Ride in the heat long enough, with the old truck lumbering axle-deep in warm mud, and your eyes start to deceive you. Brilliant dragonflies begin to look hawk-sized and the vultures soaring in the brassy skies over Colombia turn to massed hang gliders. The city of Cartagena and its Caribbean breezes have been left 40 miles behind on the north coast, and you are deep in the savanna, with patches of sugarcane and clumps of banana trees in the grassland and the swamps of the Magdalena River valley. There are four more miles to go, half an hour's travel along this grotesque track, to the village of Palenque, more properly Palenque de San Basilio, and the extraordinary people who live there.
But getting to Palenque seems less likely every minute. Deep sloughs of chocolate mud abruptly give way to acute ups and downs over naked rock, and there is one terrifying bridge over a ravine, a lash-up of steel pipes and logs, that makes you close your eyes. The mud is the worst enemy, though. Even in four-wheel drive, the truck slithers and spins, sometimes stopping altogether, so that the passengers crammed into the open rear must clamber down to give it a chance to back out and try again.
This enrages one of the riders in particular, a small, lithe man as deeply black as his companions but standing out from their manifest poverty by reason of his expensively embroidered shirt and his elegantly polished shoes. Speaking corrosive Spanish-Creole, gesturing emphatically, he makes it clear that this ridiculous track is an insult to himself, to his neighbors and to Palenque.
En garde, Your Excellency the Governor of the State of Bolivar! Have a care, O President of the Republic! Not for the first time, Palenque is on the warpath, and now it is led by the Kid—who on his birth certificate is Antonio Cervantes but, now and forever in Latin America, is Kid Pambelé.
It was he who, but for a short spell in 1976, held the WBA world junior welterweight title from 1972 until last August, when Aaron Pryor of Cincinnati took it from him. At that time the Kid was 34—going on 40, people freely said. He had had a glorious career—84 wins in 96 bouts since 1964, 40 of them by knockout—maybe the best 140-pound record of all time. But now (though inevitably he talks of one more bolsa, one more big payday before he hangs up his gloves) the next trophy he seeks is a real road, a good road, for his beloved Palenque, his hometown.
Into which eventually, miraculously, the truck rolls, finally stopping in the dirt plaza. Your eyes must be playing tricks again, because this seems to be West Africa, not South America. The equatorial sun beats down on children playing in the dust, black, naked children with the pot bellies and the reddish tinge to their hair that come from a poor diet. The huts are mud-daubed on a frame of bamboo, with thatched roofs, and the womenfolk sit in the shade of the doorways. But this cannot be Africa after all, because a handful of men, silent, no glasses in their hands, sit on the steps of a shack with a sign that reads TIENDA DE LOS POBRES. The Store of the Poor Ones.
Skeletal dogs, chickens, piebald piglets roam in the heat. Passivity and poverty seem to rule, life passing slowly amid dirt and sunshine.
It would be difficult to be more wrong. Leave the people for a moment to let them wake up to the presence of Pambelé, their champion. Walk over to the Church of Saint Basil, where there is the first hint of Palenque's unique heritage, although the walls are almost bare and there isn't a single chair in the place.
There is, however, a tall, handsomely painted wooden image of Saint Basil (and another of a woman next to him—his wife—because the Palenqueros think it would be a shame for even a saint who formulated many of the rules for monastic life to be lonely). In Saint Basil's hand is a little house, which, say the villagers, contains blessings he will one day vouchsafe to them. One of Saint Basil's presumed blessings is right there beside the statue, sharing pride of place with a crucifix. It is the golden trophy that Kid Pambelé brought home from Panama City in 1972 when he defeated Alfonzo Frazier for the junior welterweight title. And nearby it on the wall is a bed sheet on which a poem in Spanish has been lettered with loving care by one of the nuns who visit the village from time to time.
No se puedo sepultar la vida,
No se puedo sepultar a un pueblo
Que busca la libertad
Como estrellas siempre brillaran
Porque aun muertos seguieron viviendo
Porque el pueblo nace cadadia
You cannot bury life,
You cannot bury a town.
Follow freedom, that shines constantly like the stars.
Then, even though death follows living,
The town is born again each day.