Medellín: Esperando la Muerte o un Beso
What follows is the fifth post on a series I'm writing sporadically while travelling throughout Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in my second trip through Latin America. I'm here to decompress from work & improve my Spanish and maybe get a Jaguar tattoo. Who knows? If you have any tips send them over.
Following on from my previous edition written on my initial experiences in Medellín, this edition is on my walk with the vagabond poet Jean Paul Saumon.
We met in the baking heat around Laurelles, Medellín’s most wealthy urban area. Waiting for him, and regretting taking along my DSLR coupled with the litres of water I had in my bag, I walked around the area admiring the sun-kissed architecture, green palm leaves, and statues with captioning in both Spanish and English (Here Be Ex-Pats).
Upon his arrival, I suggested a local restaurant for lunch. I’d already identified a couple on google maps, and was keen to get some good grub inside me before our inevitably long walk. He looked a little sheepish and asked if I wouldn’t mind walking a little bit to go to an area that he suggested would be cheaper. I suddenly realised that I’d invited a local, and one that had already admitted to me that he was unemployed, to perhaps the most expensive district of the city for lunch. I declared my enthusiasm for trying food at whatever place he suggested, so he happily led me down some streets, describing his writing process and plans once he hit Europe. He wanted to see Italy, Spain, Portugal, London, and Greece. Greece he found especially alluring. “I want to spend a week on the beach with an Adonis from Athens” he said, and smiled widely. I was quite confident he would find one.
Over a Bandeja Paisa, typical lunch of Medellín: beans, rice, arepa, chorizo, plantain, chicharrón (pork belly), avocado and beef, we discussed our mutual artistic influences. He much preferred work that examined and focused on working people: farmers, factory workers, those who’ve been left behind. For this reason he was keen to visit Dickens’ London. I described to him that given the economic conditions currently being faced by many people there, it might not be too far off what he was imagining. I also realised upon dwelling on this topic that a huge amount of the work I consume at the moment is focusing on the super-rich. Familial tensions in Succession happen in plush seats on private jets and yachts; attempting to relax and recuperate on holiday is skewered and lambasted in White Lotus; restaurant habits and expectations are picked over in The Menu; And the absurdities of life on… and off… a super yacht are sloshed around in Triangle of Sadness. I realised just how much we are beholden to, and obsessed with, the lives of those with whom many of us have very little in common; a distraction, one could say, from problems that we might really be facing now or in the future, albeit an entertaining one.
After lunch, he led me downtown, through informal markets selling flip-flops, football shirts and fruit juices. He would greet people along the way in his typical fashion: “ey Parcero, qué más? Como va?” giving them a big smile. I felt he was overjoyed to be able to show off this culture to such a willing listener, and was making full use of the experience to exaggerate each gesture he could for me.
Upon arriving at a church, he pointed out a group of sex workers to me, both female and trans. In his home town of Ibague, he had spent a year living and working with them, working on poetry and delving into their lives. He compared the experience of making art with sex work: you give yourself away to the work, you must let go of your inhibitions in order to satisfy the client. I found it an uncomfortable metaphor, having never spent any time with sex workers and probably not given myself into my work as deeply as he described but for him it felt truthful. Amusingly, he had also planned to become a priest before becoming a poet. Evidently he needed some connection to a higher power, to a life of relative servitude and poverty. The catholic church is homophobic, however, whereas the written word obeys all masters.
At one point we reached a square bulging with Botero statues. The artist was born in Medellín in 1932 (he celebrates his 91st birthday in April), and rose to fame for his proportionally exaggerated figures. He was critiquing Victoria's Secret body standards before it was cool. Medellín, Jean Paul mused, is a city of abundance. Fruit, vegetables, coffee, and now drugs, are plentiful as a result of the favourable climate. There is some doubtless connection too, with the size of the bodies: women’s bums and breasts, alongside male bulging chests and biceps, whether always real or not, were on display wherever you looked. Botero's bodacious style doesn't exist within a vacuum.
Tourism Vs. Reality
I remember how other travellers waxed lyrical to me about Colombia on my first visit, such that I changed my exit flight and opted to stay in Latin America another month in order to visit. When I was first researching my travels, Colombia had appeared too wild, dangerous, to consider going, but word in the hostel bars was the opposite. Jean Paul had something to say about this, too. Juan Manuel Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, declared that “the only risk in Colombia is you’ll want to stay”. This was while he was promoting and funding paramilitary groups disappearing and massacring thousands of people in areas of the country not seen or frequented by tourists. For many years, organisations like the Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM), who had been set up to deal with disappearances during military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, couldn’t believe this could be happening in “one of the most stable countries in Latin America.” The change in the country’s current touristic outlook is a positive one, for sure, but has come at a grisly cost.
We met a friend of his who said he had been dating a campesino - farmer - for two years now. They would meet every Sunday and spend a delicious day with one another and then part. He had his city life, teaching rap to poorer city kids, to return to, and the campesino had to tend to his fields. There’s a queer love story waiting to be adapted… Furthermore, the town where this campesino is from was flooded some years back. A reservoir was constructed, and the people massacred in the name of progress. They still lie beneath. I felt more queasy thereafter drinking the tap water.
Colombian movies - An Aside
Perhaps one reason I’ve really fallen for Colombia over the years is their continued brilliant output in cinema. The work of Ciro Guerra particularly stands out. His 2015 black and white film Embrace of The Serpent follows two journeys made thirty years apart by the indigenous shaman Karamakate in the Colombian Amazonian jungle, one with Theo, a German ethnographer, and the other with Evan, an American botanist, both of whom are searching for the rare plant yakruna. It lingers in the mind long after credits roll. He followed this up some years later with Birds of Passage, a historical epic examining how the narco trade came to the country (hint: United States peace workers were the first customers, and the first mules), focusing on an indigenous group called the Wayuu. It’s a stunning achievement. Monos, released in 2019, is about a group of young people high up in the Colombian mountains, guarding an American woman under their supervision, with unknown orders keeping them there despite their lack of knowledge of what exactly they’re doing. The story takes them from the mountains to the jungle where treachery, violence, and exploration take place. It provides an allegorical depiction of the youth of a nation searching for identity and answers amid a fragile peace, and contains some brilliant performances.
Art as Magic
We finished our day drinking late into the night at the Journalist's Square, naturally an area full of bars and eateries frequented by drug dealers, sex workers, and vagrants. I'm not sure how many journalists were present. There was a bar playing reggaeton at full blast alongside a trendy spot playing techo at an equal volume. It made conversation tough, but I was spent by that point. JP was happily chatting away to some other locals, and thoroughly enjoying himself. I got the impression this wasn't something he found hard, when given the opportunity.
Jean Paul sees art not as a chance to entertain or pass the time, or even as a job, but as a means of connecting with the deeper self; His, and whoever is reading or watching him perform, no matter who they are. He sees it as a form of magic, and that fact is important to him. If we believe of art as magic, we believe it can change things, we believe it can change people. Magic has that power, and so, to the right wielder, does art.
To me something was awakened in me with this meeting. Poetry is something I’ve always struggled with, especially reading it in my head. Sometimes it clicks, but often when presented in context of other work or with a description of its meaning. Here, walking through these streets and experiencing the world from his perspective, I got his poetry when he read it to me. It felt funny, vital, and alive, because this is what he is. It relieved some part of me that wants to be a “serious” artist, and also strengthened another part that wants to take it seriously. It reminds me of a quote I heard recently: “God is sincere, but not serious.”
I came away from Medellín and this magical day feeling that if I had only had this the whole trip, the journalistic purpose of what I wanted to find in Colombia would have been achieved.