We were very fortunate to begin our photography work with Fundacion Montecito alongside a group of AFS volunteers (formerly the American Field Service) from the United States. As our first assignment, Felipe asked us to document the volunteer work of the AFS Intercultural program. This program acts as a bridge to sharing different cultures while allowing high school students to make an impact on surrounding communities. The partnership with AFS volunteers just happened to coincide with our photography job on our first week.
Every day was something different.
We traveled to two schools near Lake Tota on our first day; one high school and one elementary school. The high school students all stared at us and we felt out of place initially. As we introduced each other, we were mutually intrigued by what each other had to say about our countries. The FIFA World Cup was about to begin in Brazil, so I naturally chose that as my conversation starter. The students at the elementary school were adorable. Most of the day was spent painting a mural and playing soccer with the extremely energetic children. During my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point, I wrote an essay on Escuela Nueva, a lengthy report on how elementary schools in Colombia revolutionized the way of teaching by using self-instructional guides to teach multi-grade classrooms. It was a beautiful moment to witness the Escuela Nueva curriculum in practice.
The following day, we hopped on a bus to visit Lake Tota for the first time. One of the core principles of Fundacion Montecito is implementing conservation efforts for Colombia’s largest lake. The lake itself was much larger than what I originally thought. On the west shore of Lake Tota lies a white-sand beach rightly named Playa Blanca that attracts both locals and visitors year round. The clouds up above seemed to hug the landscape around the lake. When we arrived, it was misting on and off all day and the clouds started to form on the other side of the lake indicating a storm was approaching.
Several invasive species of trees were being cut down and replaced with native species. Pine trees for example require more water and they deplete underground water reservoirs which is very damaging to the quality of the soil. Not only that, their leaves are are so acidic that it prevents native species from growing beneath them. The AFS volunteers were there to help plant fifty native trees alongside the lake. As the group leaders discussed how they were going to begin the project, a game of beach soccer started up. The altitude affected me more than I had hoped and after a while, I needed to take a break to catch my breath. Planting the trees took most of the morning hours, but we managed to depart just before it began to rain.
We concluded the day by driving to a natural hot spring near Sogamoso. A nearby volcano heats up the water pools to a steamy 33°C (91°F). We lowered ourselves in the steamy waters and admired our mountainous surroundings all afternoon.
LAGO DE TOTA
Lake Tota was a very sacred place to the Muisca culture. The name “Tota” is derived from the indigenous Muisca culture meaning “Astronomic Observatory” and the lake was the “mirror of the cosmos”. At a depth of 190 ft (58 m), Lake Tota is believed to house a mysterious monster known as “diabloballena” or “devil whale”. The Spaniards interpreted Muisca mythology of the monster as a fish that was larger than a whale with a black head that resembles that of an ox. The origin of this monster is unknown from the limited historical documentation known within the reports related to the Muisca culture. Some sources claim that the monster had a snake-like figure that resembled a divine creature such as a dragon. Some anthropological-related reports about the Muisca believed Lake Tota was the end result of a great battle between one of Muisca’s leader named Monetá and possibly the monster. After their hero defeated the monster, its corpse formed the lake as well as the three main islands within its center.
Similar to the Loch Ness Monster of Scotland, this tale has been welcomed with local appreciation. Numerous sightings have been recorded since its first encounter in 1652 by the Spanish chronicler Lucas Fernández de Piedrahita. Whether or not there ever was a monster, I find superstitions to be quite fascinating. There is a sense of mystery that looms over this lake. It could be the misty climate of the region or the dark depths of the lake itself. Lake Tota was once a vast prehistoric sea that has all the eerie components to owe up to the myth.
Today, Lake Tota is one of the major onion producing regions of Colombia and as a foreigner, it was very evident. Fields upon fields are dedicated to produce onions which supply 70% of Colombia’s consumption. What may not be so evident is that Lake Tota is a very important breeding ground for several endangered bird species. Lake Tota has a very diverse wetland system comprised of over 146 bird species which only emphasizes its significance to biodiversity. Over 30% of migratory birds species from the United States and Canada have been recorded around Lake Tota. The Colombia grebe, for example, was last seen at Lake Tota and is now believed to be extinct.
Without highly organized infrastructure, Lake Tota is a well-kept area that keeps true to its roots. Many travelers take a bus and visit the area for the day only to return to Sogamoso. Since the surrounding farmland is used almost exclusively for onion production, there are very few places for visitors to stay around Lake Tota. The closest hostel is in Aquitania, a nearby town of roughly 15,000 residents. The average water temperature is a chilly 55°F (13°C) and is not ideal for swimming. However, these conditions are very suitable for trout fishing which is one of the most popular activities in the region.
There is a growing concern for Lake Tota’s future. People whose livelihood depends on the health of the lake are susceptible to its degradation both economically and culturally. As fertilizer run-off and irrigation practices pollute the lake, attention has been called for the government to protect its endangered status. While the Colombian government claims to be committed to protect the lake from further degradation, the people must understand the importance and the need to protect the water from further harm.
By visiting Lake Tota, we could foresee what our work with Felipe would be used for in order to protect the surrounding areas. Our work hopefully brought awareness to the area to inspire future generations to value their environment.
Painting the Mural
This was our final day with the AFS volunteers, but I could not imagine a more perfect afternoon to end their service. The AFS volunteers went to a school high in the mountains to paint a mural. Today was a day of appreciation for the students and consisted of dancing, skits, and performances. While the AFS volunteers were painting a mural, the Colombian students watched as the teachers performed entertaining skits. I found the landscape to be absolutely breathtaking. Honestly, I must have taken hundreds of photos from that day alone. I could not wrap my mind around how beautiful this place was with the city down below. We could see all of Sogamoso from this altitude and I tried my best to capture it on my camera. When I wasn’t taking pictures, I was dragged in by students and teachers wanting to teach me a few dance moves. It was an amazing day for everyone and was by far the most memorable day of my travels. At night, the group walked around Sogamoso one last time to get groceries and go shopping. We spotted a vendor selling knock-off Colombian national team jerseys for less than $5 (10 mil). Everyone bought one, making that vendor smile the rest of the afternoon.
After spending only a few days with the AFS volunteers, it was sad to see them head back home. They made our transition to Colombia much more relaxed and easy. We took a team photo with our Colombian jerseys that we bought downtown and said goodbye. Despite our limited time together, I feel that we made quite a connection with some of the volunteers. Now that they left, it was only Donna and I and a list of towns waiting to be explored.