Renovating a literary giant's childhood home

ARACATACA, Colombia — Like the surreal and doomed Macondo, the town that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s "One Hundred Years of Solitude" can’t seem to catch a break.

Over the years, the residents of Aracataca — a sun-scorched community of 26,000 located in the banana belt of northern Colombia — have dreamed up all kinds of schemes to attract literary tourists to their town.

Officials built an elaborate fountain in honor of Garcia Marquez, who helped popularize the magic realism genre and is widely viewed as one of Latin America’s greatest writers. But due to a water shortage, the fountain doesn’t flow.

A few years ago, the mayor held a referendum to change the name of the town to Aracataca-Macondo. But the re-branding effort failed because not enough people showed up to vote.

Garcia Marquez himself returned to his hometown in 2007 to help establish a tourist train that was supposed to draw visitors to Aracataca (pronounced ah-ra-ca-TA-ca). But after the inaugural run, the service was canceled.

“This town ought to be a treasure,” said school teacher Aura Ballesteros. “But we’ve been abandoned.”

Yet townsfolk are not giving up. A project to renovate Garcia Marquez’s childhood home and turn the structure into a museum is in its final stages. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for May 2009 and there are rumors that the great man himself might show up for the event.

More than past projects, the museum seems — at least on paper — true to the spirit of the writer.

The stories that Garcia Marquez absorbed while growing up in the crowded house fired his imagination and helped give birth to the Buendia clan of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." The novel, widely viewed as Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, chronicles the birth, life and death of Macondo and several generations of the dreamy, impractical and superstitious Buendia family.

“Often, our house in Aracataca, our huge house, seemed as if it were haunted,” Garcia Marquez once said. “All those early experiences have somehow found themselves in my literature.”

The home was originally built in 1910 by Garcia Marquez’s grandfather, who moved to Aracataca to escape the wrath of a neighboring village after he killed a man in a duel.

The house was filled with quirky relatives who told the young Garcia Marquez tales of people who could move chairs just by looking at them and make worms emerge from the heads of cows.

Plagued by floods, wind storms and locusts, Aracataca was a raw, frontier outpost, populated by banana workers from the United Fruit Company, immigrants, gypsies and even escapees from the penal colony at Devil’s Island.

“One afternoon, we heard shouts in the street and saw a headless man ride past on a donkey,” Garcia Marquez wrote in his 2003 autobiography. “He had been decapitated by a machete during a settling of accounts on a banana plantation.”

But like the fictional Macondo, Aracataca fell on hard times.

The United Fruit Company pulled out following a massacre of banana workers in 1928. The economy stagnated. After moving away at age 9, Garcia Marquez returned with his mother in 1950 to sell the family house. In his autobiography, he described what he found in Aracataca.

“All that remained were the dusty almond trees, the reverberating streets, the houses of wood and roofs of rusting tin with their taciturn inhabitants, devastated by memories,” he wrote.

It’s no wonder that "In Evil Hour," one of Garcia Marquez’s first published novellas about life in Aracataca, was originally titled "This Shitty Town."

Decades later, Aracataca still seems like an off-the-map village with little connection to the modern world.

The town is dominated by pool halls. Rather than cars and trucks, bicycle taxis fill the streets. There are no fine restaurants, no hotels for tourists, and no book stores to purchase copies of "No One Writes to the Colonel" or "The General in his Labyrinth."

Yet thanks to a few energetic residents, Aracataca still has a pulse.

A new generation of Garcia Marquez aficionados is being cultivated in the schools where Ballesteros, the teacher, runs an annual contest to promote the author’s works. The finalists are grilled on the characters and settings of Garcia Marquez’s books.

And for the writer’s fans, Aracataca holds some hidden treasures.

On the edge of town sits the former telegraph office from where Garcia Marquez’s father sent messages to his future wife, an against-all-odds courtship that inspired "Love in the Time of Cholera."

On the walls of the office are photos of the young Garcia Marquez typing out stories as a reporter for a regional newspaper. Another shows the author hobnobbing with his good friend Fidel Castro.

“Aracataca could be a tourist gold mine,” said Rafael Dario Jimenez, a prime mover behind the museum project who also operates a Garcia Marquez-themed restaurant out of his home.

The new repository for Garcia Marquez memorabilia will be the museum, which is being built on the site of the original family home that was blown over in a storm.

It’s a work in progress and rather sterile. The whitewashed walls, clean cement floors and empty rooms hardly evoke the cluttered, chaotic family surroundings in which Garcia Marquez was raised.

Still, Jimenez predicts that the site, which has been designated by the Colombian government as a national historical monument, will garner a flood of publicity and bring a new wave of visitors to Aracataca.

Besides landmark literature, Jimenez added, “the achievement of Garcia Marquez was to get the eyes of the world to focus on this shitty town.”

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