The tiny town of Minca, Colombia isn’t on the typical Colombian tourist map. Perched on top of a mountain in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada overlooking Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea, with a year-round population of only 800, Minca feels a bit isolated.
And never more so than now.
I live here. I have lived here for nine years. The indigenous peoples of the area, the Kogi and Arhuaco, believe this is the heart of the world. I have come to believe that as well.
In nine years I have seen many changes. When I first arrived, the narco-violence was just winding down and the tourists, who had previously ignored Colombia, were discovering it. Recently Minca has become a prime destination for backpackers from all over the world, seeking to enjoy the unspoiled tropical nature, the river and streams and the waterfalls, the birds and other wildlife of la Sierra Nevada.
But on Friday, March 20, 2020, everything changed.
Colombia’s President Iván Duque declared a nationwide quarantine, and Minca joined the nations of the world in a global lockdown. Isolation became a new way of living.
Today the streets – there are only two in Minca – are quiet, not a soul passing past the locked and shuttered tiendas. The tourists have all boarded evacuation flights back home. And the rest of us permanent ex-pats are adapting to the solitary life.
I am a writer. Writing is a solitary endeavor. I’m used to quietly observing and reflecting, then putting my reflections into words. That’s what I find myself doing now.
I came to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta at the invitation of the indigenous peoples, to live with them, to learn from them, and to write a book with them – a book that would share their spiritual and environmental message with the world, the message that our Earth Mother is ill and will surely die if we, the ones they call the Younger Brother, don’t change our ways.
While this is not exactly what they had in mind, we now find ourselves all “changing our ways.” While none of us knows what our lives will look like when this crisis has finally passed, one thing we know for certain is that nothing will ever be the same.
This has happened before. My indigenous friends recount from memory, a memory passed on from generation to generation for more than five hundred years, the stories of how the white man arrived on the shores of Colombia, in ships with wings of cloth, bearing with them the white man’s disease, a pandemic that eventually wiped out the cultures of the Maya and Inca – and the Tayrona. The ruins of Ciudad Perdida – Lost City – that tourists flocked to until now are a monument to a precursor of what we’re experiencing today.
How did the indigenous peoples deal with it then? The cultures that survived did so with ‘social distancing’ – isolating themselves from the infected Europeans. The Kogi and the Arhuaco fled to the high mountains, burning bridges behind them, and eventually settling into a new life that separated them from the harm that eventually came to the Maya and Inca and others.
It’s obvious to me that we can learn from the lessons the indigenous of the Sierra Nevada learned in their period of forced isolation. This is some of what they have taught me.
First, community is our salvation. None of us lives alone, isolation or not. We all depend on each other, and others depend on us. We live in community. And a rich life does not come from accumulating ‘things,’ but rather from participating in furthering the well-being of the community as a whole.
And second, and a corollary of the first, is a call to discover our purpose in life. Our time of isolation can be a time to explore that for ourselves. The indigenous offer an answer that we may do well to adopt as our own: we are each called to become the heart of the world – the compassionate, caring and loving heart of the organic planet, our living breathing Madre Tierra.
That is what the earliest peoples on the Earth discovered in their period of isolation. We would do well to use this time to follow their example.
So, as I sit here in the Heart of the World, contemplating my place in the great scheme of things, certain that tomorrow presents uncertainty, to be sure, but also unlimited possibilities, I invite you to join me in your own place, in your own way, in your own isolation – to envision becoming, if only for a moment, the heart of the world. In so doing we can begin to heal the world, to heal each other, and to heal ourselves. Our time of isolation can become a time for coming together.
About the author: John Lundin is the author of The New Mandala – Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, written with the Dalai Lama, and Journey to the Heart of the World.