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Students make pilgrimage to sacred sites in Colombia

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College students and faculty are pictured with their guides at Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point in South America.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – “A pilgrimage might be difficult, but you have a goal and are trying to attain it,” said Monmouth College biology professor James Godde.

That neatly summarized the recent travels of the College’s 12-student trip to Colombia, which was offered through the junior-year Reflections component of Monmouth’s Integrated Studies curriculum. Godde led the trip, along with political economy and commerce professor Wendi Bolon.

The students met weekly throughout the second half of the spring semester, discussing the sites they’d be visiting and doing various readings, including The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau. They kept a journal during the trip and wrote a paper after returning to the United States on May 28.

“Reflections courses are all about finding ways to understand more about yourself, and traveling is the best way for me to do that,” said Michelle Zelnio ’20 of Bettendorf, Iowa. “I learn more about myself in two weeks of travel than in an entire semester. You cannot learn about yourself if you continue with the routine. New experiences bring out the most interesting things about a person.”

Zelnio said she enjoyed living the simple life in Colombia.

“My favorite part of the trip was living minimalistically,” she said. “Our rooms were simply beds, and we sometimes slept in hammocks outside. We only brought a backpack of things for five days. It was a lower level of privacy and availability of things than most of us are accustomed, but it taught me about what I actually need and what I can do without.”

Two sacred sites

The group visited the northernmost point in South America – Punta Gallinas – as well as Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city built around 800 CE, centuries before the more-famous Machu Pichu in neighboring Peru.

Godde said reaching Punta Gallinas, an area that wraps around the northern border of Venezuela, definitely qualified as a difficult pilgrimage.

“The distance to get there isn’t that bad, but it’s very remote, so it took 11 hours of driving to get there – some of it through desert or rough roads or no roads – but it was worth it. Very few people get to see it.”

Some of the students constructed little stacks of stones, which is how people make a wish at the site.

Roughly halfway between the group’s base city of Cartagena and Punta Gallinas is Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for “lost city”), which was the other main site visited by the group.

“It was discovered in the 1970s,” said Godde. “A helicopter flew over it, and the people inside thought ‘What the heck is this?’ ... While hiking to get there, I definitely had the thought ‘Why did people want to build a city way out here?’”

During their travels, the Monmouth group encountered members of the Kogi tribe, which Godde said “worships two deities – Mother Earth and Father Sun.”

“They had a lot to say about taking care of the Earth,” he said. “They basically were saying we need to do a better job. They had a lot of good advice for the students.”

In addition to the two sacred sites, the group also visited a tourist destination on their next-to-last day in Colombia – the El Totumo mud volcano.

“Instead of hot lava, it’s hot mud,” said Godde.

Accessible via a staircase, tourists bathe in the dense, warm mud of the small volcano before washing themselves off in a nearby lagoon.

The importance of travel

“I have had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester before,” said Elizabeth Reasoner ’20 of Indianapolis, “and while I know it caused me to change, I was never able to articulate how. This trip was different from others that I’ve been on because it specifically focused on what I was thinking and feeling throughout the trip. It offered me a chance to truly focus on the specific changes that can occur to a person when they travel.”

Reasoner also appreciated the opportunity to use her foreign language skills.

“My favorite part about the trip was being immersed in a different language again. Because I speak Spanish, I was able to communicate with the people there in their native language and learn much more about the culture and history.”

Zelnio encouraged students at Monmouth to take advantage of College-sponsored trips.

“If there is even a chance that someone can be able to travel while in school, they should do it. It is cheaper and safer in school than it ever will be after we graduate. It is honestly life-changing, and everyone should at least try it once in their life if the opportunity presents itself.”

The two weeks in South American was Godde’s 13th study-abroad trip at Monmouth.

“It was my first time in Colombia,” he said. “I like to go to a place I’ve never been before. It was exciting as heck.”

Godde won’t have to wait long to lead his 14th trip abroad. He will teach another Reflections course in the second half of the fall semester, then lead those students to the Central American country of Belize in January.