There are few places, known to us through literature, that let themselves be re- discovered. One of them is the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the site of some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century- the novels of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
It is easy to fall into the trap of missing the actual place when visiting a place that one has known through literature. This is not true,however, when in Colombia that Gabriel Garcia Marquez made immortal through his works, as a re-fabricator of its facts. Some of his greatest works, particularly his best known work, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as well as ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘Of Love and other Demons’, derived much from two places that he lived and grew up in- the mofussil, and a rather nondescript town of Aracataca and the colonial city of Cartagena in Caribbean Colombia.
If Latin America found its literary voice in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ it is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ in which Latin America found its hope and destiny. It was also the book and Macondo, the fictional place inspired by Aracataca, that encapsulated the whole of Latin America. Macondo became a byword for the school of writing that Garcia Marquez came to be associated with- that of magical realism. While his knowledge of Aracataca was deeply personal that of Cartagena was based on his knowledge that he gained while working as a journalist in that city from 1948 to 1955.
Like most readers of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I was bewitched by the place that he created his little universe in the fictitious land of Macondo. Almost three decades after I discovered ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on a samosa wrapper made from the previous week`s newspaper drenched in oil, I had the opportunity to visit the town that has renamed itself Macondo, and where reality seems to aspire to its literary image.
In Search of Macondo
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”
– One Hundred Years of Solitude
The two of us travelled to Cartagena and Aracataca in March of 2019 to discover some of the places where Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works are based. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, affectionately called Gabo in his native country Colombia, shot to worldwide fame with the publication of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in 1967, winning the Nobel Prize for literature fifteen years later.
Though credited with expounding Magical Realism, Gabo stated that all his works are based on reality and facts. How true that is, one discovers while walking through the streets of Aracataca in Colombia, the remote village where Gabo was born and which is the basis for the mythical Macondo.
It was born as a Chimila Indian settlement and entered history on its left foot as a remote district without God or law in the municipality of Ciénaga, more debased than enriched by the banana fever. It bears the name not of a town but of a river: Ara in the Chimila language, and Cataca, the word with which the community recognized its leader. Therefore we natives do not call it Aracataca but use its correct name: Cataca.
– Living to Tell the Tale, Gabo’s autobiography
Aracataca, today a small town of about 40,000 residents, is about 250 kilometers from Cartagena. Though well connected with the rest of the country because of newly built highways, it is tedious to travel there because one needs to change buses and then take a taxi ride from Santa Marta, the nearest town on the Caribbean coast. Colombia has been considered unsafe because of drugs related violence for the past few decades, but it was quite a pleasant surprise to discover that its highways are not only safe but a pleasure to drive on.
We rented a car from Cartagena airport and the journey from Cartagena to Aracataca, via Baranquilla and Cienaga turned into an adventurous experience that lets one observe the Caribbean Colombia from close quarters. Highway 90 along the Caribbean coast is newly laid and in excellent condition. The only hassle one experiences are the frequent toll collection points. Highway traffic is sparse between Cartagena and the biggest city on the coast, Barranquilla which is also the cultural center of Caribbean Colombia.
Cienaga, a decrepit town where the highway is surrounded by slums and small roadside eateries much like roadside dhabas in India. Cienaga is the town where the infamous killing of workers at the banana tree plantations of the United Fruit Company is recounted in ‘One Hundred Years.’
Turning off from highway 90 near Santa Marta is highway 45 that goes all the way to the capital Bogota. Lined with banana trees, this stretch is resplendently green, reminding one of Kerala. Following the GPS, a turn took us to Aracataca, precariously crossing the Aracataca river over an iron bridge.
The train stopped at a station that had no town, and a short while later it passed the only banana plantation along the route that had its name written over the gate: Macondo. This word had attracted my attention ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather, but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance. I never heard anyone say it and did not even ask myself what it meant. I had already used it in three books as the name of an imaginary town when I happened to read in an encyclopedia that it is a tropical tree resembling the ceiba, that it produces no flowers or fruit, and that its light, porous wood is used for making canoes and carving cooking implements. Later, I discovered in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that in Tanganyika there is a nomadic people called the Makonde, and I thought this might be the origin of the name.
– Living to Tell the Tale
The roads turned dusty and the houses slightly better than the sheds in Cienaga as we got closer to Aracataca. The place where we stayed, La Casa Magico Realisimo is run by Fernando and his wife and is a tribute to Gabo`s works. The walls are covered with the family tree and the famous mariposas (butterflies) from ‘One Hundred Years’ while the backyard has a hammock and furniture decorated with pillow covers with patterns from the covers of Gabo`s books. Tourists are few- around 10 during this tourist season, Fernando informs us, but they come from all over the world- Russia, France, Latin America, United States, Fernando tells us in colloquial Spanish in an accent that my unaccustomed ears struggle to understand.
We are a few hundred feet away from the site where Gabo lived with his grandparents till the age of 8 and excitedly walk over there as soon as we arrive after a tiring 6 hour drive. There are very few houses with more than two storeys. The streets are in a reasonably good condition, typically with small corner grocery stores and eateries. There is only one good restaurant, close to where we are staying. Gabo’s house , now a museum, is closed, and the guard asks us to come the next day, adding a bit about the grocery store right across the street- it has been there since the days of the United Fruit Company,he tells us animatedly.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, until the return train arrived, collecting nostalgic memories in the spectral house. All of it was ours, but only the rented portion that faced the street, where my grandfather’s offices had been, was in use. The rest was a shell of decaying walls and rusted tin roofs at the mercy of lizards.
In the course of my childhood it was described in so many different ways that there were at least three houses that changed shape and direction according to the person who was speaking.
– Living to Tell the Tale
This house is a re- creation at the site of Gabo’s original house where he lived with his grandparents. Today it is a museum that attracts Gabo’s die- hard fans who take the trouble of going to this still remote little town- indeed the two of us are the only visitors at the museum that day. Those familiar with his works will find the place familiar and for those who aren’t, there are helpful descriptions and quotes from his works. One can see the table that his grandma always kept ready for any unexpected visitors, the room where he witnessed a childbirth and the bedroom where his grandfather slept with a gun under his pillows. There are sample copies of the Spanish dictionary that was the first book that Gabo read (“The fundamental book in my destiny as a writer”) as well as ‘One Thousand Nights’, the collection of Arabian stories that he was told when he was a child and whose fable like atmosphere permeates ‘One Hundred Years.’
A representation of Gabo’s grandfather’s office, one of the two rooms that the women of the house were forbidden to enter.
The colonel had learned his father’s trade, who in turn had learned it from his, and in spite of the celebrity of his little gold fish that were seen everywhere, it was not a profitable business.
– Living to Tell the Tale
In one of the interior rooms is a table similar to the one where Gabo’s grandfather created the ‘gold fishes’ that Colonel Aureliano Buendia in ‘One Hundred Years’ crafts after his retirement.
“The women in the kitchen would tell the stories to the strangers arriving on the train, who in turn brought other stories to be told, and all of it was incorporated into the torrent of oral tradition.”
This was the realm of the women who lived or served in the house, and they sang in a chorus with my grandmother as they helped her in her many tasks. Another voice was that of Lorenzo el Magnífico, the hundred-year-old parrot inherited from my great-grandparents, who would shout anti-Spanish slogans and sing songs from the War for Independence. He was so shortsighted that he had fallen into a pot of stew and was saved by a miracle because the water had only just begun to heat. One July 20, at three in the afternoon, he roused the house with shrieks of panic: “The bull, the bull! The bull’s coming!” Only the women were in the house, for the men had gone to the local bullfight held on the national holiday, and they thought the parrot’s screams were no more than a delirium of his senile dementia. The women of the house, who knew how to talk to him, understood what he was shouting only when a wild bull that had escaped the bull pens on the square burst into the kitchen, bellowing like a steamship and in a blind rage charging the equipment in the bakery and the pots on the stoves.
– Living to Tell the Tale
So small is Aracataca that we more or less covered all the places of interest in less than an hour. As we stepped out in the morning, we ran into a father taking his daughter and son to school, singing all the way as the son (younger of the two siblings) did not seem very keen to go to school. Most people, though, came across as grumpy, possibly because of the heat and the mundane- ness of a small place, where nothing seemingly happens.
Half an hour later, while returning from the Tomb of Malquiades, we ran into him again, this time alone and he smiled at us ear to ear with an air of a long time familiarity.
In front of the Iglesia de San Juan, the cathedral where Gabo was baptized, is the Plaza de Simon Bolivar, where we come across a young white girl, perhaps sixteen or thereabouts, chaperoned by an Indian- looking older woman. The girl in a red dress with white polka dots, could have been Fermina Daza straight out of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, protectively accompanied by her aunt.
Some things have of course changed, like the famous Street of the Turks that still exists though it has been renamed as Colombia switched to a standardized naming convention throughout the county some years ago.
The Aracataca River
“Incredible things are happening in the world,” he said to Úrsula. “Right there across the river there are all kinds of magical instruments while we keep on living like donkeys”
– One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Aracataca Railway Station
The railroad depots in cowboy movies looked like our stations. Later, when I began to read Faulkner, the small towns in his novels seemed like ours, too. And it was not surprising, for they had been built under the messianic inspiration of the United Fruit Company and in the same provisional style of a temporary camp.”
– Living to Tell the Tale
“We have to bring in the railroad,’ he said.
That was the first time the word had ever been heard in Macondo. Looking at the sketch that Aureliano Triste drew on the table and that was a direct descendant of the plans that Jose Arcadio Buendia had illustrated his project for solar warfare, Ursula confirmed her impression that time was going in a circle.”
― One Hundred Years of Solitude
There are a few things that are strikes about the town as it stands today. There are a number of schools in the town, seemingly disproportionate to the size of the town. At the same time, there are no bookshops at all, though there is a decent public library headed by a chatty librarian.
The only place where we came across books by Gabo for sale was the Casa del Telegrafista, where Gabo’s father had worked and made famous in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’ Young women driving motorcycles is a common sight. The town’s streets are lined with almond and mango trees.
There is a Tomb of Malquiades which is a real tomb of the fictional gypsy character of that name in ‘One Hundred Years’, whose mother tongue was Sanskrit. Malquiades may or may not have been of Indian origin, but the mango trees are certainly that connect the two countries, the mango being an import from India.
The next day is time to leave and start our long drive back to Cartagena. As we part, Fernando asks how we liked our trip to Aracataca. In the spirit of the exaggeration that characterizes Gabo’s writings, I blurt out: “Puedo ahora morir en paz” (I can now die in peace). Fernando’s usually stoic Indian face for once betrays an emotion of incredulity.
Perhaps there is something in the air of Aracataca that makes one susceptible to the fantastic.
We drive back to Cartagena, passing through Barranquilla, the biggest city on the Caribbean coast and its cultural centre. Gabo worked here for a while too, and we make a brief stopover at La Cueva, the café where the famous Barranquilla Group is said to have rendezvoused. Another site on the pilgrimage checked off, we resume our journey on the mostly deserted highway. All appears to be calm as the sun sets and we make a lonely trudge back. Ten kilometres outside Cartagena, we stop at a gas station to fill the tank. Tank filled, I walk out of the car to stretch my legs and pay the operator. He recoils back, fearful. A lone gunman whom I had not noticed before, steps forward quickly, fear written on his face and relaxing only when they make out that I am an extrajero (foreigner), with looks that could pass for a Colombian but speaking in broken Spanish.
That is the closest that we come to experience the dark recent history of Colombia. Flooded with tourists, the Caribbean coast is one of the safest regions in Colombia, unlike for example, Medellin and Bogota that bore the brunt of the violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Gabo’s writings belong to the Caribbean coast. To understand the Colombia of Medellin and Bogota, one has to turn to more contemporary writers like Juan Gabriel Vasquez and the debutante novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
As for Gabo’s world, while the people he wrote about have long gone, the physical world they inhabited continues to exist in Aracataca that is now Macondo.