I’m 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.
But 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.
Years 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.
So that’s how I ended up in Cancún, Mexico.
My 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?
Within 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. How odd!
And 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…
Needless 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 hooked.
So 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.
This 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.
My 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.
Unfortunately 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.
Starting 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.
A 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!
So 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 to Holland after two months, but stayed on for two more. And then till the end of the year. And then till…
Actually, until I’d spent seventeen years eight days and one hour in the mountainous border town of Copán Ruinas.
By 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.
Despite 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.
I 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.
Sitting 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.
I guess it’s time to start reading it again.