I first read Cien Años de Soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] in English. The Spanish version was assigned reading for my Latin American literature class, whose kind Chilean professor, Fernando Alegría, would have forgiven me if he’d known. What I didn’t know was that within two years I’d be living not far from the mythical town of Macondo as a Peace Corps volunteer.
The recent death of Gabriel García Marquez motivated me to read his epic novel again – this time in Spanish. Fifty years after my posting in Colombia, García Marquez’ wild, extravagant tale stirs up old memories entangled in cobwebs. Faded smells, flavors and feelings come alive.
Barranquilla, in northern Colombia, across the Magdalena River from the province wherein lies Macondo, greeted me with a blast of heat, humidity, squadrons of mosquitoes, decaying buildings and the stench of rot. The marginal barrios where I lived and worked had grown up on the periphery of the city, on bare, eroded slopes of red earth, sparsely populated with low shrubs and spindly trees. My initial reaction was shock. I had always been a lover of the natural world, but how was I to love that place? The harsh extremes of climate and geography required I make severe inner adjustments. As author Kathleen Norris said of the Dakota landscape, “. . . the region requires you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.”
Country customs spilled over into those barrios. Straight-backed mulatto women passed by my house balancing tin bowls on their heads, offering avocados and fragrant mangoes. One evening I watched as a group of barrio men played their flute-like gaitas, while the women danced the cumbia in a circle, their raised hands holding lit candles. The local men wore the black and beige straw campesino hats as protection from the searing sun. Boys on burros, laden with boxes of charcoal, sold the fuel for kitchen fires. From the doorway of my cinder block house, I bought water from two boys driving a burro-drawn cart, loaded with large oil drums fitted with spigots. The cement floor of my unfinished backyard outhouse (it had no seat over the hole) worked well for my bucket showers. I learned to live with the bare necessities and have cherished simple living ever since.
With little imagination, the tales from Macondo reminded me of the dust devils that swirled along the unpaved barrio roads in the dry season, following the multi-colored buses, where I´d sit, wedged among brown bodies, lurching in counterpoint to meringue music from Radio Caracol, while red fringes and saints’ pictures swayed over the windshield. Months of heavy rains followed, renewing at night the wonderful, deafening chorus of frogs, ensconced in pools of gluey mud that clung to my shoes, while the god of thunder prepared his drums to shake my house to its foundations. Giant cockroaches, antennae waving as they crept down my bedroom walls, became the monsters of my nightmares. Maybe they were the bearers of the insomnia that afflicted the people of Macondo. For an uninterrupted night’s sleep, I resorted to sleeping under a mosquito net.
The Buendía family’s battle with the mildew and comejenes who chewed their way through their furniture and walls, brought back to me the stench of the mold that stained the pages of my books and the comejenes which carved tunnels through my shabby bedroom cabinet, scattering trails of sawdust among my clothes.
My neighbors would have fit comfortably into Marquez’ novel. Many a morning, I waved over my backyard wall to Delia, grey-haired and toothless, talking loudly to herself non-stop, her complaints directed to anyone within hearing distance as she washed clothes in the outdoor tub. It wouldn’t have surprised me if one evening she careened off into the sky, cackling, aboard a broomstick.
Dominga, my mulatto, cigar-smoking housemate and friend kept me laughing even on the hardest days. Dressed in her white house coat, closed at the top with a safety pin, Dominga’s affection and humor were my antidote against the cockroaches, the stifling humidity and Delia’s gloomy vibes. Illiterate, single mother and grandmother of four, her feet firmly planted on the earth, Dominga was strong like the Buendía family matriarch Ursula. She grounded me in the coastal ways, sharing her opinions and local gossip, rife with rivalries, rumors, superstitions, mal de ojo and mysterious aires. Her brown face crinkled up like a large prune, she conversed with her two parrots perched on a kitchen rafter: Lorito, lorito real, para la España no, sino pa´Portugal.
My barrio neighbors were migrants to the city, rootless, newcomers as was the first generation of the Buendía family, who the novel traces over one hundred years. Squatters, they erected feeble, temporary shacks that became permanent with dirt floors, wobbly furniture, bare light bulbs overhead, walls decorated with gaudy calendars and black and white daguerreotypes of solemn-faced grandparents, whose bones lay buried in some country cemetery. As in Macondo, the streets had no names, locations indicated by landmarks: the street of the palo blanco or the ceibo tree. I felt toughened and proud that I learned to maneuver my way through the labyrinth of winding barrio roads even at night.
All was real. The dampness, the mildew, the malnourished children, the illnesses and deaths were not products of someone’s imagination. Life was precarious and fragile, yet I discovered magic in the music, the smiles and generosity that flourished in that inhospitable landscape.
Like a phantom from the past, I want to return – to taste fried plantains again, hear the wild chorus of nighttime frogs and face that extreme climate and landscape that revealed to me my inner strength. Names and faces surface from the depths of memory – the blessings bestowed on me: Dominga, Ana, Anselmo, Juan, Petra. Will some remember me or will they not know me just as Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano Buendía failed to recognize the vagrant uncle who appeared at their door because no one was left to tell them the old stories?