By Jose Miguel Gomez
We plunged nearly 80 meters down a wood-lined tunnel while listening to Orlando Arias, the guide who brought us to Nemocon, an Andean village nestled between mountains and natural salt deposits just north of Bogota. His stories allowed us to focus our minds in the dark mine, and we could feel the dampness of that cold place.
Orlando caught my attention when he claimed to have seen elves there. I asked what they were like, and he answered, “They’re small with elongated ears, very mocking, the size of children, and very ugly.” He showed us a photo of them, and in a ghost-like image I could see seven small green creatures with big ears.
I doubted it all as we continued on our tour. He guided us around all the main sites in this mine that attracts some 80,000 tourists each year. That day we were only a few, so it was easier to take photos. Orlando told us how he likes photography, and he convinced us by pointing out the best points from which to photograph the mine and the reflections on the pools of water. He also showed great patience to wait for us to do our job.
I imagined how amazing it would be to see one of those elves that reminded me of the stories my father told me as a child. I remember being frightened by these invisible beings that, according to my father, existed. He had feared them greatly in his childhood home, starting when a maid arrived to work for them and brought the elves with her into the house. They lived in an old colonial house in a village of northeastern Colombia. Although he admits that he never actually saw the creatures, my father did see objects fly from one end of the house to the other, causing him and his 10 siblings to panic. The elves only left the house when the maid, frightened by the elves’ harassing, left the house for good.
It took me a long time to believe the story, even though it was told by my own father, and I believed everything he said to me back then. As I listened to Orlando in the mine, I relived those childhood fears and began to look for the ugly elves in each dark corner of the mine.
As I concentrated on taking photos I was surprised how shooting longer exposures with a tripod helped saturate the colors, and made the salt look like snow on the mine’s walls.
In this very Catholic country there was no lack of religious icons, such as those of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Fallen Christ of Nemocon, and Our Lady of Carmen.
At the end of the tour we reached the underground pond of San Juan, whose saltwater beautifully reflected the light and the images of visitors walking along its edge.
As we exited the mine I asked Orlando if he really had seen elves in the mine. Smiling, he admitted that the photo was a montage made by a local television station as a joke on an actress they were working with. He said that the actress had really been frightened, but that elves really don’t exist.
Since then, my memory of my father’s fear remains in the uncertainty of reality.