Cartagena's Strangest Monument

Cartagena has some strange monuments. There is a statue of a giant crab on Avenida Santander. Then there is the statue of a flock of pelicans in front of the Hotel Santa Clara, and the giant bronze casting of a pair of old boots behind the Fort of San Felipe. In front of this same fort stands the statue of Admiral Don Blas de Lezo with his one eye, one arm and wooden leg, above oversize facsimiles of British coins depicting his defeat - a defeat which never took place. But perhaps the oddest memorial is a concrete slab you pass when walking along the sea-front between Cartagena's central district and Bocagrande. It commemorates a small disaster which, quite literally, changed the course of Colombian history.

Gabriel García Márquez. Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. Who was stranded 10 days in a raft without food or water. Who was proclaimed a national hero. Who was kissed by beauty queens and made rich by the publicity and later hated by the government forgotten forever

The monument itself is a simple slab, in the shape of a book, lying horizontal, about the size of a double bed mattress. Its cover reads:

"Gabriel García Márquez.

Relato de un Náufrago.

Que estuvo diez dias a la deriva en una balsa sin comer ni beber. Que fue proclamado héroe de la patria. Besado por las reinas de la belleza y hecho rico por la publicidad y luego aborricido por el gobierno y olvidado para siempre"

This translates as:

"Gabriel García Márquez.

Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

That was stranded 10 days in a raft without food or water. That was proclaimed a national hero. Kissed by beauty queens and made rich by the publicity and later hated by the government forgotten forever"

Luís Alejandro Velasco was one of several sailors who were washed overboard from the Colombian Naval vessel the Caldas, returning from the USA to the Port of Cartagena in 1955. Only he made it to the liferaft, though he remembers seeing his friends swimming vainly towards it. There was no food or survival equipment in the raft. A search plane passes overhead but fails to spot him. Everyday at 5pm Velasco sees sharks start to circle his small raft. He catches a seagull and tries to eat it raw. He hallucinates about his drowned comrades and girlfriend. Praying to the Virgin, he becomes convinced he will not survive the ordeal and lashes himself to the raft in the hope his body will eventually wash ashore and his fate be known. The tale doesn't end when he sees land, summons the last of his strength and swims to a deserted shoreline: Velasco must set off into the hills in his emaciated state looking for someone not knowing if he has come ashore in Colombia, Panama, or some island.

Velasco had washed ashore in his homeland.
The Colombian dictator of the time, General Rojas Pinillas, feted him as a national hero.
Velasco was a celebrity in hot demand and already very rich when he decided to sell his story to the El Espectador newspaper. The paper's 27 year-old cub reporter was Gabriel García Márquez. After interviewing Velasco with a pen and notepad in 20 grueling 6-hour sessions over several weeks, Márquez sat down and turned what at first appears as a boring story - ten days drifting alone in a liferaft - into one of the most gripping tales of survival ever written.

Márquez ghost-wrote the voice of Velasco in 14 serialized installments.
The articles gripped the nation. When Velasco started to contradict the official version of events that he had been washed overboard in a storm, circulation soared even higher. Then El Espectador obtained undeveloped films from Velasco's crewmates and published them. They clearly showed the deck of the Caldas overloaded with cargo - refridgerators and other contraband - proving the Colombian Navy was involved in smuggling, and the overloading was the real cause of the accident. This led to Velasco's dismissal from the Navy, and the closure of the El Especatador newspaper. Gabriel García Márquez was forced into exile and the whole scandal eventualy brought about the fall of the Rojas Pinilla government.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez went on to fame and fortune with his fiction. In the 1970's the publishing world cashed in on his name, and came out with an English language version of the articles in book form. It was an instant success. But as Márquez points out in the introduction, he is not really the author. Velasco is.

Marquez's Cartagena residence, a luxurious mansion by anyone's measure, is just a few metres from the monument, overlooking the sea in which the story was set.

Velasco died of cancer in 2000, like the monument says, all but fogotten.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short