A mermaid waits for finishing touches on an allegorical float in the workshops for Barranquilla’s four-day carnival, recognized by Unesco as one of the world’s best. Barranquilla was founded around 1629 and its historic center was declared a national monument in 1959. The carnival fuses European, African, and Indian cultures, combining Spanish Catholic festivities, native Indian ceremonies and the musical heritage of African slaves into  a spectacular event.
Cartagena – Long Read

Separating myth from reality in Colombia

Photo by Jan Sochor

Cartagena – Long Read Separating myth from reality in Colombia

Hello Colombia, with an African, Indian and Spanish heritage that has produced a culture uniquely rich. This fertile ground gave seed to the work of Gabriel García Márquez, the country’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist famed for his use of “magic realism”. Reality is still hard to separate from myth in Colombia and, indeed, many outsiders believe the myth before the reality.

Mina Holland
Mina Holland Food Writer

I hear a constant backing track to the street life I see in Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Salsa, cumbia and champeta sounds blast out loudest in the evening, when the falling sun releases people from their sweaty but shaded homes to come out to play in the streets. The booty-shaking music assails me from every side, every restaurant, every doorway, telling tales of love and the inevitable broken “corazón”, building an atmosphere of poetry and seduction, turning hips to liquid blurs as the dancing takes hold. For those precious few hours before sleep, the seductive enjoyment of food, drink and the company of others builds to a peak, released by the first faint glow of dawn. The talk grows more and more flowery as the moon gets higher, passions grow stronger, and objects of desire become ever more desirable.

“We talk about anything and everything. We chat, we tell stories, we dramatize things, we invent things, we exaggerate,” says my friend Mauricio Rodriguez, now Colombia’s ambassador in London where we first met at a dinner party. “Exaggeration is how we celebrate life. Who cares if it’s real or not? What’s the difference between the two anyway? Our per capita production of strange stories is one of the highest in the world.”

The massive wall of stone, brick and coral around Cartagena de Indias, built to keep English pirate Francis Drake out, now keeps tourists in, creating a world apart from the modern life of gleaming glass and steel outside. Horse-drawn carriages clop by, trailing the whiff of the stable that brings locals to call them huele pedos, or “fart smellers”. Here, crawling plants and oilcloth flowers punctuate bright buildings painted yellow, orange and pink. Laundry hangs from verandahs that lean out over narrow streets and sun-faded shutters hide the darkness inside thick-walled colonial buildings. During the day, the heat thickens the blood, slowing the brain.

I lie in my hotel bed for a siesta and see a beam of bright light walk across the floor and spotlight an orange on my bedside table, its color made more vivid than life. A flies settles, pauses, then flaps its wings, seeming to be trying to carry the fruit away. It fails, and buzzes off to look for smaller prey. I venture out to find street vendors have turned the plazas into open-air restaurants.

I sample arepas, fried balls of cornmeal filled with cheese or egg, chuzos of grilled meat and potato, and ceviche. Big laughing black women in bright, multi-layered dresses the colors of the Colombian flag shout the praises of the bowls of juicy mangoes, blood-red papayas and ripe watermelons they carry on their heads. Lines form to buy sticks of bright green mango, sprinkled with salt and red chilli, or limonada de coco, while carts go by bearing fish tanks full of brightly colored tamarind or lime juice. Pointing at unknown dishes to try them, licking greasy food from my fingers, feeling the joy of fresh fruit juices on my tongue, my senses come alive. One side of the street is in dark shade, the other is an intense blaze of light that hurts the eyes.

The love of his life dances on the plaza here with an escaped lunatic

A tiled street sign tells me I am in Calle de la Amargura, “The Street of Bitterness”. If it sounds like a name from a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, the local writer whose novels of magical realism won him a Nobel Prize for Literature, that might be because it is. Florentino Ariza, the romantic hero of Love In A Time of Cholera who waits for Fermina Urbino, the love of his life, during “53 years, seven months and 11 days and nights”, dances on the plaza here with an escaped lunatic.

“Gabo”, as he is known throughout Latin America, worked in Cartagena as a cub reporter and the film was shot here too. “I am really a journalist who just happens to write some fiction on the side,” he claimed and the story is based on his own parents’ love affair. When making the film, actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Fermino, stayed in an old house that she began to believe was haunted. The strange sounds she was hearing, however, turned out to be two owls who had made their nest behind a closet.

For his most famous novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Marquez created the fantastical town of Macondo, which he described as “not a place but a state of mind”. Despite its absence on the map, most Colombians will nevertheless say it exists – the universally recognizable scene of weird Caribbean happenings. Shrugging his shoulders, Mauricio Rodriguez says he spent his summers in Macondo, “I grew up with the Buendía family, I know those characters. You go to Colombia’s coastal towns and all you hear are stories and legends and secrets. Macondo is Colombia.”

As a reporter in Cartagena, Gabo covered the opening of the crypts of the convent of Santa Clara which sits opposite the house he later built for himself, La Casa del Escritor. Tame toucans flit around the convent, built in 1621 and now a stylish boutique hotel, its arched cloister walls painted Umbrian orange and home to a brasserie serving gourmet pizzas, while the choir has been transformed into the El Coro bar. In the preface to his novella Love And Other Demons, he recalls seeing a young girl’s skull in the crypt with “a stream of living hair the intense color of copper”, reminding him of a story his grandmother had told him of a “little 12-year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her like a bridal train”. In the book, the young girl, confined to the convent after contracting rabies from a dog bite, eats pickled iguana and armadillo stew, sings in the Yoruban, Congolese, and Mandingo languages of West Africa, and wears a Santería necklace.

Using memories of that other life to escape the reality of their chains

The Santería religion gets its name from the fervent worship by West African slaves of the Catholic saints. Those who mocked them did not realize they were hiding their native religion in plain sight by transferring their Yoruba orishas to the polychromatic plaster figures of saints, using memories of that other life to escape the reality of their chains. Devotees still use sacred drumming to help enter a trance-like state in which they communicate with the ancestors and deities, twirling through the thin veil between the real and spirit worlds.

And, just as Santería is now inextricably linked with Catholicism, so the Africans have also mixed with the indigenous Indians and later Spanish arrivals to create a unique costeño culture all along this Caribbean coast. It is this coastal culture, very distinct racially and politically from the highlands of Colombia’s capital Bogota, that Gabo embraced in the same way his hero William Faulkner embraced the Deep South of America – and both regions share the sense of a place and time apart.

Author Oscar Guardiola-Rivera says of coastal Colombia: “It’s a complicated place, partly because of all the cultural mixing that has happened here. We tell stories to make sense of all that. Believing in magic helps to negotiate different strands of ancestry, nature, religions, the traditional, the imperial, the pagan and the modern.”

The Spanish founded Cartagena in 1533 and, just over 100 years later, built the dominating fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Here, redundant cannons, an intricate network of underground tunnels and sweeping views of the Old City are testament to Cartagena’s powerful colonial heritage. Gold plundered from the interior was loaded onto ships in the port before twice-yearly armadas risked the storm- tossed, foe-infested crossing home to Spain.  Fortunes were made and lost, then remade. Márquez tells of “the eleven thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds of gold, that left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and never reached their destination”. In the evening, ladies covered their hair with nets that they filled with fireflies as decoration.

Hawkers offering cheap minutes on bundles of mobile phones

The city is capital of Colombia’s Bolivar Department, named after Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century hero who led the country to independence from the Spanish. His gold tasseled shoulders and neat little moustache are a visual motif on many a wall and there is a park named after him in the city center. Erect on a proudly prancing steed, his statue doffs an ornate hat to small children selling packets of chewing gum, hawkers offering cheap minutes on bundles of mobile phones and barefoot Mapalé dancers whose moves have come straight from West Africa.

The influence of Africa is strong in the Carnival of Barranquilla, a dull industrial port with a crumbling historic center that comes alive every Easter with four days of dancing and partying. Its slogan is “Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza” – “Who lives it, is who enjoys it” – and it is one of the biggest carnivals in the world. If Macondo is to be found anyway, however, it is in Aracataca where the Casa Museo Gabriel García Marquez recalls the writer’s childhood home. This quiet town with unpaved roads looks as if the world has passed it by. Donkey carts roll down the main street and the only excitement comes with the arrival of a coach bringing cruise passengers to see the Casa Marquez. Haggling with the hawkers for a few souvenirs, they walk in and out of the house and then move on.

To travel down the coast, I take a boat to the sublime white sand beach of Playa Blanca. Life is stripped back to basics here. I sleep in a hammock just meters away from the gently lapping waves and have quick stand-up washes with the limited fresh water that is paddled over daily from the mainland. The setting is idyllic, the sea is deep azure and the sunsets are breathtaking. At midnight, I take a swim and the water still feels like a warm bath. The moonlight streams down and I realize I am surrounded by sparkling whirls of phosphorescence tracing my strokes. Every movement of my arms leaves streams of fairytale lights trailing from my fingertips.

Sipping rum, I sit by the campfire nursing the thoughts that come when you stare into a flickering flame far from home. A shadow moves in the darkness outside the light cast by the leaping flames. Then another. Strolling along the sand is a herd of cattle. I share meals of lobster and coconut rice or fresh red snapper with a fellow traveler, who tells me: “Crabs only pretend to walk sideways when humans are watching.”

Combinations of African motifs and Spanish colonial tastes

The fresh air makes me even more obsessed with Colombia’s food, as varied as its heritage. As well as standard Latin American fare – plantains, mariscos, pan de yucca, mole, beans – there’s a rainbow of other delights for food-lovers. After the Conquest of Granada in 1492, Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity fled, some arriving in Colombia to produce dishes such as arroz criollo, a black paella made with Caribbean fish and mollusks, the result of Indian, African and Islamic culinary fusion. Some of Colombia’s most interesting cuisine is from the Pacific coast, with its original combinations of African motifs and Spanish colonial tastes: stews and fish-based cazuelas.

“Eating is of such significance in Colombia because we don’t sit around a table as a distraction from the travails of daily life,” says Oscar. “We do everything else in order to sit around the table. What you share when you eat in Colombia isn’t just food, it’s stories. Words become a condiment to the food.” It strikes me that food and friendship are inextricably linked in Colombia, even more so than in many other Latin countries. You enjoy one while you forge the other. “We use the word ‘amigo’ very carefully,” says Oscar. “Friendship is the family we create for ourselves.”

Moving eastwards, I head into the Magdalena region. Its capital, Santa Marta, once an elegant colonial hub, is now a key player in the coastal economy and has been built up to serve the thousands of Colombian tourists who descend on its beaches every year. Much quieter is the neighbouring fishing village of Taganga, where the deep turquoise sea contrasts with a terracotta shore and little boats pepper the water. Their fishing lines, just visible in the distance, look like threads of spider’s silk.

This region was once inhabited by the Tayrona tribe and their direct descendants, the Koguis and other indigenous groups, still live locally and preserve many of their traditions. Santa Marta is backed by the snow-topped Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal mountain chain in the world, where the ancient Ciudad Perdida or Lost City of the Tayrona is reached by a three-day hike in and out with a climb up 1,200 steps deep in the jungle. The city was home to as many as 8,000 people but was lost until the 1970s when gold statues from it started to appear on the black market. Closer to hand are the archaeological remains of Pueblito Chairama, used by the Tayrona Indians between 450 and 1600AD.

A dinosaur might casually emerge from the undergrowth

Nearby, in El Parque Nacional de Tayrona, the jungle creeps down to the beach, where waves crash onto craggy rocks and clouds gather. There are three beaches and I walk for several hours to the most remote. The landscapes call to mind Jurassic Park and I keep imagining a dinosaur might casually emerge from the undergrowth. It would not surprise me if it did. The jungle is menacingly beautiful but painfully unphotogenic – it is impossible to get distance from the dense greenery and I can understand how you might lose a whole city. The rich, earthy smell is intense and the humidity soaks my clothes with sweat, while the hum of mosquitoes is a constant. Then we come to an idyllic camp on on a headland looking out over the Caribbean, where a thatched roof shelters a few hammocks. Supper is tinned tuna and white bread, the poorest meal I have had in Colombia, made memorable by the loveliest setting.

Back near Cartagena, I take a wobbly motorbike to the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo, where rickety wooden stairs lead to its low peak. I look down into a mud volcano full of bathing backpackers, a living cauldron of black sludge made of rotting vegetation forced upwards by volcanic heat. I plunge in, wallowing happily like a pig in mud, and basking in the sun as it dries and cracks on my face. Then it’s time to walk down the mud- slippery steps again to the lake next to the volcano to rinse off. A smiling helper whips off my swimsuit along with the mud and my British reserve. I am one hot mess but all I can do is laugh as I am pulled out of the water. Colombia has caught me in its net.

I know, however, that when I return home these will not be the stories of Colombia my friends will expect. The wonders of its cities and landscapes merge with the strange stories its inhabitants love to tell, driven by their mixed heritage of slaves and pirates, conquistadors and native people. Reality can be hard to separate from myth in Colombia and, indeed, many outsiders seem to believe the myth before the reality. As Márquez said in his Nobel acceptance speech: “We have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friend, is the crux of our solitude.” As word of its real wonders spreads, Colombia’s days of relative isolation are surely drawing to a close.

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