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Searching Colombia for magical Macondo

Press Association logoPress Association 29/05/2017 Sarah Marshall

Roasting in an inferno of blazing sunshine, the lonely grave shares little information about its origin. There's no date of birth or death, or a heartfelt dedication, just a simple mononym - Melquiades - ringed by a halo of bleached midday light.

There's not even a body below the aquamarine headstone.

I've come to pay my respects to someone who doesn't really exist.

A gypsy who levitated on magic carpets and defied the solitude of death by hiding in a dusty room full of chamber pots, Melquiades was a fictional character from the pages of epic fantasy One Hundred Years of Solitude.

On May 30, it's 50 years since the first edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's landmark novel came off the printing press, eventually landing him a Nobel Prize for literature. I've come to his homeland, Colombia, in search of the places and people that fired his imagination.

"Poor soul," mumbles a sun-shrivelled old lady from her rocking chair on a nearby verandah, believing the fake resting place is real.

In Aracataca's stupefying heat, fact easily melts into fiction, creating a fuzzy truth celebrated by the author who grew up in this simple town at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Plagued by gossip, superstition and swarms of yellow butterflies (now synonymous with the Marquez legacy), it bears an uncanny resemblance to the settlement of Macondo, where seven generations of the Buendia family are swept up in a cycle of love, loneliness and blind belligerence.

Capitalising on the fame of its most famous son, otherwise unremarkable Aracataca has embraced Marquez tourism.

Multiple murals honour the author affectionately known as Gabo: a naked statue celebrates Remedios the Beauty, who shunned clothing and convention, eventually ascending to heaven on a gust of wind and a bed sheet; and then, of course, there's the confusing gypsy's grave, commissioned by an eccentric Dutchman who changed his name to Tim Buendia and strolled through the dusty streets with a walking stick for several years.

There was even a plan to officially change the town's name to Aracataca-Macondo, but dazed by a nullifying heat - in a manner not dissimilar to the insomnia-suffering characters in the book (who labelled everything for fear of forgetting their own existence) - not enough people turned up to vote.

The house where Gabo grew up with his grandparents is now open to the public as a free museum, Casa Museo Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Inside, every room has a connection to his most famous story. In the kitchen, for example, his grandmother would make candy animals similar to those shared by 100-year-old matriarch Ursula Buendia.

Most of Gabo's ideas were generated in the study, where his grandfather, Colonel Nicolas Marquez, would educate the young boy in politics, or the ladies-only parlour, where fantastic tales were always laced with Caribbean magic.

A bunch of bananas hangs in the dining room, a nod to the arrival of the American United Fruit Company (later known as Chiquita), which forever changed the face and fortunes of both Aracataca and Macondo.

In 1928, a workers' uprising known as the Banana Massacre took place in the leafy plantations not far from here, an episode of social injustice played out in the book - although (of course) in exaggerated proportions.

Aracataca may have the historical and biographical connections to Macondo, but I find myself edging closer to Gabo's fictional world 230km south in the swamps of Bolivar province.

Just like Ursula and Jose Arcadio Buendia on their quest to find Eden, it takes me an age to reach Mompox, a charismatic colonial town forever preserved in a sleepy time warp.

I wait five hours for a ferry to cross the Magdalena River; the current is so strong, the rickety raft laden with lorries appears to be going backwards.

"How old is that thing," I nervously ask the fat ticket issuer who's slumped beneath his empanada-filled belly.

"Older than me," he grunts idly.

Given the rings around his eyes, resembling an ancient oak tree, I'm guessing that's pretty old.

But the pain and effort is worth the journey.

Founded by gold-seeking Spaniards in 1537, the sweaty, river-fringed town attracted wealthy merchants eager to trade a safe distance from thieving pirates on the Caribbean coast.

Spread across 40 blocks, exquisitely preserved 16th century houses and churches have earned Mompox status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although tourism is limited by accessibility. This is a place for people who want to feel lost.

Sweltering in the punishing heat, I appreciate why Colonel Aureliano Buendia dreamed of ice when standing before a firing squad. But as the sun retreats and clouds of bats spray the sky midnight black, rocking chairs appear on porches, conversation becomes a happy melody and clattering bicycles crowd empty streets.

One bike rental shop along the riverfront belongs to Flor and Eliza Trespalacios, the charming, unassuming daughters of a famous local jeweller who took care of Mercedes Barcha (Gabo's wife) when she studied in Mompox as a child.

Wooden workbenches and iron tools litter their overgrown courtyard, proudly displayed in homage to a craft that's continued to this day.

Around her neck, Flor wears a chain with two gold-plated fish, similar to those obsessively made and melted by Colonel Aureliano Buendia.

Mercedes must have witnessed her father crafting the trinkets, and Flor is convinced that memory would have been relayed to Gabo.

In reality, though, the author never came here.

After leaving Colombia in the mid-1950s for political reasons, he returned infrequently - although he always had a soft spot for Cartagena, where several of his other great works were set.

Working as a journalist for El Universal newspaper, he would spend days strolling through a sweetie-filled arcade known as the "candy corridor", chatting to shoe shiners in the hope of finding story leads.

Walking through the Plaza de los Coches, once used as a slave market, I pass vendors peddling virulent pink ice cream, palenquero women drowning in frilly petticoats and a fruit bowl of colours, and young lovers entwined in shadowy niches below the city ramparts.

It's easy to understand why Gabo's wild imagination was rooted in reality.

Towards the end of his magnum opus, Ursula Buendia's observation that "time was not passing... it was turning in a circle" sums up the lasting appeal of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Macondo may not exist, but the trials and tribulations endured by the Buendia clan are still very relevant today.

Whether something's real or not doesn't really matter.

After all, truth is ephemeral - just like those yellow butterflies.

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