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The first chapter

Love in the Time of Cholera. When I chose that book off the bookshelf as a teenager in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, I’d never before heard of cholera, or Gabriel García Márquez, or magic realism. I didn’t know I was about to read a work by a Colombian author, or that the book had originally been written in Spanish.

Growing up in the suburbs of a large American city, my days were carefully structured, small moments that made up a meticulously planned life. Amidst the well-tended gardens planted in front of the well-cared for homes in those spacious neighborhoods, I was like one of those small flowers kept behind neat white fences. Everything and everyone had their position and place.

However, discovering those words of Gabriel García Márquez drew me away to a world where I understood little except the emotions beneath them. Gabo’s world was a delirious escape, a place to lose myself in the swaying sentences that took me to tropical gardens in the intense heat of a country I’d never heard of, and to a passion I had never felt. Those words led me to the sultry laziness of an afternoon siesta in a hammock and the solemn sound of church bells in the plaza ringing for the dead. They taught me about a passionate love that transcends time and the simple fulfillment of life’s duties, one that lives on beyond distance and disappointment.

Gabriel García Márquez had opened up Latin America to me. Could that passion be lived on a daily basis, could it be felt all through life, from beginning to end? I longed to ride away on those words, to discover that seamless blending of the real and the emotional. I wanted to know if he was right, if emotions did have their place in life, and could even be considered the basis for life. Did I, a decade after reading about love in Cartagena, move to South America partly because of the effect that Gabo’s intoxicating words had on my teenage heart?

As an adult, I have walked the streets of Gabo’s Cartagena. I have walked past the brightly colored houses and looked up at their wood balconies that at one time were filled with young ladies in their best dress. Those balconies, entwined with bougainvillea that lap up the morning sunlight, are still strong, still bear the weight of the centuries that came before them.

And as evening comes over Cartagena, buildings dressed in somber colonial yellows glow under the street lamps along cobblestone streets that make shadows flicker in the corners of the wide doorways leading to the houses. There is a sense that time does not stand still, but that it has come back around again, and moments almost forgotten still live in the night air.

I have traveled throughout Latin America but have never encountered a city that, at dusk, speaks to me, whispers to me to come walk its streets, as Cartagena does. The air wraps tenderly around me and leads me along to find something new within myself, a renewal of what is old or what has been kept controlled, taken out just for brief moments: the passionate journey that life can be.

As I consider what to say in this essay about how Gabriel García Márquez’s writing has affected my life, I stand in my kitchen in Bogotá, a wooden spoon in hand, lost in thought as I sauté small yellow criollo potatoes for dinner. Almost two decades into my South American adventure, I think about where I had once been, a timid teenager waiting to live, not sure of what that would mean, and surrounded by fears passed on from others whose lives had become immersed in disappointment.

Now I think about how one book changed me so many years ago, how it invited me to discover Latin America and the leisurely pulse of a continent where our days are, above all, based on pleasure and passion. Even in a hectic megacity like Bogotá, a coffee is always leisurely shared, a kind gesture is extended to a lost tourist, and a casual conversation at the bank can become a deep friendship.

These are moments that at one time would have seemed like magic realism in my life, an impossibility brought to reality every day.

Now, as a food writer in Colombia, I see Gabo’s magic realism applied every time I enter a restaurant kitchen. Young Colombian chefs, inspired by the surprising flavors of their tropical fruits, the heritage shared in their mother’s love of homemade food, and a taste of their past hidden in a vegetable or herb, live that mix of the improbable with the concrete every day.

Their future depends on it; they attend cooking school and flood restaurants with new talent. They pay attention to old and new techniques, to the delicate touch that a sauce needs, and to the fine details needed to finish a dish. Their future is their past, and their heritage comes through in a humble root vegetable with an unlikely vibrant color, a hot pepper from the jungle, or a carefully cultivated coffee bean from a far-away mountain range in the north of Colombia.

Their passion lights their eyes, ignites their hearts, and moves them to stay on their feet long hours to give back to their city, to their country, and to their home a new chapter in its cultural heritage: the passion for food.

But for me, Gabo’s touch went beyond what I experience at work. It went to a very personal level.

I married a Colombian man. Life with my husband has been about believing in the impossible, and achieving it. For more than 15 years we have dedicated our lives to an educational work that helps others find their spiritual balance and a deeper meaning in life. I never tire of accompanying my husband on his work travels, or dancing mid-morning in our sunlit living room, or being sous-chef to his culinary talents.

More than a decade and a half later, I still wake up in the morning to the sounds of my husband’s acoustic guitar as he sings love ballads in his soft Spanish. His brown eyes, tende

r with sentiment, still smile into mine, and his steady hands never tire of reaching out to mine as we walk on the street, sit side by side in a movie theater, or endure difficult times together.

Thank you, Gabo, for being the first chapter in my Latin American story.

Originally from Philadelphia, Karen Attman has spent the past 20 years living in Latin America. Now settled in Bogotá, Colombia, she writes about food, people and places for more than 15 publications in the United States, Europe and Latin America, including CNN, National Geographic, Esquire and Four Magazine. Karen blogs about her food experiences at Flavors of Bogotá ( and sends out tasty tweets at @FlavorsofBogota. She is the author of the book, Permission to slurp: the inside guide to tasting speciality coffee in Colombia. And she is the editor of the upcoming collection Alone Together on women's travel in Latin America.

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