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A fine beast of a woman

From the small towns gripped in a tight squeeze of inescapable heat to the Andean cities trapped in a time-lapse of endless drizzle, Colombia has seen a change of perception, a booming renaissance and a cultural shift. A country once feared and avoided by the world, is becoming a tourist hotspot—almost every week appearing on Top 10 must-visit lists, posting enviable happiness levels and brimming with tales of progress.

Colombia is not without its troubles, though. In fact, her misfortunes appear necessary in her appeal. It takes equal parts tragedy and charm to win us over and invite us to fall in love with her. But the honour of a place, or a person, does not come from what she is now, but rather what she has become in spite of her misfortunes. Colombia is a fine beast of a woman, clawing at the chance of redemption. This, no doubt, has caused many a writer, including myself, to fall in love with her and turn a warm appreciation for the place into an ambition of compulsive documentation.

But it wasn’t stories of civic turmoil that piqued my interest in Colombia, nor was its portrayal in film or on television. Instead it came from a man, a gentle but severe man who taught me all about unrequited love, the passing of time and the magic in the mundane.

I wasn’t an instant fan of Márquez, to tell you the truth. Don’t get me wrong, now, NOW, I’m very nearly obsessed with him and his works: his short stories, his novels, his autobiography, his columns. If only I could get my hands on a shopping list he once wrote, I’m sure I’d fall in love with that, too. But the first book I read of Márquez’s, Love in the Time of Cholera, took me a while to warm up to.

What an idiot. Is what I remember thinking about the book’s main character, Florentino Ariza. I was probably 19-years-old at the time. Really sure of myself, actually, over confident, you know, a teenager, and a friend of mine had suggested I read it, so I did. Honestly, I had a crush on the guy and I probably, well, okay, most definitely, wanted to impress him with my worldly knowledge, Colombian literary greats included.

But about one-third of the way through the novel and I’d almost thrown in the towel on finishing it. Allow me to paint a picture for you, if you haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera, or at least haven’t read it with the eyes and mind of a teenager: Ariza is madly in love with Fermina Daza, a girl he has never once spoken to and has only ever exchanged a sideways glance at while delivering a telegraph to her father’s home. After this one-off fleeting encounter, he decides to dedicate the rest of his waking hours to writing long-winded letters to her, dreaming about her, confessing his undying love to her. His appetite even escapes him, at the mere thought of her. He develops a fever and becomes bedridden. It’s thought he’s displaying symptoms of cholera. But nope, it’s just love.

Unbelievable, I scoffed while reading the book in a café one day. And with that, I shoved the novel and its stale pages in my bag and made my way to a public phone to tell my friend how little I thought of his suggestion and its protagonist—this unfortunate fellow named Florentino Ariza, a man who took a risk on love without ever seeing it, feeling it before he even really knew the person he was falling in love with. Ridiculous.

Eventually, though, like a persistent lover, the book, Márquez and even Ariza, all won me over. Through the force of Márquez’s storytelling, I softened to the idea of doing without thinking first and living in the moment. I opened myself up to the idea of love: inexplicable, ruthless, pain-inducing, sorrowful, excruciating, but often beautiful, love. And so, as do many passionate affairs begin, so did my enduring romance with Márquez and his Colombia: first with apprehension, then with stoic resignation and, finally, I became lost in adoration as I fell into the arms of his work.

It didn’t take long after reading the novel that I began planning to walk the same streets Márquez wrote of, to glide over the lifeblood rivers I had only ever seen painted in my imagination, and whisper memories of the past through the beauty of folkloric dance. To visit the towns which inspired the endless pages of magic realism in Márquez’s work was a dream for me and one I acted upon not too far into the future. I became drawn to the mysticism found in truth, the delight in the dull and the lure of a lasting love.

I felt that Ariza’s mother, who shared some wise words to her son, Florentino, after he found himself in the uncomfortable grip of unrequited love, was speaking to me, too. Right at the beginning of his love affair she says of his pain: “Take advantage of it now while you are young because these things don’t last your whole life.” She was whispering to me. Go, you young fool, she said. Go and travel and open your heart to the absurd. Be trampled by it, fall down and lose yourself in despair, fall in love without the need to be caught by it, fall deeply and madly, feel the pain that comes when not all goes to plan, rub the salt of your tears into your wounds and be moved by them, experience this pain now before you’re too old to remember how. It felt like a vision, revealing itself to me straight from the pages of Márquez’s book. So I listened to that wise, old, completely fictitious woman of Márquez’s imagination and my own and packed my bags.

And, actually, it’s only while writing these very passages that I’ve realised that I too took a risk on love, sight unseen, for I moved to Colombia on a whim. I had only given her a sideways glance before I decided I wanted to spend my life with her, make a future with her, I lost sleep over her and felt sick to the stomach because of her. Now, I’m the one who’s been kept busy writing long-winded love letters, although in my case they’re more in the form of articles and blog posts.

Before arriving in Colombia, I thought the magic realism of Márquez’s books was just something that was birthed from the man, alone. That he had chosen to see the world with a fanciful air, part truth, part fairy tale. But once I had lived in Colombia myself, I realised it’s something that’s intrinsically part of how the country’s people see the world, but also see themselves. It was just Márquez who chose to allow others to see it with him.

"In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets," the author once said in an interview with The Atlantic newspaper in 1973. "Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America." It wasn’t until I arrived in Latin America myself that I realised that Márquez was right. Surrealism walks the streets of Colombia and in the family stories that stretch back generations, twisted by time.

It didn’t take long after arriving in Colombia before a certain level of absurdity began to reveal itself to me. I began hearing stories. Stories which I quickly discounted as untrue, embellished or exaggerated. People began to tell me of their own experiences with magic realism, not giving it that label, of course, but it quickly became something I could recognise.

During one of many trips to the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin, I met a beautiful woman with green eyes. She had small hands which moved as she spoke with the softness of bed sheets drying in the wind. An artist and lecturer at a local university, she filled her home with prints and paintings, and allowed the light of day to reach each corner of the house through opened windows. While sitting on her couch in the living room, I could hear the muffled noises from the street outside. A man walked past the front door with his wooden cart calling out for people to buy his avocados. ‘Aguacate, aguacate, aguacate!’ he screeched.

While cradled in the arms of her husband on the sofa, the woman told me about her childhood. Her smile was plump, she was all lips and eyes, really, and her mouth twisted upward like the corners of a leaf which had just been plucked from a tree, curved and alive. Her elderly mother shuffled from the kitchen, then sank gently into an armchair, swaying in and out of the conversation as she pleased.

The woman went on to describe to me a friend she had as a child. A black pygmy man she would play with when she was no older than seven or eight. No one in the family had ever reported seeing the short man, of course, but she assured me that he was just quick on his feet and managed to hide behind the couch whenever anyone else was around. Her elderly mother appeared to recall that time with a sense of humour, nodding with a smile, this time opening her mouth to show her teeth. But her daughter, now in her fifties, swears the man was real. Unexplained occurrences were not all that uncommon in her family, either, she explained, revealing how she also saw the death of her own uncle in a dream days before it occurred. A premonition which, her mother admits, gives weight and validity to her claims about the pygmy and warrants him a second thought, at least for a moment.

I heard many family stories with that hint of magic realism but more often than not it took a half empty bottle of rum or aguardiente before anyone would go into too many details. The alcohol always seemed to open people up to ideas of the unexplainable or at least gave them permission to talk about it. One night, after running around the house performing all the usual superstitious rituals to bring in a prosperous New Year, like eating twelve grapes and running around the house with an empty suitcase while wearing brand new clothes, I witnessed a man speak to his dead relatives through the photos of them hanging on the lounge room wall. He seemed convinced they were able to talk back.

It looked like they all had quite the conversation, too, because the encounter began with laughs before taking a more sinister turn when the man appeared to get into a disagreement with them. When I brought it up with him the following day, that I had seen him in that moment of drunken haze, he smiled through the fog of his hangover and said, ‘It was wonderful to catch up.’ I really didn’t know what to make of that, to tell you the truth. So I just smiled, not prying any further, feeling that intruding on a man’s conversation with the dead was interruption enough.

Then there are the characters in small colonial towns, blips on the map, who appear to be almost cartoon-like caricatures of themselves, often regarded with the same respect as an ancient mythological being by the people in their communities.

I’d just finished dinner one evening at a small eatery when I heard about the man who was well known and quietly feared by the locals because of his super-human strength. Red and green furniture was placed around the modest-sized restaurant I found myself in, the paint on the white walls flaked like the bark from a tree, exposing the passing of time beneath. The place was on the busiest corner of town and owned by the wife of the man, a man who was said to be able to wrestle two bulls at once with his bare hands before making his way home to have dinner with his woman, unscathed.

I saw him arrive to eat with his wife on that busy corner just as I was leaving. His two legs, as thick and as swollen as tree trunks of 100 years or more, carried him in my direction. He wore a flannelette shirt and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat which was scuffed and punctured, I wondered if by one of the horns of his bulls. He walked with the gait of someone who had the unfortunate task of riding a horse from the birth of morning until the silence of night. Not something I envied. His hands rippled with calloused flesh and engulfed mine as we were introduced to each other by my friend, each of us offering a formal handshake. His grip was strong and inescapable, much like the grip Colombia, that fine beast of a woman, has on me.

Sarah Duncan is an Australian writer who has been travelling to and living in Colombia since 2006. She’s a regular suitcase packer, travel blogger and café loiterer, who is happiest with a pot of tea and a good book. Sarah’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications in Australia, North and South America and Europe and she currently works as a columnist for a publication considered the No. 1 women’s lifestyle media brand. Sarah also hosts retreats about how to invite creativity into ones life by marrying the writing process with yoga practice and she is compelled to write about her fascination with Colombia (and arepas!) on her website,

Image credit: Tom Feiling in The Guardian

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