Pride of Medellin
My last days in Medellin slipped away with warm feelings–warm feelings of friendship, of reuniting with people who shared something unbelievably powerful and gloriously intense with me; warm feelings of a cool afternoon strolling through vibrant Medellin streets and art museums; warm feelings of a traveler’s bug once again full of wanderlust for knowing a new city. The noise of happy boys singing Colombian pop songs outside my window haunted my restless sleep, with an ease of easy, colorful youth that I felt I had long forgotten.
I was beginning to understand the profound complexities of this misunderstood Colombian world, but only after accepting the harsh fact that I couldn’t change life and I couldn’t motivate people with my words and I couldn’t alter the past of a country soaked in violence yet prized in sunshine and a lightness of spirit. The history of Medellin is not simple, nor is it necessary to expound on Pablo Escobar and his famous cocaine cartels deep inside the spirit of this city, for that would be stereotypical and thus ruin what I was so feverishly trying to scribble in my journal. I climbed from my sheets, watched the ink of my pen gliding furiously along the unlined pages, and experienced a phenomenon:
I see the security roadblocks dotted along the highways, full of police officers in green uniforms and army boots stopping Santi’s car and asking each one of us “Adonde va?” (Where are you going?) “Y porque?” (And why?) he adds, squinting at each one to search for lies. He finishes by ordering Santi to pop his trunk, so that he can rummage around for car bombs. He grumbles with the other officers, asking each one of us to hold up our hands to make sure they were bare.
I experience the parking decks and shopping malls in Medellin, which are also chained with policÃa in their clichÃ© Colombian war gear and stoic faces: we pull into the city center of El Tesoro, and, as usual, are stopped by a security checkpoint at the gate. The policemen circle our car like vultures upon fresh meat, then indicate for Santi to unlock his trunk, so that they can again quickly yet thoroughly rustle everything around until they are fully satisfied that we are nothing to be afraid of.
I think of yesterday, as Adri’s aunt pulled up to the gated entrance of Sena, Adri’s work, where we had planned to meet for an afternoon tour of the Medellin farms and coffee fields. I remember the same set of invading questions: “Porque estÃ¡n aqui?” (Why are you here?) “QuiÃ©n conocen aqui?” (Who do you know here?) “En cual departamento trabaja ella?” (In which department does she work?) “Cuales son sus nombres?” (What are your names?) What is your purpose here? What did you say your reason for being here is? Would you please give me your identification cards? Questions upon questions hailed down upon us through the crack in the window while I cringed in the backseat, afraid of our own answers, although truthful and completely candid. After successfully answering the rudimentary set of inquiries, we were then required to display our cÃ©dulas (Colombian identification cards), handing them to the police so they could do a quick search through the computer for any past offences that would disable us from passing through the gates to pick up our friend and niece.
I think about the fact that it is not permitted to take photos indoors at any public place, regardless of your photographic or turistic intentions; I remember asking why, after being grabbed on the shoulders by a haughty security officer for pulling out my camera, and being shocked to discover that it is because of a long and horrifying history of bombs being strategically placed inside commercial centers. I realized that photos could aid in identifying trash cans, open spaces, hidden security cameras, and other useful information when calculating the best place to hide a ticking bomb, and I couldn’t believe my own deductions.
I see the two granite statues side by side, the gentle Pajaros de Paz (the Birds of Peace), telling silent stories of a past drenched in bloodshed but a future optimistic with hope. The first one, once a bright, plump and round canary, lies charred and broken, its body blasted open with metal shards spewing over the sides of its cracked, uneven core. The second, a perfect duplicate, stands tall and smiling, its canary beak and smiling eyes robust and strong. These Birds of Peace became a living testimony in the heart of the city, standing as a proud statement against the Colombian terrorist group, the FARC, who bombed the first Bird of Peace years ago in a demonstration against the Francisco Botero’s beautiful artwork….I remember the two men, dressed in tattered clothes and camouflaged, being roughly patted-down by police in public on two different occasions….I recall the fact that Adri, a native to Medellin, was more frightened than I ever dared be to enter the barrio of Santo Domingo because of tales of domestic and civilian violence occurring there. The images are strong, leaving me with impressions of a deep-rooted fear in the hearts of the citizens amongst this breathtaking Colombian city of flowers.
And then I wonder, how despite this pain and precautious world deep inside this huge, sprawling city, I spent a fantastic and inspiring weekend here, and felt pride and wonderment for a city so strongly connected to its roots. I wonder how Adri’s mom can tell me that yes, she is content and has lived a happy life, and how Adri and Santi can both harmoniously tell me that Medellin is, by far, the best city in Colombia and their favorite place in the world. I wonder how a people can be so strong that even the continent’s worst terrorists can’t break their spirit. It is these things, these contrasts of faces, this yin and yang so perfectly balanced in the pasts and the futures, that Colombia holds, which eternally fascinate me.