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Tourism in Aracataca is possible! (By Stacey Dodge)

Aracataca is the childhood town of Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the author of my favourite novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. For those who haven’t read the book, it is a gorgeous magical realism tale about the fictional town of Macondo and its inhabitants, mainly the many generations of the Buendia family.
The novel begins like this:
«Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.»

Before visiting Tayrona National Park, I was stressing about how to spend my last few days in the country. I thought about what had inspired me to come to Colombia in the first place and what I was hoping to walk away with. Other than memories and photos and knowledge, the thing I was looking for the most was inspiration. I reminded myself that one of the many reasons I wanted to travel to Colombia was the fact that Garcia Marquez is from here. I started googling facts about him, thinking I would find what I was looking for in Barranquilla, where he spent a considerable amount of time of his adolescence and early adulthood. But something was nagging at me: didn’t I hear once that Macondo was a real place? If so, where was it? It didn’t take very long to discover that Macondo was loosely, and in parts directly based on Aracataca. And many moments and characters in the book are directly inspired by his family members and townsfolk here. The town has faded considerably since its heyday as a hub for the United Fruit Company, and aside from a small museum there isn’t really anything to see here – unless you know where to look. The one person who knows where to look, and who cares to share with others, is Tim Buendia.

Mural on the side of the road in Aracataca

Tim and his wife Cynthia run a hostel in their home called «The Gypsy Residence». He is from the Netherlands and she is from LA. Tim came here five years ago and leads Macondo-themed tours of Aracataca to people like me who wander off the beaten tourist path looking to know more about one of the greatest living writers of our time.

Immediately after the bus dropped me off on the side of the highway, a swarm of kids and men on motorcycles surrounded me and grabbed my bags competing to take me into town. Before I knew it a motorcycle had all of my stuff (not smart on my part) and was urging me to get on the back. I had a long skirt on and said no way, but thanks anyway. So they loaded my stuff onto a bicycle taxi (a bicycle with a bench seat attached to the back) and asked where I was going. «The Gypsy Residence» I said to the bunch of faces that became very blank very quickly until one little kid piped up and raised his hand as high up as he could reach while keeping his palm parallel to the ground. «El Gringo??» he asked all excited. I laughed out loud and said yes, that sounded about right. Off we went, and ten minutes later we were at the Gypsy Residence.

The bicitaxi ride to the Gypsy Residence

Immediately I understood why the kid was reaching so high; at well over 6 feet, Tim towers over the rest of town. He’s a hard sight to miss.

Once I was settled in, and had a quick bite down the street in the home of their friend (there aren’t really restaurants in Aracataca, more like homes of people who open their doors and cook for people for a fee), we were off to a corner store where Tim was meeting some friends to watch the football game between Colombia and The Netherlands. On the short walk there, it was very clear that Tim is a popular guy. Shouts could be heard from all sides, ribbing him for wearing the orange Netherlands jersey while everyone else was wearing the Colombian yellow one. He proudly showed them that in fact he was wearing the yellow one as well, underneath the orange one! Laughs and shouting all around. Believe me, wearing anything at all in this heat is a true challenge.
Once at the store, Tim introduced me to everyone – all middle aged local men – and they asked where I was from. Once they found out I was from Toronto they all pointed at the TV and started laughing and joking about Toronto’s mayor. I just hung my head in mock shame.
The game was score-less (is that something people say? It was 0-0). After chatting and walking around the town a bit with Tim’s wife Cynthia and their gorgeous 8-month old, I called it a night. I would need lots of energy for the Macondo tour the next day.
21 November 2013
The tour and day was indeed intense yesterday. In fact, I was so tired at night (probably mostly from the heat, as usual) that I couldn’t finish this post!
Given that my beloved cat’s name is Macondo, the day started appropriately with a gorgeous breakfast of fresh fruit and a regional dish known as cabeza de gato (cat’s head). Despite the cute name, I couldn’t help feel a little squeamish given that the bowl did somewhat resemble a pile of mashed up brains. In fact it was mashed up banana with onions and veggies. So. Delicious. Why isn’t this in every vegetarian / vegan recipe book???
Off we went to start the tour. Now, I won’t go through it all here in this blog because Tim designed it and I think it would do him a disservice to lay it all out here in case someone comes across this blog on their way to Aracataca. One of the best parts about the tour is that I had no idea what was about to happen at any given time. This was not a commercial tour where you sit in an air-conditioned bus and listen to the witty stylings of a theatre school dropout talk about the sights through a tinny public address system. This was Macondo. The theatre wasn’t in a school or a building. The theatre was the dust under our feet, the wind through the palm trees, the tin roofs baking in the sun. The theatre was the town of Aracataca and the performer was Tim Buendia. I was the audience. Or so I thought.
It all started off on a regular note, Tim showing me the statue of Simon Bolivar, talking about his liberation of several Latin American countries and relating it back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book about Bolivar’s last days entitled El general en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth).  A statue. Ok, all’s well. There are statues of Bolivar in every town here. Hell, there’s even one in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto!
As we moved through the streets though, I watched as the townspeople completely lit up at the sight of Tim. He would speak to the hoardes of school children (I’ve never seen so many children) in English, saying, «Hello! How are you? Good morning!» and they would squeal with laughter and repeat after him in their thick Colombian accents, «Hello! Good morning!»
With his walking cane and pink glittery fedora, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez among the kids who would one day write a new story about Macondo featuring the quixotic gringo giant Señor Tim Buendia. But we’ll have to wait and see.

The Aracataca Arena.
Me: «Why are there cows in the arena?»
Tim Buendia (shrugging): «Because the arena is empty and the grass needs to be cut».
For now, here we were, talking about this building and that, Tim telling me all about the United Fruit Company and the Massacre that they ordered in the nearby town of Cienaga in 1928, and which also is fictionalized in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was all very fascinating. I had read bits and pieces of the story (mostly in Garcia Marquez’ works) but had forgotten many of the details.
But then Tim casually pointed across the road to a dishevelled shack mostly hidden by overgrown brush and said, «that used to be the old ice factory». The ice factory. This is where little Garcia Marquez saw ice for the first time and what was the inspiration for what is now immortalized in the very first line of one of the greatest novels ever written. One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is that as a child growing up in Canada, ice was no big deal. Ice was everywhere in the Winter, and in Summer with an endless supply of fresh water and dependable electricity, ice was just the stuff that came out of the freezer and went into iced tea. Ice was what papayas or sand probably are to Caribbean children. But to the little Gabo living in the stifling heat of coastal Colombia, ice was magic.
I begged to go inside. «But it doesn’t look like anything, it’s completely gutted», he warned. I didn’t care. We walked down and found a man and several dogs and puppies at the entrance to the tin shack, which was surrounded by and filled with junked trucks and farm equipment and bicycle parts and every kind of rusted piece of metal junk that you can think of. I joked that it could have easily doubled for a hipster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With permission from the man and his dogs we walked inside and I felt overwhelmed with emotion. To the naked eye this was just a shack full of junk. To me it was a gift.

Tim Buendia in the old ice factory
Back home for lunch and a bit of rest, a beautiful meal of plantains, beans and rice, and salad was waiting for us. Home cooked meals here have made me feel quite guilty for rejecting my Colombian Step-mother’s food all the time as a kid. I really couldn’t eat most of it and I think she took it personally. What I now realise is that I just didn’t know that I was vegetarian yet. Most Colombian food has meat in it and they look at you like you are from Deep Space Nine here if you tell them you’re vegetarian. But the reality is that there are so many traditional vegan and veggie options here it’s unbelievable. They’re just not seen as main dishes though, so it can throw people off a bit. I wish now that I could have known how to better articulate myself when I was younger. Instead, mealtime at my Dad’s was always a frustrating exercise culminating in me throwing most of my food away. Finally at the age of twelve after biting into a burger that I had seen days before in the form of a living cow walking up a plank into a truck that would deliver her to her own death, I made a firm decision never to eat meat again and haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t just that one cow that helped me make the decision – I really believe I’ve been a vegetarian since birth.

After lunch, Tim advised me to change into «something that is okay to get wet». Pardon? I put on my bathing suit under my skirt and tank top and changed my ballet flats for flip flops. Tim opted to go barefoot. «Don’t bring anything with you», he advised. «Well, my camera is in a waterproof sac that I bought for the sailboat trip», I began, «and my backpack is water-resistant, and… » No. Nothing was to come with us except for the $2,000COP note that he carried in his hands for the bicitaxi ride to the river. The Rio Aracataca is a freshwater river that begins its journey in the Sierra Nevada mountains to the East and eventually spills out to the Sea. «Oh that’s neat, we’re going to dip our feet in the river», I thought to myself. The bicitaxi dropped us off in a shaded area of the riverbank and I followed my barefoot guide through the grass. This was about the time that my anxiety level began to rise. «Are there snakes here?» I asked, treading very gingerly along. «Uhhhm. No. No. No snakes. Nope. Anyway, why should it matter? You’re wearing shoes!»
Oh boy. It was directly after this that we reached the very edge of the steep river bank and Tim jumped in, careful to land on his feet and to not let his head submerge. «Um, are you out of your mind?» I asked.
A quick note here. You know when you order orange pekoe tea in a not very good cafe (or usually anywhere in the USA) and they give you a lukewarm cup of water and the teabag on the side and you rush to put the teabag in quickly in hopes that it might steep enough to still be considered tea then after about four minutes of squeezing the life out of the tea bag and even adding milk and sugar in hopes that it will be somehow drinkable but in fact what you have on your hands is just some lukewarm murky tea-coloured sludge? That’s what the colour of the river looked like.
After about 45 seconds of coaxing, I carefully managed to get into the Rio Aracataca. It was waist high for me, knee high in parts for Tim. We walked down the middle of the river, sometimes floating in it, carefully making sure the water did not touch our faces. The current was quite strong actually, which was the main deciding factor in finally getting in. If it were stagnant I don’t think either of us would be in there.

Me on the bank of the Rio Aracataca. At this point I had no idea that I would be submerging most of my body in the river later that day. Notice how calm I look?
After about 20 minutes we walked up another bank and walked soaking wet through the streets, including through one of the poorer neighbourhoods where we heard a very soft voice from an unseen corner. «Hewoo, gooaffernoon, wus yur neem»? It was a little girl in a blue dress who had emerged from one of the many houses with roosters tied up outside by one foot, reserved for weekend cock fights. She was used to Tim’s antics and wanted to hear his booming voice asking questions in English. He did not disappoint. «Hello! Good afternoon! What’s your name?!», he bellowed down the dirt road. The little girl shyly beamed, hiding behind a wooden post, giggling to herself.
There’s all so much to tell, including a temperamental kidnap-surviving parrot but again, you’ll have to experience the real deal for yourself.

«Guaca» the kidnap survivor and his little friend. Glad you’re doing okay buddy. The ransom was worth it.

Unless it’s too late. Tim recently wrote a farewell letter to Aracataca in his blog, seen here: It’s in Spanish, so here’s the gist. Tim and Cynthia are struggling to keep the magic of Macondo alive. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is only one small museum here, built on the site of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ childhood home.

The museum

There are no tourist hotels aside from the Gypsy Residence, and all of the potential tourist draws are becoming overgrown with weeds. Tim has applied for countless grants and has been petitioning others to help him build Aracataca into a place where tourists want to be. As it was, I was the only tourist in the entire town for the two days I was there. As Tim says in his blog, he can’t possibly keep the tourism industry of the town alive all by himself. Especially with the addition of a new baby to the family, they cannot keep afloat in a town with zero marketing or infrastructure.

This whole story reminds me of a little town in Ontario called Prescott, where I grew up. Thankfully there are a few grants available to my Mom and the dozen or so others who work very hard to keep the tourism industry alive, but it’s an uphill battle.
In Aracataca’s case, the issues run much deeper than dollars and cents. This is Colombia, where corruption and red tape are the norm. The worst enemy of all in both cases though, is apathy.
I can only hope that something can be done. I for one, am very thankful for my two days living in the magical realism of a town known, however informally, as Macondo.
Now off to Bogota for my last few days of the trip.
Thanks for reading,