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Santa Clara

By Dominique FERNANDEZ Sofitel Santa Clara Carthagène

On a whim, I ordered an amaretto to conclude my meal of lemon-marinated sea bass and crab ravioli. The sweet almond-flavored Italian liqueur is not easily found even in Paris, so its availability seemed highly improbable here in Colombia, a 12-hour plane flight from Rome, in Cartagena de Indias, whose name is less intriguing for its exoticism than it is for its chant-like intonation. But five minutes later, the waiter appeared with a tray on which there was a large, empty wine glass as well as a small cylindrical one filled with a dose of the requested liqueur. His left arm held behind his back, the waiter carefully poured the contents of the small glass into the larger one with his right hand and then departed with the small glass on the tray.

In the days that followed, the same ceremony would be repeated: large empty glass, small full glass, the liqueur decanted from one to the other, always with the same careful, slow movements. The waiters changed, but not the ritual. “But why,” I asked Oscar, “doesn’t he bring the amaretto directly in the large glass?” “Ah! It’s true — you’ve only just arrived. And yet you’ve already noticed our odd roofs, their tiles sticking up here and there.”

“You told me that was so that evil spirits could be caught as they passed and prevented from entering the house. I don’t see the connection between the waiter’s conscientious diligence and those fanciful tiles sticking up.”
Before Oscar could answer, a man selling clay trumpets tried to enter the hotel to peddle his rudimentary wares but he was turned away by the guards, firmly although without brutality. “Did he really want to come in here?” “He knew he didn’t have a chance.”
“So why even try?” “What to you seems absurd to us couldn’t be more familiar.’’
Oscar was a young journalist who wrote for El Tiempo. He was forward-looking, set on overcoming the superstitions that have long kept his country’s development in check, but he remained circumspect about the chances of eliminating them entirely. He loved García Márquez too much to admit that his work had been built upon antiquated customs and beliefs. “The Gabo house is right behind the hotel,” he said, as if he had been reading my mind.

 

Everything I knew of Cartegena I had learned from “Gabo’s” novels, and I wasn’t aware that the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude was from here. “No one knew better than him how to render what is pre-logical in our way of thinking,” Oscar said. He then corrected himself. “But is it only in our way of thinking?
Maybe it’s in things themselves. For example, how can you explain catastrophes in a family without the presence of evil spells lurking about and slipping in through the rooftop to bewitch the inhabitants of the house?” “So you’re justifying the tiles sticking up?” I said, laughing. “And the waiter’s regimental movements that are a source of such surprise for you. The two glasses, the decanting from one to the other, the arm folded behind the back all seem unnecessary only if you are not aware of the necessity to rely on precise reference points to counterbalance all the magic floating around. We’re so crazy that if we didn’t have a few rituals to observe minutely, we would lose our minds.” “But these rituals aren’t yours. You’ve borrowed them. That arm folded behind the back comes from grand restaurants in Paris, Rome, Berlin…”
“Yes, it’s the veneer of Western order applied to Caribbean disarray…

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