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Locals aim to transform Nobel writer's town into tourist destination

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Chicago Tribune


ARACATACA, Colombia - Gabriel Garcia Marquez is Latin America's greatest living writer, a man of startling originality whose "magical realism" style of prose earned him the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature.

He is arguably Colombia's most famous citizen, but you'd never know it from his boyhood home, a sagging, gingerbread-like structure that authorities have allowed to fall into disrepair.

The sparse interior is decorated with a handful of odd items, including faded photographs of the writer, a couple of wicker chairs and, tucked into one corner, a wooden statue of a saint with her hands missing. The acrid odor of feces wafts in the air.

"Bats have infested the roof," explained Rafael Dario Jimenez, director of the house museum. "I've fumigated three times and they return. The smell is awful."

Although Colombian officials designated the home a national monument and museum after Garcia Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize, the structure - like the long-forgotten city it is located in - has been worn down by time, misfortune and neglect.

The first blow was struck by the United Fruit Co., which once harvested tens of thousands of acres of bananas in the region but left abruptly in the 1960s because of competitive pressures, residents say.

Then Colombia's armed conflict closed in on Aracataca, bringing fear and death to its 15,000 residents and further isolating this lush agricultural region from the nation's political epicenter in Bogota, Colombia's capital 400 miles away.

But the isolation and neglect - the "solitude" as Garcia Marquez described it so famously - may be about to end.

In an effort to lift Aracataca out of the doldrums and preserve Garcia Marquez's legacy, Jimenez and other officials are hoping to rebuild the writer's home as part of an effort to transform the city into a tourist Mecca for literary enthusiasts.

There is talk of refurbishing a dozen zinc-roofed buildings that date back nearly a century and creating a small library and audio-visual center for Garcia Marquez scholars.

Jimenez envisions Americans, Germans and other tourists walking Aracataca's quiet streets, pausing at the Garcia Marquez home, the primary school where the writer studied and other locations.

Outside the city, across the railroad tracks and a bustling two-lane highway, sit a handful of mansions and a large, empty pool built decades ago by United Fruit for its executives and their families.

Local leaders suggest turning the decaying complex now occupied by the Colombian army and a host of poor families into a sparkling tourist hotel.

Already, work has begun on a 200-yard-long sculpture of concrete blocks that will form the centerpiece of a park dedicated to Garcia Marquez - or "Gabo" as he is known throughout Latin America - and his late friend Juan Rulfo, the great Mexican writer.

The project is being financed by a Mexican cement company under the auspices of the government of Mexico, where Garcia Marquez has lived for more than two decades.

In the sculpture park, under the shade of almond and mango trees, the public will gather for lectures, readings and other cultural events while gazing at the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta peaks rising to the east.

"We don't have any oil here, and we don't have any gold mines," said Fabian Marriaga, Aracataca's secretary of social development. "The only mine that we have is the exploitation of Gabo."

Yet for many Aracatacans, the dream of turning their city into a tourist destination seems as quixotic and fanciful as Garcia Marquez's fiction, where a man can be transformed into a snake and the living speak to the dead.

In addition to the problem of finding money for the projects, there is the question of whether tourists will travel to a region that is far safer than before but still, just 2 1/2 years ago, saw 11 Colombian soldiers blown to bits when they wandered into a rebel minefield just outside town.

Jimenez said about 2,400 people visited the Garcia Marquez home in 2004, a significant jump from the 500 visitors in 2000 but hardly a bonanza for the local economy.

And the famous writer himself apparently hasn't stepped foot in Aracataca since the raucous Nobel Prize celebration in 1983, something his cousin said is due in part to the area's peril.

"There are armed groups operating here, and he could be kidnapped," said Nicolas Arias, 70, one of the few members of the Garcia Marquez clan still living in Aracataca. "It's a real danger for him."

That explanation hasn't softened criticism of Garcia Marquez among some residents who are proud of their favorite son yet feel he has abandoned them in their time of need.

"What do I think of Gabo? I've got nothing to do with him," said one unemployed construction worker, lounging with a group of men in the park where the new sculpture will be installed. "I want work. We all want to work."

Garcia Marquez could not be reached for comment, but Marriaga and others say the 78-year-old author approves of the redevelopment plans.

There is little doubt that the author's childhood in Aracataca, where he lived with his beloved grandparents until he was 9, had a profound impact on his life and work.

In "Living to Tell the Tale," the first volume of his autobiography, Garcia Marquez wrote that he decided to become a novelist during a two-day trip back to Aracataca in 1950 with his mother to sell the childhood home.

At the time, Garcia Marquez was a 22-year-old law school dropout and struggling journalist living on Colombia's Caribbean coast, voraciously reading William Faulkner and dreaming of writing fiction.

Garcia Marquez's father agonized over his son's decision to leave school, but the young man told his mother as they journeyed south by train to Aracataca that his decision was final.

"Tell him the only thing I want in life is to be a writer, and that's what I'm going to be," Garcia Marquez recalled in his autobiography.

Shortly after uttering those words, Garcia Marquez took notice as the train passed a banana plantation with "Macondo" written over the gate.

Garcia Marquez later would appropriate Macondo as the name of the fictional town where the Buendia family saga unfolds in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the author's 1967 breakthrough novel.

It's clear that Macondo is grafted from Garcia Marquez's boyhood memories of Aracataca, but seven decades later there is little of the dreamy, Technicolor world captured in his prose.

When asked, Aracatacans will good-naturedly recount such local superstitions as the ghost of the headless cowboy who roams the night and knows where a hidden treasure is buried, or the giant, supernatural black dog with eyes of fire that prowls darkened alleyways.

"But we don't believe a lot of this now," said Marriaga, 51. "That's the older generation."

Today, what distinguishes Aracataca is its utter ordinariness - from the pool halls decorated with posters of girls in bikinis to the poor children flying kites on deserted railroad tracks to the funeral procession, casket aloft, parading through the streets.

And its grinding poverty. Marriaga said unemployment in Aracataca stands at 37 percent.

Arias said he last met with his famous cousin in November 2004 in Cartagena, where they spent three hours talking about family, old friends and Aracataca, which this year is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding.

"I told him Aracataca is completing its one hundred years of solitude," Arias recalled. "I told him that nothing has changed and there has been no progress."

Arias said Garcia Marquez replied optimistically: "Someday, there will be better years."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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