Visiting Pablo Escobar

Say what?
On your knees
Two birbs
Centro Coltejer
Off Parque San Antonio
You complete me
Plaza Cisneros
Barefoot park
Red eye
Once was Pablo
Blue in the face
Not for the faint of heart
The grave of Pablo Escobar in Medellin

Perhaps its age, or perhaps it’s just been a few busy weeks, but I was looking at my three-week Colombia trip as almost a kind of burden. I was going to be involved in a presentation and workshop at a gallery in Bogota, I was going to see Natalia at work at the Festival Gabo, I was going to visit the coffee region of Colombia, and, if I could sneak it in, perhaps check out one or two other world heritage sites, too.
But I also had just released a website that matches books with locations, was in the middle of producing Sound Walk September, was working on a new social network (watch this space!), was on the verge of landing a new big client, while the same day I was set to return to Brazil, my mom was also set to arrive and stay for three weeks, shortly after which Natália and I are going to visit Cabo Verde by way of Salvador de Bahia.

So, yes, my agenda was a bit full, either way, though that didn’t convince me I’m not, actually, getting old.
Then again, first world problems.

I only had one day in Medellin, before I had to make my way to Bogota. My incoming flight actually stopped in Bogota, but I could not convince my airline to let me off in Bogota without having to forfeit the rest of my ticket; an argument for booking individual legs.

To minimise unnecessary travel in Medellin, I got myself a hotel close to where the airport shuttle drops people off, in the center of town, which, at night on a Sunday, feels a bit rough, though I also didn’t feel unsafe.
The streets were well lit and clean, there’s plenty of security about, lots of people, including families with kids, with clusters of street sellers selling a range of drinks and snacks, and one guy even working on reasonably impressive fluorescent paintings.
But, at least the Sunday I visited, poverty of those on the street was obvious. Men in wheelchairs selling individual candies, old women hawking coffee from thermos flasks, others just asking for little bits of money.

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The city’s poverty is one of the reasons Pablo Escobar received so much popularity. He became obscenely rich from smuggling drugs, but, he also spent a lot of money on the people in his community, providing services which the state did not.
In 1993, after an extensive manhunt. The CIA killed Escobar in his hometown, Medellin. The hippos he was said to have kept, ended up roaming the countryside around the city, while Escobar himself was buried on the outskirts of town, in a large well kept family grave, where hawkers wait for the occasional visitors with water and ice cream.
Foreigners don’t seem to visit too much, but locals do. Some, it seems, with a sense of respect and awe. Fresh flowers adorn the headstone of Escobar, while a cleaner is ready to swipe away leaves and dirt from the tomb, holding 9 bodies.

Escobar’s house, which operated as a museum, was recently taken down by the city’s major, wanting to move away from drugs-related tourism. But, the shrine to the Virgin of the Mystic Rose still stands. The shrine would be visited by Escobar’s hitmen, asking for a successful outcome to their criminal activities, not seldom involving killing their opponents.
Obviously, often the men would be successful, and attribute their success to the virgin, which gave the virgin the reputation of granting both ‘light’ and ‘dark’ requests.
Devotees climb the stairs to the virgin on their knees, with all surfaces covered with little thank-you plaques from believers who saw their wishes granted. The recipients are perhaps wise enough to not disclose their requests, meaning I couldn’t discover a plaque from one of Escobar’s employee-murderers.

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Back in town, at night, walking the street and snacking on a sausage with some bread, a family asked me if I could buy a snack for their two young boys. I obliged, buying them the same I was snacking on, at a mere 30 cents to the euro for two. The family thanked me individually, including the boys.

Age, after all

Both Bogota and Medellin airports are modern affairs, while the Espresso Brasilia bus (ironically connecting almost all countries on the continent, but not Brazil) from Medellin to Bogota had individual video screens for every seat, free earpieces, a choice of over 60 films, and a range of jukeboxes in different genres, including ’80s smash hits’ and ’90s rock anthems’. And a slideshow of cellphone pictures of bus-company staff doing bus-company things.
The long march of modern tech made me feel nostalgic. It probably was age after all.