Let's talk Latin America

A night on the Magdalena… In Bristol

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Bristolatino joint editor-in-chief Sophie Wall braved the cold and damp, to find herself enveloped by seductive and tropical stories of Colombia’s tragic and mysterious river, as told by Michael Jacobs in his new book The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia

Stanfords travel bookshop in Bristol is the only place in the city where one can find an extensive collection of literature on almost every country in Latin America. I found this out, and so much more, when I peeled myself away from the warmth of my overheating laptop one miserable evening in late March. The bookshop- just a stone’s throw away from St Nicholas’s Market- looked like a warm beacon against the cold cobbled streets; on approach I was greeted with the image of people milling around, drinking wine, and nibbling on tapas and guacamole-laden tortilla chips. Once inside and suitably fed, I had the opportunity to drool over the menagerie of exotic travel books; I flicked through Cuban, Mexican and, in an honorary nod to the occasion, Colombian guides. The colourful photographs, descriptions of festivals and recommendations of where to eat barbequed pork and dance Salsa revived my tired eyes and sparked my excitement, and the talk had not even begun. The talk in question was to be given by acclaimed travel author Michael Jacobs, whose new book The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia had recently been released.

Several other guests and I politely filed downstairs in typical English form, and found our seats in the dim bottom floor of the shop. Having never been to Colombia, I did not have any real concept of the country and its people, except for vague ideas of a violent reputation that seems to be diminishing. I had been told by many that Colombia was a country I just had to visit, but as of yet I was still somewhat indifferent. What drew me to the event, instead, were the impressive reviews of Jacobs’ work, a general zeal for anything Latin American and the promise of top-notch flamenco guitar. Jacobs began with a humorous and personable introduction, warning people on the front row that he can become quite animated when talking, and moving might be advisable to avoid his flailing arms. He began the talk by highlighting the root of his travels to Colombia and the premise of his book: the Magdalena River. As the country’s principle river, the Magdalena has fascinating ties with Colombia’s history; from the 15th century when the Spanish conquistadors arrived by sailing up it, through to the 1990s when the river bore witness to some of the most horrific guerrilla and para-military violence of the era. As Jacobs pointed out to us later in the talk, the river is known to be the grave of many of Colombia’s ‘missing people’.  As talk progressed we heard more of the mysterious and tragic legacy of this once glorious river, which has since been in decline due to governmental corruption and perpetual lack of responsibility.

The themes of loss and memory were prominent throughout the talk, as Jacobs wove in personal experiences of dementia in his family, to the strangely potent presence of memory-loss within Colombia. Missing dead, evasion of problems, the Colombian author Garcia Marquez’s decline into Alzheimer’s and a town with the highest incidence of the disease in the world were all discussed, and through this lens Jacobs offered an intriguing social picture of Colombia’s national psyche. Every story led us back to the Magdalena, the source of which is fabled to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Jacobs repeatedly highlighted that the trip took on an almost holy quality, with many Colombians yearning to see it but very few making the journey. Jacobs made clear the lingering presence of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in the jungle that lines the Magdalena, a threat that increases on nearing the source. He also divulged that he himself had had an encounter with the much-feared group, but could not reveal much more: “I wouldn’t want to spoil the book”, he smiled. Within the themes, Jacobs evoked a Colombia that was buzzing with life, wild dancing, rum-fuelled fiestas, hospitable locals and oddball characters.  An hour passed and the talk came to an end, though I felt as if I had just scratched the surface of this complex, beautiful and slightly mad country.

Fortunate, then, that I could buy the book. A book signed by the author himself no less, who talked to me of his travels and plans as he personalized my book cover. I then listened to the seductive sounds of flamenco guitar before browsing some more (lingering over the Colombian section), and headed out into the night. As I stepped out onto the cobbled street, it was a sad realisation to find I was still in rainy Bristol.