Thank you, Puerto Gaitán!

Thank you, Puerto Gaitán!

30 March 2015
Charlotte Streck

There may be no other place in the Llanos that exposes visitors more to the calming beauties and violent challenges of the Altillanura than Puerto Gaitán. The majesty of its rivers - the tranquil Manacacías and the powerful Meta - draws visitors into the landscape. The golden lights of dawn beautify every scene of a never-ending landscape that comes with the promise of freedom and liberation in which a conservative culture of cowboys, joropo, caleo and traditional values has reigned for centuries.

Today, it is more likely, however, that the golden light will be reflected on the endless convoys of passing oil trucks and that the distant sounds of the joropo will fade in front of the powerful and magnified unified cheap mishmash of tropical sounds that awaits the visitor at Puerto Gaitán’s Malecón. 

Puerto Gaitán, situated in a landscape that remained virtually untouched for thousands of years; Puerto Gaitán, situated in the middle of a tropical savannah bisected by meandering rivers that comprises almost one third of Colombia’s territory; Puerto Gaitán, surrounded by indigenous land, itself founded hardly a century ago and home to only a handful of families until about twenty years ago. 

Then came the oil followed by the arrival of the big agroindustrial companies. Today the Llanos are open for sale, their sensitive lands largely unprotected and exposed to exploitation. The new colonists are uninterested in the ecosystem and its culture, they expect to satisfy their greed for land and cash. 

A cowboy hamlet until the 1990’s, Puerto Gaitán today predominately consists of hotels that provide shelter to those who seek to open up the Altillanura’s soil and get their hands on its hidden treasures. Hotels and buses come and go, transporting people who seek to benefit from the land’s promises, but who do not plan to stay. Soil, sex and booze provide short-term satisfaction for those who do not belong. 

The resilient remainders of local culture have been pushed to the outskirts of the sprawling Puerto Gaitán. Mirroring the marginalization of the Llanero culture in the villages of the Altillanura, nature is also on the retreat. The livelihoods of Morichales, caimans and perros de agua are taken over by corn and rubber, while the prostitutes offer their services along the Malecón. 

SINFONÍA TRÓPICO spent two weeks in Puerto Gaitán, long enough to meet people and converse, to venture into the environs, and see many people come and go. We experienced the problems of collaborating with a municipality surrendering to the challenge of managing cheap money, with the temptation to spend the funds on prestigious projects rather than human development. We had to get used to the trucks, to the endless coming and going, and a night life unheard of in cities of a similar size fuelled by the cacophony of screaming music in the bars on the Malecón. 

But we also met the most impressive musicians and amazing voices. We got caught in the web of personal histories of a place that attracts people from all over Colombia – without expecting them to mount a horse in order to come for a visit any longer. We came across a tolerant place, a place that provides a home to those displaced by the violence in other parts of the country.

We started our stay in Puerto Gaitán with a visit to the ecological farm La Cosmopolitana de Ninfa Daza, the Humedal Maiciana Manacal with Director Norma Candury, and the Reserva Sikuani. Equipped with inspiration and material, we organized a dozen workshops for young people from Puerto Gaitán, painted a mural, built and ritually floated a raft, a memorial to dying species, composed and arranged texts to create an evening show celebrating the Llanos while calling for the protection of their culture and nature. The closing events of March 25th included a concert composed and arranged by Nils Ostendorf and performed on stage by nationally and locally renowned musicians, featuring texts of Juan Pablo Castro and a number of local poets, costumes by Matthias Strauss and artistic direction by Christoph Schletz. Elizabeth Gallón-Droste’s installation "Memorias de los Llanos" gave the older generation a voice, while younger people danced, swam, made music and learned theatre with our partners from Colectivo Atempo.

When we left Puerto Gaitán we had fallen for the place, its people, nature and music. We also believe that we left something behind. We brought on stage words that took older people back to the Llanos that they once knew, and motivated young people to question the blessings that come with unharnessed, aggressive development. We composed a concert that combined the lyrical voice and serenity of the joropo with rhythms of an industrialized world and the emotions of change. 

We struck a chord. The enthusiastic voices, the many hugs, the applause and the emotions triggered by the concert spoke their own language. We hope to have planted a seed with those young people who hold in their hands the future of Puerto Gaitán. A seed that will flourish in harmony with nature and the culture of the Llanos and develop into a critical and inclusive voice that carries the local sorrow to the decision makers in Bogotá. 

We are very grateful for the successful completion of the second stage of SINFONÍA TRÓPICO. Our thanks goes out to the people of Puerto Gaitán as well as to our partners and team. What a great group of people, what a great series of events, and so much fun!

Thanks a lot, Puerto Gaitán!

Charlotte Streck and Lillevan, 28 March 2015