From Alabama to Colombia: Hernando the Beauty

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I made my first friend in Bogota.

I should say I made my first friend on my own. My fiancée, Adela, has generously filled the initial weeks in my newly adopted city with friendly faces. Family. Amigos. Neighbors.

We often see Margarita, back from a recent bit of schooling at Harvard. Marisol has a sabbatical year away from a tenured university job. Vero flies a corporate jet. Ramiro designs electrical power stations; his wife works in the financial sector.

I even have new Colombian creature friends—dogs that joyfully romp in the park across the street from my apartment and very sleepy cats that ornament a sidewalk path near home.

Adela’s friends welcome me, the gringo, without exception. They offer unconditional hospitality. I have been invited to spend time writing on a dairy farm in the eastern plains, Los Llanos. I have been offered a stargazing night at a planetarium, complete with an astronomer who will explain the diamonds of deep space.

It’s a whole lot of love.

In truth, this beautiful communal embrace speaks less to my own questionable charms than to how much these people love Adela. A 60-something Alabama ex-pat could hardly expect such a warm embrace wandering into town on his own.

I feel very proud, though, to now have befriended, on my own, Hernando Rodriguez.

I first saw him in Café Quindio, across the busy street from Adela’s ophthalmological practice. Adela and I walk to work each morning through several canyons of five-story apartment buildings, each with some sort of mini-garden and a security guard—they’re called vigilantes here—out front. We part with a kiss, and I dodge my way through cars and motorcycles to the café.

I write in the café much of the day, lifting my head from time to time to stare at the surrounding Andes for inspiration.

Sometimes, instead, inspiration rolls right up the sidewalk.

Hernando lives in a wheelchair. Every afternoon, a car pulls up and his wife bundles him into the vehicle, and he rolls to a regular spot inside the café. He orders an espresso and opens a book. Always a book.

I first noticed him peering into The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that (for me) unbearable longness of reading by Milan Kundera. We didn’t speak that first day, but I made note: A man with Kundera can be considered a serious reader.

I had no idea.

Next day, then another and another, Hernando showed up with new novels he’d started, each in Spanish, each a serious slab of literature. I found it significant that my friend always brought fiction, imagined worlds between book covers.

We spoke one afternoon, just a hello, an easy introduction. We quickly got around to the subject of books.

We read fiction, it seems to me, for the same reasons we travel. Some basic impulse to venture into undiscovered places and passions, to know the unknown, flows through human blood like a spark.

Travel lifts us out of routines, flies us over weary walls of the familiar. We stare up at new stars. We savor different daylights. Songs of new cities—or songs without any cities at all, sweeping down from peaks or welling up from blue depths—fill our ears. We canoe on dream rivers, dance by firelight, draw bows and send black arrows through the mind. In travels, we walk a pretty ophthalmologist to work. We walk through marketplaces and take cautious bites from hot empanadas swapped for a few pieces of shiny metal. We walk past very sleepy cats.

We walk … if we are able to walk.

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Hernando has been cursed—or perhaps blessed—with a wasting disease.

Once square and solid, he now droops in his wheelchair, his muscles slowly losing function. He pulled up his shirt one afternoon to show me a weird little tube where he pumps liquid nourishment directly into his stomach.

Thanks to his wheelchair and his sheer will to live, Hernando heads most afternoons to Café Quindia. In the course of an afternoon, a few friends casually stop by his table and speak kind words. Sometimes these gentlemen sit down and drink coffee around him. For a precious hour or so, Hernando holds court, the center of attention.

Mostly, though, he reads.

He spends 10 hours every day reading, on average. On New Year’s Day, he ambitiously began working through a series of classics, alphabetically, by author. On February 18, the day I left Bogota for a U.S. visit, I saw a bookmark rested halfway through Dr. Zhivago. It means that in the first six weeks of 2015, Hernando Rodriguez had read his way through the world’s great stories from A (Achebe) to P (Pasternak). No doubt, he’ll close the book on Zola before I return March 9.

Is Hernando Rodriguez the world’s greatest traveler?

Is this tiny man in a wheelchair, his eyes enlarged by reading glasses and his mind enlarged by works of fiction, a rival to Sinbad and Odysseus and the crew of the Starship Enterprise as a voyager?

Not a day passes that Hernando doesn’t live a dozen other lives. There he goes, whistling a command to the team pulling his troika over snowy trails. He bathes in the Ganges, water rising to his shoulders. He languishes in a seraglio, where veiled women with seductive eyes place cherries on his tongue.

He is preparing, of course, for another long trip. The trip we all will take one day.

My friend’s pre-reading for eternity makes perfect sense to me. In an infinite universe, an infinite multiverse, surely we will be well served by all the experiences we enjoy or endure on Earth, this nursery for the occupations of eternity.

I’m not sure if what Hernando teaches me is courage or common sense. If a man can’t walk … well, why not fly?

I remember a passage from 100 Years of Solitude, by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Like Hernando, it travels well:

Amaranta noticed that Remedios the Beauty was covered all over by an intense paleness. “Don’t you feel well?” she asked her. Remedios the Beauty, who was clutching the sheet by the other end, gave a pitying smile. “Quite the opposite,” she said, “I never felt better.” She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Úrsula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving goodbye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

Maybe it’s true that Hernando Rodriguez will pass beyond my memory one day.

For now, though, my first friend in Bogota is not simply remembered.

He is memorable.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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