Colombian Winter

February 2011
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The mining engineer Germán Guerra, whose last name, when translated from Spanish, means “war,” smiles at me and says that the Colombia that Márquez invented never existed.

The last name of the young engineer is clearly of Spanish origin, although not all of his ancestors were conquistadors: Germán’s great-grandmother was a local Indian, and probably the only things that he inherited from her were darker skin and eyes the color of well roasted coffee. Everything else in him is Spanish, from his last name to his temperament. His ancestors arrived, most likely, from Extremadura, many generations ago, and Germán’s Colombian heritage is three or four centuries old.

Narrow streets lead to Botero Plaza, and through them citrus-colored cabs struggle to push through, as if someone had inadvertently bumped into a lemon street vendor and the yellow fruit had spilled out of his wooden box in all directions. Wild motorcyclists shrewdly maneuver between cars, endlessly frustrating drivers and pedestrians. 

A view over Medellín at night. Photo: WikiArt

It’s raining, and water runs down the streets towards potholes by sewer grates, becoming dirty foam. Winter arrives in Colombia in the form of rain; two mountains cup Medellín in a valley, and the main street dissolves in all directions into thousands of side streets. At night, when darkness swallows the red brick of the buildings that, like bushes, have overgrown both mountain slopes, the light from street lamps and windows resembles the patchy roof of some run-down house, through which the starry sky is being sifted. This necklace of electricity that Medellín offers every evening to women and girls sparkles with silver and citrine, with mangoes and papayas, and with a quarter of the city’s milky moon.

The rain comes to a halt on Botero Plaza, but the sky is still tightened by the dirty linens of clouds and the fat black and bronze statues are splattered by the last drops of the morning drizzle. Street vendors appear, selling ponchos, sombreros, medallions, bracelets, and, of course, the most important commodity – trinkets inspired by Botero’s paintings and sculptures.

From time to time, Germán fends off haggard adolescents who beg for a couple of pesos, whining pitifully, and who escort you like a guard of honor. At night, they are the kings of their streets and districts, and if the opportunity presents itself, they will clean you out, not asking so much as your name. They travel in packs like street dogs, work their night shifts, hide from the police, keep to the shadows, smoke, and mull over their plans. These street beggars, Germán explains, are no less a problem than the drug cartels and the communist partisan groups in the Andes. The city perpetually smells of rain and cool mountain freshness brought by winds that carry with them the cries of birds, the wet heaviness of soil, the velvety smell of flowers, ripened vegetables, and fresh cow manure. In the evening, the air contaminated by cars and motorcycles harmonizes with the black smell of tinto and the sweet fragrance of marijuana. 

Fernando Botero. Europa (Botero Plaza, Medellín).  Source:

The art spilled out on the streets on Botero Plaza. Colombians do not at all resemble Botero’s fatsos – on the contrary, they’re sinewy, muscular. A Colombian ethnic cocktail made from Spaniards, Africans, and Indians flooded this country with mulattos and mixed races. It is especially evident in the exceptional beauty of women, which comes through in the hardly perceptible features of a wide African mouth with swollen lips and a row of white teeth, or Native American traces in the shape of the eyes, especially in the lowered corners and lines of the lips, or in the way the tip of the flat nose touches the upper lip. They are energetic and electrifying – their scorching blood cools in their big black eyes. They are enticing and there is enough flame in the rhythmic dances of salsa or the cha-cha-cha to bring the bottoms and hips to tense convulsions, a display of dance and sexuality. Botero’s figures, sleepy, girded with belts of fat folds on their faces and stomachs, contrast with Colombian music and people – this is the Colombia that Botero invented, a magical realism of paintings and sculptures.

La muerte y el amor, with an emphasis on the “r” – perhaps with these two Spanish words it is possible to describe all of Colombian history.1 Civil wars, leftist guerrillas, criminal activity, and drug cartels filled la muerte with content, in which blood and gunshots became the norm like bread and life, like trumpets and trombones in Colombian music, which smells of sweat under the women’s shaved armpits. In Botero’s work, a stout Pablo Escobar stops with his body thousands of bullets as they swarm at him like stinging bees, and his body bleeds out. Pablo wavers, holding a pistol in his weak right hand, and stands barefoot on a roof made of red tiles in the poorest neighborhood of Medellín. A bullet, shot by a sniper, left a hole in his forehead – on this canvas Pablo Escobar resembles a circus bear, this picturesque death of the cocaine king is a reality for Medellín, just as are the winter rains. Espousing an idea of justice, which he borrowed from stories told by poor Colombians about the way bandidos, the younger brothers of Ukrainian rebels, cleaned out the pockets of the rich and shared with the poor, Pablo became over time one of the wealthiest Colombians, having consolidated the entire drug business underneath himself. During this time, he was building houses and roads, helping the needy; he even joined the Parliament and tested his strength in presidential elections. Some politicians attempted to repudiate Escobar, knowing the source of his money, but they were undermined, bought, or threatened. Colombia became one large bloody massacre; it came to a point where Escobar ordered the guerrilla to seize the Palace of Justice, and war broke out on the streets of Bogotá.

Escobar bargained with the government, using different tactics. He bought himself the right not to be exiled to the U.S., even though the government demanded that from Colombians. His toying with death (a game of death, really) turned Escobar into a target – special forces staked him out like a cornered animal, as he moved from one hiding place to another. He could speak with his family over the telephone for no more than two minutes – this was a time when calls could not yet be traced so quickly. But on December 2, 1993, Escobar spoke on the phone for almost five minutes, for some reason. These five minutes cost him his life: he was tracked down and killed. He became as legendary as are Márquez’s novels or Botero’s canvases. To this day half of Colombia hates him, while the other half worships him. Escobar grew up in a small town, Envigado, which is half an hour away from the center of Medellín, driving south. He claimed Medellín as his capital, designating Envigado a humble place for peaceful family life in an estate with expensive limousines, boats, pools, and even a zoo. After his death, the buildings and pools deteriorated, and cars that were set aflame rusted, though the zoo was still occupied by wandering hippos and giraffes. 

Fernando Botero, "Pablo Escobar Death", 1999. Photo: WikiArt.

He pledged to repay all of Colombia’s foreign debt in exchange for the right to legally grow cocaine, yet died not in a swimming pool at his personal estate, his body floating up to the surface like a dead fish, or in the cabin of an armored limousine destroyed in an explosion, but on a roof made of red tiles in one of Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods. And at least with this young people saw their dreams of social justice affirmed, and everyone else realized the logic behind such a death.

Germán says that there is a war in the mountains.

But where are those mountains and in which part of Colombia? Obviously, Germán knows about this, but is not telling me, a foreigner. War has truly not left Colombia since the time when young, bearded Cubans planted the idea of resistance in Latin American countries. And peasants, while uniting to form guerrilla groups, subsequently fell prey to the leftist leaders and the FARC – the Army of the People who, guided by the doctrines of Marx, Lenin, and Bolivar, committed their armed attacks, acts of terrorism, and captured hostages.

Germán says that it’s somewhere in the south, somewhere in the jungle.

For four hours, winding down the road to the city of Jardín, nestled in the mountains, the driver of our jeep kept paying no attention to the road signs, which constantly demanded from him to adhere to the speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour. We were thrown about in the backseat, but we kept quiet. The driver pushed out all 100 kilometers, braking only at the truly sharp turns or geological faults where the asphalt ended. He sang along with whatever his radio would pick up. On the slopes of the Andes, cows were grazing, black and white, high above where there were no buildings, and it wasn’t clear how the shepherds could get to their herds. There were fields, overgrown in thick greenery, vegetation, and flora, and a few men, akin to Native Americans, were clearing them off with their machetes. Mountain rivers with violent brown water made it clear that yesterday a storm had passed. Above the rivers, there were wooden shacks and their inhabitants stood knee deep in the water, dogs ran on the road, there was laundry hung to dry and chickens wandered about. Landslides of rock and soil often blocked the roads, and you needed to wait until the path was cleared by road services. Police were sometimes posted near bridges. For some reason, I was reminded of an episode from a Mario Vargas Llosa novel. The Peruvian, in a country that also has guerrillas, writes not about a jeep, but a local bus that crawls through mountain passes, perhaps also on a windy mountain road, carrying local folk and a young French couple – students that have come to Perú to study the ancient culture of the Incas or something like that. Perhaps they didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket, or perhaps the young man convinced his girlfriend that an adventure like this was more romantic and would allow them to really see the country and its people. Somewhere in the middle of the way, guerrillas stopped the bus – opponents of imperialism. And given that the documents of the unfortunate French couple confirmed that they were indeed French, the bus, after the forced delay, went on without them. They were shot, the young advocates of communism.

Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (Jardín). Photo: Wikimedia.

In Jardín, the driver of the jeep, having successfully delivered us to our destination, finally turned on his cell phone, because in the mountains it didn’t always connect him with those he wanted to speak to – and, evidently, his continuous flow of Spanish words informed them now that we had arrived. From the enormous church in the town square Jardinians were leaving Sunday mass – men in festive ponchos and white hats; women in dresses and skirts with indigenous ornamentation. Cafés opened everywhere, tables and chairs occupied the narrow sidewalks and even a part of the street. Jardín is a city of solid walls that meander through the quarters, colored in blue or green, and divided by cafes, shops, and homes.

After performing at Casa de la Cultura, the well-meaning director with her friend, neither of whom spoke a lick of English, invited Paul Dakeyo, a francophone poet from Cameroon, and myself for a coffee. The Colombian poet, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo, who also performed with us, was returning straight back to Medellín, because he was catching the earliest flight to Bogotá. We were staying in Jardín, which was smothered by a dense darkness and filled with a soft chill. Somewhat later, Pilar came by with her son. Pilar, who spoke a little bit of English, saved us by breaking the silence because the director would only smile at us and then turn to her friend and say something to her, probably along the lines of: how come they don’t speak Spanish? Pilar’s son, who also didn’t speak any English, sat slurping his coffee, the foam clinging to his mustache and beard. It seemed to me like he could’ve been a guerrilla, and it wasn’t only because Che Guevara’s portrait kept showing from under his half-military shirt: this dude’s whole appearance – with his piercing gaze – made him the spitting image of the comandante.

We drank coffee and looked at one another, the Colombians and the gringo. And in this night-filled place we all had our own worries and our own thoughts.



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