What makes us want to look up people and places from our past?
People from relationships long over, old faded brick schools, homes we once lived in that now look so small. And places? Magical places so far away in both distance and time. Maybe those are the best. Memories, selective of only the good stuff, getting better but more vague with each visit.
Rationally, we accept the fact: with time, things change. The people we haven’t seen in a while got old. The kids are all grown up. And the places, should we happen to return, look nothing like anything we remembered at all. The consequence of time. A few things get better: old trucks, red wine and wooden boats. But they are few.
We hide our memories from scrutiny. Like a chore put off till tomorrow.
But you can’t go home again, they say. Things as we know them, no longer exist. Que lastima.
Searching for Sevilla
The memory of that town, a small village in Colombia, I’d been warmly recalling since my visit back in 1973. All those years I had planned to return. But kept putting it off. Until I didn’t.
That first visit back in 1973 happened in a vacuum. A whirlwind in time, a turning point. When everything seemed both important and unimportant.
There was a girl. A beautiful Colombian girl with straight black hair, face aglow with beauty. Which is why I got off the bus that night in Sevilla. It was her stop, not mine. I had been sitting next to her since boarding back in Bogota? Enroute to Cali we talked intensely for hours – late into the night.
And when she got off the bus, I got off too. She walked me to the town square where there was a hotel. I pounded on the door until someone woke up. A town fast asleep with barking dogs. They opened the door, light flooded the street and she was gone. Luna was her name.
Then there was the philosophical empanada man. My new friend. I would sit with him in a doorway open to the street where he set up his caldron of boiling oil. Night after night we would talk about everything and anything. He fed me deep fried empanadas and wonderful stories. It seemed everyone would stop by during the course of the evening with a rush after the theater let out . The empanada man introduced me to everyone and said we were all important.
It was before ATMs. And I was broke. Waiting for a bank transfer from America which kept getting lost between banks. The hotel gave me my room and meals on credit. Everyone was so nice. Back then maybe I expected no less.
There were trips to the countryside, the pungent smell of Colombian sweet grass, fields of coffee bushes and banana trees, houses with hot coffee to drink and gracious people to meet.
I visited Luna daily. There were long, guarded conversations in the parlor of her house, all within ear shot of her mother; and walks through the pueblo accompanied by sisters and cousins. All so formal, old-school and delectably quaint. I was drawn in and drifting downriver. I had no idea what I was doing. Life just felt nomal. Luna was patient, trying to make sense of her new suitor, demur, ever so congenial and beautiful.
Then one day a jeep appeared – parked by the police in the main square. They left it there for days. It was riddled with bullet holes and its interior dirtied with dried blood. As an exhibit of strife building in the countryside, it added to the things I did not understand.
Days passed in Sevilla, weeks turned into a month. Luna, who I had been seeing almost daily, was suddenly no longer available for my visits. Her mother explained they were afraid I would take her away. And America was so far away. Surprised, maybe a bit relieved, I accepted their verdict.
But I would never see her again. Something had been stolen and hidden from me. My stay in Sevellia was drawing to a close. It like a French film with an early, surreal and unacceptable end. I never said goodbye to Luna but I did say goodbye to the empanada man, took one last stroll through town and caught a bus to Cali.
This year I returned. But didn’t head straight to Sevilla. Instead I went to towns around Sevella, places I knew nothing about. Spent some time in the pueblos of Tulua’ and Buga.
In Trujilo I found a park dedicated to the ‘falso positivos’ – people who were killed if they were suspected of aiding the guerillas. A dead sypathizer, who is not a soldier, becomes a false positive. Like the drowned but innocent witches of the Salem witch trials.
My cautious reunion with Sevilla revealed a hot coffee town. I remembered the heat. But little else. The main square was under construction and I didn’t remember so many trees. The hotel was gone, as was the theater. Everything was under construction. Times had been good to Sevilla in the coffee zone.
I couldn’t remember the doorway or the street where the empanada man worked. I couldn’t get the courage to ask someone if they knew of Luna, who once lived on a street – whose name I couldn’t remember. Didn’t want to look like some crazy gringo describing a nina he met 45 years ago.
Sitting in the coffee shop on the square, sipping a tinto. Every passing girl, young and old, was Luna, or her daughter, or granddaughter. Back then, things could have went a lot different as would have the consequences.
They say memories change every time we revisit them. Our minds record the memory of the memory. Events and emotions grow more jaded and self-serving. Diluted. Though, if we’re lucky, significant.
I anticipated disappointment. Sevilla had changed beyond recognition. The empanada man must be dead or hopefully very old. Luna with a brood of grandkids, maybe displaced, living in another town. And the years of violence – were over at last, or so they tell me with some uncertain conviction.
But for me Sevilla will always live in that long, lost moment.
See article: The North Valley of Cali: Miracles and Massacres