Chapter One: The Compass of Regret

by Maniza Naqvi

Colombia1To dance the dance, I did not dance, because at the end of the conference, my accompanying handbag which contained all my documents, passports, credit cards and so forth compelled me to sit frumpily, guarding it, instead of joining the sensuously swaying crowd. When I had the chance, I chose instead to sit tied to my belongings—an accumulation of things. Ah the regret.

Why you? Why You? Why you? I had asked myself earlier, marveling at my good fortune gleefully. I kept repeating the direction I was headed towards the land of a thousand stories: Aracataca, Aracataca, Aracataca. Each syllable slung against the roof of my mouth, crashing against each other on my tongue, creating a rhythm like a tin drum. I wanted to jump and dance. Oh sure. I was going just to a conference—but it was on the shores of Colombia very near Aracataca. And so I went pulled by the magnetic allure of it and the lore of the Sierra Nevada.

But, ah the regret. Nearly there, not really there, close, nearby. I did but glimpse it in that chance brief encounter with its beauty and its possibilities, a moment so very brief it nevertheless left me breathless. And when I left, it left me imagining it, wishing that I would return to travel it by river perhaps at a great age, and in love. Finally. And then, then, without a care in the world, I would dance.

Surely, this, this regret, I try to salvage it's detritus, such as it is with the thoughts that it would only lead to new writing, of dreaming of imagining. Yes, perhaps its chapter one must begin here of a new story. A new direction on the compass for me. My eyes rest now on the great Gabo's work lying on my bedside, spread eagle, spine up, it lies, poised to take flight and through it I.

But instead I had been confined to a conference. Where we, found ourselves caught between the sentiments of regret of the existence of a referendum and the regret of it being rejected, the regrets of those who couldn't vote, the regrets of those who didn't vote. The possibility that this deep regret would lead to a better most committed second chance. So at a conference, we filled the gap between waiting and hope's arrival with our prescriptions and were referred to as doctors as if we had gathered there to fill the pain of regret and despair.

And so there, in a conference room of thoughts encompassing compasses of regrets and hope and despair and consolations and of repair, I found myself drifting away into day dreaming of sailing up a great river at a great age. But mostly, I stayed in the room, there, in that room I listened to processes of negotiations, agreements and implementations and how laws come about, I learnt that a compass, here, is also the term used for the background initiating paper that starts the ball rolling on a set of research and investigative procedures that are required to make a decision on whether a policy is required which then would lead to legislation which then leads to action on the legislated policy. Naturally, then procedures of a compass, necessitate the review of a myriad lawyers and a plethora of underlings studying every direction and angle and trajectory of every detail and hence a frenzy and volumes upon volumes of writing. And the word department means province and state. How appropriate. Such a state of writing and writing must lead to decades of solitude, of thinking and inquiry. All that compassing encompassing all that is entailed in getting to an agreement for peace. Colombia2

That Herculean task has been accomplished. The imagining and pinning down of the Peace Agreement all five chapters of it—has been accomplished and written down recently though imagined over at least twenty decades spanning now three centuries. For Colombia has been at war for a long time two centuries for one reason or other. And all the reasons all the same.

What the peace agreement promises to do, is to acknowledge the stories of all the other Colombias. The political and economic stories of those other Colombias include stories of those that are displaced and hunted, hungry and fearful. And the feared and fearsome. In this century and the last and the one before that. The exhausted.

Read Chapter One of the Peace Agreement and you have the manifesto of sharing wealth and prosperity the basis for ending over hundred years if not more of continuous civil wars in one place or another. There are five chapters to the 297 page Colombia's Agreement to End Conflict and Build Peace. Chapter One: Towards a New Colombian Countryside, Comprehensive Rural Reform, reads like an equitable plan for national development with the goal to address economic and social inequality and enable inclusive prosperity. This chapter, is an example for governments present and future to emulate and implement.

So why me? And I answered myself too swiftly because you know this, that's why you. That's why you're going to Colombia. You've done it before, so you can talk about it, the reintegration of demobilized ex-soldiers, into civilian jobs and work. You managed it for nearly 8000 soldiers in Bosnia Herzegovina and that's why you. And that experience in Bosnia was so intense it ended up with you losing yourself in its power and in you writing stories and poems and essays called Sarajevo Saturdays. And now here you are going to Gabo's country, to his home town Aracataca and to the town which inspired the fictional town of Macondo in 100 years of Solitude which was based on the town of Cienaga near Aracataca.

Not so swiftly, said the naysayers. What about the mosquitos? Mojitos? No Mosquitos? Zika? You've got to be crazy, I replied. I won't miss this chance for anything.

And so I found myself in Santa Marta, way north of Bogota, on the shores of the Caribbean at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, in the native land of the Kogi and the Wayuu tribes. The tribes who carry the treasures of phantasmagorical stories. I had been told that the Sierra Nevada's snow topped peaks send down gentle cool breezes for a perfect confluence of climate with the waves lapping on to the shores.

But I was confined to a conference room, cavernous, cold, dim—dimly lit, that is, inside the air-conditioned window less walls encompassing compasses.

Chapter One, oh the regrets, yes first the regrets: the intention was always to do so much more.

And now I regret that I could not sleep longer and extend the dream and the journey I took on the shimmering gossamer wings of a mosquito. The mosquito who despite my fortifications of tightly shut windows, managed to slip through and carry me off to the other Colombia that I should have seen. On its wings the regrets melted away. The regret that I focused on the altitude induced headache and the panic of not being able to connect to an office email system that I didn't see the clouds on the snow covered Andes as the plane came into Bogota because it was night time. I saw it all on the wings of a mosquito, who swiftly morphed into a Swift. For a Swift as know can fly non- stop for 10,000 miles or Swift. Sweet. Don't forget your compass said the mosquito disappearing into the Swift, she'll need it while she drifts in and out of the conference, along the Rio Magdallena, passed the clouds coming off the Andes, into the Savannah, to the Cordillera, the jungles, the ice on the Sierra Nevada, through all the peoples of the Americas, the indigenous tribes, the Spanish, African, Lebanese, Roma gypsy descendants, the Pacific to the west, the Caribbean and Atlantic to the North, northeast—yes and yes—- or she could use the compass to map it differently, between the powerful and the powerless scattered where the treasures lie, the oil the gas pipelines, the emerald mines, the coca and the cacao and of course the land mines.

And on its swift wings—business suit grey wings—chalking up the miles, I flew past the regrets. The regrets that in Bogota I drank coffee but not the hot chocolate or, santafereno, its cheese infused version. That I did not cut open length wise the gourd like pod of a cacao. That I did not experience the taste of cacao—it's beans, up to fifty beans nestled inside the yellowish orangey gourd like pods hanging from the cacao trees, that I did not pick a pod, slice it open lengthwise and behold for myself the revelation of the treasure carried in it, like passengers on a ship, the beans that make the richest chocolate. That I didn't pry them out one by one with my fingers and suck the fleshy skin till the bean was made naked or bit into the bean to reveal the purplish goodness of its future. Shimmering beans, like babies arriving clothed in placenta. Beans picked and dried in the shade of plantain leaves or fermented, then skinned again, then cradled in an epistle made of jungle wood and stone then crushed into the chocolate paste by Indian women and of XX tribe oh how I regret not having drunk this—not tasted this magical brew—- I regret not having the time to drive to the town of Manizales.

Yes Manizales—rich in coffee and cacao-then take a boat on the Rio Magdalena and make the same journey up north through the Western and northern mountain ranges-the Cordilleras to Baranquilla and to Cartegna and then from there to Santa Marta in the tracks of Simon Bolivar in his final journey—as chronicled in the General in His Labyrinth. Had I done that, gone up the river, I would have gone through the rich green savannahs, listening to the bird song and chatter of toucans and tanagers and humming birds and antpittas and macaws—"redbreasts, bee-eaters, canaries and troupials" and counted stars in the night sky as I made my way to the cacao growing region of El Carmen in Santander, the largest cacao growing region of Colombia—to chocolate—the source of my regret for having missed out on the taste of it. I would have listened to the stories told by people descending from the Quimbayas, the Chibchas and the Caribes tribes: the Arhuaco, Kogi and Wayuu. The Wayuu are the matriarchal indigenous tribe, the largest in Colombia inhabiting the North of Colombia. The Kogi believe that the Earth is our mother and we are its children. They worship the earth as the mother of living things, Mother Nature is a living breathing entity. (here)

I regret having been in such nearness, such proximity—yet not having had the time to go to Aracataca and to Cienaga, the town in the department of Magdallena, which was the inspiration for Macondo. I regret not lying in a hammock slung between two palm trees —or leaving the windows open at night in Santa Marta, so that I could feel the breeze which I had been told was cooled by the ice on the Sierra Nevada and tempered by the tropics of the Caribbean— or hear the gentle lapping of the Caribbean waves on to beach, sing a lullaby to put me to sleep or at sunrise hear the argumentative crows scatter away my dreams to bring me back into the awakening day. No time for all that and the fear of mosquitos and the exotic virus they might bring Z for Zarro— Z for Zika.

Colombia has stirred in me a civil war of endless regrets-between the heart and the soul and the mind. Factionalized an already factionalized me. Who knows how many years this will last or had fomented. It has me searching for maps of rivers, tracing trajectories—wondering how far birds can fly without needing a stop-over. In my flight of imagination I have already lost the plot and flown to a cute little café in Islamabad serving Colombian hot chocolate, truffles and coffee financed by a loan by a Bank that money launders Pablo Escobar's cocaine billions and Ahmed Shah Masood's heroin billions—from a Pakistani owned Bank branch in Miami. Is that a story? I think I almost told it and I called it Losing the Plot.

Or shall it be the thinly veiled fiction that I no longer have the strength to write to resurrect the untimely dead, of tracing the trajectory of a swashbuckling, debonair, whoring, drinking Air Force pilot—in search of better angels, dancing with the other kind, and that arch of his flight from Karachi to Dhaka, to being airlifted and evacuated to Tehran in defeat as the surrendering Generals scrambled to save their precious assets–pilots—while citizens lay bleeding to death in the thousands, after the civil war between East and West wings of the country, his moonlight flying clandestine chartered flights from Miami and so on, for the CIA, gun running and drugs to places in Central America and to Colombia—then his sudden death years later for more of the same, gun running and shit—for the Generals, his sudden death at Dubai airport—heart attack. A brief case in which rattled around a diary containing a few phone numbers including his mother's, a few lonely pills of Cialis and a half empty bottle of Black Label. His better angels never won.

And so of course it has left me searching stories on coca. And on emeralds. And oil and gas. The stuff that makes for endless seasons of war and violence. I first saw a Colombian emerald on the finger of a great aunt in Abbottabad, as I stood at her knee gazing at a delicate bejeweled hand. Sapphires from Cambodia were thrown away, rubies from Burma, were kept and emeralds from Colombia—revered. That's how the must haves went of jewelry aspirations. "Only Colombian emeralds for my gems. I'll give this to you my pet. To turn everyone green with envy!" Yes—I could work that in.

I was going to get to go to a place just an hour and half by car to Aracataca, where I would go I promised myself, the moment I had a moment, I would go, as a pilgrimage. I would make a wish there. For inspiration. I must, I told myself. And in the evenings, the few along the coast, I must indulge in mojitos, dance Salsa and listen to phantasmagorical poetry and songs and eat the great food of fried plantain and seafood stew: Cuezalas des Mariscos

But instead, steadfastly, I sat in a conference room and listened to the discussions about the many 'Compasses' of the past which were initiated for policies for the other Colombia the one that was not elite and rich. The one that lived in the rural countryside or the slums of cities, displaced from their homelands. The ones that toiled in the mines and fields but did not benefit from Colombia's cash crops of coffee and cocaine or from the oil, gas, coal and emeralds. I listened to the presentations on experience from other countries on reintegration of ex combatants. I presented the experience on reintegration of ex-soldiers after the war in Bosnia.

For a few brief hours, not more than four, no more, I walked through the streets of Santa Marta—listening to the sounds of drums, going aracataca, aracataca aracataca. I got to dance too, oh but all too briefly. I ate a meal of mouth-watering plantains and cuezalas. I sipped on rum. I sat next to men in sombreros from Medellin.

And when I sat down to write about it I wrote this: There are five chapters to the 297 page Colombia's Agreement to End Conflict and Build Peace. Chapter One: Towards a New Colombian Countryside, Comprehensive Rural Reform, as pointed out by the Vice Minister of Defense at the conference on Regions Opportunities and Peace, reads like an equitable plan for national development with the goal to address economic and social inequality and enable inclusive prosperity. This chapter, agreed to by the Government and the FARC is an example for governments in Colombia present and future to emulate and implement. The Vice Minister noted that such a plan should have been implemented long ago. The open and informative discussions, questions and commentary that emerged at the conference by development practitioners, policy makers, mayors and vice ministers, revolved around the issues covered in Chapter One, even though the Chapter was mentioned only once.

That conference, held in that gap between the moment of regret and the moment of redemption, demonstrated to everyone there that they had perhaps already imagined themselves, in a better place and entered into the Chapter One of their better angels.