GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ : His Macondo, Aracataca

“All journalism is political,” Gabriel García Márquez. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez (Bogotá, Colombia). photo © LorraineCaputo

“All journalism is political,” Gabriel García Márquez. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez (Bogotá, Colombia). photo © Lorraine Caputo

One of Latin America’s greatest writers is Gabriel García Márquez. He was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in the midst of United Fruit Company’s banana plantations, on 6 March 1927.

The great author died 17 April 2014 in Mexico City. His archives are now at the University of Texas-Austin. His ashes will rest in the Claustro de La Merced of the Universidad de Cartagena.

García Márquez – affectionately known as Gabo – was a journalist, screenwriter and novelist, and is credited with founding the magic realism literary movement. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. His most famous work is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which began its life as La Casa – only to be destroyed in the fires that raged through the capital during the Bogotazo.

His collections of short stories are also legendary. But what I enjoy most are his journalistic writings. The stories he would uncover! They are a definite instruction to budding journalists of how to look for a story.

On my breezes through Cali, Colombia, I would stop into a used bookshop I stumbled across downtown in 1999 (and for many years had marked in my memory.) I would search the shelves for any copy of the Oveja Negra editions – small and cheap for super-budget travelers.

And in that first visit in 1999, I found two treasures that would accompany for that May 1999 I spent in Colombia: Cuando era feliz e indocumentado and Crónicas y reportajes.

Casa del Telegrafista, where García Márquez’ father worked. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Casa del Telegrafista, where García Márquez’ father worked. photo © Lorraine Caputo

There are many places in Colombia where you can follow Gabo’s footsteps:

  • Aracataca – His home town, with the Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez, Casa del Telegrafista and other sites.
  • Barranquilla – The Museo Romántico displays the typewriter on which he composed his first great work, La Hojarasca (Leaf Storm), as well as other personal items by the great author. La Cueva was where he and rest of the Grupo de Barranquilla hung out.
  • Cartagena – His home for many years, just a block from the Spanish fortress walls, is in the San Diego district. His ashes will rest in the Claustro de La Merced of the Universidad de Cartagena.
  • Bogotá – Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez
Gabo’s typewriter in the Museo Romántico (Barranquilla). photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Gabo’s typewriter in the Museo Romántico (Barranquilla). photo ©Lorraine Caputo

But today, let’s take a step back in time, to war-riven Colombia, 1999. To Gabriel García Márquez’ Macondo we shall go.

Safe Journeys!

 

IN MACONDO

Aracataca’s arabesque village church. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Aracataca’s arabesque village church. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The General in the Labyrinth of This Park

I sit in thin shade, on a bench at the edge of Parque de Bolívar. Just there, in the center, stands a diminutive statue of the Libertador.

The doors of the white-washed, arabesque church are open to the heat of this early morning. Within, the worshippers are exposed.

Vendors on the other side of this park have their stands open, revealing all manner of gadgets and belts and purses.

Men sit on the garden walls, sharing news. I don’t hear their words – just the Caribbean lilt murmur and the hands speaking.

From the side street, music plays from a café. There a group of women chat. I don’t hear their words, I don’t hear their murmurs. Their hands speak through the already-muggy day.

 

Was This a Death Foretold?

The church bells ring steady, in a rhythm.

I look up from my book.

Those worshippers depart behind the white and purple vestmented priest, behind the coffin atop four pairs of shoulders. They turn the corner of the church and disappear up the street. Many in the park, many in the café drop their conversations and follow. Others mount bicycles and motor-scooters, joining the procession.

 

The birdsong and human murmur fall back into place. Flies swarm and dance over the pages held in my sweating hands.

An old, dark woman stops at my side and asks, “What are you reading? An evangelical book?”

“No, ma’am,” I respond, placing my fingers where I must leave off reading. “García Márquez.”

“García Márquez? You have him there? García Márquez is in that little paperback?!” She repeats over and again, shuffling off. Her flip-flops barely flop. A heavy black bag swings from her wrist. “She has García Márquez in that little book!” The filtered sunlight glitters off her whitened hair.

Her murmurs fade to the corner and disappear.

Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

La Casa

A bus of workers stops in front of the ochre and white house: Casa-Museo de Gabriel García Márquez. Quickly they scan the exhibition room of the front building and through the two rooms remaining of the white and green casa natal.

Quickly they board the bus again and disappear.

 

On the other side of that park, a man builds another stand. His hammer echoes through the air growing heavy.

Every once and again, a passing woman murmurs, Buenos días or Adiós. I repeat their greetings, barely looking up from my pages to their smiles.

And as I sit writing these words, young men or young boys stop to watch my pen flow. But when I look at them, their eyes quickly turn away to some innocent pursuit.

Another truck laden with African palm fruit goes around the plaza and disappears.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo in the midst of banana – and now African palm fruit – plantations of some foreign owner. It is full of interesting characters.

On every spare space imaginable – upon walls, upon benches – someone has written prophetic biblical quotes.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

I decide to stay in Aracataca for at least a day more. But one sultry day blends into another, the heat and humidity swirling from day into night and again into day.

I drop by Residencias Macondo where the price is right for this wandering poet. Rooms set around the patio share the bathroom stalls and showers at the back of the yard. On one side is the owner’s kitchen.

“You look tired,” the doña says to me. “Have a seat. Would you like a tintico?”

A tintico, a strong cup of Colombian coffee. Precisely what I need! It’s been a long week or so of traveling, in search of trains. My dream trip of sailing the Río Magdalena is off. Already, in the first four months of this year, over 200 kidnappings have happened on that river-highway.

And although it is not spoken aloud, the tensions of the civil war in this year of 1999 permeates the air.

So many adventures to tell that lead up to this point. They are for another story, I dare say. But on this leg, from Puerto Berrío on the west bank of the Río Magdalena to here, was a necklace of adventures in and of itself. In a nut shell?

After a night of clandestine traveling through the war zone, being dropped off at the Bostonia crossroads as the sun rose, I hitched northward. I wanted to go to Fundación (where I erroneously thought the 1928 banana massacre occurred – García Márquez mentions it in One Hundred Years of Solitude – I later find out it happened in Ciénaga). But the driver didn’t hear my banging on the back of the pickup truck until we arrived at the crossroads for Aracataca. I hoisted my Rocinante (my knapsack, my faithful companion) and hoofed the three kilometers into town. At least I’ll visit the casa-museo before continuing to Santa Marta.

The doña and I sit under the shade of the níspero trees growing in the patio. Other women come to chat, holding a cup of tintico in their hands. Chickens peck at the dirt, around our feet.

A vendor arrives and greets us. He places two large sacks of in front of his room’s door. He opens one. “Welcome,” he says as he tosses to me two oranges from the sack.

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. photo © Lorraine Caputo

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. Upon this giant book open to the passage about Remedios reclines a woman. A multitude of yellow butterflies flurry all around, around that woman.

The station is painted white. The sign declaring this station – Aracataca – still hangs on one side. Its white and black paint is peeling. On the side porch benches, four men sit. A fifth joins them. A few young girls sit on another bench. They are all wrapped in their conversations.

Suddenly they fall silent. Their eyes turn to the northern horizon. They watch the southbound train pass by at a quick clip. Two locomotives haul a chain of 83 open hoppers, the weight and technical information all in English. There is no caboose. A worker on the last car waves to those of us who have gathered at the station.

And after the train disappears, the old men and young girls wander away, disappearing into the late morning.

But again they shall gather here in the afternoon, to wrap themselves in conversations, to fall silent, to wordlessly watch the train pass by … and again disappear ….

… until the next train’s passing.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo in the midst of the civil war zone. It is full of interesting characters.

Donkeys wander around the parque, near the station, past the market, down side streets.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

All day, the heat and humidity drive people to sit – on chairs, on curbs, on planters – under the thin shade of trees along the streets, to catch whatever slim breeze possible.

One day I go to the neighborhood general store. Out front sit a man and the shop’s owner. A third man sits quietly, not saying a word.

The first man – who could be in his mid- to late-40s and just worn from too much work or booze, or he could have been a young 60s or 70s – is dressed in shorts, sandals and a worn t-shirt. He is a storyteller, weaving incredible tales (and damn that now I can’t remember a one of them!)

The owner seems to be taking most of his tales with a proverbial grain of salt, with a slight smile.

A young woman in not-too-short shorts, a modest shirt and low, open shoes strolls by the three men. Immediately the storyteller falls silent and turns his attention to her. “Boy, she sure wears those shoes well.”

And, no – his eyes are not looking that low ….

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo.

Not only do donkeys abound – but also the flies. Perhaps it is because of the generations of bananas and flesh that have rotted into the soil of this tropical Caribbean backwater region.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

The market is quite gross with the swarms of flies that hang as heavy as the humidity. But it is the only place where I can find to have a cup of coffee!

I pull up a seat at a small wooden table outside the only stand – of the dozens in this mercado – that serves coffee. Three men are also there.

On the narrow street beside us, a truck is leaving. It hits a motorcycle parked near us. One of my tablemates jumps up. He inspects his bike for any damage – as does the crowd of people that forms thicker and thicker around the scene. Every minuscule dent and scratch is examined – “What about this? He didn’t do it? And this one?” A fervent discussion pursues about what should be done.

I leave the crowd – and the dozen donkeys milling around – to continue exploring Macondo.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

One evening at the restaurant where I have dinner, I ask the woman there when Gabriel García Márquez last visited his hometown.

“When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.”

“Why hasn’t he visited since then?”

A look of disgust washes over her face, bitter words sprout from her mouth. “Because he feels he’s too good to come back. He hasn’t done anything for our community – though some say the solution to the problems here or here isn’t his or anyone else’s money, but the system as it is, and everyone has to work towards the change and solution, what do you think?”

I remember the warning the taxi driver in Medellín had given me when he learned I was going to take the train to Barrancabermeja on the east bank of the Río Magdalena: You don’t know who is guerrilla or who is paraco (paramilitary). Keep your mouth shut.

The civil war zone extends this far north. In fact, it extends through most of the country in this year of 1999.

I keep my mouth shut.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo.

Not only do donkeys and flies abound – but also the ants.

One pre-dawn, I hurry across the patio to the bathrooms in back. As I stoop over the stool, I notice a line of ants ascending my leg.

I hop into the shower next door to wash them away.

And I examine my tennies. In the left shoe, dozens upon dozens of ants have begun building a nest.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

Tonight I eat at a different place. The air conditioned salon has a large painting of García Márquez on one wall.

I ask the man there when Gabriel García Márquez last visited his hometown.

“When he won the Nobel Prize.”

“Why hasn’t he visited since then?”

“Ah, because of security.”

“In what sense, sir?”

“With the situation in the country, he could be kidnapped. Any of the factions would want to lay hands on him.”

“Where does he live now?”

“In Cartagena and Mexico.” In the great metropolis of that latter country, he believes.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

My time in Aractaca has come to an end.

After days of passing messages, I have my next clandestine ride set. I must hurry back to the residencia to grab Rocinante and head out.

I take one last look at the red long johns I had worn when I left Quito several weeks earlier. Because of the hard travel, I didn’t get a chance to take them off until I reached the banks of the Río Magdalena. Now I am heading for the Caribbean coast.

I no longer have use for them. I toss them on the bed before closing the door behind me and saying good-bye to the doña.

I am sweating in this late morning. But soon I shall be where the sea breezes sway the palm trees. Ah, there is a very slight one blowing now. How refreshing!

But what the heck anyone in a place like Aracataca is going to do with red long johns, goddess only knows!

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

Postscript

Several weeks later, I spend a few days in Parque Nacional Tayrona, just east of Santa Marta. I stay in at Arrecifes, and spend the days snorkeling in La Piscina, hiking to Chairama and beach combing.

One night, hours before the dawn, I hear a voice. “Lorena, can I borrow your flashlight?”

It is Sergio, the Colombian-Swede with whom I am sharing this open-sided palapa. I pull my mosquito net aside and step out of my hammock.

Sergio shines my flashlight to where his bag is hanging from an overhead beam. A donkey is rummaging through the pack. Upon noticing our presence, he disappears into the darkness.

Sergio picks up his copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The burro has eaten the first hundred pages or so.

Just another tale in this Macondo that is any Colombian Caribbean village.

 

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