In addition to all of the obvious joys and experiences that travelling to different countries will bring you, one of my favourite parts is turning up to a hostel, hotel, or even a campsite and checking what books people have left behind. Too heavy and cumbersome for an ongoing journey, they are placed on a table or bookcase in a communal area, and left for the next person to pick up. It used to make me sad, the thought of all these incredible books with no owners, living a transient existence moving from city to city, country to country, continent to continent. Their pages dog-eared and torn after manifold readings, their covers grubby from the hands of hundreds of people.
When I was in Salta, Argentina, I stayed in a hostel that kept their books locked in a varnished oak cabinet, with glass windows for viewing the wares. While common etiquette is to leave a book before taking one in return, for certain people (like myself) the temptation becomes too much to bear, and one book left will mean two books taken. Or even three. Maybe sometimes a book doesn’t even get left. The cabinet was a clever way of stopping this happening; to view the books you had to talk to the receptionist, who would unlock the door and take your finished book and hand you the book of your choice. I accepted this method of book transfer somewhat begrudgingly, but admired the thought behind it.
When peering through the glass to choose my next read, I was struck by the cover of one in particular. It was overwhelmingly green, with smatterings of tropical colouring. The green detailed the trees, with the other colours depicting a bird, a snake, and fruit in orchid purple, banana yellow, and tangerine. I ignored the old adage about never judging a book by the cover, and with a kind word to the gatekeeper of the cabinet emerged from my hunt with One Hundred Year’s of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez.
I had no idea what to expect from it. I had never heard of it, despite it being one of the most famous and well-respected novels of the twentieth-century. It went into my backpack, to be started during a long trip that was coming up. I didn’t know it at the time, but that choice I made on the cover of a book was to lead me to my favourite book of all.
After a brief sojourn in Salta, we were to travel to Uyuni to take in the extraterrestrial-looking sights of the Bolivian salt flats. In the back of a 4×4 truck, travelling across infinite expanses of bright white salt, I began to read One Hundred Year’s of Solitude.
From the endlessly quoted first line of the novel – “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – to the end of the book, I was in awe. The language, the imagination, and the sheer scope of the novel left me floored.
I felt I was inhabiting two worlds when reading the book. In reality, I was careening through the harsh, otherworldly terrain of the Salar de Uyuni, where light rules and shadows hide. In my head, I was deep in the shady and mysterious Colombian jungle, in the beautifully crafted world of Macondo; following the epic saga of the Buendía family.
On the other hand, both settings completely complemented each other. The salt flats are a strange place; optical illusions figure aplenty. The sky reflects faultlessly in pools of water, and tourists take thousands of forced perspective photos there every year. Further on down the route, bright red and green lakes are home to hundreds of pink flamingos. The whole experience is like drifting through a Salvador Dali fever-dream. Marquez’s novel is no less spectacular and strange; unusual and magical phenomena infuse the narrative. Remedios the Beauty, one of the fourth generation of the Buendía family, ascends into the sky one afternoon and is never heard from again. Rebeca, a cousin of the Buendías, arrives on the doorstep of the family as a mute orphan, and proceeds to eat dirt and plaster from the walls of the house well into her teenage years. Such curiosities bring the Buendía’s history into vivid, technicolor focus and leave you grinning in astonishment. Just as the Salar de Uyuni was no normal place, One Hundred Years of Solitude is no normal book.
I finished the novel just after we had ended our three-day tour of the salt flats. Everyone who loves reading will tell you of the sort of malaise that can fall over you when turning the last page of a book. Upon finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude, this feeling was particularly strong; I was genuinely upset I had come to the end of Marquez’s work. When we packed up and left the mystical highlands of western Bolivia I was struck by two things: that I may never see a more visually remarkable location in my lifetime, and that I may never read another book that I can compare to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Since then, I’ve read fantastic books but I’ve never felt the need to compare them to Marquez’s opus. It stands alone on a pedestal in my pantheon of reads, not just because of the novel itself but because of the adventure it reminds me of as well.
I dropped the book off in our hotel, but this time when I laid eyes on the exchange I didn’t feel any sadness at the thought of the nomadic novels in front of me. I had been given a new perspective. I was more than happy this time, to leave a stunning book in a stunning location.