Category Archives: colombia

Some books from my childhood

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I was a big fan of this book and still am. It’s basically a who-dunit detective story, as an assortment of eccentric characters attempt to figure out a murder in order to win an inheiritance. This novel taught me (among other things) the lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” a song I have yet to hear, even to this day.

(Speaking of detective novels, I read a very interesting article on Borges and his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius that had the following to say about the detective story: “the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic.” I think this is a wonderful sentence, not only in regards to Borges, but for fiction in general!)

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden

One of the books responsible for sparking my interest in India, along with my parents’ tales of their epic Peace Corps adventures. Also responsible for sparking my fear of ever getting pregnant. My favorite scene is still the one where the Indian servant boy helps the heroine with her geometry homework; the mathematical language that they speak in this scene was by far the most exotic sounding thing to me in the book.

In Dark Water by Mermer Blakeslee

Wow, is this ever an obscure book (the only image I could find was from Amazon). I don’t even know if I should count this because I never actually read the whole thing. I only read the first part, the one that was narrated by the daughter, since that was the bit that interested me. The second half–narrated by an omniscent narrator in country bumpkin dialect like this: ”They was aimin’ for the rock where the sun land just south of the barn. Outta Beulah’s line of sight.”–was understandably of absolute no interest to me. But I liked the 11-year-old narrator’s descriptions of her mom going crazy, of playing let’s pretend in the grass at night, and her evil smile that drives her mom round the bed. Crazily enough, I first heard about this book in a review in Seventeen magazine (can you believe that?! I wonder if they even have book reviews anymore).

Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan

I went through a big Lois Duncan phase there between third and fifth grade: The Third Eye, Summer of Fear, Down a Dark Hall… mm-hmm. Oh man, wikipedia has just informed me that apparently she also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer (not so surprising) and the Boys & Girls Club favorite, Hotel For Dogs (a shocker)!

In general, Daughters of Eve was somewhat of a disappointment for me in Duncan’s canon. I wanted there to be more violence at the end. I wanted the crazy feminists to do something more RADICAL other than just smash up school property and shave the nasty popular boy’s head. But Duncan does have a good ear for teen dialogue (it doesn’t even sound that horribly dated now, as it takes place in the Midwest). I’d definitely let my preteen daughters read these.

I also have to mention that this the first image that comes up in the Google images search for the book’s title.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher

A very educational, classic formative book in my youth. I was constantly stealing this from my mother’s bedside table. How else would I have learned the difference between bulimia and anorexia? How else would I have learned that cutting or burning yourself with cigarettes is an erroneous form of self-therapy? I think it’s good that my mom let me read this, because it definitely left me with the feeling of “Wow, I do NOT want to get involved in this kind of craziness at all,” i.e. drinking, prescription drug addiction, sexual prolificness, focusing on being popular and pretty, etc. Instead, I survived my adolescence relatively intact. And then right before going to college, I saw the movie Thirteen, and was like “Oh my God, I am never going to fit in after I move to America.”

Another thing I liked about this book was the author’s personal anecdotes about growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest in the 60’s. It all sounded so quaint and foreign and so far away from what I was familiar with!

Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself by Judy Blume

I can never find the images of the book editions that I own on Google. It makes me wonder where the heck my parents got them, if they cannot be found in the archives of the internets. Anyway, this is a great book that has stood the test of time. I read it in first grade and dug it a lot; re-read it last night and still really enjoyed it. The references to Easter Williams, Kilroy Was Here, The Shadow radio show and other such antiquities from the 40’s mystified me as a seven-year-old and still do. This book is also responsible for teaching me who Adolf Hitler was, and for triggering my primary school fascination with the Holocaust, which in retrospect was maybe a wee bit creepy for a seven year old. I would always order any book that were about the Holocaust that appeared in the Scholastic catalog (which used to be the main way we got books–I remember whenever my box arrived ,it was always the biggest of any other kid’s in the classroom, as they would usually just order one or two. Ha Ha Ha!). My friends and I would also play Concentration Camp together, or pretend we were running away to escape from the Nazis. I’m pretty sure I actually wished I was Jewish a couple of times, too. Oh Judy! Gotta love her!

It’s also important to say that there a quite a few references to sex, drugs and alcohol in this book that I definitely didn’t catch the first time around, that still seem quite brave for a children’s novel. For example, the scene in which the mother gets drunk on champagne, the definition of “bordello”, references to “tits” (which shock me more now than they did then, weirdly enough!) and of course the classic eponymous phrase “Love and other indoor sports” (which my sister and I still use to sign our e-mails with sometimes, ha).

Tell Me If The Lovers Are Losers by Cynthia Voigt

I was a big, big Cynthia Voigt fan: When She Hollers, Izzy Willy-Nilly, A Solitary Blue, the Homecoming series… these are all great books. In comparison to these classics, Lovers is not really a standout. And yet, back in the day I would reread Lovers over and over again mostly because I was interested in its descriptions of college. I guess maybe I thought my college experience would be similar: I’d be friends with the same two or three people throughout (check), I’d be the star of the volleyball team (uhh… no), and get excited about writing papers about Shakespeare (I think this happenned like once). I bet if I were to reread this, it would seem REALLY dated. The ending is definitely a little melodramatic. An astute reviewer on Amazon observes that the three girls represent “Mind, Body and Spirit,” which is maybe going a little deeper than what I’d give the book credit for.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I stole this book from a fifth grade classroom that wasn’t mine, another example of my shameless lifelong book thievery. Man, I was into this book! This book was a good example of my back-in-the-day interest in witchcraft. I was OBSESSED with the Salem Witch trials and just like with the Holocaust, I would definitely order any book related to witches that appeared in the Scholastic catalog pages. I really wanted to be like the (retrospectively bratty) teenage daughter, stompin’ around the house in her goth black boots, with her pet crow and her seances. Oh man, how I would have killed to have black eyeliner like hers! I always did have crushes on the Goth kids at CTY summer camp…

Eva by Peter Dickinson

This along with A Bone From A Dry Sea (also by Dickinson) are great pro-nature books. The ending of this book still strikes me as remarkably powerful and relevant, as humans start committing mass suicide together by holding hands and walking into the sea while singing. I would definitelystill recommend this book to anyone (both children AND adults) interested in apocalyptic themes or man’s relationship with nature.

I think that’s enough for now… to be continued, maybe…

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Filed under books, colombia, kids

My Family’s Books

Bookshelf #1 - In Hallway outside of room. General fiction.

Bookshelf #2 - My dad's in his bedroom. History, economics, and religion.

Bookshelf #3 - My brother's, in his room. Fantasy and some history.

 

Bookshelf #4 - The beast in the living room. My mom's Penguin Classics, general fiction, childhood books, photo albums, and another entire shelf of my dad's history books that had to be double-stacked here because they were getting eaten by termites in the other shelf.

Bookshelf #5 - Otherwise known as the one I rarely pull a book from. Enclyclopedias and huge hardcovers on the bottom shelf, with the rest being books my parents first brought to Colombia (most from grad school, I think)

Bookshelf #6 - Next to the piano in the living room. Dictionaries, guidebooks, music, poetry, Shakespeare.

Bookshelf #7 - In the tiny sideroom that stinks of the cat's litter box. More of my dad's history and non-fiction, mostly on the Civil War, China, the Middle East, and Californian Native Americans.

Bookshelf #7 - My little brother's, outside his room in the hallway. Science fiction and fantasy.

Bookshelf #7 - In the hallway by the phone. More general fiction.

Bookshelf #7-8- More by phone. #7 is obscure history and religion books of my father's that I swear to god I've never seen before. #8 is childhood fiction, self-help, health and my mother's Sharpe series.

Bookshelf #9, my mother's silly romance novels, is so far the only one in the house to have been cleared and packed away into boxes

Bookshelf #10 - MORE of my dad's agricultural science, policy, history, fiction and grad school books. My God!!

My mother claims my father once counted them all and it was over 2,000, but she thinks it may actually be more…

Now can you understand what kind of childhood I had?

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Filed under books, colombia, library, photos

Quiroga

the English edition has a pretty cool cover

Horacios Quiroga’s “Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte” (Stories of love, madness and death—how can you resist that combination?) had the privilege of being my Jammed Book, an honor previously bestowed upon Onetti’s “El astillero” in Nuevo Laredo. My Jammed books are the books I read while my computer is jammed for one reason or the other: my mouse freezes in place, my Internet browser crashes, the text I type refuses to appear, and my favorite, the ever-present hovering, all-seeing like the eye of Sauron hourglass (yeah, don’t tell me… I really need to get a new laptop). It’s nice to use Spanish books as my Jammed books, because they are small, light and fit easily into my ginormous Fred Meyer recycled plastic kitty cat bag.

Anyway, the problem with reading books in the office is that the reading sessions are somewhat fragmented, as I’m constantly having to put the book down during the magical moments in which my mouse can freely move across the screen again, only to pick the book up again when the screen inevitably freezes. I also had the same problem that I experienced while reading La casa verde: this book is so full of archaic jungle lingo that I’m constantly feeling lost and confused (and as my computer is jammed, wordreference.com is a no-no). Did you know that achucahdo is Quechua for “fever”? Or that “barigui” is guarani for small mosquito? That “catigua” is a kind of tree and “carpincho” is a kind a fish? Yeah, me neither. Fortunately my edition had a little vocabulary list at the back, which helped quite a bit.

Obscure vocabulary withstanding, over the past three weeks I’ve successfully managed to work my way through Quiroga’s book (a testament to my computer’s uselessness more than my reading ability). You can count this book as another in the series of Latin American novels dealing with the conflicts and anxieties caused by deep jungle habitats. Most of these short stories would make excellent Herzogian films, especially the one in which the sickly bride is convinced that something is sucking her blood at night in the ominous “The Feather Pillow” (a tale that puts the Poe in the Poe-esque), or the wonderfully titled opening story “The Decapitated Chicken” (how could Herzog not want to make a movie involving four mentally handicapped children, a jungle setting, a bloody murder and a headless chicken?).

Quiroga’s life is also decidedly Herzogian, as well as fun to summarize:

Lived in Paris before decided that the “bohemian” life was not for him

Accidentally shot his best friend, felt guilty about it for the rest of his life

Friends with Lugones, future fascist Argentinean poet, who encouraged him to start afresh in the jungle, where he ended up living for most of his life

Married three times; fond of girls 30+ years younger than him; first wife committed suicide by drinking mercury poison

Committed suicide by drinking cyanide

Phew!

While reading this book it was impossible not to think of other man-versus-nature tales such as “Into the Wild” or “Aguirre Wrath of God.” In all these kinds of stories, it seems like the common theme is always man’s search for knowledge, truth of himself (in the case of the first) or material wealth (in the case of the second). Quiroga’s characters tend to fall more into the second category than the first, like the men who plan to start an orange fermentation business in order to make orange wine. Overall, nature is definitely an intense place in Quiroga’s world. It’s definitely hostile towards men while at the same time being indifferent. Quiroga intriguingly adapts this indifferent point of view in stories such as “The Dead Man,” in which a man falls on top of his machete in the opening sentence and spends the rest of the story dealing with his impending death, on in “Drifting,” in which a man steps on a poisonous snake and decides to ride a canoe five hours down river for help. There’s also “Sunstroke,” (these story titles remind me of NIN songs) which is narrated from the point of view of some dogs as they watch their owner struggle with the heat (while staying wisely in the shade themselves, of course). These were probably my favorite stories, the ones that used narrative voice in a way I’d never seen before—the only other narrated-by-a-dog story I can think of is that one by Dave Eggers. Quiroga also has another story called “Anaconda” which is narrated from the POV of guess what, but I think I’m going to have to reread that one.

Overall I enjoyed the shorter stories more than I did the longer ones because they were easier to absorb. I’d definitely like to read these again in English, just because it’s always a different reading experience, reading the translation. I find it terribly funny and more than a little ironic that I read all these life-and-death struggling with nature stories within the sterile confines of an office, my computer humming before me, my empty espresso cup on one side and my glass of water on the other. Anyway. I definitely look forward to not working again in an office for a while.

orchid

shrimp-shaped seeds pods that I always see everywhere

fuzzy mushrooms! you'd think I'd know the names of these after dating a mycologist for almost three years now...

mystery yellow flowers the botanist was unable to identify

crazy red palm fruit that looked like radishes

orange flowers everywhere! littering the ground like cigarette butts in a city gutter

oh, that pesky human presence

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Filed under books, colombia, nature, Rio Plata

Writer’s Block: My Word

If you could have the writing ability of one author, who would you choose, and why? Would you exchange writing styles permanently?

Wow, good question. It’s interesting because as much as I admire the writing styles of some of my favorite authors (like Faulkner or Onetti), I would DEFINITELY never want to write like them. I dunno… it just feels like something very weighty and painful, to be able to write like a genius, you know?

Overall I prefer authors whose writing styles could be described as very simple, almost basic, as opposed to ornate or fancy. I’ve already said that if I could write like any author, it would be like Anne Tyler, namely for the loving and vivid characterizations in her novels. Give me Murakami for his descriptions of food, and Bolaño for his moments of insight, realization and description. Give me Tolstoy for his realism and his kindness towards his characters. Flannery O’Connor has some killer plot twists but I think I’d stop there. Give me Vonnegut for humor (a characteristic sorely lacking in most fiction). Give me Ali Smith for creativity (drawing the line at her more post-modern stories, which I enjoy but do not wish to emulate), and Melissa Banks for honesty. Give me “Mrs. Dalloway”‘s poetry and beauty. (Wow, this is turning into an ode to books and authors I love in general.) And finally for overall writing style, give me George Orwell–you can’t fail there with diction, word choice, clarity and overall “voice” of the writing.

And of course I would never exchange writing styles. What would be the point? Because then it wouldn’t be mine anymore!

Also, here’s a fascinating article on “Borges y yo,” my favorite Borges short story. The comment at the end left me wondering whether or not it was Borgesian-styled fiction–I honestly couldn’t tell. The link at the bottom to another piece by the author, Notes Towards the Memoirs of a Book Thief, is also excellent and very Arlt-esque. The idea of inscribing a book to oneself before stealing it is especially ingenious. The only book I ever remember stealing myself was “Saint Maybe,” but I might even be remembering that wrong, it could have been my sister who stole it. I definitely stole the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Sorry, Colegio Bolivar library. Guilty as charged. We were the only ones who ever checked it out anyway.

Some other interesting articles related to books and writing I’ve stumbled upon lately, via the new Glory in my life that is Google Reader:

  • Ten Rules for Writing Fiction – I like Elmore Leonard’s, Roddy Dole’s, Geoff Dyer’s and Anne Enright’s the best. I especially like this bit: writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.
  • More good writing advice from Salon.com: A Reader’s Advice to Writers

In other news:
– Next week is technically my last at the office, because I’m leaving next Friday to fly to Cali and visit my mummy, the Princess and whatever other pets may still be lounging around.
– I took a day off from the office yesterday because of tummy troubles and it was a blissful godsend.
– Today has been blissful as well: Corey and I watched Big Fish (a better movie than I remembered, surprisingly touching and Quixote-esque) in the morning and went to the beautiful botanical garden in the afternoon, which was HUGE. There were a ton of animals like ducks (<3), geese and enough tortoises to make you slightly alarmed. At the snack stand, we got to see a squirrel steal a lollipop from the store, and a tortoise eat the runny black poo that dropped out of a gosling’s butt. Hilarious, memorable stuff.
– Now we’re going to go out to dinner to a cevicheria :) Not that many days left here in Bucaramanga… always moving, always heading out somewhere, to something

Marching
home, now
going my way
going to something
to something
to something…

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Filed under colombia, Dear Diary, silly

Trying to nurture the “peace” as opposed to the “war”

Where I went this weekend

I spent a terrific weekend on the coast, and now I have this crazy sunburn on my back that reminds of those Wings tattoos that people get. I’ve been feeling a little run-down this week… from the sun, maybe (most delicious, totally worth it Vitamin D overdose ever). I am tired of working in an office. So tomorrow I am gonna be positive and proactive about things and do my darndest to go out on an ADVENTURE . Yeah!!

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be happy in one place, doing one thing, as opposed to just waiting for the experience to end so that I can move onto the next thing. Is this just what it’s like being young? Or am I just being human?

I’m reading War and Peace right now and it’s been absolutely terrific so far. I jokingly said to Corey the other day, “This book is quickly becoming more addictive than Girls of Playboy Mansion.” (I went through a bad reality TV addiction the other week… yeah. But I’m over it now!!) I’m about 200 pages in so that leaves about 1,000 to go (uuf!). I can’t believe David Lean never made a movie of this.  It is just so exceedingly pleasant to come home at the end of a longday and settle into the couch with a sigh of satisfaction, a gigantic book on your lap that you are looking forward to reading, that you’ve been daydreaming about finally getting to sit down and read all day. That’s a sign of a good book, you know? If you are EXCITED, jittery anticipation style, about getting to sit down and read it!

So far the character I like the best is Pierre, the main one. He’s this rich, bumbling dude who came into a huge inheiritance and is trying to figure out what to do with his life (OH, the timeless problems of privilege!). My sister described this book as trying to figure out whether you wanted to live for others or live for yourself, which is as good a summary as any. The title itself, War and Peace, seems to be a pretty excellent encapsulation of the human condition: we’re either at peace with ourselves, happy and satisfied and content with our lot in life, or we’re at WAR, the little voices in our heads chitter chattering away, blaring out our dissatisfaction and pettiness and misery to everyone like exploding shells or air-raid cannons.

I read this great review of Tolstoy in The Nation that made me realize how fitting it is that the guy from Into the Wild was a huge Tolstoy fan, i.e. how “Tolstoyism” is an actual philosophy/approach to life, one that involves simplicity, renunciation of the self, and all those other Christopher McCandless stamp of approval type things.

Anyway, the Nation article talks about how Tolstoy wrote Bildung novels or novels of personal development, in which the individual enters into adult experiences, tries his hand at this and that and at last discovers his place in the world. The inner self aligns with the outer world, Elizabeth Bennet becomes Mrs. Darcy, and all is well and good. Yes? Or no? Is selling your soul to society and conforming REALLY the only way of arriving at inner peace and satisfaction, as opposed to the feeling that you are eternally untethered and adrift?

The article goes on to say that in later Tolstoy works, this idea was eventually rejected:

“In the later Tolstoy, the confrontation runs between, not inner and outer, but inner and, as it were, innermost. For the later Tolstoy, the layers a novelistic character accumulates–vocation, family, identity–are things to be discarded. Not, here, a thickening into wisdom but a lightening into humility. Not education, but revelation. Not development, but renunciation: the self stripped to its core. The self stripped, finally, of itself.”

I am not sure what it means or looks like, to have “the self stripped to its core,” but it shure sounds pretty and nice. Kind of like Rayuela‘s portrayal of Buddhism. Or Pema Chodron. It definitely makes me want to read more Tolstoy, if nothing else.

Things I am thinking about/looking forward to doing in Oregon:
– Taking a class at PSU (geography? Spanish lit? French? Portuguese? Creative Writing? Education? So many possibilities!! I am just–infinitely lucky!)
– Taking a gardening class at PCC
– Applying to one of those rural writer’s retreats where you live in a log cabin for a week or a month and just make art (I still haven’t forgotten my New Year’s Resolution…)
– Maybe get a part-time job pouring wine in the evening so that I can save up $$$
– Make new FRIENDS! Hang out with my ex co-workers from the B&G Club! Attend a writing workshop! Learn how to fix my falling apart bike! Go to the park and paint and draw!
– Maybe go to L.A. for a week at the end of March (if work schedule permits)
– Um, do a good job at my new job.
– Take LOTS of yoga classes. The more free or pay-what-you-can ones, the better. Look into getting yoga teacher certified?! I am slowly but surely getting more and more flexible; for instance, I can now place my palms flat on the ground. I guess the lesson from this is that change and growth is always possible.
– Mushroom hunting and hiking! Enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest while I can!

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor–such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children perhaps–what can more the heart of man desire?”
–“Family Happiness” quote featured in Into the Wild

“When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines on you.”–quote from “Into the Wild” film

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Filed under Bildungsroman, books, colombia, future, lists, moody, the self

when literature reflects life: gabo’s “collected stories”

We spent last weekend couchsurfing in Campeche, a small pueblo 40 minutes outside of Barranquilla. We were in the area in order to attend the famous Barranquilla carnival, a very racuous, energetic affair that definitely lived up to its debauchery-fused reputation (the plastic toy babies with the long dangling brown dildos that the drag queens kept flashing at us are just one example). By comparison, Campeche was much more relaxed and low-key, with a smaller carnival parade that definitely felt more traditional in comparison to the giant blast that was the Barranquilla extravaganza. All weekend long, I kept telling anyone in my small travel group that would listen that Campeche felt “straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story,” whose Collected Stories I’d just finished reading (talk about appropriate timing!).

A typical street in Campeche

Collected Stories is a collection of his first three short story volumes, Eyes of a Blue Dog, Big Mama’s Funeral, and The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (a title that always makes me feel like exhaling deeply after I type it all out). Eyes of a Blue Dog can be seen as his Faulkner-Joyce phase, a period in which you can definitely imagine the young GM struggling to find his own unique artistic voice (kind of like when Tori Amos made Y Kant Tori Read, her hair metal album). I hadn’t read most of these before and I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy them too much, with the exception of “Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo.” A lot of them just confused me, which makes me glad that I read them in English first, as opposed to Spanish–eh, maybe I’ll go back and read them again someday. The early stories do contain some classic GM phrases, such as this gem from the first one, “The Third Resignation” (written when GM was all of a precocious 19–aaaaah, I’m so lagging!!!): “Madam, your child has a grave illness: he is dead.” (5) LOL. I also love this from Isabel’s monologue:  “The notion of time, upset since the day before, disappeared completely. Then there was no Thursday. What should have been Thursday was a physical, jellylike thing that could have been parted with the hands in order to look into Friday.” (100) Killer. 

The level of energy and creativity (you also could just call it liveliness!) definitely picks up with Big Mama’s Funeral, with stories that actually contain crackling dialogue, energetic plots and spunky characters, as opposed to just droning monologues. My favorites here include “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon,” which I first read in high school (the ending still creeps me out just as much today as it did back then); “Tuesday Siesta” (very Flannery O’Connor-esque, with the descriptions of the hot train ride through the dusty town); “There Are No Thieves In This Town” (which has a fun plot to summarize: a man steals the local bar’s poolballs and thus curses the entire town to stagnating boring because everyone is left with nothing to do); and of course the title one. I hadn’t read most of these before, which is maybe why I enjoyed them so much.

 Erendira was published after One Hundred Years of Solitude and contains classics from high school curriculums such as “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and the title story. Most of the stories in this collection feel like they’ve been deliberately written to seem like parables, or fairy tales for children (the subtitle of one story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” goes so far to blunty present itself as ‘A Tale for Children.’) These are arguably the stories that people think of when they think of “classic” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or when they give a “definitive” example of his writing style. It’s a little strange, because to me these stories represent a departure from GM’s writing style, from everything that came both before and after. The categorizing of canonical authors is ddefinitely a weird affair. 

So what did I mean by that phrase, “straight out of a GGM short story”? I might have meant what I called “the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.” I guess I might also have meant that strange combination of dreamy surreality, as though a scene is springing straight out of your imagination, mixed with the grittier sights and smells of reality. That eternal conflict between the subjectivity of your imagination versus the crudeness of the reality before you. In this interesting article in the Nation (which is actually a review of a recent GM biography), the author calls “the struggle between reality and subjectivity” the central subject of GM’s work, which is as good a phrase as any to sum it all up. 

Lorenza

It was a feeling we kept running into all weekend, the feeling that something was happening to us that felt like it should have been narrated to us instead. Like the man who inexplicably kept walking up to us holding up a mirror, pretending it was a camera, saying “Look, it’s you! It’s you!” once we saw our faces. Or Lorenza, the parrot of our host’s grandmother, who could say two things: “Run, run, or the cat will get you!” and “Lorenza, turn on the motorcycle! Vroom vroom!” (She could also imitate human laughter, which was pretty eerie to hear.) Or our host’s pet bird, Pacho (short for Francisco–I never figured out why a female bird had a male name), with her rickety legs from being locked in a cage by her previous owner and was missing an eye, and who hurt our ears with her harsh, grating calls. 

Pacho

The parade was also straight out of a scene from the story “Big Mama’s Funeral”, with its cast of eccentric characters and inexplicable rituals. The drag queens, the parade queens: “Stripped of their earthly splendor for the first time, they marched by, preceded by the universal queen: the soybean quen, the green-squash queen, the banana queen, the meal yucca queen, the guava queen, the coconut queen, the kidney-bean queen, the 255-mile-long-string-of-iguana-eggs queen, and all the others who are omitted so as to not make this account interminable.” (233) (This passage is how you know for sure that GGM definitely grew up on the coast. As my co-worker told me the other day, “Oye, los Colombianos tienen reinas para todo!” (Colombians have queens for anything)). There were the guys dressed up as narcos during the parade, handing out fake money with Homer Simpson’s face on it, an interesting example of how people incorporated contemporary reality into the community’s rituals (ethnography, here I come!). There was the man who shoved a plastic pink bowl of wet noodles at my sister and I, a ritual I’m stil not sure of. I’m listing these anecdotes because I’m trying to recreate the feeling of what that whole weekend was like: a feeling that we were living in a short story that at the same time felt so gloriously raw and real. When I think of GGM, one of the many things I think of are random and colorful anecdotes that are fun to recite, along with wonderfully vivid adjectives, descriptions and metaphors: “sad breasts.” “smelled of onion.” “The world had been sad since Tuesday.”

Queens

"narcos"

the mysterious noodles

I’m deliberately trying not to use the word “magical realism” here. My undergraduate thesis advisor hated that word, and once viciously dissected it in a long rant as nothing more than a marketing ploy, a form of propaganda. Well, I don’t know about propaganda, but I did read a really interesting review of Joan Didion’s Salvador the other day (which luckily enough I happened to read in January) that made me think about MR in a different context. The review quoted a passage about the use of language and information in El Salvador, which could be applied easily-peasily to Colombia:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite… All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as propositions to be floated…”

At one point Didion writes that following her experiences reporting the political turmoil in El Salvador, “I began to see Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a new light, as a social realist.” That pretty much sums up my understanding of “magical realism”: I no longer see it as this deliberate authorial technique that you can apply to a work of fiction like pressing a keyboard (a la Insert Magic Fantastical Critter or Event Here), but rather, it’s a naturalized form of depicting subjects as they appear in everday life. As far as “magical realism” goes, the key word thus isn’t the “magic” part, it’s the “realism” bit. You can definitely argue that the reality of Latin America is one that deals with a lot of ineffability, with vagueness, with things that can only be reported subjectively, as opposed to as solid facts. (The impossibility of coming up withclearcut Good Guys or Bad Guys in Walking Ghosts is a testament to this.)

Thus it’s not so much the twee magical elements of GGM’s stories that interest me now–the grandmother bleeding green blood in “Erendira,” the smell of roses mysteriously emitting from the ocean in “The Sea of Lost Time”–but rather the nitty-gritty details, the ones that feel straight out of a reporter’s notebook. Like the grandmother in “Tuesday Siesta,” who “bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.” (106) Or the war veterans who come to Big Mama’s funeral, “for the payment of their veterans’ pensions which they had been waiting for for sixty years.” (212) Sentences that make me feel like the author is angry about something, like he’s using fiction in order to depict a social reality that he finds unjust to the point of bizarreness.

Another important characteristic I think of when I say it “feels” like GGM is community. A lot of the narrators in the latter half of his Collected Stories are part of a clearly defined community, one that feels very pre-modern in its simplicity and unity. “Pre-modern” in what sense? Well, I guess I mean in the sense that it no longer exists, that that particular form of united community in which people can narrate from a “we” voice is dead, gone, RIP. Maybe that’s why the stories with the strongest sense of community (such as “Old Man with Wings,” “Handsomest Man,” “Roses,” etc.) are also the ones with arguably the most fantastical elements. Maybe the idea of the existence of rural communities that unite over common beliefs and accept the same versions of reality is the most fantastical element of all (at least from a modern standpoint–I’m sure these kinds of communities did exist at one point and continue to exist; they’re just few and far in between enough to seem exotic to us).

The parades we watched this weekend felt like a rare example of a community united over shared beliefs, with their acceptance actualized in the forms of common rituals and traditions. The parade made me think of Walter Benjamin, of all freaking people (thanks liberal arts education, for permanently infiltrating my brain!), and how one of the main themes in his writings was how modern civilization has lost its ability to appreciate myth. I have no interest in getting too academic here, but bear with me a little.

The role of myth in civilization is a pretty interesting one to think about. Corey was talking the other day about how the human brain is hardwired to look for patterns in everything, a tendency that you see reflected in nature (fractals, bee hives, garden plots… I could go on and on). This desire, this need, this drive of us silly humans to look for patterns in everything can explain why civilization need to seek out things like religion: it’s a way of connecting the dots, of drawing the lines between things and making it seem like they’re part of a system. It’s just a good way to keep organized.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of NATURE in our myths about civilization, and how nature itself is expressed in our myths. For instance, it was really interesting to me that a lot of the masks and costumes and dances in the parade had to do with nature. There were the little kids with the iguanas on their heads., for examples. The countless bull, rhino and jaguar masks. The kids in green leotards lined up and doing a caterpillar dance. The indigenous costumes.

Caterpillar dance!

The macaws were my favorite :)

the man (woman?) in the palm-draped truck with the giant frog was also a bit of a mystery

 What is ESPECIALLY interesting to me is that it’s as though these dances and rituals and traditions are referring back to nature, to the wilderness, to the jungle… which of course no longer exists in the area! All these community rituals and traditions are referring back to something that absent, gone finito! Whatever jungle that was there got cut down and cleared out long ago to make way for pastures (if not in this specific geographical area, then definitely in others). And yet, whether they know it or not, once a year people come together and “act” out the characteristics of the jungle, the so-called wildness, savagery, barbarity and so on.

The marimonda character is an especially interesting example of this. There is no entry for the Colombian version of the marimonda on wikipedia, which feels like absolute BLASPHEMY to me (is it also, maybe, a sign that I should finally write my first wikipedia entry? Hmm, I think I might leave it up someone who’s more of a marimonda expert…). Basically, as explained to us by our exceedingly gracious couchsurfing host, the marimondo is like a spirit that is meant to protect the jungle by attacking and harming those who cut down the plants and hurt the animals. In the parades, they appeared with elephant-like masks and lots of different colors, which apparently was meant to represent their shapeshifting abilities. They were definitely my favorite “characters” of the parade. I especially liked their little white gloves, and the way they thrust their hips and rolled around in the dirt.  

they were EVERYWHERE! it was seriously like the marimonda meme.

these little kids were the best dancers! so much energy...

 Coreywas telling me ( (based on his extensive Mardi Gras experience) how carnivals can be understood as fertility rites. (One of these days I’m gonna have to get better sources than my boyfriend and wikipedia, I swear!) In traditional, connected-to-the-earth and the-changing-of-the-seasons communities (the kind that could appear in a GM story), you want to have your child conceived around February, because that way, when it’s born around October or November, you’ll be in the fall, or the season of abundance, where you have enough food and crops on hand to be able to feed yourself and your kid. To me, it’s fascinating to think about how these rituals and traditions can be understood as expressions of how fundamentally connected we are to nature–how we are PART of and FROM nature, as opposed to separated or outside it. A lot of the time, we may not even be aware of how our rituals and traditions refer to this inescapable reality, this precedence of Nature and The Earth above all things. I hope that doesn’t sound too hippy-dippy, but there you go. I’m not trying to argue that “oh man when we were hunter-gatherers living at peace with nature everything was so much better.” As much as I can admire the beauty, organization and natural systems of biology and ecology and so on, at the same time there is very much a Werner Herzog part of me that sees nature as this very cruel, alien place that will **** you silly humans if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into.

I wonder what other underlying myths of my culture and my world are out there waiting for me to discover and learn about…

The lake we swam in!

Banana country

On the road

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Filed under colombia, events, modernity, nature, photos, Walter Benjamin

unexpected

Colombia has been continuously surprising me lately by the unexpected presence of books everywhere, not something I remember from my childhood. Maybe things are just different in Medellin and Bucaramanga (as in, there’s an active reading culture, as opposed to Cali). Bucaramanga does have 10 universities so I’d bet that has a lot to do with it. On many street corners, there are vendors set up with books to sell, in the same way that other vendors set up their stands to sell illegal DVDs and plastic bags full of mango and salt: coloring books, puzzle books, sudoku, english-spanish dictionaries, paperback novels in Spanish, science and psychology textbooks. I even saw a copy of La casa verde by Mario Vargas Llosa once (I stopped in my tracks and contemplated buying it, but I really can’t bear the thought of lugging more than what is absolutely necesarry back to Portland with me). At the traffic lights salespeople walk by and pass you a book to hold in your lap through your open window, so that you can flip through the pages and wonder about buying it, before they come back around and collect it before the lights change. Apparently school starts up again here in February, which explains why so many books are fill-in-the blanks math and grammar exercises for primary students. In this age of fussing about electronic publishing, I never really thought of books as a seasonal business before.

"city of knowledge"

It amuses me that "dummies" isn't translated

“meatball ice cream” (some kind of how to succeed at business book…)

"the magic, the madness..."

an example of an unexpected corner libreria

Crazy looking cube-shaped library in Medellin, apparently built by Spanish royalty. It kind of reminds me of a spaceship. Corey, our friend and I took the teleferico up the top the mountain to walk around the community. There were a lot of aerobics classes going on and really cool murals painted on the walls, murals that promoted vegetarianism and spoke out against sexual violence. It made me feel quite heartened. This library was built in this neighborhood as part of a campaign to build libraries in the poorest neighborhodds of Medellin, which I found touching. There was this little kid who told us the story of how the library was built for 500 pesos in broken, fragmented English. He claimed that a gringo volunteer had written down the story for him in English but that he'd lost the piece of paper, thus excusing his fragmentary translation. He was a cutie.

An example of one of many poetry/fiction excerpts hanging on the walls of the Medellin metro station. This is a passage about happiness written by a Colombian author I'd never heard of. The metro stations also had these little libraries where people could borrow books and take them on the metro to read, and then later return them at another mini library in another station. Our host in Medellin told us that the book return is based purely on an honor system--that there's no membership card or anything--which I found absolutely astonishing, not to mention hard to believe.

Here’s my stab at a rough translation of the quote above: Happiness, so long as we create it, is not outside, it’s inside ourselves, sensory or however you call it. We must be quiet as so not to scare it, as it’s a bird that flies away at the slightest noise. Let it repose within us, so that it might emerge when we least expect it. It’s true that happiness that does not always rest in any soul, but the souls have their summers, and the swallows return; they have their spring and the roses open.

My head has been full of a lot of things lately (too many things!). This weekend Corey and I are heading to Barranquilla (city of Shakira’s birthplace! Apparently there’s a giant statue of her somewhere too) for Car-na-val. One of the many reasons why it will be exciting and enjoyable is the presence of my sister, coming up from Medellin. Twins shall truly be together at last.

In other news, I’ve been reading Gabriel Garica Marquez’s Collected Stories and have really been enjoying it. Next up is either War and Peace (euargh!) or the appealingly titled Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte, a collection of short stories in Spanish written by the Argentinean author who went crazy in the jungle.

Domesticity

What I brought and what I have left. Corey borrowed "The Fountainhead," which I really enjoyed when I was fourteen but I'm sorry to say that Ayn Rand's political stance makes me sick now. Ick.

I discovered recently that apparently on the internets there exists the concept of “lit-blogging,” or literary reviews and analysis of books via a plethora of blogs online (here’s a list I found of the Top 50 lit blogs; according to what and whose standards, who knows/cares). I went on a frenzied Google Reader subscribe-to binge earlier this week (I only just recently figured out how to use Google Reader… sorry, technology gods) and found some interesting reviews of Bolaño and Aira. It’s been fun, if a little surreal to experience how “small” and artificially connected the internet can make you feel. Ultimately, though, my FAVORITE book review site remains the high school classic, as recommended by my AP English teacher, Doug Reviews the Top 100 Novels. His review of Ulysses is a classic, as is The Ambassadors (kind of makes me not want to read it, even though I got it for Christmas. yikes!).

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Filed under books, colombia, Dear Diary, photos

when and where words fail

Reading this book (Stephen Dudley’s Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia) was both depressing and exhilarating, which I guess is a good a phrase as any for encapsulating the Colombian experience.

The other week I was sitting with some co-workers by a pool and they began clamoring for me to tell them a story. “Una his-to-ria! Una his-to-ria!” they chanted, banging the white plastic table with their hands and almost knocking over the empty beer cans. I desperately tried to think of something, but unsurprisingly it was mildly difficult, being put on the spot like that. I replied (much to their chagrin) that I would get back to them once I had thought of something. For the rest of the evening, I kept trying to think of what story I could tell. Something about my childhood, about what it was like to grow up in Colombia? About what it was now like being back, in a vaguely “adult”-like role? What stories did I have about Colombia? Words seemed to fail me.

The one classic anecdote I keep referring to, again and again, as it’s the one that seemed to induce the most raised eyebrows and exclamations of surprise among my fellow college freshmen or CTY classmates, is that of the mafiosos that lived across the street from our house, behind the giant stoned walls. They had a collection of exotic pets, including a peacock, a spider monkey (it once attacked some guests that were arriving for a dinner party at my parents’ house, and (at one point) a lion that roared. All of these animals seem paltry compared to Pablo Escobar’s collection of exotic animals, especially the tragic anecdote of Pepe the “narco” hippo. (Fortunately, his companion Orion seems to be alive and well.) To me, the story of Pepe captures the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.

This is a very well-written, excellently researched book, albeit with a devastating conclusion. To put it simply, this book is about the creation of the Union Patriotica, a political party that was meant to intergrate the FARC into the mainstream political process, thus enabling the guerrilla forces to lay down their arms. However, due to a systematic extermination of party members (by government, paramilitary and narco forces alike, sometimes all three working together at the same time), the FARC ended up retreating further into the jungle and the mountains and there’s the situation as we know it today. The FARC now exists solely as a military endeavor with no political aspirations to speak of. The conclusion is depressing because we’re left with the feeling that there really is no end in sight to Colombian violence. The FARC can now use the UP as justification as to why they could never reform into a political party, and thus the armed struggle (financed by kidnapping and narco trafficking) is the only one that will work (even at the time of the UP extermination, it seemed to be in the interest of some FARC leaders for UP members to be murdered, because it would further justify the need for a guerrilla army). What’s worse is that Colombia is left without a genuine third party alternative, and instead it’s just an endless recycling of Liberal vs. Conservative candidates, the established oligarcy (though I guess I don’t see how this is all that different from the U.S.).

The current political situation in Colombia is one I’m still trying to understand, after years of ignoring it more than I should have. I first heard the word “guerrilla” on the kindergarten playground, when one of my childhood playmates commented matter-of-factly that she could hear the “guerrilla fighting” around her finca (or rural farm that most rich/middle-class Colombians own). My head was filled with images of gorrillas beating their chests and baring their teeth, like I’d seen in images on the Betamax tapes my grandma mailed use from the States.

Dudley does a good job at filling me in. Throughout the book he has a mouth-watering access to sources that range from revered Communist party members, high-ranking FARC generals and paramilitary leaders. The main thing I kept thinking while reading of this book was “why the heck didn’t we learn any of this in Colmundo?” (our senior year Colombian history class) The main thing I remember about that class is desperately memorizing timelines and years in which presidents were elected. There’s a part near the end of this book in which the intrepid author/reporter speaks with some younger-generation Colombianos about the Union Patriotica (the political party started by FARC members; the “political genocide” of party members is the book’s primary subject matter), only to be greeted with blank faces. “To them, the UP was little more than an asterisk in a book, a brief mention in a newspaper article, a segue in a lecture.” (180) And this attitude only ten years after the UP presidential candidate was murdered by a “suizo” (suicide) assasin in the Bogota airport! Those blank faces could have easily been mine before reading this, and possibly any of my high school classmates. That… that’s sad. Dudley astutely points that that “in most countries, a politically motivated assasination would have been front-page news.” (180) Here he seems to be approaching the core of Colombia’s culture or attitude towards violence: there’s just so much of it, at a certain you just go numb and start blotting it out.

Dudley also gives excellent historical context to Colombia’s violent, politically troubled history. It left me wanting to read a straightfoward history book about Colombia; strangely enough there’s not a lot of them out there. It’s especially interesting to think about the “dirty war” of the paramilitaries in Colombia in the context of the other “dirty wars” going on at the time in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Sometimes it feels like my generation (or maybe it’s just me) keeps forgetting how strong and prevalent the “fear of Communism” was in the 50’s and 60’s. It seems utterly surreal and bizarre to me, but it was a very, very present fear and preocupation in those days, the communists vs. the capitalists. There’s interesting discussions throughout the book of Marxism vs. Stalinism. “The principle of Marxism is that there is incessant change; everything is in movement… Marx said don’t try to accomodate reality to the theory; do the opposite. But Stalin, he decided to make Marx a religion.” (229) Thus everything becomes very dogmatic with Stalinism. One of the problems with the FARC seems to be is that the y chose Stalinism over Marxism, leading to very rigid policies and little room for adaptability to current situations (i.e., taking into account that they’re murdering the campesinos they’re supposedly fighting for).

Much is made in this book of Colombia’s long and troubled history of violence. Dudley consistenly muses on how “what’s amazing is that the majority of UP militants seemed to accept these initial fatalities as part of the business of doing politics in Colombia.” (93) It made me think of The Hurt Locker, a movie that I haven’t really thought about since seeing it last year, and its troubling depicton of war and violence as addictive. That war-as-drug theme feels a lot more real to me after reading this book.

Colombia’s history of violence also made me think about 10th-grade AP Politics class, doing research about the UK, and learning that they didn’t actually have a written constitution (I hope I’m remembering this correctly). As in, the only basis for government decision is not based on anything officially written down, but simply what’s always been down in the historical precedent. There are weird echoes of the power of historical tradition in Colombia. Apparently the Colombian constitution is considered one of the most liberal in Latin America, guaranteeing equal and sovereign rights for indigenous groups, but what actually happens vs. what is written is dramatically differently when you have nearly two centuries worth of politically-based murder (the UP was guaranteed protection by the government in the Constitution, but look how well that turned out).

Another reason to treasure this book is the trove of surreal anecdotes, so completely and utterly and indescribably Colombian. There’s the FARC commander who carries a pendulum around and uses it to make all his decisions, as well as to if his food is poisoned. There’s the surreal detail about the FARC buying its weapons from the “neighborhood store” in Bogota, during its lean early years. There’s the mega concert that takes place in FARC territory, in which the rebels provide concert security Hells Angel-style (some of them carrying cameras instead of rifles), and the controlers of the “legendary water cannons” take “special care not to wet the guerrillas” while drenching the attendees. (174) Or there’s the visit Dudley pays to a Communist party member who’s on an extreme diet with his wife and they both ogle Dudley’s huevos pericos, before relating an anecdote about finding an old buried cementery with his father in the middle of a parking lot. (185)

My favorite character in this book was Sebastian, maybe because he reminded me of myself, or of a boy I could have easily had a crush on in high school: skinny, idealist, intellectual. He talks about his years as a FARC and UP militant the same way most people talk about their college experiences. calling it the best five yars of his life: “It was like I entered the real world, you know… It was like I’d gotten a graduate degree in defending the people who were getting ***ed by the establishment.”  The early days of the FARC in the 1980’s, back when it still held romantic appeal for many, is paralleled with Sebastian’s own youth, who was in “the prime of his life” during the years in which he organized theatre performances and taught FARC soldiers math and birth control methods (just for the record, telling a girl to swallow an uncooked lentil is not a viable form of birth control). His decline is paralleled with that of the FARC’s political idealism: by the book’s end, he’s selling “miniature replicas of famous Colombian churches that his neighbor made from clay,” living in a tiny apartment and struggling with alcoholism, much in the manner of a traumatized Vietnam vet. There’s a Bildingsroman novel in the style of El juguete rabioso lurking in here somewhere…

The most heartbreaking sections in this book (among many) are those that detail the slaughter the ordinary people of who made up the UP party: at a certain point the typical members became “young, energetic, idealistic… most of all, anti-war,” (134), people who could just as easily be you or me. Young university students, mayors of rural towns who wanted to pave their roads, people who didn’t like the way things were going. Imagine if you could get shot/raped/tortured for voting for Nader, and you might have a rough approximation of what it’s like to be a supporter of third-party politics in Colombia.
The sections about the paramilitaries are especially eerie and fascinating to read. There’s strong echoes of Blackwater (which I’m going to have to read more about) in the U.S. dealings with the paramilitary groups in Colombia. There’s a terrifying passage in which paramilitaries discuss how they’ve been hired to protect “business interests” in Colombia, particulary those of international companies (some of those listed include Texaco, whose name pops up again and again in this book in relation to narco and p.m. groups, Coca Cola, and Chiquita. This is the part that really freaked me out, drawn from Dudley’s interview with a famed p.m. leader:
“By working closely with U.S.-trained troops and protecting U.S. business interests, Castano seemed to be sending a message to what he liked to call ‘our neighbors to the north.’ He loved the United States. After Colombia, it was his favorite country. He dreamt of living there and studying sociology. He also admired the way the U.S. took charge of its own security… it was a feeling that many Colombians shared.” (201)
This is a guy that led close to ten thousand soliders, was heavily involved in narco trafficking and helped eliminate an entire political party, including a presidential candidate. There’s another paramilitary who’s particulary Bolano-esque, getting involved in the rare art trade, forging relationships with the world’s cultural and economic elite, and traveling frequently to galleries in New York and Paris. The relationship between dirty politics/wars and arts left me with a strong icky feeling, like I needed to take a shower.

Dudley frequently touches upon the bizarre Colombian tendency to forgive the paramilitaries for their actions and exonerate them for their crimes. As one judge puts it (re: the p.ms,) “At least they have some ideals. They’re fighting the guerrillas. Yeah, sometimes they do things they shouldn’t. But whatever.” (204) Dudley goes into more depth with his analysis of Colombian political culture in one particulary striking passage:

“Colombia’s politics has been called ‘the politics of anesthesia.’ There is so much death that people simply turn it off; they stop feeling. You see it in politicians that disreguard death threats. You see it in wealthy city dwellers who ignore the increasing poverty and murder in the countryside. You see it in the newspapers who bury the constant reports of massacres, bombings, and combat. The anesthesia only wears off when they’re directly affected by the war or when someone prods them with a stick. I would get berated by Colombians who thought international journalists were “only showing the bad side.” What other side was there? I would ask. But then, after a while, I understood why they had gotten angry with me. What choice do they have? This is their country, and the easiest way to deal with the everyday violence is to ignore it.” (180)

Yeah. This sounds like my childhood in a nutshell. There’s a certain point where art, where words, where reporting seems to just plain fail. While interviewing UP party members with family members that had been assasinated, Dudely succintly wraps up the section with a simple observation: “Others told similarly horrifying stories. There’s not enough room in one book to write them down.” (190) I guess at a certain point, words just fail you.

Mostly, the feeling I’m left with after reading this book is overwhelming sadness, at how violence begets violence. As one of the Communist party members who were integral to the formation of the UP  puts it, “Violence has its own dynamic, its own engine that can lead to the destruction of its very promoters. Violence escapes from the grasp of those who use it. It’s like a snowball that ends up finishing off everything. That’s why I’m decidedly against taking justice into your own hands.” (229)

And then in face of all the turmoil and havoc this book depicts, there’s my family. I kept turning to Corey while reading this and saying “I can’t believe that my parents stayed in Colombia for so long!!” Talk about putting a fresh perspective on things. I guess they managed to do so by living the way they did: a quiet, low-key lifestyle. I remember what I LOVED about CTY nerd camp sessions in the U.S. was those group trips where you walk through downtown Baltimore or wherever to the record store or to get an ice cream. Yeah, it sounds overdramatic, but it felt like a huge deal to me just to be able to walk through a city. There was an incredible sense of FREEDOM and LIBERATION when I went to college in the U.S. that I haven’t really thought about in a while, mainly because I’ve come to take it for granted. But I can’t blame my parents for that isolation, you know? There’s children in this book who spend their lives living behind giant walls, politicians that have seventy bodyguards. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to put these stories together in a coherent form, to make them make sense.

Other books this book made me want to read:

Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill
Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden
The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself by David Bushnell (what a title, huh?)
More Terrible Than Death: Massacre, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia by Robin Kirk (Dudley cites this one especially)
Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth by Jenny Pearce (published in 1990, might be dated)

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Filed under books, colombia, non-fiction, social justice

Man, do I ever have a good horoscope for the new year, courtesey of freewillastrology:
Your main assignment in 2008 is to become highly skilled at feeling good. Does that sound like something you might want to do? (editor’s note: YES) If so, here’s the beginning of a regimen you could follow: (1) Be constantly taking notes about what experiences give you delight and what situations make you feel at home in the world. (2) Always be scheming to provide yourself with those experiences and situations. (3) Take a vow that nothing will obstruct you from seeking out and creating pleasure, peace, love, wonder, and an intimate connection with life.
Yay! Good to know. Meanwhile, here is a travel blog styled entry for the past week or so.

Friday December 28th– Corey arrives! I wait nervously at the airport arrival gate, surrounded by mobs of families. I envision terrible scenearios on my head: Corey doesn’t get off the airplane, there was no record of him having ever been on the flight, he disappears completely into oblivion. Fortunately, he steps out of security in one piece. We embrace with great enthusiasm.
– We drive home. Corey observes on how the driving here resembles Grand Theft Auto, and comments on how you could mount a camera on the car and put it on youtube for people’s entertainment. At home he is promptly introduced, one, two, three, to the siblings, British cousin and cats. Twin sister seems to be in a bit of a daze when they are introduced.
– We go out on the town, a barbarian horde. The car is so cramped I have to sit on Corey’s lap. We pick up two of Thomas’ hoodlum friends, who ride in the trunk and make our driver extremely nervous. Corey seems overwhelmed by the general dark griminess and gritiness of the Cali streets.
– After dropping everyone off, we retire to the sanctuary of my friend Andrea’s apartment. There is a reunion with several of my Colombian girlfriends whom I haven’t seen since high scool; much high-pitched squealing and screaming is involved. Also butt-slapping with Alex shouting, “Why do you never call me back, you slut?” A fair enough question. The evening is fairly mellow, with everyone drinking Club Colombias and talking. Thankfully another gringo boyfriend is present, so the conversation is mostly dominated by English. I think up jokes involving gringo boyfriend holding pens. Corey does very well (a theme for the entire week!) considering he is in a roomfull of people he doesn’t know. He almost gets into a semi-heated argument with gringo boyfriend #2 involving welfare for single mothers in the state of Louisiana. I gidily interrupt several times in an attempt to change the subject; fortunately in due time the conversation topic switches over to the fall from grace of Britney Spears’ little sister.
– The three of us (sister, Corey and I) take a cab to meet my little brother. We are in a neighborhood of Cali I do not know very well (I hardly know any of Portland well, let alone Cali, my sense of direction is utterly hopeless). I begin to feel, as they say in the Star Wars movies, “I’ve got a baaad feeling about this.” Little bro is at a party with throbbing lights and various sunglasses-wearing, gum-chewing characters. It’s a testament to this party’s sketchiness that my cousin later told me that around 5am when he and his friend Juan showed up, Juan took one look at it and was like, “Dude, we are not going into this party.” Anything that exceeds my cousin’s baromenter of sketchiness is thus VERY SKETCHY INDEED. Corey wants to leave and I don’t blame him; this is Advanced Introduction to Colombia as opposed to 101. I give my sister the cellphone and leave her and my little brother there. If there’s one thing about families, you can’t tell them what not to do. Corey and I thus retire for the evening.

Saturday, December 29th– A quiet day. Corey and I go on two hikes. One goes past my regular jogging route over the river (is it the rio Cauca? I honestly don’t even know… if there’s one thing that never fails to embarrass me, it’s how little I know about the country in which I live for basically 18 years).

We take a dirt road through the mountains to a valley that opens up over a soccer field.

We then scramble down the side of a hill and sit with our feet in a river, watching a family on the other side picnicking. I scratch my many mosquito bites.

In the afternoon we go to Parque de las Garzas, another nearby walk to my house. I am glad that I get to show Corey my neighborhood and perhaps make up for the disorientating near-horror that was last night.

We found a lot of ferns he got really excited about, which made me feel pleased and proud, as though I ‘d planted them there myself.

– That night, we go out on the town. We take a taxi to Martyn’s, the expat bar in the north. I use an address I found on an online blog that was possibly wrong because I swear I didn’t recognize the place that the cab took us. They wouldn’t let us in anyway since Corey was wearing shorts. We decide to walk to La Sexta (main disco-clubbing strip) and have a beer.

We also drink a bottle of aguadiente and have some grilled chicken with chimichurri. Corey is much more cheerful and relaxed than the night before; I think how much easier it is to get around and do the fun things that you want to do with only two people, as opposed to a group of them (even if it’s “only” three!). We enjoy watching the fruit tree bats fly around and eat the mosquitos around the light. Properly and pleasantly drunk, we then go to a salsa disco called Las Cascadas and have a brilliant time dancing. Corey claims people are staring at him, most likely because of his beard (I can’t believe I never noticed how no one Colombian has a beard here; I guess it makes you look a little too jungle treking, Marxist guerilla-esque).

Sunday, December 30th

We go on a family hike to Nirvana, not the state of enlightenment unfortunately, but a nature reserve about an hour and a half away. Corey takes many interesting pictures and stops to study the plants intensely several times.




We see a surprising amount of wildlife, including:

a giant spider,

an unidentified bird,

and a bee (wasp? hornet?) hive.

(not a wild animal)
The views of the valley were muy, muy bien.

For lunch we eat the giant trout from the trout farm.


It is of course delicious, and I of course end up eating practically all of my food and scraping the leftovers of Corey’s plate onto my fork or scooping them up with my fingers. Yum, yum. Corey enjoys drinking the poker. We make my sister gag by being smoochy-woochy. He pats her on the arm and tells her, “don’t worry, one day you’ll get to kiss a boy too!” I feel glad that he doesn’t let her push him around.
– The next day we left for Gorgona. In Real Time my family is leaving for Cartagena tomorrow, so this blog may just have to wait to get up to date on both that little adventure and this next one.

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