A long time ago, the Spanish came to this land in search of El Dorado, the mythical city made out of gold. I am back in Colombia in search of Macondo, the dustbowl town of the Buendía family.
My destination is a literary figment created by Gabriel García Márquez, or “Gabo” as we Colombians know him, in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I was born and raised in Bogotá and knew his works, but I couldn’t understand the fascination he held for some of his devoted fans, including the Canadian reporter I was working for. I repeatedly told her: “It’s not real. Macondo doesn’t exist.”
But she insisted. She had seen it on Google and needed my help getting there, so we left the capital and made our way to Aracataca, in the heart of Magdalena’s banana zone and town setting for the Nobel’s many magical stories.
Returning to Colombia made me hungry for the food of the tropics and any time I saw someone selling fruits or cooking on the streets, I wanted to try it. One woman we encountered in Cartagena was sitting on a wooden box peeling bananas. “What is that branch of green leaves on top of your head for?” I asked. “Amansa hombres weed,” she said proudly. “It tames men and calms them down preventing them from becoming violent.”
Like a sinner in front of ancestral wisdom, I asked permission to take a picture. The woman slowly scanned me before answering. “I like you and you can go ahead with your pictures.” But when the journalist held up her camera, the woman shook her head and wouldn’t allow her to take her picture. The weed also tamed – apparently – reporters.
All the places where Gabo may have walked by or drank coffee seemed important to the reporter. She wanted to have tinto where he had tinto, walk the streets where he walked. Park benches in plazas fascinated her and underneath wooden balconies overflowing with flowers, she stared up at people who uncomfortably stared back at her. “Do you know them?” I asked and the journalist replied: “No, but I imagine that’s what Fermina Daza would look like sitting on the balcony.”
By then, I had stopped reminding her that these were just literary personages. Our next stop was Barranquilla. It took more time than expected to get there. It was carnival season and no one was in the mood to work.
Along the way, the journalist kept making stops to talk to locals. At one school, she was led to the front by the director to give a speech. I translated her words into Spanish and then the questions back in English.
The students were confused: If she was Chinese, why did she not live in China? They remained unsatisfied with the answer that she is Canadian. A girl raised her hand to ask another question.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized to the reporter. “The student is asking if they can touch your hair.”
The reporter turned red and smiled. She bent over and more than 10 kids ran up to the podium to experience – first hand – the feeling of Chinese hair.
We arrived at the Aníbal Redondo library in the banana zone of Sevilla, just a short distance from Aracataca. Waiting for us were Rafael Cuello and José Luis de la Vega, the town’s librarian.
Inside the library, a cardboard of ‘Bananas in Pajamas’ was posted on a wall and the cartoon character from Australia looked very happy and comfortable in its natural environment.
Cuello, a local truck driver, dreamed of writing like Gabo and had started the only cultural magazine in the region. But the residents there weren’t interested in his work.
De la Vega told the journalist it was a constant challenge keeping the library going. To get the children to start reading, he had to begin by stocking the shelves with comic books.
“We have to take advantage of the fact that one of the most well-known writers in the whole world comes from here and we don’t want people to forget that,” he said.
Finally, just outside of Sevilla we saw a sign that made the writer gloat. Macon- do farm, it said. “It exists,” she insisted and I agreed.
She was in a much better mood the closer we got to Aracataca and as we drove past the signs at the entrance of the town heralding itself as the birthplace of Gabo, I was worried she would be disappointed.
Gabo’s childhood home had been turned into a museum, the shiniest and most well-maintained place in the entire town. Inside, visitors had to rely on the words he had written to give life to every day objects: cutlery, bassinets, beds, tables and chairs.
Without his writing to explain how the words of his grandmother and grandfather and aunts became reality on paper, the items would have meant nothing.
But as the journalist explained to me, those words were precisely the magic he created. He had taken the ordinary and used language to shape them into something universal and worth preserving.
Back in Bogotá, I took the writer to visit my grandmother, who I have not seen since she developed Alzheimer’s.
My mother told me there was no reason to worry about what to say to my grandmother as she could hear the same stories over and over again. To her, it was like hearing them for the first time.
When I walked on to my grandmother’s patio, she asked me where I had been and although it had been seven years since I saw her, I told her I’ve been around, a little busy, but not too bad. She nodded.
We had an amazing conversation that I will never forget even though she forgot it all as soon as I left. That evening, I was reminded that the things we need to keep are memories.
I wondered if the journalist found the literary paradise she had expected. As for me, I had not anticipated discovering something new in the country I thought I knew so well. But I had, despite my initial skepticism, discovered Macondo.
It was in the Australian pajama-wearing banana in the library of the banana zone in the Caribbean tropics and in the mind of Rafael Cuello as he drove down dusty roads dreaming of writing poetry. It was in the kids experiencing the silky hair of the Chinese-speaking journalist.
I found it in the woman selling fruits, who had no doubts that men could be tamed by weeds, and in the librarian who had faith in literacy making the future better for children.
Most of all, Macondo was in my grandmother, who remembers more than she can ever tell and still lives in a forgotten land.
About the author: Guillermo Serrano is a children’s book author, a travel writer and a technology trainer who lives in Vancouver, B.C. His books can be found at: