Living in Honduras or Guatemala as a foreigner is sometimes hard, mostly fun and never boring. This Blog is about more than just the oddities of my years in the not-so tranquil, cobble-stoned town of Copán Ruinas and, more recently, Antigua Guatemala. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…
writing this while looking at my old, battered copy of One Hundred years of Solitude. Old and battered because we’ve been
on quite a trip, that book and I, since I bought it in 1994 in Antigua Guatemala.
that was not the first time I read the book. That memorable event happened about
ten years earlier when I was fourteen and on vacation in France with my
parents. A terribly boring vacation (of course, when you’re fourteen and
traveling with your family), so I found my escape in an equally battered and
borrowed copy of One Hundred Years of
Solitude, although this one in Dutch. I remember sitting on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean when I finished it and a wave of panic
came over me. What to do next? I’d been so absorbed in the terrific tale of
flying carpets, brilliant descriptions on how ice burns at a touch and babies
being born with pig’s tails… I didn’t experience the magical realism as strange
or foreign. On the contrary, the whole story seemed oddly familiar, a magical
world in which I felt inexplicably but completely at home. The biggest regret
was that I had just finished reading it. The other the fact I couldn’t read the
book in its original language and probably never would. I mean, I didn’t speak
a word of Spanish, I had no connection with Latin American culture whatsoever
and had never even visited Spain!
But the first problem could be solved: ten minutes after finishing the book, I
started reading it again until high tide ran me off my rock.
went by and somehow I got to work in the fashion industry. I was making decent
money working long hours and I got to a point I really needed a break. A break
in a sunny place, preferably with palm trees and nice beaches. Portugal seemed
interesting, but not warm enough to my taste that time of the year. I couldn’t
care less about the destination, as long as there was sun… So I went to a
travel agency (the thing we used to do before booking online) and asked for any
destination available within my scheduled vacation time, as long as it was
exotic and tropical.
that’s how I ended up in Cancún,
first thought was that I’d made a terrible mistake. Egyptian pyramids, huge
high-rise hotels, big-bellied noisy herds of tourists… What the heck was this place?
24 hours after arriving I took a bus to Mérida and some magical happened right
there and then when I was walking around the cobble stoned streets of this
colonial town: I felt at home! Seriously,
it was such a strange and unexpected feeling, to arrive in a entirely
unfamiliar environment and sense a complete and intense feeling of belonging.
of course One Hundred years of Solitude
came to mind… There was the Buendía family’s home …the almond tree… the scruffy dog…
the sweltering heat… Merida
is not Macondo or Aracataca of course, but the element were there all the same and I
felt suck back into that wonderful but tragic history…
to say; I very much enjoyed that first vacation in Mexico,
mostly spent in a tiny village at the Gulf of Mexico
called Progreso. See, I’m not much of a traveler, I just like to be in places. And the place got me
year after year I traveled back to Mexico, each time going a bit further south,
but not advancing much. Until I came to the realization that working my butt
off for eleven months a year to be delightfully happy for four weeks out of a
year seemed absurd. So after one more trip I decided to give up my job, travel
back to Mexico
and stay there as long as my money lasted.
time I made it as far south as Antigua Guatemala. That had been sort of the
plan, because I’d heard that there were some excellent Spanish schools and
indeed there were. I spent a few delightful months in Antigua,
picking up Spanish fast and within less time than I expected I felt I was ready
to read One Hundred years of Solitude
again, but this time in Spanish.
Spanish was far from fluent at the time, but what amazed me was the simplicity
of that newly purchased novel in its original language. Not only was it a
completely different book now that I knew a little more about Latin American
culture, it was also the language that struck me: simplistic is not the word, it’s just that the vocabulary used in Spanish seemed to be so much more basic and to the core than the
elaborate translation I had read in Dutch. I loved every sentence of it and
kept on repeating whole phrases as if they were mantras.
I ran out of money, as I tend to do, and I had to go back to Holland. But not back to the fashion
industry. I had decided I wanted to study Latin American literature, and
Gabriel García Márquez was to blame for that.
at university in the middle of my twenties wasn’t easy, because I wasn’t any
longer entitled to a scholarship, but what the heck, I enjoyed it tremendously.
Besides the whole oeuvre of García Márquez I got to know many more terrific
writers. But still, García Márquez was my all time hero.
drawback to my new life was that financially I wasn’t doing that great, being a
student and all. Despite my three odd jobs I could no longer afford yearly
visits to Latin America. When I got a fax
(Indeed! A fax! We’re talking middle nineties here!) from friends of mine who
had started a restaurant in a small town of Honduras,
asking me to take care of the business while they had to go back to Holland, I jumped at the
opportunity. Two months of free room and board in the tropics? Oh yeah!
off I went and of course I packed my copy of One Hundred years of Solitude in my backpack. The only tiny change in my travel plans was that I didn’t return
after two months, but stayed on for two more. And then till the end of the
year. And then till…
until I’d spent seventeen years eight days and one hour in the mountainous border
town of Copán Ruinas.
then of course I realized that magic realism doesn’t exist, it’s realism
instead. I had experienced weirder things than I’d read in One Hundred years of Solitude and that made me love the book –and
Latin America- all the more.
a wonderful, amazing, inspiring and challenging seventeen years, eight days and
one hour in Copán Ruinas, I decided it was time to move on somewhere else. So
that’s how I ended up back in Antigua Guatemala, where one of the first things I
did was building bookshelves for my García Märquez collection, One Hundred years of Solitude of course
leading the row.
had not even been living here for a month when I heard the sad news about
García Márquez’ passing. Not totally unexpected, but sad nonetheless. A giant
has left us, but thankfully his writings will be with us for ever more.
here at my desk, my copy of One Hundred
years of Solitude as an icon next to the monitor, my mind is wondering
about the unexpected turns life takes and where I’ll be in ten or twenty years
from now. At least one part of my life has come full circle now that the book
and I are both back in Antigua.