2 July 2014, Medellin Colombia
“Are you scared to go in alone?“
That’s how my daughter translated the flat-toned words of the armed Spanish-speaking policeman.
The first thing that came into my head was well beyond my basic Spanish. I wanted to say: “Well, since you brought it up…is there a reason we should be? Let’s just stop a minute and talk about this. Yes, in fact, I am feeling a bit apprehensive. Have you had any issues with the safety of visitors? Are you offering to escort us? Is there something else we need to know?” Though all this and more raced through my head at that moment, I could do nothing but smile and draw upon my limited Spanish vocabulary, “No. No.” (as a smile and ‘no’ are both conveniently the same in English and Spanish).
I also reconsidered prompting the kids, who are bilingual, to ask the usual tourist-venue questions. It didn’t seem like information about an audio guide, map, or reduced fee for kids would be a part of the discussion. It was quickly apparent that the only business would be about the negotiable ‘entrance cost.’
Although we were not sure what we would see, we were decidedly not expecting to experience what we found inside. From the street, the building looked fine on the outside. There were some weeds growing up between the pavement in the drive, and the awning fabric was missing from the penthouse level patio, exposing an empty metal frame, but there was nothing to suggest that it was particularly run down or uninhabitable.
Passing through the gate and guardhouse, we walked around the building onto the entrance patio, passing under the massive nude figures of a man, woman and child wrought in metal and dramatically arching off the white building’s side façade.
It was at about that moment that I tried to remember how we came to make this our first tourist destination in Medellin. It seemed that Jorge and I both individually came to the same conclusion as to the morning’s plans after finding the location written in on the map on the hotel wall. Since it was within walking distance of our hotel, it seemed to be a logical first activity. Maybe we were also motivated to look for this place as the months of preparation for this trip often put us in a position where we felt the need to defend the choice of our summer’s itinerary to include Colombia, still incorrectly thought by many to be completely in the grips of the drug cartels.
Regardless of how it happened, we both felt an irresistible draw to at least walk past the very building where now we found ourselves crossing the threshold and looking around, trying to appear casual.
Within seconds, any detached, unaffected vibe we were trying to give off was replaced with slack-jawed shock. As I wondered if there wasn’t a Botero museum full of voluminous nudes or a massive cathedral that would have been a more appropriate sight-seeing place to visit with our kids, we quickly understood why the guard asked us if we minded climbing steps. As we all assumed the unnecessary whispers of people suddenly finding themselves in a shocking situation, we were also appreciating why they had asked us if we were afraid to go in alone.
Of the three sets of elevator doors in what had once served as the foyer, one was partially askew, revealing a cracked mirror. Looking up, we saw gaping holes in the ceiling. The floor was covered with dust, chunks of plaster and broken tiles.
Paint was peeling, doors were torn off their hinges, and any doors still on their hinges had holes about the size of human head punched into them. As the electricity was off, it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust and find the dimly lit stairway.
Just like the fool-hearty protagonists in any scary movie, we ventured up the dark stairs. Each of the levels held more of the same destruction—large holes, missing fixtures, flooded patios, stripped floors and bare walls (where the plaster wasn’t already destroyed or smashed up in some other way).
On the top floor, we peeked into one room that was black with smoke damage. While the building was still structurally sound, the weight of what we imagined might have gone down in this apartment to cause this particular kind of destruction seemed to echo heavily in the silence. Peering through the strategically located holes in many of the doors, we imagined them to be sights for drawn-out gun battles.
The huge chunks missing out of the walls and ceilings made us shudder as we thought of police raiding the building, attacking the walls with sledge hammers, in search of hidden cash and contraband. And though we’d suppose that there very well may have been secret M-19 documents hastily destroyed in the room with smoke-blackened walls, we would never really know as there was no tour guide or security guard to ask. In fact, at that point we were just praying that we wouldn’t be surprised by a guard, or anyone else. We continued to hesitantly walk from room to room, none of which was roped off with braided cord or lit with tasteful museum lighting.
Reaching the penthouse level, the mounting anxiety was almost tangible among the four of us, and I began to worry if any of us lingered on the balconies or stood too long at the massive windows, now missing their glass, in case someone from the street or a neighboring apartment reported our presence. Would the authorities come? What would they do to us? Would they care that we were trespassing? Were we actually trespassing if we had received the guard’s permission? How many visitors had made a similar pilgrimage to this unassuming white 5-story apartment building? Whether it was the recklessness of our decision to enter the building or the intensity of the drama which unfolded in these rooms that was getting to us, we all seemed ready to end our self-guided tour.
But then we saw the massive foot-thick metal door of a safe. Probably too large to remove when the building had been strip-searched for evidence, it was at that moment that the drug lord himself, Pablo Escobar, seemed to stand there beside us, nimbly turning the dial of his safe and pulling open the heavy door to reveal stacks of cash. We could almost see the neat piles, secured in rubber bands for which he reportedly budgeted $2500 per month (just to have enough bands to keep all the cash organized). As we stood inside the safe, we imagined what cash and other illicit items were contained in this space, which was the size of a small bedroom.
Now completely shaken by the reality of where we were, we posed to capture the moment as we gaped into the safe, and then gingerly made our way down the steps to the property exit, guiding our path with the light from our iPhones. We thanked the guard on our way out, who seemed to have changed from his initial harshness to slightly amused by the four of us. As we left, our interest had been piqued to learn more about the legend of Pablo Escobar and how this “King of Cocaine” gripped the country so ruthlessly that countless people’s lives had been tarnished and destroyed for decades, both in Colombia and throughout the world.
And though Colombia still has a drug trade, it has been slowly emerging from its grasp, enough at least to welcome visitors with open arms. As those tourists, we anxiously make jokes about the insinuation of an online self-description of former world drug capital, Medellin. Extolling its transformation, it proudly claims that the streets of this second largest city in Colombia are safe most of the time. Though accurate, this statement does not perhaps offer the intended assurance.
But the drug war is more than Escobar and rubber-banded stacks of money and border controls. Getting into a cab that afternoon revealed the face of that ‘mostly’ safe city. Catching the eye of the driver as he glanced into the rear-view mirror, and then watching him as he honked and swerved his way through the late afternoon traffic, I wanted to ask him if he’d lived in Medellin his entire life. He looked around 65, which would have put him as a contemporary of Escobar. What had he seen? Had he been touched by loss or violence or involvement in the drug cartel? Did he know of Escobar as a rascally teenager reselling sand-blasted grave markers to Panamanians, and running petty street crime? Did the apparent vice grip that Escobar held on the drug trafficking threaten to suffocate their town, or could they operate under its radar and enjoy relative normalcy?
As social protocol and the obvious language barrier prevented this conversation, I could be only be thankful that if nothing else, by straying from the route of the hop-on/hop-off red double-decker tourist bus, we had all experienced a paradigm shift. By replacing the glossy shoot ‘em up image of the drug cartels which are presented in Hollywood with view of the stark reality of lives lost and destructed, as poignantly reflected in the stripped-out building, we were able to see that trafficking was and still is more than money and government and bad guys. It is lives that are shattered and drained. And even though others have risen in the place of Escobar, the hopeful truth is that although his house still stands in the quiet, upscale residential neighborhood, it seems to be merely occupying space in a town to which it no longer belongs. The emergence of Medellin into a vibrant city showcasing a diverse arts scene, inviting parks, a rich cultural heritage and a welcoming people is a strong testament to the resiliency of the human condition which can work to not only heal and recover a city, but also restore a people to their lives and their country.
Ironically, the same question that the guard asked us, “Are you scared?” was what many people asked us before we left for a 3 month tour of Panama, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. In answer to the police guard and to everyone else who asked, yes, we were a little scared. But what we confirm in our travels every time we choose to walk up the proverbial (or literal) unlit stairwell is that when we expose ourselves to risk and uncertainty, we are leaving ourselves open for opportunities to experience the good in the world. We foster hope when we see the city turn its back on places like Pablo Escobar’s building, once harboring violence and destruction, but now neglected and almost forgotten. We’ve had endless positive connections with Colombians who have won us over and transformed our view of the country from a marginalized drug-torn land to a well-developed resilient country full generous people who work harder than any country we’ve ever visited to deflect the negative reputation and show hospitality. Even a city as terribly maligned as Medellin can show strong signs of recovery and reinvention. So we continue our journey, and pray that with a bit of rational caution (and avoidance of the times when those mostly safe streets aren’t so safe) we will continue to see that in life, there are far more reasons celebrate and much less to fear.
***And for the record and benefit of any grandparents or social service organizations who happen upon this blog, we recognize that bribing our way into the vacant, government-guarded home of a dead drug lord may not show ‘rational caution’ (and good parenting for that matter). We do not intend on making this a habit and will carefully consider excluding from our itinerary those venues for which entry requires trespassing or bribery, in addition to sites that do not offer audio guides.