Magic Ebbs From Aracataca

Beyond the cellphone stores and the motorcycles buzzing like flies in the 100-degree heat, the hometown of Gabriel Garc__a M__rquez still has some magic in it.

It is still a place where dilapidated wooden houses hide shady gardens that hint at furtive mysteries, where a 96-year-old woman gets her toenails painted pink and keeps songbirds in cages, and where squealing children swim in irrigation canals flowing beside sun-blasted streets.

Mr. Garc__a M__rquez, the Nobel Prize-winning writer who died at age 87 on Thursday, will be remembered at a memorial service in Mexico City on Monday, attended by the presidents of Colombia and Mexico and cultural luminaries (though perhaps none who shines as brightly as Mr. Garc__a M__rquez, who has been called the most famous writer on the planet).

Mr. Garc__a M__rquez left this dusty town when he was still a boy, but he later reached back to his time here as the source for his greatest work, defined by a style known as magical realism. Aracataca became the model for Macondo, the town that serves as the stage for his masterwork, _One Hundred Years of Solitude._

Most of his time here was spent in the home of his maternal grandparents, where he soaked up the stories told by his grandmother and other relatives. He said that it was his grandmother_s matter-of-fact way of telling the most fantastic stories that inspired the narrator_s voice in _One Hundred Years of Solitude._

Now the site of his grandparents_ home, where he was born and which fed the vibrant world of his fiction, has been turned into a tidy museum. Parts of the original wood home remained until a few years ago, but that was all knocked down and rebuilt, according to the museum director, Daniel L__pez.

In its place is a neat, whitewashed structure that in some ways resembles a Swiss chalet more than the local wood architectural style it is meant to mimic.

Much of Mr. Garc__a M__rquez_s adult life was spent in Mexico, where he died last Thursday. He was cremated and the Colombian ambassador to Mexico said that a portion of his ashes would be brought home to Colombia, although it was not clear where they would reside.

Cataqueros, as the people from Aracataca are called, said they hoped the ashes would be brought here, perhaps to be kept in the museum.

_That is the clamor of all Cataqueros,_ said Fabi__n Marriaga, 60, a lawyer whose father-in-law, Luis Carmelo Correa, was a lifelong friend of Mr. Garc__a M__rquez. He said that the author would call his father-in-law while he was writing to check details on their boyhood home.

_We_re in a great crusade now to have them give us some of his ashes to rest here,_ Mr. Marriaga said.

Aracataca_s mayor, Tufith Hatum, said that the town would hold a ceremonial funeral procession on Monday to coincide with the memorial in Mexico. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia will preside over a memorial service in Bogot__ on Tuesday.

Early in the 20th century, Aracataca was a boomtown dominated by American banana companies. Today it is a dusty, hot place with about 40,000 residents, its population swelled in recent years by thousands of refugees from Colombia_s endemic violence, displaced by guerrilla groups or, particularly in this area, right-wing paramilitary groups.

There is a lack of good jobs and an illegal-drug problem. Many streets are unpaved. Only about a third of the homes receive water that is fit to drink. And while trucks carrying green bananas are still a common sight, oil palm plantations have replaced many banana groves.

The town is the opposite of a tourist trap. Beyond the museum and a pool hall that calls itself Macondo Billiards, there is little effort to take advantage of its connection with the famous man. There are no mugs with Mr. Garc__a M__rquez_s image, no key chains, no Macondo-themed T-shirt shops.

Rafael Jim__nez, a local poet who helped start the museum, wants to create a _Gabo Trail,_ in honor of the writer nicknamed _Gabo,_ that would guide tourists to landmarks that figured in his life and work. But so far that is just a dream. His worry is that the town_s important sights and what is left of its original character are fast being obliterated.

The old wooden houses, made of wide cedar planks, with large rooms, high ceilings and steeply pitched roofs designed to ward off the heat, are fast disappearing, mostly replaced by the low cement block homes that are standard throughout the region. He pointed to a corner where a large wood house was knocked down to make way for an air-conditioned billiard hall and bar.

_No one is taking care of the cultural landscape,_ Mr. Jim__nez said. _In time, we_re going to end up looking like any other town._

Yet some of its uniqueness remains.

Mar__a D_Conti, 96, lives in a creaky green-painted wood house that was built the year before she was born. According to Mr. Jim__nez, Ms. D_Conti_s father, Antonio D_Conti, was an inspiration for one of the characters in _One Hundred Years of Solitude,_ the dandyish Italian piano installer, Pietro Crespi.

Ms. D_Conti remembered Mr. Garc__a M__rquez, whom she called Gabito, playing with other children in the plaza in front of her family_s house.

_He was cute,_ she said, recalling how he and other children would stand under the chutes of water gushing off buildings during rain storms. As she spoke, a woman gave her a pedicure and painted her toenails a glittery pink. On a back patio, the songbirds she raises fluttered in their cages.

Her father owned two cinemas, banana plantations and a cattle ranch, she said. The family was rich back then and so was Aracataca.

Gnarled fingers showed a sepia photograph of her father, a dapper man with a wide tie, high collar, impeccably pressed trousers and neatly combed hair. But while she was aware of the family_s apparent connection to Mr. Garc__a M__rquez_s fiction, she said she had never read any of his novels.

_I have bad eyesight,_ she said.

Her daughter, Isabella Vidal, 60, a high school art teacher, expressed what is a regular countercurrent to the Gabo-worship here. Why had Mr. Garc__a M__rquez not returned to his hometown to sponsor good works, she asked. He made lots of money as a writer, she said, and could have spent some of it paving streets or buildings health clinics.

_What did he give to Aracataca?_ she said. _For me, he has done nothing._

From his beginnings, living along the dirt streets here, Mr. Garc__a M__rquez went on to have a worldwide impact, though his literary influence was especially strong in Latin America.

H__ctor Abad, a Colombian novelist from a younger generation, said that there was a downside to the long shadow cast by Mr. Garc__a M__rquez_s genius. His magical realist style was poorly imitated by many, he said, in touristy novels portraying a clich__d version of Latin America.

_I think that Garc__a M__rquez was very great but the worst that he left was his influence,_ Mr. Abad said. _The important thing was his example as writer and a person, showing us that we could write without fear anything we wanted, with great freedom._

In one essential way, Aracataca still resembles the Macondo of _One Hundred Years of Solitude,_ which in the book becomes a metaphor for the human struggle to overcome isolation.

Macondo in its early years was completely cut off, a town lost in the jungle, and its founder, Jos__ Arcadio Buend__a, obsessed with finding a connection to the rest of the world.

Even today, in a world of cellphones, satellite televisions and fast cars, the residents here chafe at the idea of living far from the center of things.

_Aracataca was an old, forgotten town,_ said Elena Romero, 33, a housewife, relaxing in the shade on a park bench. _Because Gabriel Garc__a M__rquez won the Nobel Prize, Aracataca is known throughout the world._

Jorge Polo, 54, a merchant and palm oil farmer who met Mr. Garc__a M__rquez on a few of his visits here, said, _We gave him his nationality, and he gave us recognition. We thank him for the happiness of having been born in Aracataca._

New York Times | By WILLIAM NEUMAN

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