By: Katherine Sacco
May, 2016. The Caribbean heat absolves. I’ve been mired in uncertainty and malaise for months, but all this dissipates as I give myself over to Cartagena. Dense air weighs down on every part of my body, making it impossible to think of anything but these present sensations.
Cartagena prompts me out of the languid withdrawal I’d fallen into during an in-between period in my fledgling adult life. In recent months, I retreated to the first home I ever knew, my grandparents’ house. I nestled in while awaiting rejections and, blessedly, a couple of acceptances to graduate schools on both coasts and inventing possible futures in New York or California. A cheap plane ticket I found while idly browsing for travel destinations promised the chance to see something new, and that promise led me to this near-unbearable heat, a sticky humidity that coats my skin in moisture at all hours of the day.
I wander through the claustrophobically charming streets of Cartagena’s old city, lined with brightly colored facades and flowers tumbling over wooden balconies. The streets here only stretch short distances until they run into the stone walls that hem in the old city on three sides. I take a lot of mediocre photos. The cruise ships arrive on a Friday, flooding the streets with fanny packs and dollars.
July, 1993. The very cells in my body gestated in a climate not unlike Cartagena, only less picturesque. At least, that’s how I imagine Guam. I’ve never been. There is a photo of me as a baby on the beach, chubby rolls of baby fat spilling out of a frilly baby swimsuit. Or maybe I’m only wearing a diaper. Or maybe these are two different photos, and I’m wearing a bathing suit in one and a diaper in another. The water there is crystalline blue—that much I’m sure of—and the sunsets are majestic.
My mom returned from Guam to give birth to me on the mainland, in the care of better doctors and with her family around her. My dad returned later, and I waited till he arrived to decide it was my time to greet the world. Or so the story goes. If I squint, I can picture my mom and her dad—my Jaju—taking long walks together during the last days of her pregnancy. I start to kick, and they pause so that Jaju can feel the swell of my mom’s belly.
If Jaju’s house was my first home, the place where my parents and I arrived back to after I was born, then Guam was my second. My mom says there were lots of geckos on the walls of our house there, but I don’t know much more. Some things I’d like to ask are: What did Guam sound like? Could you hear the crashing waves from our house? Did it smell like the ocean? By the time I was old enough to form memories, we had moved back to Massachusetts.
May, 2016. Cartagena’s walls are preserved almost in their entirety, but there is a gap along Avenida Venezolana, like an escape valve where the quaint old town starts to blend into a busy commercial street. I walk in that direction in search of relief from the painted facades, in search of something more alive. A group of men sit in front of typewriters, offering their services to transcribe I don’t know what. How antique, I think. I train my camera’s lens on one man to take his photo.
He hisses at me, and I’m startled.
This scene is no tourist panorama; it is this man’s livelihood. Later, I wonder how many times tourists like myself have gaped at this man. I continue walking, but I try to apologize and say I will erase the photo, which I do. I make a grammatical mistake in Spanish, though, which haunts my next steps.
November, 2015. I’m living in a three-bedroom house in the East Bay with my boyfriend and our roommate, a middle-aged self-described “blue collar professional” who works in construction. I’ve moved here because my boyfriend and I were living together in Chicago, so when he was accepted to graduate school in Berkeley, I moved with him seemingly without ever having to make the decision.
I want to be happy here, but this house feels like an empty shell, permeated with the air of a bachelor in his 40’s. I spend a lot of my days on the Internet, despite my best efforts to otherwise occupy myself. I check my email. I go on Facebook. I read the news. Every so often I catch myself adrift, staring at my web browser. I open a new tab, and I don’t know what to type in. I am searching for something, probably, that I can’t find on the Internet.
I type h-o-m-e into Google Maps, the compass that usually helps me find my way, and it takes me to the address in Berkeley that I have saved in my preferences. This is exactly what I was not looking for.
May, 2016. I dug a copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad out of a box in my parents’ attic to bring with me to Colombia. Before landing in Cartagena, most of what I thought I knew about Colombia came from Márquez’s writing. Cien años inspired any interest I might claim to have in Colombia, though it forms a strange reference, describing a world where a plague of insomnia is just as probable as the flu. In any case, I was eager for Márquez to guide me through the country that so distinctly marks the pages of his books.
And, as I had hoped, Gabo finds me in Cartagena, where his words are pasted on a wall in the entryway of a modest modern art museum housed in the city’s former customhouse. I read his homage to the museum and to Cartagena itself, which provides some reassurance that I am, indeed, in the land of this native son. I have not felt so, not yet. Cartagena’s old city has begun to feel bland after a few days of wandering its picture-perfect streets, as if any magic had been scrubbed clean.
But in a few paragraphs about a painting on a door that goes missing, only to be found again and lost again, Gabo managed to portray Cartagena as lyrically as any of the invented settings of his novels. He knew the place well, after all; he had a house only a few blocks away. Reading his words, I feel as though he has placed his hands on my shoulders, spun me around, and pointed out the door I just entered towards the plaza beyond it, as if to say, look again, this is Cartagena.
Still, I can’t find this version of Cartagena. Instead I enter the museum, where I observe a fly crawling on one of the canvasses and wonder if I should swat it away.
January, 2016. When I first move back to Massachusetts from Berkeley, it is a relief. I slip easily into a sense of home at my grandparents’ house. It is the purest home I know, unblemished by the confounding experiences of being a teenager and then an adult trying to find my way in the world. I spent my childhood days here, after my family moved back from Guam—every day of my childhood, in fact, until my sister was born and my mom stopped working. The floorboards creak with echoes of the games my cousins and I played here, but also with echoes of more equivocal family history, which I choose not to ask about too closely.
But as much as I feel at home in this house, it is a bittersweet feeling. Really, this house is a home for the child I left behind long ago, not for the 22-year-old adult that I am now. I might feel relief at letting myself rest in this natal embrace for a moment, but in truth I know that I can’t stay.
May, 2016. I arrive at Mompox near midday, still in search of Márquez’s Colombia. The streets are quiet as the sun reaches its peak and everyone retreats indoors. A pick-up truck with wooden furniture piled in the back had picked me up at my hostel in Cartagena in the very early morning and driven inland for hours. When I step out of the truck’s cab in Mompox, the town disorients me. I had a clear image of the layout of Mompox in my mind, formed years ago when I read an article about the town in the New York Times travel section. But in my mind, the river was not supposed to be right there. And all of these church plazas—where did they come from? I imagined just one. This sense of disjuncture dissipates, as it always does when bricks and mortar confront my dreamed-up image of a place, but I can still recall my mind’s Mompox almost as vividly as the real town.
My hotel overlooks the Río Magdalena, which Maria’s grandmother told me is the most important river in Colombia. Not the biggest, you see, but the most important. It runs from the south of Colombia all the way to the coast. Mompox was an important river town back when this branch of the Magdalena was used for river commerce. Now the only boats I see are rickety lanchas that carry people from one side of the river to another.
With nightfall, the nearest plaza facing the river fills with Momposinos. The children zoom around on contraptions that they lay in and propel forward by swiveling their feet. Competing shacks selling Club Colombia beer each blast their own music. I sit down at a restaurant table in the plaza for a limonada de coco.
The next morning, the plaza is quiet, as it was when I arrived. In these times of quiet, I am impressed by the expansive stillness of the space. The hushed air, facing the silently flowing river, feels equal parts lonely and at peace.
January, 2016. My mom finds the original deed to my grandparents’ house, which calls their small neighborhood full of modest homes by some grandiose name—Mountainside Villas, or Mt. Tom Estates, something like that. I imagine what it was like for them when they bought this house, forging a home for themselves and their children and their children’s children for decades to come. Maybe they were scared to begin their life together, or perhaps proud to become homeowners. How did they manage to make this house a home?
I will leave my grandparents’ home and make a life for myself in California, though I don’t know this yet, and though it won’t be easy. I will miss the autumnal trees on the mountain my grandparents’ house overlooks. I will eventually learn to appreciate—not as a replacement for the beauty of my first home, but as some kind of karmic counterbalance—the wild colors of a western sunset.
May, 2016. After finding some lunch, I retreat from the Mompox heat to the pages of Cien años de soledad. With my air conditioner set on high, I read a few pages, take a nap, read some more. I flip back and forth through the chapters, intently trying to keep track of just which Aureliano I am reading about at the moment. I read a line about indefatigable children who kept at play during the hottest part of the day, and nod to myself, acknowledging that I’m avoiding the selfsame heat at that very moment.
I have heard that Mompox—more so than Aracataca, Gabo’s hometown and the supposed model for Macondo—preserves something of the atmosphere of the Buendías’ imagined, magical hometown. So as I read, I wait for the alchemical reaction that will fuse Macondo and Mompox, making Mompox somehow more recognizable, more like the place I already know from the stories Márquez tells. But this magic never comes. Macondo remains in the pages of the book, Mompox remains outside my window.
June, 2016: Mompox is my last stop in Colombia. When I return to the US, I borrow a copy of Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth from the library. This book is a fabulist’s account of the real Simón Bolívar’s last months, which I’m curious about because it includes mention of a visit to Mompox. I relish in Gabo’s description of Mompox and its “three wide, straight, and dusty streets running parallel to the river,” the same streets I walked along only weeks before.
In The General in His Labyrinth, the eponymous General says, “Mompox doesn’t exist…Sometimes we dream about it, but it doesn’t exist.” Even as he says this, his barge is approaching Mompox’s shores, where he is received with fanfare. This line hints at a confusion, on the part of the General, that mirrors my own confusion about the places I have known and the places I hope to call home. They may not exist, I might dream about them, I might find them.
Katherine Sacco is a graduate student in anthropology. She grew up in western Massachusetts, and currently lives in California.