I sat breathless by the sea shore in Cartagena in the Caribbean Coast of Columbia. The air was filled with the voices of tourists and the puttering of an occasional vehicle. The sun bathed in a sensuous glow the house of the great writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was a brick red palace presiding over the magical sea. This for me was a pilgrimage to greatness. I wasn’t only thinking of Garcia and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was thinking if one could really become great even when one had no fame or power or just a few pesos in his pocket. Is greatness not born of an inspired heart? What has greatness got to do with the world’s approval? Can we not all become great even if we hadn’t won the Nobel Prize like Garcia did?

An olive tanned man imposed himself as my tourist guide as he began to describe how Marquez, now all of eighty years, is writing about the life of a prostitute. How the author’s friendship with Fidel Castro of Cuba had earned the anger of many of his countrymen. He pointed toward the house where Marquez and his friends spent time. He shared with me how Cartagena de Indias had been an important port on the Caribbean since it was founded in 1533. Gold and silver left the port bound for Europe. Pirates invaded the city, and a walled fort bore testimony of bloody battles and slave trade. Before he could inflict any more history lessons on me, I pressed inside his palm a bunch of pesos, all that I could afford to tell him off. He declined to take the money and made a theatrical bow and thanked me with an unforgettable and exquisite courtesy. I stood humbled by his greatness!

A woman, her hair tied at the end like an arrested black flame shared a table with me in a seaside café. Her name was Claudia. She had an appointment with me seeking counsel so that she could get some tips on how to mend her broken life. Claudia had a translucent, sensuous mouth – and oh-so-Venezuelan features! She stretched her finger on the table. On her right index finger was a “stop light” green emerald that any gemologist in Cartagena will tell you is more precious than their pale green sisters. Colombia, I learnt produced sixty percent of the emeralds of the world. The Incas and Aztecs of South America, where the best emeralds are still found today, regarded the emerald as a holy gemstone. “The green of the emerald is the colour of life and of springtime, which comes round in eternal cycles,” I said. Claudia spoke haltingly, “But it has also, for centuries, been the colour of constant love. In ancient Rome, green was the colour of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love.”

Claudia and I walked toward the sea. She was alone like me. But, unlike me, she was also very lonely. A divorced mother of two children, she had said with her eyes fixed on restless waves: “My life is a waste; I haven’t gone any where really. The sea rolled in and rolled away again. “We come to this world alone”, sighed Claudia, “and will go back alone.” Not quite, I said, “We are born as one and go back as one. We are one with the world, with the vast solitude of the sea and the mountain; one with the wine flowing from the vineyard and inside our veins; we are one with light inside the emeralds and all the rhythms of the universe. We are born of the great One—the unity of life that courses through our lives—and we will long for the One and merge with the One that is reflected in the seeming multitude of life forms. Listen Claudia, that infinite Oneness is the only secret and the source of all greatness!” You are not alone Claudia, you are in the Company of your own greatness!

Muchas gracias—thank you very much, Claudia gushed as we concluded our conversation. I blurted out de nada—you’re welcome, don’t mention it. I don’t know if Claudia had guessed it that was just about all the Spanish I had picked up from a tourist phrasebook in Cartagena.

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