I reached the Andean highlands late one night, the plane wobbling vigorously as it found its way amid the peaks on the strip near Rio Negro. Nobody at the immigration could speak English, so I did not have to explain to too many people what I was doing in this secluded place in the middle of the night. An SUV waited; soon, I was on the road.
Nobody had warned me that the airport was in the middle of nowhere, and that the journey to the city would be a long one. The driver seemed to be in a hurry to take me to the hotel, as furious rain lashed the windscreen; raindrops falling hard on the roof of the SUV, as though we were being pelted by little stones.
The driver tried talking to me, asking me if I had a favourite radio station, but with my non-existent Spanish, we settled for silence. It was a dark night with blustery wind. He played opera on his radio and began humming along with the soprano, their voices merging at the perfect pitch, giving a quaintly stereophonic feel to the dark night. Miles of a lonely road lay ahead of us, and it seemed a pity there was nothing for me to see outside. I could sense rows upon rows of trees, and the sharp bends we took, the depth we descended to, and the heights we ascended again made me realize that we were on a mountainous road, without lights, the only signpost being the occasional illuminated road signs.
Bird’s-eye view: Present-day Medellín has no signs of its violent past. Jduquetr
At some point, the SUV took a sharp turn, and there, to my left, I could see outlines of the hills and the road ahead, lit up in the glow of the lights of the city lying beneath. The spiral was stomach-churning, at the end of which, in the valley, lay thousands of lights, like scattered, twinkling fireflies—the city of Medellín.
Or, the town that wants to forget its notorious son, Pablo Escobar. A small-time thug who wanted to crash into a political party, he earned his reputation as being one of the most feared names in the world leaving behind a trail of blood. In News of a Kidnapping, Gabriel García Márquez’s quietly understated narrative of the Medellín of more than a quarter century ago, he describes the anxiety of Luis Guillermo Perez Montoya, a Kodak executive, whose mother was abducted by Escobar after negotiations to stop the extradition of the “Extraditables”—Colombian drug lords the Americans wanted to prosecute—had broken down between Escobar’s gang and the Colombian government. Perez Montoya’s uncle was involved with the negotiations: Since Escobar couldn’t get him, they took his sister, Perez Montoya’s mother.
Perez Montoya flew to Medellín looking for his mother, and García Márquez writes: “At the airport he took a cab but had no address to give the driver, and told him simply to take him to the city. Reality came out to meet him when he saw the body of a girl about 15 years old lying by the side of the road, wearing an expensive party dress and very heavy make-up. There was a bullet hole and a trickle of dried blood on her forehead. Luis Guillermo, who could not believe his eyes, pointed at the corpse.
“There’s a dead girl over there.”
“Yes,” said the driver without looking. “One of the dolls who party with don Pablo’s friends.”
That was Medellín till 1993, when the law finally circled around Escobar, the noose tightening. At the Museo de Antioquia in downtown Medellín, there is an entire wing devoted to the art of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous figurative artist and sculptor who was born here, but who now makes his home in Italy. Botero has chronicled the Colombian century through art—and odd humour, just as García Márquez has done it with words—and vivid imagination.
Two of Botero’s paintings dealing with Medellín’s bloody past are at the museum. One shows a neighbourhood destroyed by a car bomb, with homes toppled and bodies mangled. The other, more dramatic painting has the familiar image of Escobar, where you see him larger than life, on the rooftops of the barrios of Medellín, with a gun in his hand pointing skywards, as rows of bullets head towards him, some missing him, some penetrating his body, his eyes closed. It doesn’t look as though he has fired a shot. Blood doesn’t gush forth from his body, it trickles from a couple of wounds; and there are several bullet marks on his torso. The buttons of his white jacket are undone. He is barefoot. The image is frozen; he looks as though he is about to fall, as he did, ending the siege in December 1993.
Medellín has moved on from that past. The next morning I went with friends by cable car to the top of the hills that surround the city, looking at the teeming city beneath, now looking utterly normal. Later that evening, I walked in the central square near the museum with a friend, as she took pictures of Botero’s giant sculptures gracing the square. Colombians sold food, toys, ice cream, and newspapers; the breeze was mild. But our hosts insisted that a guard would accompany us to the car, parked 30 yards away—just in case.
Read Salil’s previous Lounge columns at www.livemint.com/detours
Even decades later, some old habits die hard.
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org