The Return of the Real

“Hand” by Fernando Botero. Part of “The Return of the Real” exhibit in Museo de Antioquia Picture taken by me.
The Return of the Real

That’s what this trip turned into for me. A return to the real. I’ve been so far removed from it the past few years I almost forgot what it was, what it looked like, what it smelled like. I forgot that it wasn’t just the bums sleeping on the street and the beggars with their empty cups. There’s children living on the streets. There are hungry teenage mothers nursing babies on dirty sidewalks. The contents of a garbage can are what’s for dinner for them, if that.

I flew into Medellín, Colombia recently for a friend’s wedding. The city of eternal spring, the capital of the mountain. I stayed in a hotel in El Poblado, the wealthiest neighborhood in town. My room overlooked the city and the surrounding mountains. I went to a wedding on a mountainside villa, the views were godly, everything was lush. White ducks paddled in a pond near the entrance of the hacienda. There were flowers of all kinds around the grounds and white rose petals adorned the steps leading to the chapel. The bride arrived in a horse drawn carriage. Clouds could be seen rolling down a nearby mountain. During the reception alcohol flowed as if from a spring. The food was plentiful, the dance floor lively, smiles all around. The fairy tale was real.

The next day I, alone, ventured to some of the poorest streets of the city by accident. I took a wrong turn after leaving the Museum of Antioquia and just kept walking. It smelled of urine, and was adorned by bodies laying all over the sidewalks. Some looked exhausted, some visibly ill, and others, too high to stand, convulsed quietly to themselves. Women called to me offering cheap sex because it’s the only commodity they had to trade. Some were young, too young, and others far too old. There were no police officers here. They were a few blocks away at the Botero Plaza, en masse, protecting the tourists, the foreign dollars that fly into the city. They were protecting the side where everyone wears shoes, where everyone has a shirt on their back, the side where there’s art and culture.

I found myself across the invisible line that separates the haves from the have nots. The side that doesn’t make the headlines, the side that isn’t advertised on the hotel brochures. For a moment I stepped into the shadow that most of these people will die in because they have no other place to live and no other place to die. And I remembered Pablo Escobar. The most notorious and powerful drug lord in the history of the world. I had just seen Botero’s depiction of his death at the museum.

The Death of Pablo Escobar By Fernando Botero

Botero’s “Death of Pablo Escobar” depicts his violent end in a rain of gunfire. He was the source of a lot of pain for the people of Medellin and Colombia at large. While the height of narcoterrorism has passed, the ripples of its dark era are still felt. 
The notion that Pablo was a robin hood of sorts are wholly inaccurate and misleading. However, it was Pablo that once upon a time took it upon himself to clean up these slums, to put a shirt on their back, shoes on their feet, roofs over their head, build soccer fields for them to play in, and too often, guns in their hands. He is still revered by many despite all the atrocious acts he committed.

When you have nothing, and you haven’t had a decent meal in days, your mother is living on the street, your sister is selling herself, and all you had to do was shoot some guy you don’t know to change all that, would you pull that trigger? Would you pull it if you were thirteen, and that was the only way you knew could get you out?

Things have drastically improved in Medellin since the eighties and the nineties. The city has cleaned up a lot. Blood doesn’t flow down it’s hills in streams like it used to. Bodies don’t form piles that mimic the mountains. The infrastructure is world class. Thanks to Botero they have art museums that can compete with cities like Paris and New York. Lands that used to belong to drug Cartels and families like the Ochoas are no longer at the hands of narco-traffickers. The capital of the mountain can breathe once again without the constant fear that its next breath could be its last. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have been advisable for a girl from Medellin to bring her American boyfriend and all his friends and family to celebrate a wedding here. The risk of kidnapping would have been too great.

And despite all the visible improvements, here I was, blocks away from one of the most prominent cultural centers of the region and misery and poverty were still planted in its backyard. It is not hard to see where the motivations behind illicit activities and violence are born from. When everything has been stripped from you, there is nothing left to lose.

I have faith that given the renaissance that Medellin has experienced that they will do what is necessary to lend a hand to the dispossessed populations that still need help. The city continues to set an example for Colombia on how to rise from the darkness. The job is far from done but they’re moving in the right direction. The city has a lot to offer. I just came back from one of the most beautiful country sides I’ve ever seen. They’ve invested heavily in education, public transportation and infrastructure. Medellin is one of the most eco-friendly cities in South America. Hopefully sooner rather than later the societal cancer of poverty will be alleviated. I realize it’s not a simple fix and not even the United States has solved it, but I don’t want to see any more young girls holding starving babies and rummaging through the garbage.

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