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Cartagena, Colombia: Gabriel García Márquez's inspiration, the seaport mixes Old World and New

A new audio tour of Cartagena, Colombia, recounts the storied Caribbean seaport's influence on novelist Gabriel García Márquez during his stay here.

May 01, 2011|By Rachel B. Levin | Special to the Los Angeles Times

But in Cartagena the night's sinister whispers are often drowned out by romance — or at least by the soul-stirring percussion of sultry nightclubs (García Márquez, my audio guide informed me, was inclined to binge on rum and vallenato, a type of folk music). The audio tour next led me into the funky Getsemaní neighborhood, which pulses after dark with salsa and reggae.

I had passed the statue in front of Quiebra-Canto, the city's liveliest salsa joint, dozens of times without paying attention to it. But as my audio guide instructed me to pause, I read for the first time the inscription — Noli Me Tangere (Don't Touch Me) — below the figure of a woman holding her hand open toward the sea. The statue was erected here, across from the old port, to warn off would-be invaders. Because Cartagena was the storehouse of the Spanish Empire's gold, a slew of 16th century pirates — Englishman Francis Drake included — had attacked and pillaged the city several times.

This is also the spot, I learned, where García Márquez told his father that he was done studying law (it had been his father's desire for him) and was going to devote himself full time to writing. His father replied, "You will eat paper!"

Houses in Cartagena figure prominently in García Márquez's novels as spaces that reveal a family's rise or decline, harmony or discord. I was guided to the shady Plaza Fernández de Madrid, where I was told that a white façade on the plaza's perimeter was the model for Fermina Daza's girlhood home in "Love in the Time of Cholera." I sat on a bench that could have been occupied by her obsessed suitor Florentino Ariza, who spied relentlessly on her comings and goings.

Unable to win her hand, Florentino becomes a public scribe who channels his unrequited desires into helping his illiterate customers carry on courtships through love notes.

I realized that García Márquez also is a kind of public scribe whose raw material has been the heart of Cartagena — both its passionate and painful chambers. With his forays into the city's dark magic and colonial splendor, he wrote "a reality not of paper," as he said in his Nobel address in 1982, "but one that lives within us…full of sorrow and beauty."

Back in Plaza Santo Domingo, patrons at the café settled in for sunset cocktails. They seemed unaware of the Calamarí skeletons in the ground below, of the devil's handiwork in the church blocking the last rays of the sun. As the sky blushed rose, Cartagena seemed nothing but enchanted.

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