A Four-Legged Drive To Help Rural Readers

Luis Soriano meets children on the road to Las Planadas, Colombia. Soriano travels weekly with his load of books to remote villages, providing the only library service in the region.
Luis Soriano meets children on the road to Las Planadas, Colombia. Soriano travels weekly with his load of books to remote villages, providing the only library service in the region. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 5, 2005

LA GLORIA, Colombia -- Each weekend, Luis Soriano and two heavily burdened donkeys traverse the hills and savannas of northern Colombia, where villages like El Dificil and El Tormento were aptly named for their rutted, tortuous approaches.

Soriano's mission is quixotic, and the donkeys' cargo is precious: crates filled with as many as 160 books, destined for isolated villages where local residents have virtually no access to literature, beyond a few dog-eared elementary school texts and Bibles.

For five years, the bookmobile, which Soriano calls "biblio-burros," has served as the only library in the remote and impoverished area.

"People around here love stories," said Soriano, 32, a former shopkeeper from this village in the state of Magdalena. "I'm trying to keep that spirit alive in my own way."

Soriano fell in love with the printed word when he was 6 and earned a college degree in Spanish literature after studying with a professor who visited his village twice a month. The rugged landscape, where he has spent his whole life, can send anything on wheels skittering, while four-legged beasts plod ahead.

"The donkeys are cheap, reliable, don't need any fuel and can go almost anywhere," he said.

In a red folder, Soriano keeps a list of titles that villagers often request. Although his traveling library includes novels, histories and medical texts, the most popular books are children's stories of incredible events in improbable places, where animals are as likely as humans to be the heroes. Perhaps that is why Soriano and his burros fit in so well here.

On a recent night before his weekly journey, Soriano slips the books into individual plastic pouches sewn onto canvas sheets. He folds the sheets into briefcase-sized packets that will fit snugly into wooden crates hung from his donkeys' saddles.

Soriano has only two rules for those who come to browse: Wash your hands and don't write in the pages. He does keep track of who has borrowed which volume, but said he relies mostly on the honor system.

"It's probably one of the only libraries in the world where people come in with their backpacks and I don't check them when they leave," he said.

Soriano used to have a more ordinary life, running a supply shop and raising a family. He read for pleasure and had a home library of about 80 volumes. Then he started lending his books, scavenging, begging and borrowing to get more.

Eventually his collection grew to 4,800 books. His wife, Diana, grew desperate for space to raise their three young children. "She used to ask me, 'What are we going to do, eat books with our rice?' " he said.


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