Colombia’s (and perhaps Latin America’s) most famous author – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – passed away last week, leaving the whole country in mourning. He was famous for his fictional writing in the genre of Magical Realism, a narrative form in which reality and fantastical events flow together. The genre expresses people, events, or moments in ways that aren’t entirely factual, but are true in the sense of how they are perceived or felt by the people living the reality. For example, Marquez once wrote of a town where it rained for 10 years on end. While meteorologists may argue that no such event occurred, it is a very good description of the months-long stretches of the rainy season when rain brings down the sides of mountains, washes out roads, and changes one’s day-to-day life in countless ways. Another good example are Latin American dictators. In magical realism dictators have taken on mythical characteristics such as immortality, and are infused with imagery that conjures both Jesus and the devil. Of course we know that no one has ever lived for 200 years, but in Latin America, where an absolutely powerful dictator can leave a legacy of oppression that lives long after his (it’s always a man, people) physical life has ended, immortality feels like a pretty accurate description.
Anyway, I digress.
Here in Colombia, people use the term “Macondo” colloquially to describe strange, surreal, bizarre or absurd situations that occur in daily life. Macondo is the name of the fictional town in Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude, supposedly inspired by his actual home town.
Today Jake and I had a major Macondo Morning. We woke early and jumped in a cab to try to arrive well in advance of our interview, knowing it might be hard to find the building. As we sped through the city at 7:15 am, thanks to the fact that we’re so close to the equator, the sun was already high above our heads and the streets were filled with people. We arrived at the state government building – which we knew was near our destination – exact address in hand. We asked a security guard to point out which building our address identified. He didn’t know. Then we asked another security guard, who also did not know, nor did he know the numbers of the surrounding streets (all the streets are numbered here). These are the streets he stares at every single day. We walked behind the state government building and asked a policeman what street we were on. He didn’t know, but told us to head to the “Red Tubes Building” (it has red tubing on its sides) in the opposite direction than we’d come from. As we walked towards the tubes, I called the guy we were going to interview and asked if his building had a name because no one knew the address. He told me the name was “Business Plaza” near “Ronpoy.” He also said the building was not behind the State Government building, as he’d told me yesterday, but behind the City Government building. Thankfully, that’s on the same block, but it meant we were walking the wrong direction. As this conversation was occurring, a woman stopped Jake and asked him where “Bare Foot Plaza” was. Jake pointed in the right direction, but she continued walking the other way.
Jake and I then walked on looking for the “Ronpoy,” which I was pretty sure it was the name of a chicken restaurant (Poy = Pollo?). Jake stopped to ask a street vendor, wearing an FBI hat, if he knew where it was. He did not. We walked on to a promising looking building where we asked a security guard if he knew the address. He did not. We asked him if he knew where the Business Plaza building was. He said we had arrived. He was wrong. He did know, however, that “ronpoy” meant round about, so we walked on to a big traffic circle.
We crossed the circle and finally located “Business Plaza” (yes, in English) which looked like an airplane bunker with no real entrance. As we searched for a way in, we pass a guard with a Rottweiler that suddenly leapt at Jake. He was muzzled, thankfully, so no harm was done, or we would have been in for a seriously awful start to our morning.
As we walked into the building, Jake made eye contact with a man on his way out. Another man followed in his wake, and noticing that we were foreigners, told us that “Jaime” (our contact) would be with us in a bit, as he was getting coffee across the street. So we waited in the 15th floor lobby that felt like a business incubator or a start-up, but was part of the offices of the city of Medellin. It had hard wood floors, with bamboo plants and rock gardens, and there was a man with half of his head shaved – a hipster in any city. Jake joked, “we have some investment capital and a new mayor and we’re thinking this city might really take off!”
Finally, Jaime arrived – the same man who had made eye contact with Jake 20 minutes earlier on his way out of the building. He introduced himself as someone who “knew a lot about conflict and peace,” since he had been a part of it. I asked him to elaborate and he explained that he had been part of the EPL, a guerrilla group that had demobilized in the early nineties. Now he worked for the mayor’s office.
It turns out we had a great interview. Our final request was “any primary documents he might have.” He handed us a CD and told us to bring it back soon. We left feeling tired, a bit disoriented, and without high hopes for good info on the CD, as most people we have encountered have been very stingy with data, primary documents, and basically, information in general.
We got home and opened the CD. There were over 20,000 documents on it.
Welcome to Macondo.