Two Weeks in Colombia - Part 2
My sister-in-law's house was located in the somewhat ritzy part of town on a narrow lot with a yard in back surrounded by a fence that was more than decorative. Around the corner there are a few blocks with upscale restaurants and boutiques. Closer to the center this gradually fades to bodegas and workaday shops in rows with no alleys between them. Side streets run off into neighborhoods more cheaply constructed but still tidy until after a few vacant trash filled lots or decrepit structures with cracked plaster exposing cane or bamboo and moldy thatch, life stumbles into the tumbledown. A morning walk needs to be attempted early. Soon the motos are everywhere like flying buzzsaws, spraying their stink of benzina through all the neighorhoods. Approaching downtown the vendors are already set up selling tinto or cafe con leche, arepas empanadas and papas rellenos, and flaky pastries stuffed with guava or the faintly rancid tasting cheese they like in the Sabana. In the center of the town is plaza in front of the main church with an small adjacent park. Next to the part is the high school my wife attended after a bus ride from Toluviejo. It was in that park that she had a terrifying encounter while waiting for her bus home. She was sleepy from waking up so early and was nodding off. She was wakened by a rustling in the trashcan next to her bench. When she turned she was looking into the eyes of a hideous creature. Intrigued by her screams, one of the local layabouts ambled over at the prospect of free amusement. "What is that thing?" she quavered, pointing to the nonchalant sloth that still regarded her with its melancholic gaze. "Oh that? That's a perico ligero!
Sincelejo was experiencing a record heat wave. The heat itself was bearable with a slight breeze, but the direct sun was like a jackhammer. Fifteen or twenty minutes of exposure was enough to poach my brain so I was useless for the rest of the day. We tried to escape to Cobañas, a resort area on the coast. Only a few years before the road there could have meant a detour up into the hills as a guest of the local guerilla band. Farther down was the spot where a joint task force of the Army and the National Police gunned down Gacha the Mexican when he refused to surrender. We took a quick tour of Tolu which Garcia Marquez describes as a "seaside paradise". Without the sea it would have looked much like Sincelejo, but the charm of the boulevard along the waterfront was apparent. In both Cobañas and Tolu there was sense that as soon as El Sol Tirano disappeared below the horizon, his oppressed subjects came to life to Caribbean drumbeats and trumpets. Young people appeared in groups laughing and shouting, and no one seemed particularly concerned about sleep. The wisdom of this became apparent when we were attacked by swarms of a savage variety of costeño noseeums that my mother in law called jején. Princess #1 was covered with itchy bites that only a local herbal tincture could relieve. Thus vanquished we slunk back a day early to roast again in Sincelejo.
The next day we inefficiently headed out in the same direction, this time to visit Toluviejo, my wife's personal Macondo. At one point Toluviejo had all the elements of a classic Marian pilgrimage site. At one end of town there was a sulfur spring in whose therapeutic waters the old and lame found healing. Next door was the entrance to network of tunnels and caves that fulfilled the requirement for a grotto. But most important was the great tree, where an image of the Virgin appeared on one of its boles. It blew down in a storm one night. They found it in the morning lying on its side completely uprooted. On the third night after, a strange noise was heard and the next day the tree was standing again. It still stands today, but a thief sawed off the image of Mary and the spring has dried up.
Her grandfather had once been the richest man in town, a farmer who started off with a single cow. His late wife had 13 children, 9 of which survived childbirth. He had nearly been burned with his house during La Violencia. Now he is 94. Once a great horseman, he is confined to a wheelchair. He welcomed the hugs and kisses of his greatgranddaughters who he was seeing for the first and probably last time. He smiled broadly when the youngest sang a song for him, but all the excitement had tired him and he soon dozed off in the noontime heat. We were now all anxious to leave. For my wife and her sister the house was full of sad memories. As we drove off I thought it unlike we would ever see Toluviejo again either.
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