Sunday, 23 February 2014

the Magic of the Hay Cartagena Festival - Maeve Friel

Cartagena de Indias is a walled city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1533. I was thrilled to visit it recently to attend the Hay Cartagena Literary Festival. It is a magical and enchanting city, steeped in romance and brimming with literary and historical references.  It is also beautiful. Once squalid and rundown while a new high-rise city grew up further along the coast, old Cartagena has undergone a renaissance and is full of old colonial houses, secret courtyards,  leafy squares and cobbled streets of vibrantly painted houses with bougainvillea spilling from their wooden balconies.

It is the unnamed but clearly identifiable city where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Love in the Time of Cholera.  In late 19th century, Cartagena was gripped by cholera and the bourgeoisie tried to avoid being infected by cholera by enclosing themselves in the walled city.
You can sit on a park bench under the almond trees in the Plaza Fernández de Madrid and imagine the lovelorn Florentino Ariza sitting beside you reading poetry and hoping to catch a glimpse of Fermina Daza emerging from the handsome house opposite, the one with the overhanging balcony and the parrot door knocker beside the Alliance Francaise. (I missed the parrot door but saw many other distinctive ones. I´ve a bit of a thing about door furniture.)

Or you can stroll under the arches where Fiorentino and Fermina first met and where the hawkers still sell sweets to passersby. 

1.    The gorgeous Hotel Santa Clara (where the visiting Hay writers all stay), inspired another magical novel by Garcia Marquez Of Love and Other Demons. Once a convent, this is where Garcia Marquez, then an aspiring journalist, first heard about the discovery of a skeleton of a girl with over twenty metres of hair. 
Nowadays, rather than captive virgins and demure nuns,  there is a large Botero nude in the lush hotel gardens and a resident toucan flitting about.  

On the first evening of the festival, I had arranged to meet John Boyne for a drink in the hotel bar - he had earlier given a fabulous talk with Peter Florence. director of Hay,  about his new WW1 novel The Absolutist. The slightly surreal atmosphere of the place was enhanced when we heard plain chanting and a pair of incense bearing cowled monks appeared, a nightly ritual in honour of the hotel´s former existence as a monastery.

Everything about the city was an inspiration but add in the Hay Festival participants and you have a heady mix.

Irvine Welsh talked about Skagboys, a return twenty years later to his characters in Trainspotting (the most shoplifted book in the UK, apparently). He spoke about heroin addiction, Scottish independence, the breakdown of consensus in modern Britain and  his love of music. He told us that he creates a playlist for every character: he needs to know "where they stay, who they lay and what they play".
There were so many highlights: the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries, Y tu mama también) introducing his documentary about illegal immigrants to the USA); a thoughtful Joe Sacco, self-described cartoonist, with his new fold-out frieze about WW1 and getting some hostile questions about his book on Palestine and its "lack of balance"; Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger; David Rieff, the journalist, talking to Colombian writer Hector Abad about remembrance in the context of war and conflict,  how memory is not sacred, is often faulty, and controversially declaring that there is no such thing as collective memory. Remembering is not a moral act - under some circumstances, it is better to forget. 
I loved  Rosie Boycott´s interview with the engaging Tom Hart Dyke, orchid fanatic, who spent eight horrendous months as a hostage of the FARC guerrillas in the Darién rainforest in Panamá. 

Strolling from venue to venue, there were many bookshops and cafes - Abaco,  my favourite,  was both  bookshop and café.

4    Leaving Abaco one night, I was delighted to meet Martin Murillo who has been wheeling his carreta literaria, his literary cart, through the streets of Cartagena for years, lending books for free. 

An early school leaver, Martin  used to sell bottled water but was sponsored to fulfil his dream and set up his literary cart by the organiser of a beauty contest and a journalist who were his water customers.(Doesn´t that sound like something Garcia Marquez would make up?) From the original two hundred volumes, his library now has thousands of books, all donated by publishers and individuals - every day he makes a new selection to include children´s books, novels, technical manuals, poetry, philosophy. Loans are free and without strings attached. He assumes people will be honest and return their books, even if it takes them years.  He now travels around Colombia visiting schools and libraries encouraging the love of reading. 

Another morning, we saw two men sitting on upturned paint tins, playing draughts on a painted square of wood with red and white bottle tops as pieces.

Day and night, there were colourful palenqueras, the descendants of slaves from Palenque, selling fruit from the trays they balanced on their head. This lady told me she started aged ten.

There were vultures on the roof tops, horse-drawn carriages and literary celebrities strolling on the sea wall in their new Panamá hats. 

There were children in a courtyard drawing armadillos and spider monkeys and, in a school that I visited, a flock of peacocks in the grounds to keep the snakes away.
 You couldn´t make it up.

Maeve Friel
I am currently living in Panamá. Please come and visit my website or subscribe to my blog where I am mostly writing about my time in Panamá and about Latin American children´s literature. Or follow me on twitter @MaeveFriel or on Facebook.


Sue Purkiss said...

Welcome to ABBA, Maeve, and what an interesting blog! Gorgeous photos - I almost feel as if I've been there!

Mary Hoffman said...

Hi, Maeve! That was fascinating. I was in Panama in the summer of 2012, as my daughter and her partner spent eight months there as part of sailing round the world (long story). They are in Mexico now, where we visited them and our new granddaughter last summer. New Zealand in October!

The festival sounds amazing!

Richard said...

Strangely enough, I got back home from Panama on Saturday. It's a part of the World that never interested me but this trip changed my mind. Great scenery and wonderful people.

Maeve said...

Thank you Sue and Mary.
Richard, I had never thought of visiting Panama either until my husband was posted here - I knew nothing about it except for the canal, the hats and Noriega. In fact, it has turned out to be an absolutely fascinating place. Sorry we didn´t make contact while you were here.

Enid Richemont said...

What a fascinating post, Maeve, and welcome to ABBA and the alternative SAS. LOVED the photos! Want to go there now.
I will certainly visit your website.

Savita Kalhan said...

Wonderful photos, Maeve! I have never been to Panama, but it seems I must add it to my list of places I must visit! The scenery and architecture look amazing, and obviously the allure of warmth and sunshine play a part too! Welcome to the SAS!

Maeve said...

Thank you Enid and Savita. I am delighted to be here with you on ABBA.
I am in Panama - but the Hay Cartagena festival was in neighboring Colombia, an hour's flight away.
More from Panama next month.

Maeve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This was fantastic... the pockets of story all adding up to a whole. I loved the idea of the library cart especially after finding out who the original sponsors were.
Will be looking forward to your post next month!