Medellin: A journal excerpt

Medellín – so badly desiring to capture this place between these pages and also know the impossibility of it. It is noisy and dangerous, polluted, and crowded with throngs of people mostly going in circles – the dispossessed caught in the bowl that is the base of this city. Where Pablo Escobar once ruled is the legacy of paramilitaries and the divide between the people like a dirty river that washes nothing away.

In Botero’s painting of the assassination of Escobar, he is shown as a giant, his feet straddled across three tiled rooftops assaulted by a dozen bullets. Even the leftists who hate him and his mercenary forces can’t help but remind us continually of where he lived and what he owned – a figure of some awe despite his ruthlessness – but then again, Colombia’s history is full of figures as cruel and as ostentatious – perhaps this is absorbed as the way things are. Sometimes the Colombians want us to be impressed by the country’s badass history, and sometimes they want us to be sad for it. In either case, it is simultaneously wounded and mythical – the same well from which Gabriel Garcia Marquez drank.

A quick illustration of security: On the night we returned to the hotel from a party at Nora’s house, I took a cab with two other women from the delegation. Before we left the house, I noticed that Gerardo reached into the car and took something from the driver’s glovebox. Of course it only dawned on me later that what he was taking was a card carried by the driver to identify him and his cab should anything happen to us between his place and our temporary home.

The morbid in me wonders how many of the people we meet will be killed, how many of the women have been tortured, how often the children are afflicted by hunger and ringworm. It seems too cheap to look for hope in these desolate landscapes – and by that I mean the cheap platitudes with which North Americans comfort themselves when by with dark corners. There is no life for the girls of the barrios except to grow into a youthful maternity, or a sex trade hungry for the fresh. And the boys would only be too lucky to get work as labourers – but will more likely end up begging or hawking oranges or cold drinks on the crowded roadways. Everything for sale here in the desperation and madness of extreme privation.

The faces of the street children are black, as are their limbs – their clothes. These human figures move like the blackened imps of nightmares – wily and without a moral other than to get fed – one can only imagine an early death at the hands of violence that reach out from every crack in the pavement. We are the white wealth continually reminded of this with every stare from the doorways. A sex trade worker grabs the arm of my friend James and simply says – you are lucky to be white – by which is means to be rich and to be free from the daily torture of this existence.

Looking at the green mountains that ring Medellín, the condors which fly high above the city , one can see before the buildings and roadways – the lushness of this place unfettered by the tentacles of the shanty towns which crawl upwards forever into the hillsides. This land is beautiful and dramatic – an obvious provider to those who originally lived in the crooks of the mountains and the river’s elbows…. But like all of civilization’s chained lands, she has become a prison to most of her inhabitants. We are both the jailor and the jailed in this context – the Taoist paradox – for which we are raised in illusion so that we cannot see it.

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