A Quest for Tio Tom

Yesterday Jake and I visited Tenza, a small town in rural Boyacá.


Sleepy town of Tenza.

We wanted to visit Tenza because my Uncle Tom had lived there for a year between 1988-1989.  As the story goes, after graduating from the University of Michigan, Uncle Tom read a classified ad in the “Michigan Daily.”  The ad stated that a businessman in Colombia was looking for a ceramic artist to live in a rural village outside of Bogota.  The artist would help the local community build wood-burning kilns so that they could commercialize their ceramic art, a traditional craft in the area.  Much to the dismay of my grandfather, and probably my grandmother, Tom answered the ad and went to Colombia.

Many myths surround this time period in my uncle’s life – that he had to walk an hour uphill to eat salt-covered potatoes that didn’t fill him, that he gave a Colombian family $500 to pay off the FARC so they wouldn’t recruit their son, that the only thing giving away his gringo-ness were his straight, white teeth… Unfortunately, I can’t ask Tom to verify these stories.  He passed away in the summer of 2009, at the age of 45, from a heart attack.  I miss him, and it still makes me sad sometimes that Jake will never get to meet him.

Tom Better

My Tio Tom in Tenza in the late 80s.

So, at 7:45 a.m. we got on one of the few buses leaving for Tenza, handing over $20 to a woman who promised a “direct” trip.  We left expecting a 2-3 hour journey.  In reality, it took us nearly four hours to get there and five to return to Bogota.  The bus wound through rural towns tucked into steep, green mountains.  It stopped along the way to carry people between agricultural markets, to bring school children home from school, and to pick up and deliver packages along the road.  At one point the driver stopped and took a moment to ask a woman getting off the bus if he could buy a chicken.  She said, “No, they are all loose and I’d have to chase them.” He responded, “just shoot one.”  She got off the bus laughing and we were on our way again.

When we arrived in Tenza, we discovered a beautiful pueblo, with stunning views of the mountains.  The town was so quiet, it seemed that everyone was napping or away.  We walked around and asked a few people if they had known Tom, but no one had. We wandered around trying to imagine Tom living in Tenza over 30 years ago and then had a tasty lunch with salted potatoes. We stopped in the old church on the town’s plaza and I lit a candle for Tom.


Salted potato for lunch. Yum!


Sleepy mountain town.


I love the girl on the swing.


The inside of the church was beautiful. I was surprised there was a church this big for only 5,400 inhabitants.

As Jake and I lay in bed last night, he said he enjoyed the trip, but wished we had met someone who remembered my uncle or stumbled upon artists still working with clay.  I wished that too, but I also felt happy thinking of the small candle we left behind for Tom in a forgotten town in the mountains of Colombia.


Candle in the middle is for Tom.

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