The guy walking about 50 paces ahead of me at the speed of a roadrunner on meth is the subject of the book I’ve decided to write, my first. Visiting Colombia for Christmas to research the life of a former international yo-yo champion was not listed anywhere on my calendar, and yet here I am, on account of an inexplicable series of either wild coincidences or serendipitous events, as the case may be, that were simply too much for me to ignore.
Albert Einstein said there are only two ways of looking at life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is. The fast-paced protagonist leading the way on this tour through the crowded, bustling streets of his hometown of Medellin clearly belongs to the latter school. Me, I’m more of an agnostic. However, sometimes, something inside me sees signs. They may take the form of strong, instinctual inclinations, or of apparent signals of fate or destiny. My connection with the yo-yo champ is a case in point.
Before my wife and I left New York for this unplanned Latin American adventure, friends had written me that they never knew Colombia was on our bucket list. It wasn’t. We were, in effect, summoned here by a message seemingly written in cosmic Morse code. The part of my brain that picks up these signals started receiving the dots and dashes a year ago. Shortly after retiring and moving back to New York following 16 years at my company’s global headquarters in Switzerland, I started to devote myself to writing. I joined a group called Gotham Ghostwriters, which matches people who have stories to tell with authors equipped to turn them into books. The problem was, despite all my years of success in many different types of writing, I had no books under my belt.
Then, lo and behold, an opportunity to ghostwrite a book dropped from the ether into my lap. An accomplished, best-selling author from the Bay Area who’d edited a profile I’d written for my former company’s website told me over the phone that she’d been contacted earlier that same day by a man from Colombia who had asked her to ghostwrite his memoir. She declined but offered to refer the man — the best friend of her Colombian Spanish teacher — to me.
As it turns out, the Spanish teacher, Felipe Garces, and his best friend, Gustavo Velez — the fleet-footed gentleman leaving my wife and me in the dust behind him — along with Gustavo’s brother, Jorge, all had been members of an elite but little-known band of yo-yo gypsies who traveled the world, made good money and had the time of their young lives. In the eventful decades from the 1970s into the ’90s, they were part of one of the most successful promotions ever orchestrated by one of, if not THE, most iconic brands of all time: Coca-Cola.
King of the Yo-Yo Gypsies
Gustavo Velez was the king of the yo-yo gypsies, mastering more tricks, traveling to more countries, learning more languages, wooing more sweethearts and gaining a deeper and more lasting life education than any of the others. He turned a children’s game into an adventure, a livelihood, and a life. Moreover, along the way he frequently found himself, like a Latino Forrest Gump, having a bird’s-eye view of some of the period’s most pivotal events.
Gustavo and his family witnessed — and on one occasion barely escaped — the ruthless destruction of Medellin wrought by Pablo Escobar and the deadly drug cartels in the 1970s and ’80s, and also marveled at their city’s subsequent resurrection and transformation by a series of courageous and principled leaders who turned it into the innovative city it is today. Gustavo was in Argentina in 1974, when its president, Juan Domingo Peron, died and was succeeded by his wife, Isabel, the first woman ever to become the head of state in a modern Latin American country. In September 1977, he was in Japan on the day that country’s legendary slugger, Sadaharu Oh, whacked a 3–2 pitch in the third inning into the bleachers of Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium to break Hank Aaron’s home run record. And in 1990, he happened to be in Johannesburg when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, marking the beginning of the end of the brutal apartheid system that had subjugated black people since 1948.
All told, these opportunistic episodes seemed to lay out a path before me, like ET and those Reese’s Pieces in the Spielberg classic.
When I gave my elevator pitch on Gustavo’s story to the owner of a boutique publishing company who spoke at a Gotham Ghostwriters event, he expressed interest in a proposal. Then Gustavo and his family visited me last summer in New York as part of a vacation to see relatives in the U.S. And just a couple of months ago, he invited my wife and me to spend time with him and his wife and their two children in Colombia. All told, these opportunistic episodes seemed to lay out a path before me, like ET and those Reese’s Pieces in the Spielberg classic. On the basis of the signs, I agreed to ghostwrite Gustavo’s story for a contractual fee. But needing to tighten his belt to save for his children’s college educations, and interested in exploring other options to work together, Gustavo agreed to a collaboration arrangement of equally shared expenses and proceeds, transforming me from a nameless ghost to a co-author listed on our eventual book’s cover. With those terms accepted, my wife and I flew to Colombia for an education on yo-yos, South American culture and cuisine, and the arduous task of book-writing.
Great (But Unrealistic) Expectations
My expectations were shaped by an illuminating piece in the Financial Times called “Fantastic ghostwriters and where to find them.” It quoted Andrew Crofts, one of the field’s most successful practitioners, as saying that “he can produce a first draft based on a weekend’s worth of conversations.” Having made my living writing speeches, news and feature articles, policy papers and annual reports, I figured that writing a book would be a couple of magnitudes harder. But I soon learned it’s a more daunting and protracted undertaking requiring more skill, creativity, and perseverance than I’d imagined.
Committed to getting a deeper understanding of my subject and what makes him tick, I agreed to accept Gustavo’s invitation for my wife and me to spend a week with him and his family in their Bogota home, as well as travel with him to his hometown of Medellin to see the places where he grew up. I began to have second thoughts about those seven days in the Velez home on the flight over when, reading my autographed copy of a small book by Patti Smith called “Devotion,” this passage gave me pause: “I seldom visit people’s homes, for despite the hospitality offered I often suffer a feeling of confinement or imagined pressure. Almost always I prefer the comfortable anonymity of a hotel.” That sentiment fit my wife and me to a t. But in retrospect, the experience proved invaluable in adding color and definition to the story, its main character, and the family his unusual life spawned.
All the Hospitality You Can Take
“When people in Medellin ask you how long you’re staying, it’s not because they want to know when you’re leaving,” Gustavo told me when we arrived. “It’s because they want to know how long they have to show you’re their hospitality.” And although the combination of kindness and culture shock can take its toll, our experience bore out the adage.
Twenty-four-year-old Santiago greeted us first thing every morning with a firm handshake, and his 19-year-old sister, Laura, with a warm and loving hug. Likewise Gustavo and his wife, Adriana. Barely a second went by without Gustavo calling out — whether in person or by phone — to his spouse, whom he refers to as Amorcito, “Little Love.” The affection is mutual and must have been for her to have given up her promising career as the only woman in an electrical engineering team of seven at one of Medellin’s most highly respected architectural firms. She followed him around the world as a sort of trailing yo-yo spouse for three years before laying down the law after an exhibition in Hong Kong, telling him it was time to return to Medellin to start a family.
With her original artwork displayed on the walls of their home in Bogota today, she’s a warm and gracious host, as well as a great cook. She fixed us feasts for every meal. For breakfast: pancakes called arepa Colombiana with local cheese and a cornucopia of South American fruits we’d never seen: a tasty passion fruit called granadilla, juicy little orange-colored berries from Colombia called uchuva, and an odd-looking, cactus-like specimen called pitaya with juicy seeds inside that are supposed to be good for the digestion (too good, if portion control is not exercised). For lunch, she’d prepare a delicious dish of pulled pork and rice called lechona. Among our favorite dinners, which a friend of the family prepared, was a meal-in-itself soup called Ajiaco, made of chicken and three kinds of potatoes, plus corn on the cob, avocado, and a hot sauce called “aji picante.”
On Christmas Eve my wife and I were introduced, through gently mandatory active participation, to the Colombian holiday tradition of the novena, a set of prayers the Velez family read with warmth and good humor, finishing the verses with rattling maracas and cacophonous strumming (by me) on a strange little-stringed instrument called a charango. Nothing in my Jewish past or my wife’s Chinese childhood prepared either of us for the spectacle, but neither of us is likely to forget it.
If I’d Only Known
And that goes for the entire trip, notwithstanding the things I wish I’d been better prepared for, thought the better of, or simply known my limits well enough to resist. I wish, for example, I was better prepared to keep Gustavo focused — he’s full of stories of wildly varying relevance and appeal — and that I was better able to decide which technique or technology to choose in any situation: my notebook, my tape recorder or my iPhone and its various recording and picture-taking features.
I wished I’d remembered when Gustavo’s friend Camilo, who’d invited us to his home for dinner, continued to fill my wine glass — even after I tried to lose it behind the branches of the Christmas tree — that I’d already consumed more than my limit of beer earlier in the day. The consequences were not pleasant, and they lasted almost three days. And I wished I’d demurred when Gustavo “voluntold” me to stand up in the middle of the room during his yo-yo demonstration and balanced a coin in the crevice between my left ear and the left side of my skull to prove he could dislodge it, William Tell-style, with his world champion’s skill. It took him several tries, giving me time to contemplate life without one of my eyes or a couple of my teeth, but eventually, he pulled off the trick, much to my relief.
Did I Just See That?
A time or two in the course of the two-week experience, I wondered if I’d read the signs properly and done the right thing by coming all this way to research the life of a yo-yo champion. During one of those moments, standing outside the very nice restaurant where my wife and I had enjoyed a pleasant dinner with Gustavo and his family, my host tapped my arm and pointed to a middle-aged man standing behind the glass window in an adjacent building waiting for an elevator.
He had taken something out of his pocket — a yo-yo — and was casually playing with it until the door opened. Then he walked inside and disappeared, like an apparition, or another of the series of signs that are too simply much for me to ignore.