Reading Time: 7 minutes

I saw the yellow butterflies | Looking for the most famous story on the streets of Macondo

Story published on September 22, 2019

“Everyone was surprised that they had been able to find that village lost in the drowsiness of the swamps. And the gypsies confessed that they had found their way by the sound of the birds.”

‘Have you been to Gabito’s house?’, a toothless old man asks, as we’re sitting across eachother in Aracataca’s Plaza Bolivar – of course there’s a Plaza Bolivar even in Aracataca. He must be the 20th person over the past 2 hours asking me if I’d been to Gabito. 

‘Amor, the house is that way!’, a pack of young Aracatacans instruct, as I’m headed in the opposite direction, towards Casa del Telegrafista, where Marquez’s father used to work.

 I’ve zig zagged the entire town, no other foreigner in sight, no selfie-stick-carrying tourist. My presence, as my mission, was obvious for them to see. I took all the detours immaginable so as to have a reason to spend more time here. Time to look for Macondo. To find it. But, two hours later, as I hopped into a minibus headed to Santa Marta later that day, I looked behind and there was only Aracataca.

 

“At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

I feel like I made a mistake in coming empty handed. I should have brough something, an offering, a gift to a famous memory. Being in Aracataca is like visiting a family patriarch. Which in a way Gabriel Garcia Marquez is to the small town he was born in, where his grandmother would instill that sense of storytelling and the seed of what will grow out to be the magical realism that would transform Aracataca into Macondo.

Even though he’s not the only famous son to have walked these dusty streets – photographer Leo Matiz is one of them -, Aracataca is now defined by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Call it marketing, branding, tourism or simply look at it as the power of a story, but this place where, just like in the early years of Macondo, nothing ever seems to happen, is Gabo’s place. Period. His face, quotes, books, characters are everywhere.

Even though, the all-knowing Internet will tell you, most of the residents have never read anything written by their Gabito. A claim I didn’t thoroughly fact-check. What I can say is that the people I chatted with on Marquez’s street were full of quotes, trivias from his memoirs and we talked like we were in a book club.

Visitor’s guide to Aracataca

This is what you’ll find in Aracataca: there’s THE house, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s family house, the one he spent his childhood until he was 8. The famous waggon house, with the grandfather’s office in the front and the begonia porch in the middle that served as a dining room. It’s the house which, in February 1950, the then struggling writer and his mother returned to sell. And of that that serendipitous encounter with his childhood came ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’. Coming from the house, next to Plaza Bolivar, there’s the church. This is where Gabo was baptized in, the locals will add. Behind it, there’s the above-mentioned Casa del Telegrafista, which, in keeping with the times, is now Aracataca’s post office.

The massacre impossible to see

And then there’s the train station and you try to imagine the Banana Massacre from the book (an event that did in fact take place in real life, but in Cienaga, a town close to Aracataca). There’s no point. The brightly colored building, which unexpectedly hosts a small art exhibition seems like no place to imagine such attrocious events. Look, the nice gentleman who told you about the paintings is now out grooming the flowers. What a peaceful and bright place!

Three weeks into my Colombian travels, after I’d crossed the country, after I’d immersed myself in Caribbean life and read or reread several of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books, I took that bus to Aracataca feeling ready to find Macondo. I didn’t. But, the moment I got out of the most famous house in the Caribbean, a shortened version of Gabo’s quotes written on a fridge magnet revealed my error: “Macondo is not a place, but a state of mind that allows one to see what one wants to see and how”.

 

Where Macondo really is

Macondo

“Macondo is not a place but a state of mind that allows one to see what one wants to see and how” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Loneliness

“The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As I left Aracataca behind and looked back at the time spent in Colombia, I then realized it: somewhere, between Aracataca and the rest of Colombia, the rest of Latin America even, that’s where Macondo is.

In Bogota’s La Candelaria district, once a war zone; in the endless wax palms of Cocora; in Medellin’s Comuna 13, which, less than a decade ago was considered among the most dangerous places on earth and now tries to paint its road to peace on every wall in sight; Macondo is in every sleepy village of the Caribbean; in the charming beauty of Cartagena de Indias and the bustling joy of Getsimani. And yes, even on the streets of Aracataca. There’s something from Macondo in all of these places.

The pain, the violence, the seemingly cursed fate of generations, mingled with beauty, magic and joy of daily life: this is Macondo. But that’s also Colombia.

A country so diverse, so beautiful, with people so committed to life and to family, that it pains me to think of all the blood spilled in vain, of all the families that had to suffer misfortunes.

 

The years of ‘La Violencia’ that followed the assasination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948; the guerilla wars; the narco wars; the battle for territory that came after Pablo Escobar; the killing of innocents in army operations that war supposed to track down guerillas; the ‘false positives’, thousands of people killed by soldiers and dressed as guerilla fighters for the soldiers to receive bonuses and promotions.

Seven decades for all this to take place. And now, a fragile peace.

Still, as you travel through Colombia, you witness an almost inexplicable will to live, to live peacefully, to forget and maybe to somehow forgive.

The moment you see this, you’re surrounded by the yellow butterflies of Remedios’s the beauty.

 

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