There was nothing in Santa Marta to mark the Day of the Dead like there’d been in Mexico City the year before. I still wanted to make a celebration of it somehow. On Halloween I bought a Batman mask and wore it around the hostel for about two minutes. It was later appropriated by a security guard, who made a much better Batman and got a lot of laughs.
The next day, All Saints Day, and the two-year anniversary of my Haunted Rock startup, I visited the Cementerio San Miguel, wondering if there’d be any services or ceremonies going on. It was mostly deserted, populated only by homeless men, sitting amidst the tombstones that line the walkway to the chapel.
As I was leaving the cemetery there was something strange that did happen, however. I had the oddest sensation that I was my deceased father, that his spirit had come over me for a moment. There are similarities between us, but I never thought I looked much like him. For this very short time, not only did I feel just like him, I could almost see myself from the outside, looking like him, with the hard look of disappointment that sometimes crossed his face in his later years. One time I’d told him all the things I’d planned on accomplishing in my life. His response had been, what if you do and nobody cares? It had hurt my feelings at the time, but now I understood why he’d said it. It had happened to him.
The next day, the actual Day of the Dead, I had no idea what to do, but then heard about Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the former hacienda, now museum, where Bolivar had died, and thought that might be a good place to commemorate the day. Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, is essentially the George Washington of South America. He and his armies ended Spanish rule in New Granada, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and he was the first president of the Republic of Colombia.
By the end of his life, Bolivar had either been forced out of or stepped down from the many leadership positions he’d once held, and was determined to go into exile. He made it as far as Cartagena where he waited for a ship to take him to England. When the ship failed to arrive and his health began to deteriorate, he was moved to Barranquilla, and then finally to Santa Marta where he passed away from tuberculosis at the age of 47.
The Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino turned out to be close to the bus station. The website for the museum had warned that any visitor under the influence of alcohol and psychoactive substances, as well as those not wearing a shirt, would be prohibited from entering. Good thing I wasn’t traveling with Jim Morrison.
I started off by walking through an area that had once been used to distill sugar cane. Then I came upon a building that housed oil paintings of some of the leaders in the War of Independence, as well as scenes from the battles they’d fought. One of the wings held military medals and artifacts. In the main house there was a statue of Bolivar on his death bed. A chapel held the remains of the physician who’d waited on him in his final hours.
At the end of a long walkway, lined with flags from every nation on the continent, was the enormous Altar de la Patria, where a statue of Bolivar is surrounded by figures from Greek mythology, the hero who brought to life all the virtues and ideals they represent. A nearby mural recounted all the important events in his life.
After leaving the hacienda, I had a taxi drop me off at the Museo del Oro Tairona, down by the Marina. I’d probably walked past it four or five times already, so distracted by all the hookers and drug dealers calling to me from Bolivar Park that it had barely registered. There were some displays of Pre-Columbian pottery and tools, as well as explanations of the indigenous belief systems and practices.
I read with some interest the legend of the Caiman Man. It talks of how a boy once became an alligator so he could spy on women bathing in the river. He had two oils. One to turn him into an alligator. The other to turn him back to a boy. One day he was splashing on the oil to turn him back into a boy and he dropped it. Only his face and left arm returned to their human form. The rest of him stayed an alligator. The picture they used to illustrate this legend showed an old man in an alligator costume, drinking from a bottle of booze, walking through the street, surrounded by children.
Lastly, I returned to the cemetery once more, but nothing that out of the ordinary was happening, only families bringing flowers to the graves and saying prayers for their departed ones. I passed one tomb where a bicycle had been locked inside. Either a janitor was using it for a storage closet, or a bicycle enthusiast was looking to come back to earth for one last ride. Here in Colombia, one more example of magical realism. Death can’t keep us from what we love.