This is a chapter from a book that I wrote a few years ago that was never published. It is different from the books I write now, but I still like this chapter, which is why I am sharing it here. I prefer now to write adventure books for my son with happy endings that are full of ghosts and adventure.
The Colonel Writes to Everyone
In April 2017, while on my honeymoon, I visited Aracataca, Colombia, the birthplace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Gabo, as he is affectionately known throughout Colombia. It is about an hour and a half drive south from Santa Marta but still within the Department of Magdalena.
Gabo was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca to Gabriel Eligio García and Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán, but he was abandoned to be raised by his grandparents. This arrangement lasted during his childhood, and as both biology and fate would have it, this was his most formative period. For without the influence of Aracataca and his grandparents’ home, much of what we know as Gabo likely would not have existed. For those who do not know, Gabo was a Colombian writer. I refrain from saying journalist, novelist, essayist, or political satirist, because however you choose to identify him, the common thread of all these titles is “writer.”
But more than that he was a storyteller, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. He passed from this life to the next in 2014.
I first learned of him from my grandmother. She mailed me a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera when I was sixteen, and it immediately became my favorite book and one of the few that I have read many times in the years since. This is a rather unusual book and highly unusual for a grandmother to give her grandson, but then again there is nothing usual or ordinary about my grandmother or the man to whom she first introduced me. And it was through a shared love for him that I first began to love my wife. That is not terribly unusual, really. If you wish to endear yourself to any Colombian, whether this Colombian has read Gabo or not, tell him or her you love Gabo, and you will instantly become good friends.
To say that he is a hero to Colombia is an understatement. Simon Bolivar is a hero, but he is a hero to many people in South America. Gabo is more of a demigod of sorts. Certainly he may have his detractors among the living intelligentsia in Colombia with their European degrees and who are graced with talent but lacking heart; but make no mistake, he was a phenomenal writer. The Colombians’ love for this man and their love for storytellers in general is one of the things that most endear them to me. It reminds me of my birthplace, Mississippi, where writers are held in similar esteem. When Eudora Welty died a few years ago, she lay in state beneath the rotunda of the old state capitol, and she was mourned by everyone from former governors to local clerks. And I need not mention William Faulkner, who has reached a state of apotheosis where those lucky enough to have known him are revered like angels possessing some secret knowledge of the great writer. Remarkably, Gabo’s link to Mississippi is stronger than analogy in my mind because in his Nobel acceptance speech he thanked Faulkner, calling him “my master,” which as a son of Mississippi would forever endear the Colombian to me even without the grandeur of his own writings.
If you are unfamiliar with Gabo, or if you are only generally familiar with him, it’s worth remembering that he was without question one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century in any language. But in his own language, Spanish, they say that he was the greatest writer since Cervantes. Yes, that’s Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the sixteenth century Spanish author of Don Quixote, who is held in as high esteem in the Spanish speaking world as Shakespeare is in the English. Thus, to assert that Gabo was the greatest Spanish language writer since Cervantes is like saying Earnest Hemingway was the greatest English language writer since Shakespeare, but this is something altogether different. Because most people will agree that although Hemingway was a great writer he was not exactly the heir to Shakespeare, but that is exactly what the Spanish language world says about Gabo.
In fact, he is so beloved in Colombia that they have begun putting his impression on their currency—specifically, the 50,000 peso note with Gabo on the front and the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada on the back. There is perhaps a level of irony in this act by the government of Colombia, but it is true to say that he is deeply loved in Colombia.
When we first met, Alejandra and I would discuss his writings for hours, and whenever I had a question about a historical reference in one of his books, Alejandra was the first person I asked for clarification. I learned from her that many of his stories and books are part of the Colombian educational system, like Homer in ancient Greece.
I once asked a boy in his late teens if he had read No One Writes to the Colonel, and Alejandra took my arm and whispered quietly to me that all children in Colombia read it before the fifth grade. Her meaning was that my question was a bit condescending because of course the boy knew, as did everyone who went to school in Colombia, all about Gabo’s classic novella. It concerns a retired colonel from the 1,000 Days War who visits the post office each day in hopes that his promised pension will arrive. It never does, and his heartache is one of many that affect a country of eternal optimists. You can learn a great deal about Colombian history and culture by reading Gabo. The problem is that until you see Colombia for yourself you will not really believe that most of what Gabo wrote was truth. Critics use a term like “magic realism” to describe an element of his writings that is better described as “realism.”
Unfortunately, many people do not visit Aracataca, and sometimes they are even discouraged from doing so, as Alejandra and I were initially. We were drinking cervezas on the Playa Blanca in Rodadero, an upscale neighborhood in Santa Marta. We found the beach entirely by accident. We were both entirely unfamiliar with Santa Marta, and often times Alejandra will manufacture an adventure from the hand of destiny. Literally, in this instance; several hours before she had pulled me onto a bus that had already started moving.
“Hurry, hurry,” the driver shouted.
We collapsed into two seats and immediately shielded our ears from the intermittent blasts of music from a boom box lodged under the driver’s seat. Bursts of sea breeze and diesel blew through the windows, stirring alternating dust clouds of cold and hot. The driver’s assistant stumbled down the aisle to collect our money.
“Where we go?” Alejandra asked the man.
“Everywhere,” he said, and fell to the ground. “Uff, and nowhere.”
The bus system in Santa Marta is similar to and yet distinct from the bus systems in the rest of Colombia. It’s similar in that it’s a bus and you must pay, but it’s distinct in that it’s a singularly coastal experience. Some of the busses are privately owned and their routes are much more fluid than in other places. For example, if you were to ride MegaBus in Pereira, you can only catch the bus at designated stops. But the other smaller privately owned and operated buses pick up people and drop them off on an improvised basis. This happens throughout the country, and it offers a certain amount of flexibility while also adding extra time to your schedule. But the buses in Santa Marta often have the appearance of being operated by two men who decided that morning to be bus drivers and are at all times negotiating the best route to any location.
“This is an adventure! You no do this without me? No?” Alejandra said while grabbing the sides of my face and giving me a giant smacking kiss.
“Sometimes,” I said, “but I would know where we are going first.”
“Ohhh, don’t be a lllaaaadddyyyy,” she said. “You scared? Don’t worry, my darling. I protect you.”
The bus wound its way through the many barrios lining the dusty mountains surrounding Santa Marta before climbing, turning, and dropping into a cooler expanse of more lush vegetation. The music from outside the bus grew louder and overcame the driver’s old speakers.
“Look, look,” Alejandra said squeezing my hand. “It is a sign from God.”
Indeed it was a sign and the name of an upscale apartment complex, the same name of the mythic town created by Gabo: Macondo. We jumped off the bus as it rounded a curve and ran opposite the traffic to reach a sidewalk that led to a beach hidden behind a grove of palm trees and hemmed in by two mountain outcrops. Macondo is an amalgam of all the myths and towns along the coast stretching back before the Spanish conquest. Much like Yoknapatawpha County created by Faulkner, it is seemingly nowhere and everywhere.
We collapsed onto the wet sand and held one another as the sun began its descent behind the waves. It was here that we ordered beers and met a local minstrel who serenaded us with his guitar. Alejandra accompanied him with her soft Paisa voice, and when he finished, he offered her a job as his backup singer.
“It pays nothing, but the scenery is good,” he said smiling.
“Ave Maria! No,” she said, “but you can drive me and my husband to Aracataca.”
“No, Senora,” he said, “it is very ugly and dangerous.”
“Uff, I no believe him,” she said to me in English.
This was our first introduction to Aracataca, and it could not have been more wrong. But like most of Colombia this sleepy hamlet is a bit misunderstood. It was founded in 1885. Thus, it is relatively new, when one considers that Santa Marta was founded in 1525. It is sunbaked, humid, and at times a little dusty. Although Aracataca is of modern vintage, the land itself is extraordinarily old and filled with mystery. This portion of Colombia was never properly tamed, and it is only along the thin strip of sand between the ocean and the land that one will find the sort of domestication one most closely associates with the West. The rest of the land bears that unmistakable criollo flavor that is one part magic and one part dream.
Literary critics, teachers, and even the tourist industry of Colombia use the term “magic realism” to describe Gabo and the flavor of his writings. And if you read his works and visit Colombia, you’ll get a taste of this magic realism. The term itself is a genre of modern fiction that blends the element of realism and another element called “magic.” This is not magic in the sense of David Copperfield. It is magic in the sense of the fabulous whereby it seamlessly incorporates elements of myth, make-believe, and supernatural allegory into the story. The term “magic realism” existed prior to Gabo and was first used to describe other Latin and Creole writers including Jorge Luis Borge, Isabel Allende, or even Salman Rushdie, but I would argue the term has been mistakenly applied to Gabo. First and foremost, Gabo was a realist and a journalist. It was not the writer who was a proponent of this term “magic realism,” but instead it is the land itself that invites this comparison. When one calls Gabo an example of the genre magic realism, one runs the danger of thinking that his writing is that of fiction rather than fact. The problem here is that one automatically dismisses his words and assumes they are false without bothering to investigate further.
The history of Colombia is contained in his writings, and those parts of his writings that one might be tempted to call “fabulous” or “magic” show one’s unfamiliarity with Colombia and Colombian history, reinforcing the tired Latin American stereotypes that writers like Gabo worked so hard to dismiss. But make no mistake, there is a presence in this part of Colombia that often cannot be explained without reference to the supernatural.
I can from experience tell you of several ghostly encounters I have had in Santa Marta and the surrounding areas. A month after our honeymoon, Alejandra, our son, and I relocated to Santa Marta to be closer to the tourist industry and the indigenous inhabitants. We rented an apartment, in which from the very first night I experienced a series of ghostly encounters. Each night at 2 A.M. the door to Mateo’s bedroom would slam shut regardless of what item I had jammed under the door, or chair I had placed in front of the door, and always in the absence of wind. Several times in the living room I saw the specter of an indigenous man wearing a crimson cloak over white under garments staring at me, and who would motion toward the pool before disappearing into the night air. They say such a specter can often lead you to buried treasure, though I was more annoyed than curious.
I have had lights flash in front of my eyes in a darkened hallway, once causing me to spill a glass of wine, and when I bent over to clean up the mess I felt an entity shove me into the bathroom (it was my first glass of the night and I was in no way intoxicated).
I have felt Alejandra’s dog enter the apartment and run around the bed, and when I yelled at her to keep the dog out of the bedroom she told me that Mateo was outside walking it.
I could go on and on about such occurrences that I experienced in Santa Marta and the rest of Colombia as well. But the most remarkable thing about seeing a ghost in Colombia and telling a Colombian about your encounter is that the Colombian will not answer you with disbelief but with another ghost story.
Such encounters are more often met by the general populace not with fear but with annoyance. In fact, the town Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude was founded to escape the haunting of a bothersome ghost. The town’s patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, killed a man named Prudencio Alguilar following an argument after a cockfight when Alguilar said that perhaps Buendía’s fighting cock could do what his penis could not—impregnate his wife. In Buendía’s defense, his wife had refused to consecrate their marriage and, because they were cousins, wore a chastity belt to prevent the birth of a monster. Buendía did sleep with his wife, Úrsula, but only after murdering Alguilar, and he did so (or so he said) not out of marital felicity but to prevent more murders. However, it was ultimately the ghost of Francis Drake, the dragon, who was responsible for this mishap. But for this man erroneously called “Sir” that Úrsula’s great-great-grandmother left Riohacha, the capital of Guajira, after Drake raped, burned, and robbed the town, and met the great-great-grandfather of her husband.
Yet only by moving to a town that had not experienced a death could Buendía escape the ghost of Alguilar. This he did by founding Macondo, but his efforts went to naught after a gypsy named Melquiades died in the town. This gypsy in turn had, in Úrsula’s opinion, ruined her husband by introducing him to alchemy and the natural sciences, which so thoroughly occupied his mind that he became generally good for nothing until he went completely insane. It was at this point that the ghost of Alguilar found him and they became good friends. However, fanciful all this may sound, it was Buendía’s second son, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, also an alchemist but more importantly a colonel in the 1,000 Days War, who is so significant for an understanding of modern Colombian history and Gabo’s brilliance as a writer.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself.
Several days after Alejandra and I had met the beach minstrel, we met another man named Eder, whose enthusiasm for driving us to Aracataca was matched only by my wife’s joy at meeting a fellow Paisa. He was working as a driver for a company associated with the Villa Maria, the eco-hotel in which we had stayed in the Sierra Nevada in the second leg of our honeymoon. After breakfast one morning I found Alejandra joking with him and half the gardening staff in the parking lot. She waved to me excitedly, and when I reached the parking lot she grabbed me by my arm.
“Say it, mor,” she shouted. “Say it.”
“No,” I responded.
“Oh, he is shy,” she said, “Say it, mor, it is funny.”
“Ok. Soy mas paisa que un arepa bebe!” I shouted, and Alejandra exploded in laughter. This was, “I am more paisa than an arepa, baby!” This is one of the first things Alejandra ever taught me. An arepa is a distinct part of paisa cuisine. And to say that you are more paisa than an arepa is like saying, “I’m more Southern than grits.” Eder too was thrilled with my verbal display, and the three us agreed to drive to Aracataca the following Saturday, the last day of our honeymoon.
As we drove to Aracataca, the sun rose fully from behind the Sierra Nevadas and drenched the open fields rolling from their base to the most distant horizons. The road outside Santa Marta leading south to Aracataca is lined with farmland and is unquestionably fertile and productive. For nearly an hour all you see are groves of banana trees, guava, and mango lining the road. Dense vegetation carpets the ground beneath the trees and gives some indication of the area’s former lushness. Part of the problem with growing crops like bananas is that they take up a lot of water, which could be used more effectively by local fauna and fruit trees native to the region.
Southeast Asia, the original home to the banana, receives more rainfall than this part of Colombia, and the wild and domestic bananas in those regions receive sufficiently more water as well. The consequence of this thirsty effect of banana production is that when you do not have sufficient rain for the bananas, they take water that would have gone to support the natural fauna. The native fauna is most suited to growing in this region because those species are adapted to thrive on the amount of water available on a normal year-to-year cycle in this area. When these local varieties of plants are pushed out to make room for newcomers such as bananas, the result is that some of the land will dry up. You can see this in varying degrees in this area and the Magdalena Department in general. You can see miles of trees on one side of the road, but off in the distance you can see what appear to be dry patches of sand.
Banana plantations still occupy a large percentage of the land, and as you drive to Aracataca you see the tens of miles of them lining the road. The banana is a peculiar fruit. There is evidence of it being cultivated for human use as many as ten thousand years ago. Like coffee, bananas are not native to the New World. Originating in Southeast Asia, they were first brought to the New World by the Portuguese. Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese had colonial and commercial interests along the east and west coasts of Africa and as far away as India and China. This gave them access to a number of crops otherwise unavailable to the Spanish.
In many ways the banana has been as economically important to the coastal regions of Colombia as coffee has been to the mountainous regions to the south. While the industry has largely moved north to Central America, Colombia is still tenth in world production and bananas represent its third largest agricultural export crop. Familiar names like Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte can still be found in Colombia. Chiquita is perhaps the most infamous in this string of names.
At one time Chiquita was called the United Fruit Company. The name change occurred after a series of reorganizations and mergers, but make no mistake, the two are the same. If a company owns and farms a piece of land from one year to the next, and one day they change the sign in the front of the farm, the only difference is the sign.
The United Fruit Company was involved in a terrible incident in Colombia that occurred on December 6, 1928, and which has become known as the “banana massacre.” The workers on the various plantations had begun to organize into labor unions. The conditions were much the same as they were in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, when a man was said to “owe his soul to the company store”—a reference to the system of debt bondage where workers lived on the work site and were paid in credit at the company store. The more a person worked, the more he needed to buy, with the result that the worker was forced into debt, which he had to then “work off” while continuing to accrue more debt in the company store.
When the Colombian workers began to organize, the governments of both the U.S. and Colombia took notice. If you change the words “labor union” to “Communist organization”—which the bosses did—you see the problem. The U.S. was not prepared to tolerate such a movement within the Western Hemisphere, and the federal government threatened to invade with the U.S. Marines if the Colombian government did not act to protect U.S. financial interests.
The workers’ unrest turned into a general strike. Their demands were fairly simple: eight-hour workdays, six-day work weeks, and elimination of the “food coupons” at the company store. The workers and their families gathered in the town square of Cienaga, the town due north of Aracataca, on that fateful Sunday, just before Mass. The government troops positioned machine guns atop the buildings surrounding the square, and after giving the crowd of people a five-minute warning to disburse, they opened fire. According to government reports, only about nine people were killed. This number is likely fictitious. Estimates of the dead range from the hundreds to the thousands. The dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá to the U.S. Secretary of State, dated January 16, 1929, stated: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.”
In Cien Anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Gabriel Garcia Marquez placed the number of dead at three thousand or more, writing that the government filled freight cars, normally used to haul bananas, and dumped the bodies into the sea.
Wherever you place the number of casualties on the sliding scale of misinformation, the toll is too high, and the memory of this unfortunate event resonates in Colombia today. My wife tells me that there are certain politicians in Colombia who even today deny the existence of the banana massacre. Saying that Gabo lied is a blatant attempt to whitewash history. Similar motivations can be found in countries across the globe as people attempt to forget a moment they consider shameful while putting themselves in danger that such events will repeat themselves. Perhaps equally shameful is the attempt to sensationalize events like the banana massacre for political gain. Yet wherever you fall on this spectrum, the historical documents exist and are available for anyone to read who’s interested in ferreting out the truth. The conflict in many ways was, and still is, drawn along the lines separating the liberals from the conservatives, and it is from this line that one can best understand Colonel Aureliano Buendía.
As I mentioned before in a previous essay, it’s perhaps best to view the distinction between the conservatives and liberals in Colombia as a distinction between the old guard and the new. The conservatives tend to be wealthy landowners backed by the church, and they have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. The liberals tend to be those advancing new liberal ideas (imagine Rousseau in the 18th century and Marx in the 20th century). They are best seen as the sort of intelligent people who are brought up in a society, consider its flaws, and then rebel against it. In 100 Years, translated by Gregory Rabassa, Gabo described the difference as follows, in the mouthpiece of Don Apolinar Moscote, conservative bureaucrat and father-in-law to Colonel Aureliano Buendia: “The liberals are Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, institute civil marriage and divorce, recognize the rights of illegitimate children as the same as legitimate children, and cut the country up into a federal system. But the conservatives had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality, and would not permit the country to be broken down into autonomous units.”
However, these distinctions only really work on paper. Often times the only true distinction between conservatives and liberals was what color they painted their houses: blue for conservatives and red for liberals. Pinning down just what started the war is an equally ludicrous proposition because it ultimately had its genesis in 1492 when an Italian persuaded a couple of Spaniards that he could find a fast route to India. Yet make no mistake: the 1,000 Day War, the Violencia, and the war against the FARC, the drug wars, etc., all have one undeniable thing in common—they are all civil wars. And I will go one step further and state that they were and are the same civil war.
Now, I perhaps got a bit ahead of myself by stating that the Banana Massacre was a continuation of this conflict, but if one stops for a moment one will see the same ugly beast raising its head. First, there was a group of people profiting from the banana production—that would be all of Colombia. Second, there was a group of people who wanted to profit more from the banana production—that would be a part of Colombia who partnered with a foreign power. I will not waste your time restating what I wrote above, but I believe most strongly that the conflict would have been the same if the other party was in power and the opposite party was picking the bananas. This is ultimately the conflict behind the 1,000 Day War as well—one group had power and the other wanted it. There were certain triggering events. First, in 1886, a new more conservative constitution replaced the more liberal constitution from 1863. Second, an octogenarian was elected to the office of president in 1898 who was either incapable or simply was denied the right to rule, and a power vacuum resulted that was immediately filled by conservative opportunists. Third, a group of war-hungry liberals literally jumped the gun and declared war, much to the surprise of many of their colleagues.
It was this war that Buendia joined and fought during most of the novel. In fact the opening line of Cien Anos is, “Many years later as he faced the firing squad . . . .” This phrase “facing the firing squad” occurs over and over throughout the novel, but each time Buendia manages to escape and continue to fight in what he ultimately counts to be thirty-two civil wars. Now, one will be immediately inclined to shout “magic realism” here and state that it is impossible for a man to fight thirty-two civil wars, but one must remember what I said earlier that every conflict in Colombia’s history has been a civil war. By fighting in the 1,000 Day War that inevitably dragged on beyond 1,000 days, Buendia became the “everyman” for Colombian violence. He began fighting because he believed in the liberal cause, but this changed to a fight for power to arguably a fight to ward off old age, boredom, and death. His prowess as a soldier, however, was ultimately either forgotten or disbelieved by everyone, and all that was left of him were the little gold fish that he manufactured in a workshop behind his parents’ home.
It was his interest in gold inherited from his father that ultimately chronicled the ruin of his family and the town his father founded. Melquiades, the travelling gypsy, first introduced his father to the art of alchemy, who passed it on to the young Buendia, who in turned used it as a means of making a living—the manufacture and sale of gold fish. This is a not unsurprising vocation for a man whose name in fact contains the Latin word for gold and personifies all that can go wrong in one’s life when greed and lust for power assume control of one’s soul.
If you are a little confused by my description of Cien Anos, do not worry because it confuses everyone, even Colombians. The book tells the history of the Buendias and Macondo over a period of one hundred years or seven generations where every man is either named Aureliano or Jose Arcadio and many of the women are named Ursula. Much like the Bible, it is a book that many claim to know but few have really read, and if they have read it, they have likely fallen into the many pitfalls and red herrings left by Gabo. In fact the story of the Buendia family was recorded by Melquiades, the gypsy, and written in a cyphered Sanskrit where the even lines corresponded to the “private cipher of Emperor Augustus” and the odd lines to “Lacaedomonian military code.”
You may visit the tomb of Melquiades in Aracata, as my wife and I did with Eder and several police officers. After we visited the house of Gabo’s grandparents and a book museum we expressed an interest in visiting the tomb. We were initially dissuaded by a security guard, who told us that it was in a dangerous neighborhood. In truth, he wanted to come with us and bring his cousin, a police officer, who then took the scenic route and drove us all over the town. They were in love, and as all lovers tend to do they wanted to talk about and show us their beloved. For each of them, the object of their ardor was Aracataca.
When we reached the tomb, we discovered it was in a clean and hospitable neighborhood not unlike our own in Pereira, with children playing outside, old men sitting on porches, and dogs sleeping under palm trees. Ostensibly the tomb is a cenotaph, false tomb, but I can no more attest whether this is true than I can attest whether Gabo ever met a man like Melquiades.
We then walked to the former home of Leo Matiz, which had been converted into a restaurant. The restaurant was closed that day in honor of Matiz’s birthday; he would have been one hundred years old. A contemporary and friend of Gabo, he was an astonishing photographer. But the restaurant’s owner invited us into the private party and introduced us to Leo Matiz’s daughter, the town mayor, and a tremendous number of Colombian intellectuals whose names all blurred with the surfeit of food and whiskey they offered us. Alejandra sang with a local minstrel again. They were Paisa songs, which the partygoers said they had never heard. And for a few minutes the interest of the party shifted from celebrating the birthday of Leo Matiz to my wife, an unknown Paisa girl.
“Did you have a nice time?” I asked her while we awaited our plane in Santa Marta.
“It was like a dream, Mor,” she said.