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Finding El Dorado

Finding El Dorado
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First Published: Fri, Jun 18 2010. 08 02 PM IST

Magic realism: Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado began. Salil Tripathi
Magic realism: Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado began. Salil Tripathi
Updated: Fri, Jun 18 2010. 08 03 PM IST
It had rained most of the five days we had been in Bogotá. The sun was barely visible, except at the golden hour of twilight, and clouds covered the Andean peaks surrounding the city. The rain knew its place, as it fell lightly, a thin lace cascading on the city, like silken strands.
On Saturday, the sun came out as my friend Jose Rafael had promised it would, and it shone brightly as we made our way on winding roads, headed for a reservoir outside the city, to Guatavita. The ride to La Macarena, the home of our friend Ernesto, was long. As we got off when we reached his house on a hill, we saw flowers growing randomly in the verdant valley.
A vast reservoir filled the valley between us, and the hills across. Three boats sailed smoothly, leaving a meandering trail, the water looking like a sheet of grey steel. A few huts were scattered on the hill. There were grey clouds on the horizon to our right, but the sun was still bright.
Magic realism: Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado began. Salil Tripathi
By midday, the wind gathered strength, and the lamps in the veranda began to sway, the light through their lattice-like frames shifting from one spot to another, like in a dream sequence of an old Hindi film. Two of my friends stepped out to explore the anchor placed at the edge of the house. I sat by the wall, staring at the pristine, calm lake, its surface trembling softly, disturbing the light and dark patches.
Then, out of nowhere, I saw that bolt of lightning. Sharp and bright, it dived like an arrow, leaving its jagged signature behind which disappeared quickly, an imprint impossible to forget. The cloudburst that followed, and the thunder that accompanied it, resounded in the valley. It was loud, as if the sky was falling apart, and its echo could be heard for miles. The sky had darkened; my friends had moved back into the house, safe behind those large glass windows, as we saw that celestial drama, of light and darkness, rain and wind, clouds and lightning, rising and falling as if choreographed, the thumping sound reaching Wagnerian proportions.
A stream of yellow light filled parts of the sky, which had vainly tried to prevent the cloud from covering the entire sky with its dark shroud. When the clouds managed to hide parts of the mountain, they looked as though they were emerging from its peak, like billowing smoke. “It looks like a volcano,” said Ted, our friend, the anthropologist.
The sailboats had disappeared: We sat at the large wooden table, ready to eat the Colombian puchero that Ernesto had been cooking slowly, with chunks of beef, pork, chicken and sausages boiled in a stew, and served when tender, with rice, cassava, cabbage, sweet potato and corn; the stock poured over the dish, or left next to the dish in a cup, and drunk slowly. It was delicious and nourishing, filling us with warmth, even as the sky outside had turned dark, and the rainstorm had lowered the temperature by a few degrees. We were 2,000m above sea level, which made the afternoon pleasantly chilled.
As we saw the view from the large window, it seemed as if the mountain had disappeared behind the mist and rain, but if you looked closely, you could make out its bare, grainy outline. The tall glass window had kept the sound of the rain silent, but we could see the bursts of lightning, which continued to reverberate, the thunder obediently following the bolt seen moments earlier.
But this rain was not cruel, the kind Isabel saw in Macondo, which stole everything, washing away pasts, obliterating stories, leaving only a sad and desolate sunset, which would leave “on your lips the same taste with which you awaken after having dreamed about a stranger”, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez described the torrential rain in Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo.
Here, we weren’t among strangers. We had witnessed a different kind of dance all right. The clouds had tried to devour the mountain, but sunlight had squeezed through, pushing aside the clouds from every gap it could find, as if playing out an epic war between good and evil. We knew the sun would win, just as we knew the clouds would part, and the verdant valley would be bright again, and the colour of the sky would match the mood of the chardonnay in my glass.
The stream of light that emerged from the clouds looked like pure gold. That yellow light bathed us, and we looked as though we were covered in gold dust. In the Spanish chronicle El Carnero, Juan Rodriguez Freyle wrote of the priest of Muisca covering himself with gold dust at the Lake Guatavita. My friend Luis Fernando told me that the lake at the summit of the mountain where Ernesto’s house is located was the same Lake Guatavita, and the legend of El Dorado, which sparked the greed for gold that brought the conquistadores here, had begun there. That lagoon was the sacrificial site where people offered gold to the gods to appease them.
The elegant simplicity of that meal and the warmth of friends had given us a different kind of protection from those mythical powers. The lake below now looked serene, like the woman who didn’t need gold to look beautiful. The divine landscape and the company of friends made us richer than all the gold offered to that other lake on the hill.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jun 18 2010. 08 02 PM IST