“There is no life in him. The boy is going to die”: Nairo Quitana’s spiritual story

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“That is who we are.” We know Nairo Quintana was born in Colombia in 1990 but, as we discover in this extract from Matt Rendell’s new book, Colombia Es Pasione!, his roots reach back far further than his birth

Photographs: Offside / Presseports
Nairo Quintana

Colombia Es Pasion! The Generation of Racing Cyclists Who Changed Their Nation and the Tour de France is about the lives and dreams of a golden generation of Colombian cyclists: it tells inspiring stories of overcoming poverty and violence, sickness and corruption. It explores the unique sporting microcosm that lies behind Colombia’s world-beating riders, and how their achievements spurred a nation to prosperity and peace.


Rouleur has five copies to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one of them, simply enter your name in the form below. Winners will be notified after the closing date, Sunday March 22nd. A short extract of the book follows below.


To a flicker of sheet lightning, the quick tropical night engulfs the mountains of Iguaque, which rise like a great wave over Vereda La Concepción, a vereda being a unit of farmland divided among a number of households. The night is cold here in the high-altitude Colombian department of Boyacá and, at ten thousand feet above sea level, you sigh involuntarily after each movement.


The gathering darkness above obscures the lake from which, according to the narrative cycles of the Muysca people, Bachué, the primordial woman, emerged in the time of the ancestors to populate the earth. Lower down lie the hillsides where, in what we can only call March 1537 – the other calendar involved being lost – a bearded wayfarer named Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada appeared at the head of 170 half-starved Spaniards.


The aspiring Conquistadors had left the Caribbean coast eleven months earlier. Six hundred of their men had succumbed en route to exhaustion and disease, before the peaceable Muysca offered them their wary assistance.


But the expedition was just one of eight that would subdue these highlands before 1550. Today, the only remaining traces of their culture apparent to the casual observer are the place names. Vereda La Concepción lies on a hillside about six kilometres from the village of Cómbita, thought to mean either ‘Hand of the Tiger’ or ‘Strength of the Summit’.

I asked Nairo about them: Bachué, the primal mother, Bochica, the lawmaker, Chía, the moon-goddess. What did the old ancestral stories mean today?


He told me, ‘That is who we are.’


Yet, as the centuries pass, we seem to understand less and less of the Muysca. The last native speaker of their language is believed to have died in around 1870, and most of what remains of it is contained in two documents dispatched from the New World at the end of the eighteenth century for inclusion in Catherine the Great’s Comparative Dictionaries of All Languages and Dialects.


When he received them, Charles III, who had ordered the eradication of the indigenous languages in his dominions, decided not to send them on to Saint Petersburg but to keep them in his Chamber Library – which is to say, the idioms described in those priceless parchments were made extinct by their collector.


It could well be that the colonial rulers simply corralled a dozen distinct groups into camps and pressed together an array of complex dialects into an elementary Muyscaranto. If so, what we thought we knew of their language, we didn’t – and the Conquest did not so much destroy the Muysca people as create them.

Quintana

The front door opens onto an empty conservatory and then the house proper. Emiro López, in his early sixties, stands on the threshold between the kitchen and the room where his wife, Isabel Monroy, known as Mamá Chavita (Chavita simply means ‘small’, although she is not especially slight) has for many years run the Pato Lucas Kindergarten. Emiro’s eyes glisten as he travels a quarter of a century back in time.


‘He was crawling slowly across the floor just here,’ he says. ‘I picked him up’ – he mimes picking up a tiny child and encountering a gaze devoid of all recognition – ‘and said to Isabel, “There is no life in him. The boy is going to die.”’


Nairito – ‘Little Nairo’ – eight months old, was emaciated and weak with diarrhoea. His stomach was shockingly swollen, his hair on end. Few believed he would survive infancy.


Standing opposite Emiro, her back to the stove, is Mamá Chavita herself. She tells me, in beautiful, peasant Spanish, ‘Tentaron de ese tiempo que lo había tentado era antes de defunto,’ which I take to mean something like, ‘Around that time, he was tempted by a dead body,’ the verb tentar having shades of ‘to goad’, ‘to try the mettle of’. In other words, Nairo had been somehow courted or put to the test by a strange force of attraction emanating from the dead woman.

Quintana

He had come into the world on 4 February 1990, the son of Luís Quintana, a market trader from neighbouring Vereda Salvial, and his wife Eloísa Rojas.


Their faces tell the history of these hills: Luís is ruddy, light-skinned, green-eyed; Eloísa has long straight hair and dark Muysca features. As a young man, Luís had rented a shack beside a busy road and started selling groceries. It is easy to find: open any online map and search for Tienda la Villita. The imposing house you find now is proof of Luís’s acumen: the store allowed him to buy the land – some of which he turned to agriculture – extend the property and marry Eloísa Rojas, a customer from Vereda San Rafael across the road.


By the time she was twenty, Eloísa was pregnant with Willington Alfredo, named after the footballer Willington Ortiz who played 49 times for Colombia, although everyone calls him Alfredo. Then came Esperanza, meaning ‘Hope’, and Leidy, a name that became common after Diana married Prince Charles in 1981. Alfredo think his parents found the names of siblings four and five, Nairo Alexander and Dayer Uberney, in the newspapers.


Eloísa had been abandoned as a child.


She told me, ‘I was one of eight children, although I found out only recently. I was brought up by a woman named Sagrario Rojas, who loved me like her own daughter.’

Colombia es Pasion!

Sagrario died a few months after Nairo’s birth. Eloísa went to pay her respects and took the baby with her.


‘The illness began three days later,’ Eloísa said. ‘The man who had dressed the corpse must have touched little Nairo.’


Later, Nairo spoke to me of a belief system going back many years, according to which dead bodies emit a cold energy that, on contact, impregnates unborn children or babes in arms.


‘Only natural remedies can be used to treat it. It’s not a matter of scientific medicine.’


The column: Of Nairo Quintana and green shoots at the Tour de la Provence


As an athlete, Nairo has been subjected to scientific method since his teens, and knows exactly what he is saying: that modern science and medicine, for all the good they do in the world, belong to a way of life that has forced the thought-world of his own childhood into retreat, which makes Nairo’s illness and survival, more than medical or biographical facts, markers of identity, even forms of resistance.


‘Los antiguos,’ Isabel Monroy told me, meaning the old people of the community, ‘told Doña Eloísa to collect the buds of nine medicinal plants, boil them, and bathe Nairito in the water.’ It was unclear to me whether the ritual of collecting the buds was not itself part of the cure.


Colombia Es Pasion! The Generation of Racing Cyclists Who Changed Their Nation and the Tour de France by Matt Rendell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20. Published March 19th.)

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