I have returned. It’s a realization I only made when gazing at the deep green depths of Laguna Guatavita, fathoming what could lay below the lake’s eternal depths, listening as my tour guide told us the lake was only at a fraction of it’s original depth, due to centuries of exploration, or rather, exploitation.
Spanish explorers, mystified by the El Dorado legend and whispers of its buried gold treasure, had for centuries tried to probe Guatavita’s mystical depths.
Conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada attempted (unsuccessfully) to drain the lake in 1545 using a “bucket chain” of labourers. After 3 months, the water level had been reduced by 3 metres, and only a small amount of gold was recovered, with a value of 3000 – 4000 pesos .. A later more industrious attempt was made in 1580, by Bogotá business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. A notch was cut deep into the rim of the lake, which managed to reduce the water level by 20 metres, before collapsing and killing many of the labourers. A share of the findings – consisting of various golden ornaments, jewelery and armour – was sent to King Philip the 2nd of Spain. Sepúlveda’s discovery came to approximately 12,000 pesos. He died a poor man, and is buried at the church in the small town of Guatavita.
In 1898, British expatriate Mr. Hartley Knowles aquired the “Company for the Exploitation of Lake Guatavita”, draining the lake to four feet of mud and slime, leaving it impossible to explore.
We climbed to a better vantage point of the lake, whose shocking greenly waters gleamed in the sunlight.
Our guide told us that he had once asked a park ranger, an indigenous Muisca man, if they ever thought about re-filling the lake.
“Well yes, but it happened. Colonialism happened. Why would we drain it?” said the tour guide, recounting the man’s response.
That answer got to me.
It made me think of my own identity as a woman whose birthmother chose to give her up for adoption in another country.
Unlike other adopted children, my life has not been consumed by wonders about what my life would have been. Instead, I have at times wondered, what led my mother to her decision?
The ranger’s response reminded me of the true, unknowable depths of that question, likely shrowded in the same structures of inequality, environmental exploitation, land depravation and marginalization of indigenous groups, that may have also led to the draining of Lake Guatavita.
But he reminded me of the aspects of our individual and collective pasts that make up who we are, and that must be evaluated, or at the least accepted, to move on and be present.
This is my first blog post – something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. I will try to write or post something everyday – these will be my thoughts about my journey to Bogota, at the intersection of culture, gender, language and socio-economics.
How I am getting to know my country – for the next first three months – will be by reporting on the ongoing peace process for a national newspaper, with the help of a wonderful mentor and fellow correspondent.
It’s an immensely complex story, in which I have willingly, and excitedly, submerged myself.
It’s also a story wrapped up in my own roots. As I think more about my birthmother, supposedly a woman of indigenous roots who left her village to travel to a woman’s shelter in Bogota, I think about how her life and the lives of my Colombian relatives might have been impacted by decades of violence, colonialism, and yet – as demonstrated by her willingess to travel to Bogota – strength, and hope.
I hope you enjoy the stories and images I share while here, and take part in my journey!