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That guy who died

A small boy walks up to a red and yellow structure in the form of a bus stop. His grandfather stays a few feet behind him, supporting him with his gaze.

‘Are there books for children here?’ asks the little boy.

A small-framed man on the cusp of his twenties gestures toward the bottom shelf of a lone bookcase. The boy, who evidently can’t read yet, chooses the first book his hand finds, without even looking at the cover. He sits beside his grandfather on a nearby bench, and listens to the story.

This is a “bus stop, for books, for parks” (Paradero Paralibros Paraparques in Spanish)—a mini-library, which I visited for an assignment for the Journalism master’s I was studying, a few months after moving to Bogotá with my Colombian husband. It was quite by chance that I visited two weeks after Gabriel García Márquez died, because although I wanted to get to know Colombia better by studying its relationship with books and libraries, Gabo wasn’t really on my mind.

My early childhood was greatly influenced by public libraries in England, where I spent endless afternoons absorbed in classic children’s books of all shapes, sizes and colours. Later I went to work in the country’s busiest public library, in Norwich, and saw that people’s relationship to reading was central to the city and to life.

In Bogotá though, I was disappointed. I arrived excitedly at a bookshop for a leisurely browse and found that every single copy was wrapped in clear plastic. Books are generally more expensive here, and I even made a couple of erroneous purchases of unsatisfying paperbacks in Spanish. The choice is a gamble if you can’t even flick through the book you’re planning to purchase. So I took the initiative to go out and visit the “park bus stop library” to try and discover a way to understand the city as well.

I visited on a Sunday, which meant the sound of planes taking off from the El Dorado International Airport was less frequent than normal. Nevertheless, the conversations in Atahualpa Park, in the neighbourhood of Fontibón, situated right next to the runway, are interrupted every 10 minutes or so by the roar of rising aircraft. Once each plane has ascended into the sky, the small library isn’t left in silence. Instead, it's filled with the noise of activity from people in the neighbourhood, who have taken the chance to come out to Atahualpa Park and Outdoor Sports Centre, one of the better public facilities in an area struggling to lift itself out of poverty.

The “bus stop for books, for parks” is a permanent structure with a ten-foot-tall yellow ‘P’ on the side and a door that opens to reveal a small collection of books. To get there, you need to cross four basketball courts, one mini basketball court, a micro football pitch, a volleyball court and a stationary gym, all of which are in use on this blustery morning. There is an open space being used for an aerobics class, and the music and the instructor’s voice over the microphone fill the atmosphere. It’s still early and the bus stop library is open but near deserted.

Ricardo Castillo, the library’s “reading promoter” sits back on the part of the book bus stop that forms a seat, puts his feet up, and gets back to his reading. Other readers also occupy the nearby benches. On one side, a girl lies on her front, on the other a mother and daughter read together, the book they share has a beach with palm trees on the front cover.

What would García Márquez make of this, I wonder, a bus stop library in one of the city’s poorest areas? He once called Bogotá “the saddest city in the world”–probably because of its perpetual rain and the fact he lived here through some of its darkest and most violent hours. As for the country’s literary scene, in a 1960 essay he claimed Colombian literature was a “national fraud,” with weak critics celebrating mediocre Colombian writers as great ones in order to feel the nation was producing something worthwhile.

Gabo himself changed that, bringing international celebration to Colombian literature. But even today in the country’s capital, nicknamed the “Athens of Latin America,” for its numerous libraries and universities, reading is not a national passion. There is a big contrast between education standards in urban and rural areas of the country, too, with only five years of primary school being offered in some parts. This means while there can be an up to ninety-eight percent literacy rates in cities, it may be just sixty-seven percent in the country.

Ricardo tells me that people have begun to arrive asking if there are any books in the library written by “that guy who died.” It turns out there are. To commemorate his life, the Minister of Culture promoted a “Gabo-reading.” As in other similar spaces across Bogotá, Ricardo read No-one writes to the Colonel aloud to an audience. The Minister of Culture donated books to give to those who attended. Now at least those in the audience know something about “that guy who died,” though Ricardo doesn’t say how many listened, or how many stayed.

Ricardo is dressed casually in jeans and a navy blue polo shirt. His dark hair pokes out from under a grey beanie hat and he speaks quickly but in a low voice, explaining that his role is to accompany, guide and encourage the inhabitants of his neighbourhood to read. He is in sole charge and volunteers to keep the library open 20 hours a week, although he is also paid a small compensation, while he studies for his undergraduate degree in Humanities. One condition is that Ricardo had to live in the same neighbourhood, Fontibón, so he would work for his own community. His neighbours are among Bogotá’s less privileged inhabitants and a paperback from a shop could easily cost them a full day’s wages. A year ago, he was given training by Fundalectura, which administrates the fifty-one bus stop-style libraries that have been in service for fifteen years in Bogotá. The majority are located in the most vulnerable populations at the periphery of the city.

The children call him “teacher,” and he spends his weekends running activities for them: story time, book club, literary games, arts and crafts activities based around reading. The aim is to stimulate their imagination, creativity and originality. The lower part of the small library’s structure folds down into a table and is dotted with blue and green—evidence of the paintings the children have created.

‘This week they’re coming to give the library a new coat of paint,’ Ricardo says. It’s about time. Stains of rusted metal peep through the bright red and yellow.

Statistics reveal that three quarters of children in Colombia like to be read aloud to, yet over half of parents don’t read to their children. In contrast, my mother dedicated days to library trips in England before I was even old enough to remember them. Even those children in my class whose parents didn’t read to them had this experience, as other parents would come in to school and read to us in small groups. Afternoons were often finished off with “carpet time” and a story read out loud by the teacher.

I imagine that early years' education in rural Colombia, back when García Márquez was a child, had a different emphasis. And Gabo, being one of sixteen children, must have had to fight for attention from his mother. Yet he spoke fondly of friends and family giving him books, gifts that clearly had a deep impact on his formation as a writer, and an observer of his own world.

One way or another, reading with children works to close social gaps. A child that has access to books and support in learning to read has an enriched education and a better chance of understanding how the world works and what it is to be a part of it. The only things that reading brings are benefits. Yet the average Colombian over twelve-years-old reads less than two books per year, compared with Europeans who read an average of seventeen. The Colombian Government is trying to raise that figure to three books, at least, but a third of households don’t own any books at all. This is no wonder, when the average Colombian salary doesn’t even meet the family’s basic needs. Poverty brings other priorities.

By talking to his neighbours who visit him at the library in Fontibón, Ricardo has been able to observe a different reality, and he puts the figure locally at “less than one book a year.” This complicates his task of recommending books. He says it's difficult to recommend reading material to someone who, when asked what type of book they are looking for, simply answers, “something good.”

When you’re not in the habit of reading, it’s hard to find a way in, to know your own tastes. The leading bookshop, Librería Nacional, reveals that the most-sold title for the first quarter of 2014 sold just 1,500 copies nationally. It was The Recipes of Sascha Fitness, by Sascha Barboza.

The bus stop library offers a wider selection of genres than just the bestsellers. It includes poetry, theatre, literary classics and non-fiction, with the aim of boosting cultural consumption. The design of the library, in the form of a bus stop, suggests the idea of pausing, waiting. By opening a book, you open a possibility of finding a way into another place, a door to enter into many possible worlds. Those who pick up a García Márquez book may even find a back door into their own world, a different way to understand their own country than what they hear when they turn on the national news. And who better to understand Gabo than Colombians?

The rain is the biggest enemy of this library and, as the clouds roll over, it closes immediately. There is a small roof that protects the books, but it seems to Ricardo that they forgot the “human element” because his seat is left completely open to the elements. When the rain starts, people make a run for it, along with Ricardo, who rushes to hide in the park’s administration building. He waits there, shivering with the drop in temperature, because as soon as the rain stops, he’ll open up again.

As usual, it clears up quickly and, as the sun comes out, people come out and return their books or borrow more. In Bogotá, rain doesn’t mean the day is over, as would be the case in countries with seasons. This project wouldn’t be able to function in a European winter, for example, because people would have to lose and re-appropriate the reading habit. That’s the great advantage Colombia has, being situated on the equator, where there are no real seasons, just periods of more rain, or more wind, and a manageable 15-18 degree Celsius average.

One Saturday, Ricardo arrived at Atahualpa Park at 9am, as he always does. He crossed the basketball courts and the volleyball court, where a couple of teenagers were waiting for their friends. He searched his bag for the key to the library, but as he went to insert it in the padlock, he found the padlock broken.

The open door revealed gaps where books should have been. It was the second robbery in fifteen years of the program, across the whole city, though perhaps the thieves were hoping for something other than books, because they only took about thirty of the three hundred-strong collection. Who were they expecting to buy their stolen second-hand books, when Bogotános can get brand-new, photocopied, pirate versions of best sellers from unregistered, un-policed street sellers?

Attempted break-ins and vandalism to the library property are rare, thanks to an arrangement with the park administration. There is a security guard watching the area, day and night. The park is circled by tall metal bars and even has a guard dog. Ricardo spoke to the Atahualpa Park administrator, to ask how the robbery had taken place, given all the precautions. After all, aside from all of the other facilities in the park, the bus stop library itself cost over ten thousand dollars to custom-build and install, not including the cost of the books.

‘No security system is guaranteed,’ she tells him. ‘Even our Rottweiler has been stolen before.’

The library has something for everyone, children’s, teen and adult books, each classified according to a coloured sticker on its spine; picture books, story books, comics, non-fiction, mythology, fiction, poetry and theatre. If a visitor doesn’t return a book that they’ve taken home, Ricardo goes to their house to reclaim it. In the UK, borrowers often felt threatened by letters talking of fines or court action, but it’s a bit more friendly here. Ricardo, in his slouchy bookworm style, doesn’t go to make threats. He’s merely stopping by to check how his neighbour if doing. And people usually want to return their books, to avoid being barred from the service.

Some books don’t need to be returned. Libros al Viento or Books on the Wind is a programme by the council, which publishes a different paperback each month and distributes them free across the city. Ricardo runs activities each month based on the current book. The idea of Books on the Wind isn’t to give books away, rather it’s a book exchange initiative, although in general people prefer not to return them. Why would they, when it’s a free stepping stone to creating a home library that grows each month?

Ricardo recognises some titles are more attractive than others, and he freely gives them away too, hoping never to see them again. He gave me Letters from Three Oceans, 1499-1575, edited and translated by Isabel Soler and Ignacio Vásquez, and although I call myself a book lover, it sits untouched on my shelf, as I imagine it does in hundreds of other households. It may be a shame that most Colombians don’t read more, but perhaps even García Márquez might not have opened this one.

At weekends, Ricardo is occupied by activities with the children. But when he opens the library on Wednesday and Thursday mornings there are fewer people around. He has time to sit and read. A group of school children come to play in the park on their break. Ricardo tries to get them to listen to a story of his choosing, The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, published in 1845. He’s surprised that it’s hard for them to understand. It’s a famous title, a 170-year-old classic.

He narrates the mysterious visit of a talking raven to the house of a distressed lover. The raven appears to incite his suffering with the constant repetition of the word “nevermore”, causing the lover’s slow descent into madness. Poe alludes to folklore and various classic works in a poetic narrative, references that the children don’t pick up.

In a few years, many of these children will be required to read García Márquez as a set text at school. Though Colombians don’t necessarily read for pleasure, this is the country of a Nobel laureate, and Colombians tend to be proud of their international achievements, even in fields that wouldn’t normally interest them. Gabo’s magic realism, similar to Poe's, isn’t a message that’s spelled out for the reader. Perhaps the setting of a school, where a group can analyse and discuss meanings together, is an easier way into the subtle brilliance of works like One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Instead, the most borrowed book at Ricardo’s library is Princess Anna by Marc Cartin. The book relates how, when Princess Anna’s tummy begins to grow, her husband Prince Bigbelly finds it “most marvelous.” It tells of how “one day Princess Anna starts to feel ill, and soon everyone realises that there was a surprise inside her.” It’s simple, a crowd pleaser, and perhaps even allows children to touch on subjects that may still be taboo at home.

I asked Ricardo what the most popular children’s books are, the ones that have survived the years and that parents also used to read when they were young. I was thinking of the picture books I read as a child, that were still popular 20 years later when I worked in Norwich’s central library. Titles such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr or The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle which were hits in the 1960s and are still in high demand.

By way of an answer, Ricardo brings out another Book on the Wind—Fables of Samaniego, illustrated in pen and ink by Olgar Cuéllar.

‘Parents and children reading together pretty much doesn’t happen,’ he says, ‘Here there isn’t a culture of reading as a family.’

For many children and even parents in the area, Ricardo is the one who fulfills this function, helping to teach them how to read aloud. He explains that, ‘many mothers sing nursery rhymes to their children when they’re still very small, but then they have to go back to work.’

That’s also why Ricardo can’t tell me which children’s books have stood the test of time. As a child, no one read to him either. In fact, Ricardo couldn’t read very well until he had already finished school. But he has more than made up for lost time. Now he meets the need that wasn’t met for him, reading aloud to those children who come alone to their neighbourhood park, looking to discover how a story can enrich their day, and asking him to read to them. There’s “a guy who died” who might have been quite impressed.

Tara Daze is a freelance illustrator from Norwich, UK, who believes that life is an interdisciplinary art. After graduating with first class honours from Interdisciplinary Human Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK, which intertwines sociology with psychology, philosophy and literature, Tara completed a Diploma in Art, Design and Media, which led her to illustration. Tara is bilingual, having studied Spanish as a personal passion as a way to explore new perspectives. The search for Spanish practice partners when living in Manchester also led her to meet her Colombian husband, though a unique blend of Spanglish is the first language spoken in their home.

A search for new experiences, cultures and climates has led Tara to live in Bradford, Malaga, Manchester, Barcelona, Colorado, Buenos Aires and Bogotá, where she studied Journalism and International Studies at the University of The Andes. Twitter: @taradaze

Image copyright of Tara Daze

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