Far from journeying to the Colombian city of Cartagena De Indias ,seeking a Caribbean utopia (of which there are many) to sun myself upon, I had come in search of the world ,I had previously inhabited through the literature of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gabo (as he is affectionately known in his homeland) in case you were wondering, is Colombia’s most celebrated writer and export beyond its more inglorious industries of cocaine, emeralds and er… Shakira.Choosing to ignore the alarmist Embassy warning’s, the country shifty international rep as the kidnapping capital of the world (clinging to the intrepid: I’m from South Africa, nothing scares me motto) I had set off. My prior research having confirmed that under the leadership of President Alvaro Uribe, the nation’s priorities had turned from terrorism to tourism while travel brochures had all adopted consoling catch phrases like: The only RISK you’ll encounter in Colombia -is never wanting to leave.
It was with a great sense of relief that I was finally able to abandon the prosaic dictates of the Lonely Planet in favor of calling upon Maestro Garcia Marquez (all twenty two of his novels stacked in my back pack) to inform and shape my daily itinerary. In preparation for my entrance into the coastal city of Cartagena De Indias, I had honed my focuses on two of Garcia Marquez’s Cartagena set novels ‘Love in the Time of Cholera (The city recently provided the locations featured in the film version) and ‘Of Love and other Demons’, while using his autobiography ‘Living to Tell the Tale’ to gain further insight into the Colombian story teller’s own infinitely beautiful and boundless head.
Despite Gabo’s continual references throughout his books to the Caribbean heat (Over my research I had compiled a list of adjectives that soon extended over three pages) I had arrived in Cartagena De India’s unperturbed. I suppose being a Durbanite, I had rather foolishly hoped that my native East Coast humidity would render me immune. Stepping out an air conditioned taxi out into the mid day torpor, I found myself mentally running through the check list. Devastating-yes! Overwhelming-most definitely. Impossible, infernal, interminable, intolerable, incandescent and implausible, reverberating ,splendid, shameful, savage, stolid and torrid-abso-bloody-lutely!.
Ambling through the deserted back alleys of the colonial quarter, I was to discover a vacant city, its population hidden indoors, shielding themselves from what Gabo calls ‘the shameful infection from the sun’. This mid day abandonment perfectly evoking one of the many descriptive passages from the early chapters of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.
‘After Independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery, the great old families sunk into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best –kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of the siesta.’
Upon my arrival into the forted city,I experience the strange sensation of having wondered these cobble stones before. The insufferable heat, turkey buzzards turning in the thermals, Chestnut tree shaded parks, tolling cathedral bells and bougainvillea infested balconies all adding to that exhilarating familiarity that comes with wondering into a once vicarious realm- a world previously inhabited between the covers of a book, now manifest and teeming before my awe struck eyes. So persuasive and consummate is Garcia Marquez at evoking a sense of time and place throughout his literature that’s its easy to forget that it was in fact this landscape that had imagined the author long before he had set about (re) imagining it.
In search of a bench to rest my book burdened shoulders I settle on the shaded oasis of the Plaza Bolivar. At its centre looms the imposing equestrian statue of the emancipator Simon Bolivar, I plonk myself beneath his pedestal boots, politely refusing the advances of watermelon hawking mulatto women in cascading fruit head dresses, and turning my attentions instead to the colonial splendor of the surrounding neighborhood.
Here Garcia Marquez’s literary landmarks prove instantly identifiable. So much so, that through his prose I am able to fill in any anachronistic gaps left by the boutique stores and tourist offices now situated within the historic facades. From this vantage point one need not possess a lively imagination to conceive themselves into shoes of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’s protagonist Florentino Ariza-the hapless telegraph operator who sitting beneath the shades of an similar park waits to glimpse his love, Fermina Danza in her bedroom window (Here any one of the surrounding Bougainvillea festooned balconies will do). After such extended periods of love sick doting, Florentina launches himself into a life long and mostly unrequited (fifty years, nine months and four days to be exact) seduction. A premise that Garcia Marquez later confessed to being inspired to write by his parent’s recollections of their own drawn out and equally comic tragic courtship.
Once checked into hotel in the historic slave quarters of Getsemani. I return at sunset to wonder the colonial quarter’s forted walls’. From this vantage point its easy to see how during the16th century the city of Cartagena De Indias’s coastal proximity combined with the Spaniards wealth of accumulated treasures (ransacked from the indigenous tribes across the continent) were viewed by the roving pirate galleons as an open invitation for a bit of the old rape, pillage and plunder .An inconvenience that would take the Spaniards over two hundred years to resolve through the erection of several kilometers of impenetrable walls (las Marullas).
Ironically, it was these same walls that were to provide sanctuary to a young Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had come to Cartagena De Indias fleeing the political upheavals which has had erupted in his University city of Bogota in 1948.
I stroll the circumference of the Las Murulla’s, its defenses still guarded by rusty canons from the 16th century. It’s a suitably idyllic view point ,on one side the sun slinking into the misty Caribbean while on the other, the fairy tale city, illuminated and resounding with off key serenades and the uniform clip clop of horse drawn carriages. Flocks of low flying pelicans merge with a mauve sunset as a full moon, egged on by Cityscape steeples, rises to assume her place amongst accumulating unreality of it all. Here I should acknowledge how difficult (or rather futile) it is trying to separate Gabo’s literature from real life, the magic from the realism and fiction from the historic fact.
I take a moment to attend an evening mass at the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (the cities oldest church) reading a chapter of “Love in the Time of Cholera’ amidst the soporific (yet hardly inappropriate) soundtrack of lagubrious hymns then head out under the Gateway of El Reloj , which extends across the (now defunct) drawbridge. A drawbridge that Garcia Marquez writes his Autobiography used to be raised each evening, out of the colonialists fear of that the poverty stricken masses would sneak across from the slums at midnight and slit their throats.
Unlike the immaculately kept Colonial quarter- Getsemani (the outlying slave quarter) has not been accorded the same loving lick of restorative paint or brass polish. Rather it exists as the cities subterranean flip side, the grimy pair of undies that the old colonial Dame (try as she might) can’t adequately conceal beneath the pretty new folds of her petticoat. It’s a more honest portrait, all together less Disneyfied, and practically unchanged from the streets Garcia Marquez recalls carousing with his journalist drinking buddies in his youth.
Against choruses of ‘Cocaine mi amigo, cocaine’, I see women emptying latrines from rotting wood balustrades, pass the ubiquitous Putas (prostitutes) accosted by street preachers who insist on laying hand to impure flesh and praying for their salacious souls. The district is a maze of pool bars, divey discos and brothels (what Gabo affectionately refers to as ‘transient hotels’) overflowing with burly sailor types. Passing internet cafes and incongruous religious stores whose windows display diminutive armies of catholic saints-figurines featuring the karma sutra of Christ contorted in varying (each more horrific and bloody then the last) configurations on his cross.
Under the sea rusted signage of their respective crafts, I watch tailors, barbers and chemists with wax tipped moustaches, slaving late into the night. Each of their trades still relying on the vestiges of an antique world: Singer sowing machines, Sweeny Todd barber chairs, and hand operated tills that insist on a purchase simply for the thrill of the ‘cha ching sound they make upon opening.
On returning to my hostel, I avoid the dull chit chat one is obliged to partake in with fellow travelers out in the courtyard, in favor of reading in my room. It’s not that the hostel guests are uninteresting, just that Gabo proves such an engrossing companion that I need not spend a moment away from his company. I scour his body of work circling references, street names, clues, returning daily to the highlighted locations with a renewed sense of curiosity and purpose.
One such rediscovery is the Portal De Los Dulces, situated by the entrance of the old city, what was also once known as the Arcade of Scribes (Portal De Los Escribanos). It was amongst these ‘rotted canvas awnings’ that both Garcia Marquez’s father Gabriel Eligio Garcia as well as the character of Florentino Ariza from ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ used to sit and pawn their love poetry to the illiterate members of the population. Garcia Marquez recalls in his autobiography ‘Living to Tell the Tale’, that in this instance his father failed to prosper as either poet or scribe because most of his destitute clients asked not only that he write their letters out of charity but be kind enough to help them pay for the postage.
It is in this same arcade that ‘amidst the clamor of shoe shine boys and bird sellers, the hawkers of cheap books, and sweet vendors’ (who to this day line the arcade selling their handmade fudges and coconut candies) that Florentina Ariza is brutally rebuffed for the first time by Fermina Daza.
When not seeking out such fabled landmarks (the entire city feels like a living monument to ‘Love in the Time of Cholera) I set about visiting Cartagena’s abundance of museums. One such museum is the Palacio de la Inquisicion which charts the Inquisition that occured in Gartagena in the 16th century- a grisly purge that saw the torture and demise of several thousand slaves and alleged heretics. The English speaking guide who shows me around the museum’s gallows and chambers, delivers a supine ‘Wikipedia’ learnt spiel, routinely listing and indicating (without a hint of expression, regret or revulsion) how a barbaric array of instruments including the breast shredder, disemboweling rake, head squasher, thumb crusher, collar of nails and the fork of the heretic, were all used to coax the required confessions. In short he makes for a lacklustre storyteller, nothing a re -reading of Garcia Marquez’s ‘Of Love and other Demons’ set during Cartagena’s Inquisition, can’t rectify.
In the novel, Garcia Marquez tells the story of a Marquis twelve year old daughter Sierva Maria, who after contracting rabies is admitted to the convent of Santa Clara under the conviction she is being plagued by demons. During Sierva Maria’s incarceration, a young priest Cayetano Delaura is summoned to exorcise her virulent demons, this of course this being a Garcia Marquez novel, the exorcism and outcome is complicated by the priest falling head over heels in love with the girl.
On the final morning of my stay I make an excursion into the old city to track dwon the Convent of Santa Clara. The same convent that during its renovation in 1949 Marquez was commissioned to write article on for the ‘El Universal’ newspaper. Needless to say he not only returned with the said article but the inspiration for one of his more recent novels. While the laborers had set about emptying of the convent’s burial crypts, Garcia Marquez had observed the exhumation of a child (named Seirva Maria de Todos Los Angleles) whose two hundred year old head of hair had continued to grow after her death to reach twenty two meters.
I arrive anticipating the novels description of the convent: innumerable widows facing the sea, a gallery of semi circular arches surrounding a dark and overgrown garden, but am perturbed to discover it now operating as a swanky five star hotel. Probably the only irreconcilable disappointment in my otherwise prosperous literary treasure hunt. In my disheveled and perspiring state the deprecatory look on the doorman’s face denies me entry before I’ve even had the chance to even ask. So instead I must make do with stealing my glimpses from a street side window.
Horrified to discover that what was once to the detriment and discomfort of poor rabid Sierva Maria is now to the respite and luxury of moneyed tourists. Speedoed Germans idling the afternoon away in the very place where once cloistered nuns had clutched crucifixes and prayed in silent terror. Obese Americans wallowing in a swimming pool on the spot where little Sierva Maria, straight jacketed and shorn of her hair, was given enemas of holy water to expel the demons that writhed in her belly. ‘I hope their tormented ghosts keep you all up at night.’ I mutter indignantly while shouldering my library of a back pack and climbing aboard a bus bound for Aracataca. Now in search now of Garcia Marquez’s mythical banana plantation town of Macondo.