In memorium…

Today we remember Don Pavel Antonio Romero Pérez, another victim of the gang violence that continues to ravage El Salvador. For over 15 years, Pavel was a loyal friend to Books for a Better World, masterfully navigating his 4-wheel drive truck on mostly unpaved rural roads to deliver donated books and volunteers to some of the most underserved schools surrounding Ahuachapán, El Salvador. 

Pavel’s love for his country and deep sense of integrity impacted the lives of countless children through literacy, supporting their teachers by building classroom and school libraries. Before the involvement of volunteers from Books for a Better World, logistically supported by Pavel, many of the classrooms or even entire schools may have had only a few books.

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Pavel and his truck pictured with volunteers from Books from a Better World at a primary school in the rural outskirts of of Ahuachapán, the westernmost city in the country, situated near the Guatemalan border. As an agricultural region, it primarily produces coffee and is a popular stop along El Salvador’s colorful Ruta de las Flores.

We remember jostling around with boxes of books in the open back of Pavel’s truck as we joined Books For a Better World for a day in July 2013, delivering books to rural schools. Though we wouldn’t give this transport a second thought today, back in July, 2013, it felt reckless to willingly trade comfort for exposure. I vividly remember exchanging unsure parenting glances with Jorge as Abigail intrepidly climbed into the back of the Pavel’s open truck with volunteers Kira, Steve, Wendy and Matt.

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 Was this a good parenting call? Dylan’s tousled hair and thrilled face as he held on for dear life in the back of Pavel’s truck would say so. E

ventually blowing rain drenched us as we huddled under the truck’s rain tarp.To our family, Pavel is remembered for being more than a driver. With Pavel at the wheel, our children were transported to a world rarely seen by tourists, setting our family’s trajectory for authentic travel to less visited destinations. Though these experiences feel harsh and unfamiliar at the time, we’ve found the rewards of struggle and discomfort lingers the longest in our hearts and minds, changing us.

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Abigail reads a donated book with a Salvadorian student with the help of Kira, current President of Books for a Better World,

Pavel’s willingness to get involved with Books for a Better World demonstrated to our children that there’s a road paved with hope, whose ruts and slippery inclines are best navigated through partnerships with engaged community members like Pavel. He lived to make his community better. The difficult road he chose meant great sacrifice, eventually taking his life as the victim of targeted gang violence, attributed to his other volunteer work with the community. His impact will live on in Ahuachapán’s children, our family and through the continued work of the dedicated volunteers for Books for a Better World.

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Spanish language books are carefully selected by Books for a Better World to be as culturally relevant, sensitive and age-appropriate as possible. As Dylan prepares the next book, Wendy shares an oversized book with students, whose format allows an entire classroom of students to share a book.

If you’d like to find out more about Books for a Better World, please visithttp://www.booksforabetterworld.org/ or find them on Facebook @BooksforaBetterWorld

News Story: http://mas.sv/sucesos/de-aqui/padre-de-policia-es-asesiando-a-balazos-en-ahuachapan/37633/

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‘Trampoline of Death’ a Misnomer: The long road from Macoa to Pasto

Would you risk the ‘Trampoline of Death’ with your children?

Questioning my fitness as a parent that evening, I had to ask Francois one more time about the route we were considering for the next morning. My overwhelming need to ask again cracked my hard-earned, yet fragile, gypsy-mom persona. My anxious, hypervigilant maternal I-can’t-sleep-the-night-before-a-travel-day nature was decidedly visible through my cracked veneer.

But I couldn’t help it. I was a mother. Words like ‘FARC’ and ‘acts of terrorism’ mingled in my travel-weary head, jostling for attention with tales of mountain buses careening off cliffs or head-on collisions with fuel tanker rigs.  My children swung on the hammocks nearby. Nodding in their direction, this French ex-pat glanced back at me nonchalantly. He paired a single lazy eyebrow raise with that Parisian lip ‘pfew.’ He summarily dismissed all my anxieties. It was as if I questioned the structural soundness of the Eiffel Tower.

Francois, of Casa de Francois in San Agustin, affirmed that both the bus and the road were safe. He dismissively promised that the driver would proceed cautiously. As the three of us sat around the rough-hewn patio table, my husband voiced his support of our plans by adding his own well-worn travel adage, picked up in the back of a truck in Africa, “The bus driver doesn’t want to die.”

Francois had raised his children in this remote town in the southwestern corner of Colombia, choosing nearly 20 years ago to put down roots in San Agustin. He had no concerns about the route that would wind us from Pitalito through Macoa to Pasto, positioning us to safely make a daytime border crossing into Ecuador. His only injunction was to travel during the day.

Known as the Trampolin del Meurte, this itinerary had a few upsides, aside from the obvious (and irreversible) downside. The greatest benefit was that the Trampoline of Death would save us hours of travel time, preventing us from backtracking to Popayan. We hated backtracking.

As with all decisions, there was a self-serving side to choosing the road less traveled. This route propped up our ‘intrepid traveler’ identity. It wasn’t just the name that was risky. Casually dropping the words ‘Trampolin del Meurte’ into conversation immediately identified us as roadworthy adventure travelers, separating us from those breezing through with a week or two on a fixed itinerary, and a hired driver. Hardened travelers were not just a little ambivalent about this road. In the last two years, there were postings  unequivocally warning against this route on respectable web discussion forums including the Lonely Planet.

That evening as I went through my night regimen, the darkness felt menacing. I checked the door to our handsome cob cottage, tripping over our packs as they waited in a silent tidy pile. I wished that their zipped-up, cinched-closed confidence could convince me we were doing the right thing. I double checked that all cell phones were charging. Finding that only the top outlet worked, I switched out devices to ensure all would be fully charged by morning. As we had learned, the presence of an outlet did not indicate electricity.

I tried to quiet my racing thoughts. I knew that the clock had begun its fresh progression through single digits. I thought over the conversations, blog postings, and maps. We had consciously discarded warnings older than six months. All reports indicated that in the last twelve months, the FARC had been respecting the ceasefire. Nonetheless, the road was still heavily guarded as the memory of incidents was lingering.

Weighing this information, I prioritized my worries. I released the mind drama pertaining to hold-ups and rogue roadblocks and kidnappings. My anxieties shifted to bus accidents.  In the silent terror of my imagination, I mentally rehearsed the words I would murmur into my children’s ears as our bus miscalculated a corner and flew off a steep cliff.

I focused on the familiar night rustlings of my family and the rural murmurings beyond our thin walls felt. I matched my breathing to the peaceful exhales of the children, their curled bodies now a tangle of limbs and blankets and sheets. I held myself back from nudging into one for their twin beds. It was a futile hope that their peaceful slumber would overtake my body simply through osmosis.  And at 10 and 12, I would most certainly hear complaints the following morning if I accidentally woke a child as I nestled in.

I wavered on the edge of sleep, reminding myself again how we had thoroughly plumbed the knowledge of both the local population and of other travelers. Taking this road positioned us to make it to Pasto where we could easily get to the border town of Ipiales.  It was a clear shot from Ipiales to the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. If all connections went without a hitch, this travel scenario played out during daylight hours.

And travel in Colombia was decidedly a daytime activity. It was well-established that even though FARC had been laying low as of recent, there were still rogues and ruffians out there ready to stir up trouble–generally mid to late afternoon trouble. Apparently such aforementioned would-be troublemakers had strong inclinations towards dawn torpidity.  An earlier commencement of travel translated into less risk.

The morning’s activity were brief.  We stashed our wet toothbrushes and laced our sneakers. Hoisting my daughter’s pack on to her shoulders, I tightened the hip harness to my own. The four of us made a lumpy trail of gore-tex and canvas as we snaked our way through the damp gray dawn.

It was at that moment that the lingering uneasiness clarified in my mind: Francois had a slightly skewed definition of speed. ‘Slow’ and ‘safe’ are both relative concepts when related to Colombian bus drivers and mountain roads. And Francois was no-doubt desensitized after living in Colombia for many years. No wonder his rejection of my concerns didn’t assuage my anxiety. The Macoa-Pasto road had not earned its infamous title from tourists. It was named by the Colombians themselves.

It felt too early to verbalize my epiphany. We made our way silently into town.

By 7:30 AM, we tossed our luggage on the roof and packed ourselves into the back of a local collectivo.

I’m often asked how we secure these rides.  In this case, we simply showed up. Finding the right corner, we loitered around. In most instances though, we found it was best to ask about departing buses upon arrival, even before we left the bus station. We also depended heavily on the recent information from other travelers, both from face-to-face conversations and info posted online.

But San Agustin was a speck of a town a bit off the Gringo trail. There were only a handful of paved streets. There was no bus station. So we started our transport inquiries at the guest house, asking a pair of French women where they were headed…and how they got here. We made small talk at the market to confirm transport details with locals. We also checked in with the clerk at the tienda where we bought water and asked the street vendor selling meat sticks: “How do we get to Pitalito?  What’s the price?” We got a rough idea about the price–both the Gringo price and the local price. Of course “we” is a loose term. The kids navigated these conversations with their fluent and convincingly Central American Spanish.

In large towns more familiar with tourists, such transport research proved more difficult to collect. Locals, especially those in the tourism industry, often insisted that there existed only one type of transport–the expensive tourist option. This  was common in large cities such as Cusco, Peru, where a savvy tourism industry funneled money into their community. The other factor was likely predictable assumptions related to the soft composition of tourists pulling rolling suitcases.  They’d have us convinced that we would be robbed by half the cab drivers in their city…and that public buses would add hours to our travel time. Of course, we were not so foolish as to discount the validity of such claims. Even though we thought of ourselves as travelers, not tourists, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a rolling suitcase, enough tourists had come through larger towns for locals to use fear, comfort, and fiscal flexibility to their benefit.

In this corner of Colombia, the locals did not present such a united commercial front. Tourism had been hindered as the US State Department had not lifted the decades-long travel ban. We were not at risk of being steered towards an expensive tourist van in San Agustin or an overpriced bus. There were no buses or tourist vans.

That morning, we’d done our homework. We showed up at the designated corner within an hour of departure. We stood around waiting. And we stood out. We were used to both.

Jorge and Dylan inquired about routes and destinations with the men. I made friends with the mothers through smiles, and then used Abigail as my voice to get a handle on rates and which trucks were good options. We reliably won over locals with the kids’ fluency. People were more than happy to help. In remote places like San Agustin, it was not unusual for someone to say that they had never spoken to an American child, much less one who spoke such perfect Spanish.  Sometimes we were asked to pose for a selfie with them.

We soon found ourselves bleary-eyed and perching gingerly on a bench seat, the kids dutifully watching the road behind us to be sure that no luggage ricocheted from the roof. We were a few station transfers away from the ‘Trampoline’ but the road was still rough. I wondered about the absence of bungee cords to secure our luggage to the roof.

Smiling, but tired, we were again finding ourselves in the back of a collectivo truck, this time bound for Pitalito. Though not sunny in the truck, the sunglasses were merely on to dim the general brightness in an attempt to make my head hurt less.

Smiling, but tired, we were on the way to Pitalito.

After an uneventful ride, we arrived into the bus station in Pitalito. We paused for a quick luggage (and head) count.

That’s when the usual bus station rigaramole started. As we clambered out of the back, we found ourselves poised directly in front of another collectivo truck. Our bags never hit the ground. Instead, the driver and his assistant presumptuously hoisted our backpacks from one roof to the next. “Direct ride! Leaving in five minutes!” echoed in our weary heads.

For a moment we stood there, stunned, staring helplessly at the road-beaten truck as it was claimed by our packs. I imagined the bumpy, shivering doom of the next five hours in the misery of an open-backed Toyota pickup. It epitomized all the scenarios I had rehearsed in the wee hours that morning.

The words, the hustlers, and the rush of the station coalesced. It felt familiar. Too familiar. I had heard it before, in every busy station, on every continent. Everyone’s ride was the most direct and the cheapest.  Vehicles were always ‘five minutes’ from leaving.

“Claim a seat on the last ride of the day!” the touts desperately warned. I always understood the immediacy even when the direct word translation escaped me.

Just before we agreed on a price, resigning ourselves to the next five hours of cold wet misery in the back of a pick-up, I woke from my complicity. I got on my toughest game face, tinged with a bit of cranky fatigue. All 5’1″ of me seemingly towered over the man standing on the truck rack, lashing down our luggage. I’d had enough. It had been a long night, an early morning, and a rough ride.  In fact, it had been a rough month.

I didn’t speak much Spanish, but no was understood in both languages.

If my refusal was in any way unclear, my defiant face spoke volumes. The bustle of men stopped and looked in my direction.

Honestly, I wanted to say more, a lot more. I would have tried to politely negotiate with the men, requesting a few more minutes in the station. I’d gently offer a smiling excuse about ducking into the station for bathrooms and food. We were traveling with children after all. Them we would explore other options.

But my Spanish was limited. I knew from experience that reacting verbally in such frustrating situations humiliated my kids and won me the title Loca americana mama. Escalating in volume and pitch, I’d create an unforgettable scene by going off in English to a bunch of Spanish speakers.

We had a sensitive family history in the area of such incidents. I promised the kids that I would try to spare them any future humiliation.  They were both privy to the Spanish murmurings of gawking on-lookers, behind us in line or in the seats across from us on the bus.

At that moment, I was gambling on the kids’ loyalty. I needed their help to find a new ride. If I kept my cool, holding up my end of the bargain, would the kids would back me up?  This was a time-sensitive travel day. I knew Jorge was generally pretty easy-going about discomfort. He would have been content to climb in the back of the truck and get on the road. We couldn’t wait for two hours in this station. We couldn’t risk being stranded. We had been sternly warned about traveling into the evening. What if this really was the only transport option for the day?

I turned my back on the rickety truck. I was swallowed up in the frenzy of the station. This Gyspy mom was done with bench seats and pick up trucks and rough suspension. I didn’t necessarily need an expensive tourist bus, but a dry place to stow luggage did not seem unreasonable.

Thankfully, the kids did follow. I called on that Latin energy we’d been soaking in for the last month. Jorge, never one to cause a scene, made awkward small talk with the hustling pick-up drivers. As much as I had abstained from verbal drama, it was still a tense moment. They had all just witnessed his mutinous wife and children defiantly march off.

Inside the station, the kids charmingly translated for me as we negotiated among the dozens of vehicles which were all heading in the right direction and leaving in the next hour or so.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn't imagine another of it.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn’t imagine another day.

Thirty minutes later, I reclined in an over-sized seat, in the ‘bulkhead’ 2-seat row of a new, spacious van. Our luggage was safely stowed inside the van and the kids were conveniently sitting in the row behind us. It actually felt a bit like those expensive tourist transports that I pretended not to like. I also pretended not to hear my husband, Jorge, the first time he admitted that I had done the right thing. He confessed to being annoyed at me for turning my back on him in the bus station. There was no question that it was unpleasant to be so directly defied by his wife in front of a bunch of Latin men. especially as he had been fine with the jalopy.

It was a win-win for us. Turns out, the same $5 that we were going to pay per ‘seat’ in the collectivo pick-up truck was buying us a comparatively luxurious ride in a van.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options--we just had to ask around a bit.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options–we just had to ask around a bit.

And just as my  husband repeated his appreciation for the second time, the skies opened up, commencing a three hour deluge. Again, I relished my rather non-effusive husband practically bubbling over with appreciation, envisioning what a disaster the day would have been huddled in the back of the open truck. We’d have been cranky, sore, and nauseous, in addition to cold and soggy, knowing we’d have nothing dry in our luggage when we arrived. We’d been there before, too.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Content and relieved, the road from Macoa to Pasto was uneventful. Needless to say, the carefully rehearsed words of comfort I planned to say as we plummeted to our death went unspoken. Strung together the previous night in a panic, I could barely remember what they were as I nodded off in the van listening to the rain pound the van’s roof.

Though our day was without incident, we did find that the ‘Trampoline of Death’ was somewhat of a misnomer. A more appropriate nickname would have been ‘The Slip ‘n Slide of Death.’ The road was riddled with mud slides and rock slides, rocky water crossings and guardrails askew after being dragged down the sheer cliff by collapsing road sections.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature's power along the remote mountain road.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature’s power along the remote mountain road.

Scenes of washed out roads and rock slides dotted the road more often than mile markers. There were dozens and dozens of rock piles and mangled guardrails.  Damage from rocks and mud piles spilled on to the road, so overwhelming and recent in many places that only a narrow single lane path had been dug through the heavy mud. Here and there, we passed a few dump trucks and bulldozers feebly working on their Sisyphean task.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Reflecting back on the experience, it was not the numerous curves and rough sections of unpaved mountain road or the fear of miscreants that should have occupied my nervous energy the night before our departure. We’d survived much worse on local day trips in Colombia. My real concern should have been getting buried in a mudslide or slipping to our death from a collapsed road.  Even as I write this, it still gives me flutters of anxiety when I think about our choice to take that route. Losing a day of travel by backtracking to Popayan no longer felt like an untenable option.

Sometimes a picture says it all.  The road was unbelievable some places.

Sometimes a picture says it all. The road was unbelievable some places.

We ended up arriving after dark into Pasto. We made a bee-line to the hotel. We were a bit wired from the adrenaline of the day.  I was still riding on the laurels of my successful staging of a ‘One Woman/Two Child Collectivo Rebellion’ in the station that morning. I could almost feel my blonde highlights darkening as my gringo exterior morphed into a Gabriel-Garcia Marquez-esque heroine.  Fermina Daza perhaps? I felt I had earned my place in a long line of freedom fighting Latin American dissidents from my coup d’etat, overthrowing the reigning nepostical lords of the collectivo station that would usher naive travelers into substandard means of transport.

But, if life has a way of cutting the prideful to their knees, then travel even more efficiently lays one flat.

We walked into our hotel and my traveling savvy deflated. The hotel had been my selection. The choice had been a stab in the dark as there was a paucity of online reviews.  I relied on Lonely Planet’s printed book advice, reserving Hotel del Parque because it was close to the bus terminal, without seeming to be that close. I heeded the warnings that hotels within a close proximity to the bus station tended to attract hourly business. We wanted our brief stay to be convenient and were hoping to stay under $100 for the four of us.

Upon check-in, we quickly realized I had booked that kind of hotel. Though I can blame my immature response to this realization on the fatigue and stress of a long day of travel, I confess that I suppressed immature guffaws and nudged Jorge in the leg as a young man and his painted, perky, pushed-up companion were quickly ushered away from the desk after handing the clerk some cash in exchange for a room key. As we climbed the steps to our room, my adolescent behavior continued as I asked Jorge if that paltry amount got them one hour or two.

Trying not to let our check-in experience sully our view of the hotel, we gave up any pretensions of positivity when we walked in our room. It was tiny. After we were settled in and hooked-up the lifelines to our digital devices, luggage barely unpacked, we found that our ‘sleeps 4’ room barely even sat four. It was decidedly not a family-friendly hotel.

In search of an outlet, and a bit of space, Dylan was fully underneath one of the beds and Abigail was crouched awkwardly in the gully between. I squatted at the foot of one bed, but would have been crushed had someone tried to open the door to either the bathroom or hallway. Thankfully the white tiled floors were clean, although predictably cold.

Jorge perched on the only remaining space. He was good-natured about being the fodder for the evening’s jokes. Finding no other place to sit, he closed the lid and sat on the toilet, laptop resting on his knees and feet coming well into the room as the narrow bathroom would only permit an angled perch.

Ignoring the threadbare sheets and similarly thin walls in the diminutive room, we slept heavily, glad to have made it through the day.

Many have asked if we would we take the Macoa-Pasto route again.  It’s hard to say. Travel, like many things in life, is based on serendipitous moments strung together by events which initially appear unrelated and insignificant. This random reinforcement of highs and lows is addictive. The day delivered discomfort and uncertainty, the kind of energy which would be unlikely at a beach side resort. It’s only with hindsight that I gain the clairvoyance to understand how such unexpected and unsolicited experiences are essential to the fabric of our communal family memories.

The color and twist of the day’s events inextricably intertwined us to each other.  These tough experiences tightened our weave. It gave us each a more central position in each other’s life tapestries. It provided another story-turned-legend to look back on and exaggerate with every telling. It offered us all compelling reasons to fight against the inertia so prevalent in the world today, pulling families apart. And it gave us a glimmer of faith in bigger things. Even my jaded pessimism wanted to believe that just maybe we were ordained to travel along that road, and all of the others in life, together.

The experience on ‘The Trampoline of Death’ also hit me at an individual level. The nature of the day’s events assuaged a rising tide of anxiety. We were all feeling the lingering shadow of Jorge’s departure in Quito, leaving the three of us to travel through Ecuador and Peru for the next seven weeks.

I worried about logistics, safety, and of singularly bearing the fatiguing weight of travel. The excitement over the great transport that morning had faded with the disappointing hotel choice. And the road we had taken to get there was decidedly unsafe. Handling the decisions, pitfalls, and frustrations of travel was tough, especially without a partner.  As I often warned the kids, “This is not America.  There are no guardrails…or people to sue. You just die and that’s it.”

But the day’s events also jostled my focus, oddly settling my fears. I was reminded again that travel is not about me. It’s not about proving myself a good mom or a road-worthy adventurer. And it’s not about comfort and predictability and making all the right choices. Instead, travel is a way to strip away life’s desensitizing insulation and rise above the dusty fallout from mistakes.

It’s easy to stumble through life, willing to take whatever truck offers the next ride.

But it’s different when I’m on the road. I’m stripped of anything but the most basic concerns for food, shelter, and safety. I have no other material burdens than what I can carry. I focus less on expectations for the “right road” and more on the exploring the experience on whatever road I find myself.

I take my children on roads like the Trampolin del Meurte because I know they won’t always be traveling by my side. Our paths will diverge. They must. When they find themselves cruising down a well-paved super highway or careening along a narrow, washed out road, I hope they’ll remember that a fulfilled life is not about selecting the perfect road. A good life is found by making the decision to travel authentically on whatever road you chose.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still smiling.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still alive and smiling.

Are you scared to go in alone?

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.

From the street, there was nothing to suggest what we'd find inside.

From the street, there was nothing to suggest what we’d find inside.

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.

The guy who informally worked the parking in  that section of the street got us an audience with the guard.  But he wouldn't go any further than door.

The guy who informally worked the parking in that section of the street got us an audience with the guard. But he wouldn’t go any further than door.

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.

Not sure what to make of the destruction or if we should go on.

Not sure what to make of the destruction or if we should go on.

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.

No room was untouched from the destruction.

No room was untouched from the destruction.

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).

Making our way up the last dark stairwell to the penthouse level, we began to glimpse the light.

Making our way up the last dark stairwell to the penthouse level, we began to glimpse the light.

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.

At first we were confused by the similar holes on all the doors at the same height, but then our imagination let lose and we began to see movement in the shadows.

At first we were confused by the similar holes on all the doors at the same height, but then our imagination let lose and we began to see movement in the shadows.

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.

By that moment, everyone was feeling that it was well beyond the time that we should go, but I insisted that they make a goofy pose.

By that moment, everyone was feeling that it was well beyond the time that we should go, but I insisted that they make a goofy pose.

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.

Like the lives that were shattered, some things cannot be put back together.

Like the lives that were shattered, some things cannot be put back together.

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.