it’s a bit of a working-class thing, and he didn’t really know how to play it himself. But between his enthusiasm and the tejo bar staff, they taught us how to play.

First of all, you buy some beers. With twelve of us, it was a crate. Playing tejo was free, but you had to buy some beers.

The game set-up itself was fairly simple. There’s a wooden crate/board filled with sticky clay (like putty) that’s slanted 30 degrees from the ground, on each end of a ‘lane’. Buried in the center, just beneath the surface is a metal ring.  You place little folded paper triangles on top of the metal ring, and then you stand back a good distance, toss what looks a metal hockey puck, which is really hefty (avoid dropping on foot if possible) and aim  for the paper triangles. If you hit one, it goes off with a terrific bang, because the paper triangles are filled with gunpowder. (Hence all the ‘gunshots’ we heard that everyone was so nonchalant about.) Where your toss lands relative to metal ring determines how many points you get. It’s a bit like bowling in that you play in teams, and you alternate: player from one teams tosses, followed by a player from the other team. Once everyone has a turn, everyone walks over to the other end to determine points, and retrieve their tejo. There were handy rebar stakes to dig out the tejo from the clay, and strips of jute sacking so you could polish any clumps of mud sticking from the tejo.

Like bowling balls, tejos have slightly different sizes and weights, and people have personal tejos which they keep in a leather pouch. Then players toss the tejos to the wooden crate at the other end, and it goes on an again; so there’s a bit of walking back and forth. The first  team to get 21 points wins.


As you can imagine, drinking beer is really conducive to tossing heavy, potentially lethal metal objects and making explosive noises. Most people throw underhand, even though as an American, your instinct is to throw overhand, like a baseball. Or throw it somewhat like a bowing ball, except that it’s not supposed to roll, because if it bounces on any surface before landing in the clay it doesn’t count.

Joe and I had arrived at the tejo hall early, because we went from dinner. We watched a group of regular players to get a sense of how the game worked.  They were regular Joes in jeans, and rubber boots and t-shirts (walking around in Salento there’s a lot of work with horses, wand walking in mucky mud), and they were drinking beer, but  they all played the game with the poise of dignitaries, and the deliberate gestures of fencers. Each player would roll his arm up with the tejo held up to his face, as if he were kissing it for luck, and then toss. When each player has his turn, they walked en masse solemnly to the other side and gravely examined the tejos’ positions for points. They were so serious ad hushed, I felt like they should have been in tuxedos at a formal dinner.

When the rest of our group arrived, we were a bit raucous and giggly (beer and self-consciousness at the tejo equivalent of throwing gutterballs will do that to you.) We split into two lanes, two teams of men playing each other, and then two teams of women playing each other. There was one woman, Vivianna from Cali in the group, the rest of us were tourists whose second (or third language) was Spanish.  We divided up into Tall team vs. Short team. Tall team was leading 19 to 15, until . . . . I tossed the winning shot that put us over 21. I’ve never been so shocked in my life, to make the winning shot for my team for anything. Even more amazing was that Joe happened to record it on his iPhone, so we’re able to post it online for posterity, woo hoo!

Afterwards, the winning mens team played the winning womens team.  Vivianna and I were on the team that played our respective significant others. Vivianna and her boyfriend were really funny trying to distract each other and trash talk each other as each was about to toss. Not surprisingly, the men’s team won.

OK, I’m going to post this know, because I’ve been told that my blog posts are too long and I should chop them into smaller bits.

(There’s also a lot casinos with one-armed bandits around in Colombia. And lotteries. I didn’t find out too much about them.)


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