Monday, 7 September 2015

The Robber of Memories

Finished September 2
The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia by Michael Jacobs

Jacobs has long had an interest in Colombia and the Magdalena River, but it was a chance encounter with an again Gabriel Garcia Marquez that pushed him to this journey to follow the Magdalena River from its mouth at Barranquilla to its source at Páramo de las Papas.
The book has another focus as well. Jacobs' father had died following a decline into dementia and his mother, who is Italian, is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's. Marquez also suffered from dementia as he aged. There is a doctor in Colombia, that Jacobs meets up with on his journey, that has worked with a group of people from a specific area suffering from a type of Alzheimer's and identified a gene associated with that type.
And there is the nature of Colombia's political history, where the rebels and paramilitaries have caused a type of memory loss in its citizens, who must survive in this uncertain environment.
Jacobs covers the river's history, the political violence and literary allusions to the river to begin. While a map is provided, I found it more frustrating than useful as it did not include most of the places he visited. This is a continuing frustration I have with books that include maps that don't relate well enough to the contents of the book itself.
He spends a fair bit of time in Barranquilla, where the river ends, beginning his stay with the Hotel El Prado, the country's first tourist hotel, which opened in the 1930s. He makes contact with Juan Alberto Montoya at NAVESCO which moves cargo along the river and from there to Hector Cruz at Naviera Fluvial Colombiana.
Before the actual river journey, he makes a couple of sidetrips. One is to the Boca de Cenizas, a hazardous inlet where the Magdalena reaches the sea. For this, his pilot is Alejandro Henao. Another sidetrip is to Mompox, which is on a disused arm of the river. One his way to Mompox, he stops in La Gloria where he meets the famous Cristian Valencia of Biblioburro. In Mompox, he is a subject of interest, first connecting with Nando, an optician, and from there to a dentist and historian, a poet, and including a visit to the local cemetery.
His river journey begins on a tugboat called the Catalina which is pushing barges upriver destined for Barrancabermeja. He has a new Colombian friend who will be his companion for the journey, Julio Caycedo. The captain of the tugboat is Diomidio Raimundo Rosales, who often calls for the author using "Migueleeto." Other crew include Alfredo, who is in charge of the large tanks on one of the barges, Juan Cano, a young pilot, and the cook Leiva. The tug has trouble near the end in getting much past Gamarra. There is a particular windy part of the river which is difficult earlier as well, the Pinellos, partly because of low water. Honda is as far as most previous travellers get on the river itself. When he leaves the tugboat, he switches to a chalupa, which is a small fast boat.
Along the way, he meets human rights activists, journalists, the afore-mentioned Alzheimer doctor, friendly taxi drivers, hippie hostel owners, accommodating farmers, and yes, FARC members.
An interesting journey, with interesting people along the way.

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