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<nettime> Biblioburro & Chandrayaan
eyescratch on Wed, 5 Nov 2008 08:00:41 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Biblioburro & Chandrayaan

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October 20, 2008
Acclaimed Colombian Institution Has 4,800 Books and 10 Legs

LA GLORIA, Colombia — In a ritual repeated nearly every weekend for
the past decade here in Colombia's war-weary Caribbean hinterland,
Luis Soriano gathered his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, in front of his
home on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Sweating already under the unforgiving sun, he strapped pouches with
the word "Biblioburro" painted in blue letters to the donkeys' backs
and loaded them with an eclectic cargo of books destined for people
living in the small villages beyond.

His choices included "Anaconda," the animal fable by the Uruguayan
writer Horacio Quiroga that evokes Kipling's "Jungle Book"; some
Time-Life picture books (on Scandinavia, Japan and the Antilles); and
the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.

"I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than
4,800," said Mr. Soriano, 36, a primary school teacher who lives in a
small house here with his wife and three children, with books piled to
the ceilings.

"This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after
that a custom," he explained, squinting at the hills undulating into
the horizon. "Now," he said, "it is an institution."

A whimsical riff on the bookmobile, Mr. Soriano's Biblioburro is a
small institution: one man and two donkeys. He created it out of the
simple belief that the act of taking books to people who do not have
them can somehow improve this impoverished region, and perhaps

In doing so, Mr. Soriano has emerged as the best-known resident of La
Gloria, a town that feels even farther removed from the rhythms of the
wider world than is Aracataca, the inspiration for the setting of the
epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez,
another of the region's native sons.

Unlike Mr. García Márquez, who lives in Mexico City, Mr. Soriano has
never traveled outside Colombia — but he remains dedicated to bringing
its people a touch of the outside world. His project has won acclaim
from the nation's literacy specialists and is the subject of a new
documentary by a Colombian filmmaker, Carlos Rendón Zipaguata.

The idea came to him, he said, after he witnessed as a young teacher
the transformative power of reading among his pupils, who were born
into conflict even more intense than when he was a child.

The violence by bandit groups was so bad when he was young that his
parents sent him to live with his grandmother in the nearby city of
Valledupar, near the Venezuelan border. He returned at age 16 with a
high school degree and got a job teaching reading to schoolchildren.

By the time he was in his 20s, Colombia's long internal war had drawn
paramilitary bands to the lawless marshlands and hills surrounding La
Gloria, leading to clashes with guerrillas and intimidation of the
local population by both groups.

Into that violence, which has since ebbed, Mr. Soriano ventured with
his donkeys, taking with him a few reading textbooks, encyclopedia
volumes and novels from his small personal library. At stops along the
way, children still await the teacher in groups, to hear him read from
the books he brings before they can borrow them.

A breakthrough came several years ago when he heard excerpts over the
radio of a novel, "The Ballad of Maria Abdala," by Juan Gossaín, a
Colombian journalist and writer. Mr. Soriano wrote a letter to the
author, asking him to lend a copy of the book to the Biblioburro.

After Mr. Gossaín broadcast details of Mr. Soriano's project on his
radio program, book donations poured in from throughout Colombia. A
local financial institution, Cajamag, provided some financing for the
construction of a small library next to his home, but the project
remains only half-finished for lack of funds.

There is little money left over for such luxuries on his teacher's
salary of $350 a month. Already the family's budget is so tight that
he and his wife, Diana, opened a small restaurant, La Cosa Política,
two years ago to help make ends meet.

Even among the restaurant's clientele, mainly ranch hands and truck
drivers with little formal education, the bespectacled Mr. Soriano
sees potential bibliophiles. On the wall above tables laid out with
grilled meat and fried plantains, he posts pages from Hoy Diario, the
region's daily newspaper, and prods diners into discussions about
current events.

"We can take political talk only so far, of course," he said,
referring to the looming threat of retaliation from the paramilitary
groups, which have effectively defeated the guerrillas in this part of
northern Colombia. "I learned that if I interest just one person in
reading a mundane news item — say, about the rising price of rice —
then that's a step forward."

Such victories keep Mr. Soriano going, despite the challenges that
come with running the Biblioburro.

He fractured his left leg in a fall from one of his burros in July,
leaving him with a limp. And some of his readers like the books they
borrow so much that they fail to return them.

Two books that vanished not long ago: an illustrated sex education
manual, and a copy of "Like Water for Chocolate," the Mexican writer
Laura Esquivel's novel about food and love in a traditional Mexican

And there are dangers inherent to venturing into the backlands around
La Gloria. Two years ago, Mr. Soriano said, bandits surprised him at a
river crossing, found that he carried almost no money, and tied him to
a tree. They stole one item from his book pouch: "Brida," the story of
an Irish girl and her search for knowledge, by the Brazilian novelist
Paulo Coelho.

"For some reason, Paulo Coelho is at the top of everyone's list of
favorites," said Mr. Soriano, hiding a grin under the shade of his
sombrero vueltiao, the elaborately woven cowboy hat popular in
Colombia's interior.

On a trip this month into the rutted hills, where about 300 people
regularly borrow books from him, he reminisced about a visit to the
National Library in the capital, Bogotá, where he was stunned by the
building's immense collection and its Art Deco design.

"I felt so ordinary in Bogotá," Mr. Soriano said. "My place is here."

At times, on the remote landscape dotted with guayacán trees, it was
hard to tell whether beast or man was in control. Once, Mr. Soriano
lost his patience, trying to coax his stubborn donkeys to cross a

Still, it was clear why Mr. Soriano does what he does.

In the village of El Brasil, Ingrid Ospina, 18, leafed through a copy
of "Margarita," the classic book of poetry by Rubén Darío of
Nicaragua, and began to read aloud.

She went beyond where the heavens are

and to the moon said, au revoir.

How naughty to have flown so far

without the permission of Papa.

"That is so beautiful, Maestro," Ms. Ospina said to the teacher. "When
are you coming back?"



October 29, 2008
Fly Me to the Deity

AN unmanned spacecraft from India — that most worldly and yet
otherworldly of nations — is on its way to the moon. For the first
time since man and his rockets began trespassing on outer space, a
vessel has gone up from a country whose people actually regard the
moon as a god.

The Chandrayaan (or "moon craft") is the closest India has got to the
moon since the epic Hindu sage, Narada, tried to reach it on a ladder
of considerable (but insufficient) length — as my grandmother's
bedtime version of events would have it. So think of this as a modern
Indian pilgrimage to the moon.

As it happens, a week before the launching, millions of Hindu women
embarked on a customary daylong fast, broken at night on the first
sighting of the moon's reflection in a bowl of oil. (This fast is done
to ensure a husband's welfare.) But reverence for the moon is not
confined to traditional Indian housewives: The Web site of the Indian
Space Research Organization — the body that launched the Chandrayaan —
includes a verse from the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text that dates
back some 4,000 years: "O Moon! We should be able to know you through
our intellect,/ You enlighten us through the right path."

One is tempted, in all this, to dwell on the seeming contradiction
between religion and science, between reason and superstition. And
yet, anyone who has been to India will have noted also its "modernity
of tradition." The phrase, borrowed from the political scientists
Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, might explain the ability of devout Hindus
— many of them, no doubt, rocket scientists — to see no disharmony
between ancient Vedic beliefs and contemporary scientific practice.

The Hindu astrological system is predicated on lunar movements: so the
moon is a big deal in astrology-obsessed India. That said, the genius
of modern Hinduism lies in its comfort with, and imperviousness to,
science. A friend tells me of an episode from his childhood in
Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city. Days after Apollo 11 landed on the
moon, a model of the lunar module was placed in a courtyard of the
most venerable temple in the city. The Hindu faithful were hailing
man-on-the-moon; there was no suggestion that the Americans had
committed sacrilege. (Here, I might add — with a caveat against
exaggeration — that science sometimes struggles to co-exist with faith
in the United States in ways that would disconcert many Indians.)

Of course, the Chandrayaan is also a grand political gesture — space
exploration in the service of national pride. This kind of excursion
may provoke yawns at NASA, but judging from round-the-clock local
coverage it has received, the mission has clearly inflamed the
imagination and ambition of Indians. Yes, even moon-worshipping ones.

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