Within a few kilometers of Villa de Leyva and Gachantivá, there is a unique and magical place where you can reconnect with nature, meet a lovely person and begin to see the world a different way through the eyes of a campesina that lives every day enjoying the little things the day has to offer.
It only takes looking into Doña Dionsia’s green eyes to connect with the happiness, knowledge, and an entire universe full of good qualities that come from our ancestors.
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What is a campesino(a)?
A campesino(a), in the most literal sense of the word, is a peasant or a farmer, a farm worker or a farm tenant. Having said that, the word campesino(a) encompasses much more than just a person who works in the fields.
A campesino(a) takes care of the land so we can have food. Campesinos are fundamental in the food chain. They live off the fields, and that is where their name comes from, Campo = fields. Campesinos are kind, humble, and generous.
Doña is used to show respect.
Doña is used to show respect when talking to or about a mature older woman in Latin American countries. During our trip, my husband, originally from The Netherlands, kept asking me why most older women had the same first name.
He was puzzled by this, and I will confess that I couldn’t fully understand what he was referring to at the beginning. It wasn’t until a few days in that I realized he thought the word “Doña” was someone’s first name. It totally made sense; we had talked to Doña Juana, Doña Catalina, Doña Josefina, Doña Alma, Doña Dionisia, etc.
At that time, he then made the connection that the word “Don” was most likely used for older mature men. He was correct; we use Don when talking to or about mature older men in Latin America. For example, Don Ignacio, Don Rafael, Don José, and Don Julian.
We drove from Villa de Leyva to the outskirts of Gachantivá. We had arranged to meet Doña Dionisia at a little bakery in the middle of the beaten path.
We got out of the car and asked for Doña Dionisia. Everyone in this tiny store responded that she would be coming by any minute. It was clear they all knew her. A few minutes later, a short older woman wearing jeans, a hoodie, and two braids under a traditional campesino hat strolled in.
She turns to me and says, “Sumercé” ¿Ud. es la Señora Catalina? (Are you Mrs. Catalina?). Within a few seconds of answering that yes, I was indeed Catalina; I had already fallen in love with her energy, vibrant personality, and all of the things I knew we were about to learn from her.
What does Sumercé mean in Colombia?
The word sumercé means you (singular). It’s a colloquial way of talking to the second person singular. Sumercé is a word used in the Department of Boyacá in Colombia to show kindness and respect to another person.
Doña Dionisia asked us if we were okay with a short walk because her house was about 20 minutes up a little hill, and the car wouldn’t make it all the way there without stalling. I should have known that if the car wouldn’t make it up there, the incline would be high, and we would struggle too, but no, I didn’t think about it at that moment.
We all quickly chirped in, saying we could walk for 20 minutes. After all, we are used to hiking for hours in Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The first few minutes of the walk were enjoyable and then we had to start taking breaks. Our 10-year-old son struggled a bit, but he did well enough to keep chasing after the dogs and chickens we found on the way up.
My husband and I gasped for oxygen a few times. Doña Dionisia was cool as a cucumber or, as we would say in Spanish “fresca como una lechuga” = fresh as lettuce. She explained that she makes this walk 3-4 times a day. She was completely unaffected. Of course, I knew that part of it was the change in altitude for us.
What is the Altitude in Villa de Leyva?
The altitude in Villa de Leyva is 7,051 ft above sea level. Although it is not as high as Bogotá at 9,000 feet, it is still very different from the altitude we are used to experiencing by living in Florida. For example, Miami is at around 6 ft above sea level.
My husband was born and is used to the altitude in the Netherlands which is basically non-existent. Amsterdam is at -7 under the sea level.
The 20-minute walk turned into approximately 40 minutes with the many stops we had to make. Having said that, and without any pun intended, the view was breathtaking. As we approached Doña Dionisia’s house, she showed us her “huerta.”
What is a huerta?
A huerta is a vegetable/fruit garden. Doña Dionisia showed us that she had red beans, corn, and green peas at that particular time. As we asked more about the huerta, Doña Dionisia jumped her own fence and decided to grab some beans to show us the specific type she grows.
Past the huerta, we met several of her sheep. We also met one of her cows and her sweet little calf. They all had names, and she talked to them as we passed them. Once at her front door, if you look to the left, you see the most beautiful view of the surrounding area, and if you pay close attention, you may spot the bakery where we met Doña Dionisia.
After the walk, she offered us a delicious blackberry juice to quench our thirst. The blackberries she used came directly from her garden. After taking in the view, we realized we were surrounded by chickens and ducks, but what caught our eye was the little area where Doña Dionisia had samples of the things she makes with her own two hands using the wool from her own sheep.
My husband immediately spotted a “ruana .”He bought it from Doña Dionisia and wore it on the coldest days of our trip.
What is a ruana?
A ruana is an article of clothing that resembles a poncho. It is a simple design; some travelers compare it to a blanket you can wear. It is traditionally made from sheep’s wool and is characteristic of the Colombian and Venezuelan Andes.
Doña Dionisia’s house is a traditional rural and autochthonous house built out of adobe with the main base being manure. She is proud of the house she built along with her husband, who she calls “Abuelo” = grandpa.
The house has all the necessities, including running water and electricity. As you walk in, to the left, you will see a long table where Abuelo makes ropes. At the time, we could see a few cats and kitties playing with leftover materials.
To the right is a small hallway leading you to the two small bedrooms and the bathroom. Back into the main area, you will see a place where many chickens congregate. To the right of that area, there is a small but functional kitchen.
The walls are covered with pots, pans, and little shelves with different ingredients but primarily covered in soot from the open-fire stove they use daily. Her stove is powered by wood burning fire which seems to be constantly burning.
Doña Dionisia then took us to her backyard. She has an area where she keeps her cuyes (singular – cuy).
What is a cuy?
A cuy is a type of guinea pig. Andean cuyes look like guinea pigs in the U.S. but are larger.
When asked what they do with the cuyes, Doña Dionisia explains that they eat them. There are different ways to prepare them. She likes them grilled or in a stew. The cuy is a traditional food from some areas near the Andes mountains.
Pretty soon, we realized that Doña Dionisia is self-sufficient. She produces her own food and lives off her land. She plants fruits and vegetables, milks her cows, has cuyes, and gets eggs from her chickens.
After the house tour, she offered us an “agua de panela” to warm us up.
What is agua de panela?
Agua de panela is a traditional drink in Colombia that is made from water (agua) and hardened sugar cane juice (panela). In warm climates, it is served cold; however, near the Andean region, where it is cold, it is served hot to help people stay warm.
She served us the agua de panela with a slide of cuajada.
What is cuajada?
Cuajada is a fresh cheese prepared with raw, fresh, and unpasteurized milk.
It is soft and is often served with fruit curds or warm drinks.
Doña Dionisia shared that she made that cuajada with milk from her cow. Having been born in Colombia, I had had Agua de Panela and Cuajada many times. Still, it was an experience to see my Dutch husband and my American son try those two things and truly enjoy them in a magical setting like Doña Dionisia’s house.
Traditional clothing for Campesinos
While enjoying our treat, Doña Dionisia changed into a fancier outfit. Most campesinos work the land in regular clothes, but they wear traditional and colorful outfits to events, ceremonies, and special moments.
Doña Dionisia told us that sharing about her life was a special moment, and therefore she wanted to wear one of her important outfits. So out, she came with a beautiful black skirt with embroidered designs and colors representing the Colombian flag. Her blouse was a lovely hot pink with ruffles along her neckline, waist, and sleeves.
Milking cows and shearing sheep are two of the main things Doña Dionisia and Abuelo do on a daily/weekly basis. Therefore, the day we visited, we had the opportunity to learn and experience how to milk a cow and shear a sheep.
Milking a cow in the Colombian Mountains
I had seen people milk a cow before, but I didn’t anticipate that there would be a technique to do it correctly and get the most milk. The first thing Doña Dionisia does is let the calf drink milk on its own. Once the baby was finished, she showed us how to properly milk the cow.
She makes it look easy. She explained that you have to squeeze your fingers one by one in a downward motion while slightly pulling the udder; however, this is way more challenging than you would expect.
While Doña Dionisia could get a lot of milk within minutes, it took us a long time to get a few drips. However, the more we tried, the more we understood the motion and the better we got at it. We finally milked the cow enough to make our own cuajada.
As we tried to practice the correct movement, Doña Dionisia shared that she has been milking cows for over 65 years.
After milking the cow, we took a well-deserved break and learned more about Doña Dionisia’s daily life. Sitting on this hill surrounded by nature, we listened as Doña Dionisia shared her daily routine.
Doña Dionisia wakes up very early to feed her chickens and ducks. She then starts the fire in her wood-burning stove to make hot chocolate and start a soup that they will eat for all meals of the day. She then showers and starts the day’s work, which includes milking the cows, giving them water, and feeding them.
After taking care of her cows, she returns to her house to have lunch, wash clothes, spin wool, harvest beans, etc. After lunch, she checks on all her animals, including a horse, a dog, the cuyes, etc. After that, Abuelo, her husband, works on making ropes while she weaves different things, such as socks, hats, and ruanas. Later if there is time, for example, if it rains, she enjoys watching a novela (telenovela).
What is a novela (telenovela)?
Novelas are series on television. Soap Operas. Telenovelas (novelas for short) is a word that literally translates into television novels.
To end the day, she continues doing some of the same activities and chores she did earlier in the day and later she warms up the soup or meal they prepared earlier for dinner.
Shearing a sheep in the Colombian Mountains
Later in our day with Doña Dionisia, she took out scissors, called one of her sheep, and began sharing with us how to properly give her a “haircut .”This was that specific sheep’s first haircut; therefore, she was a bit anxious.
Just like with milking the cows, she made it look effortless but let’s say that the side of the sheep she worked on looked like a high-end salon haircut while the side we worked on didn’t look anything close to that. Poor sheep.
While Abuelo, her husband, held the sheep calm, she showed us how to separate the hair to get to her skin and find the lanolin. As a result, the wool closer to the sheep’s skin is super soft.
What is lanolin?
Lanolin is wool oil. It is a wax or oil produced by wool-bearing animals. The lanolin helps the sheep by repelling water from their coats.
Shearing a sheep with modern equipment can be easy. At Doña Dionisia’s house, we used scissors and all of her knowledge to get it done. First, we learned to cut the wool as close as possible to the sheep’s skin but without hurting it. Then, after removing all of the wool, Doña Dionisia showed us the process to be able to use the wool.
First, we have to wash the wool with lukewarm water and let it dry, and then we can begin working on it. Then, we start untangling the wool. This process is called escarmenado. You have to remove knots, impurities, etc., to create a little wool cloud.
Doña Dionisia then showed us the tools we could use. Husos and Torteros.
What is an huso?
An huso is a spindle. The way Doña Dionisia explained it, it’s a wooden stick that is very light in weight. To make it work correctly, a “tortero” must be added.
What is a tortero?
A tortero is a round disc that, when added to the huso, gives it weight to properly work the wool.
Once you have your cloud of clean wool, you will pull it little by little to create a long piece of wool that wraps around your hand to create hand spoon wool, or use the huso and tortero to go a little faster. From then on, Doña Dionisia uses wool to knit things such as ruanas, hats, socks, scarves, etc.
Spending the day with Doña Dionisia, who calls herself 100% campesina, was an unforgettable experience we all treasure deeply. Not only did we get a chance to spend the day with the unique person that Doña Dionisia is, but we also learned an immeasurable amount of things. Most of all, it was amazing to see the life of Doña Dionisia and learn more about the Colombian campesinos.
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