Bogotá, Colombia, June 19, 2011—Stacks of watercolor paintings covered the table as Abel Rodriguez described the contents of each one. Together, they are an account of his life in the Amazon region of Colombia, from week to week, month to month, and season to season. It’s how he illustrates his home to those who haven’t been there.
“See the fruit in that tree?” Catalina Vargas translated. “They are there only for a short time that part of the year. The birds in the painting come for the fruit.”
Two paintings later, the fruit is gone, and so are the birds. But different trees bloom and other animals appear.
Three days after I looked through the paintings, I was in the Amazon region myself.
The best way to get an in-depth look at a culture is to travel to where it is. No guidebook, TV show or movie can replace the experience of being immersed in the daily life of a place. But when it’s not possible to go everywhere you’d like, books, films and festivals certainly help.
This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs from June 30 to July 4 and July 7 to 11. Since 1967, the international exposition has featured contemporary living cultural traditions. Admission is free, and it’s all laid out on the National Mall for all to swing by and dive in.
The three programs featured this year are: Colombia, Rhythm and Blues, and the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. On my recent trip to Colombia, I visited with people who will be attending the festival to share how the country’s environment and culture are intertwined. From artisans to architects to actors—they taught me more about Colombia in a short period of time than I would have discovered on my own.
As we stood in an open-air pottery workshop, Rosa Maria Jerez quickly twisted and molded a handful of clay into a sculpture of a local woman with a hat and braided hair, carrying a baby on her back. Later that evening, Flor Alba Briceño showed off a storeroom of woven baskets as her son demonstrated how they took reeds from the nearby lake and turned them into the beautiful final product.
Outside, a car radio blared music and neighbors stood around sipping sodas and beer, trading stories about their day. When it came time to leave the spontaneous party, I didn’t want to go.
The experiences I had in Colombia make me want to go to the festival to see how others react to the wealth of culture that is already drawing me back to visit the country again.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill and her husband are avid kayakers and own Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
Read more of Jill’s work at Sportfolio in the Communities at The Washington Times.
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