Category Archives: Travels

art is a war 7

It was too early to check into my room, but the hostel I was staying at let me put my bags behind the desk.  After traveling across America a few times in the past three weeks and then lying on the floor of an airport in Panama all night, I was shot.  It is important to remember that when you are traveling, especially the first day of your trip, when you are disoriented and feeling vulnerable.  You need to sleep before making any big decisions.  Don’t change all your money at once or commit to a package tour you might regret.  Rest up, get your bearings, and then figure things out piece by piece.

The boy I’d asked directions from on the bus had mentioned something about the playa, which had confused me, since that means beach in Spanish.  What he’d been talking about was the neighborhood, Las Playas, that the hostel was in, which proved to be the historic district after all once I set out on foot to explore it.  Calle 51, the street outside the front door, was lined with busts of influential figures, ranging from educators to politicians and poets.  It was also lined with homeless men of the most bedraggled and despondent variety.  On my recent trip through the States, the plague of homelessness in some of the major cities had disturbed me greatly.  Now I could see that the crisis wasn’t reserved for America alone.  Some of the figures I came across were black with filth, barely recognizable as humans.

Following the street downhill, I came to a few casinos, and then a pedestrian mall where vendors sat beneath large umbrellas, hawking everything from watches to sunglasses, used books to mangos.  In a square outside a cathedral, across from a metro station, a group of four men with guitars sat facing each other playing folk music with a small audience huddled around their shoulders. 

As I walked back in the direction of the hostel, the sky was threatening rain.  It was still too early to check in, but a new woman working at the desk let me do so anyway, showing me a room with two bunks and its own bathroom.  Each bed had a small fan attached to it.  When I got into one of the lower beds and turned it on it roared like a little engine.  A few minutes later someone came in and began moving into the bed next to me.  I was aware of their presence, but floating in a pool of exhaustion.

When I got up, I was sickly anxious, but it was time to begin my big project.  On an external drive I had three hundred songs, three hundred poems, and about 20,000 images from my thirty years of traveling.  They didn’t represent all of my work, but perhaps the best of it.  I’d spent the previous winter in Guatemala, just narrowing it down to that.  My goal was to put together one gallery of song lyrics and one of travel poems, with an image to match each piece of writing.  My aim was five hundred pieces in total, but was willing to accept less if the quality began to suffer. 

I had never had a career in the arts or a reputation as a writer, even though I’d devoted my life to traveling off into the unknown in search of experiences that would make for rare songs.  That was fine with me by now, but I still wanted to create some kind of gallery I could direct people to if they ever asked about my work. 

Where to even start?  Well, there is only one place and that is the beginning.  All of my twenties, when I was traveling mostly in America, I made it a point of pride not to take any photos, claiming that all the pictures I needed were the ones in my mind.  I was later sorry for that attitude as I have almost no documentation of those wild, lonely years.  

In my thirties, I was teaching at an inner-city school in Los Angeles, and went on many long trips with the cheapest 35-millimeter camera you could find. Out of the seven or eight rolls I’d shoot, I’d usually have enough good pictures to fill one little album.  I’d scanned all of those, but many of them were washed out or sat crooked on the screen. 

When I was in my forties and had begun teaching abroad and living out of a suitcase, I got my first digital camera.  From that point on there were way too many pictures, pictures that I’d never even seen until my organization attempt in Guatemala.  The challenge now would be to narrow down five hundred of them that fit my words.  I wasn’t sure I had the objectivity to do so.

There wasn’t much of a common room at the hostel.  A chair across from the reception desk would become my office, so to speak.  Someone would later ask me if I was a businessman, seeing me hunched over my laptop night and day.  Yes, I would tell them, the worst businessman who has ever existed.  All I’d ever wanted was to give my product away for free, and even then, there’d been no takers.

art is a war 8

When I woke up it was hard to tell what time it was or even where I was.  There was only the faintest daylight at the window.  Then I started piecing things together.  I was no longer on a train, hunched over two seats with a sweatshirt under my head, nor was I in Florida.  Somehow, I’d made my way to Colombia and was in a small room.  I’d turned off the fan at the foot of the bed when my roommates had come in, as it was making more racket than a fighter plane, but now the air was unbearably humid and still.

There was a free breakfast up in the kitchen: hard-boiled eggs, bread, fruit, and coffee.  I went up with my laptop to try to come up with a plan.  This was a trip like few others.  Unless I found a job quickly, I had nothing to get back to.  That and the fact that I was now living on a credit card, made it hard to conceive of fun as an option.  No, this was more of a war, being fought in the jungle of my mind.  The only thing at stake now was my dignity.  The future had been ransacked and the past was lying in tatters.

Colombia is a country with a long history of conflict.  Like all of the Americas, it was first occupied by indigenous groups – the Muisca, Quimbaya, and Tairona – before the discovery of the New World by Columbus, in 1492, shattered their paradise.  The first Spanish settlement established on the Caribbean Coast was Santa Marta, in 1525.  From there the inland expansion began, based on rumors of gold.  By 1549, the capital of New Granada had been declared in what is now Bogota.

Independence from the Spanish came at the hands of Simon Bolivar and Francisco Santander in 1819, inspired by the recent freedom movements in America and France.  Their followers would go on to become the Conservatives and the Liberals, and the difference in their ideologies would lay the framework for the next two hundred years of unrest.  Three military coups would take place during that time, as well as two civil wars, the Thousand Days War, at the turn of the 20th century, and then La Violencia, in the 1940s and 50s, in which over three hundred thousand people were killed.

Shortly after, rebel groups began to spring up, the FARC, ELN, M-19, each believing that they were fighting for the rights of the poor and dispossessed.  Then in the 1980s, the situation grew even more complicated with the rise of the powerful drug cartels.  In 2016, a peace accord was signed between the government and rebel groups, but I’d been told that the struggle still goes on in remote villages, hidden away in the mountains, far from the urban areas.

With the war that was going on within me, Colombia seemed like the right place to be.  I would need to remind myself every day that life is never easy, that there’s always a fight going on at some level.  Nothing worth having was ever just handed over without some degree of resistance.

After mapping out a possible itinerary, both for my week in Medellin, and destinations to follow, I returned to the same square I’d been to the day before, Parque Berrio.  One group of musicians with amplifiers had a crowd of ten to twelve dancing couples swirling around them.  Venturing further, I discovered an enormous outdoor market beneath the Metro, where the energy was almost savage.  Junkies lay strewn all over the ground like corpses.

It started to cloud up and rain on my way back to the hostel, and just as I got to the door it really cut loose.  There was a hammock on a balcony overlooking the street that I sat down in, listening to the thunder, sounding like it was sliding down from the mountains, and watching the flashes of lightning.  What I was experiencing was more than just the elements.  It was the cannons of war, blowing a hole through my pain.  For the next fifteen minutes or so, I would be happy to sit there and just exist.

art is a war 9

Almost everyone who visits Medellin ends up at Comuna 13 at some point.  Once one of the most dangerous ghettos in the world, a hideout for gangsters and guerillas, its fortune began to change in 2002, when the president at the time, Alvaro Uribi, launched a full-on assault on the neighborhood, bringing in 3,000 troops and helicopters.  Then in 2011, a series of escalators were installed, to help improve the mobility and morale of the residents.  That brought the children and artists out of the woodwork, and now the area is famous for its street art and festive atmosphere.

One of my roommates, an African now living in France, had taken a tour of Comuna 13, and admitted that he would’ve preferred to go it alone, but that it was difficult to get there on foot from the Metro station.  When I looked it up, I saw how this might be the case, but wrote down the directions, which included a dozen twists and turns.  A woman from the hostel had a Metro card she let me have, and I went to the corner store and put 30,000 pesos on it, which sounds like a lot, but only came to about six dollars. 

From Parque Berrio, I took the B train to San Javier, and got out with the directions in hand, only to find twenty or thirty guides standing around, trying to hustle up customers for a tour.  When I couldn’t even find the first street, I loitered around, eventually approaching a couple who were deciding rather to pay for a tour or not.  They were waiting for someone’s brother to arrive, who apparently spoke fluent English.  Rather than joining them when he finally showed up, I merely followed them, onto a bus that was parked around the corner.  Five minutes later and we were dropped off at the entrance to the commune.

Street art is my favorite kind of art, not the angry scrawl of graffiti, as much as the recent movement of murals, both beautifying and challenging public spaces.  In his Futurist Manifesto, the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti threatened to destroy all museums.  It’s a sentiment I can relate to, as I always believed that art belongs to everyone, not just those who can pay to see it.  It’s what attracted to me to folk and old blues music, as well, in that it was made in a very democratic manner, by people who had no ulterior motive outside of celebrating the moment they were living in.  In the absence of technical proficiency, all I’d ever been able to aim for was honesty, and I admire anyone who does the same, no matter how crude the outcome.  In recent years I’ve often lost myself in the living galleries of street art popping up around the world.  It is folk art done up on a high, magical plain, with a power that can’t be contained inside a building or a frame.

Ascending the stairs that led to Comuna 13, was like entering a fantasy world, populated by eagles, space embryos, burning jaguars, visionary elders, serpents, honeybees, DJs, and mystical children, and that was before I’d even reached the first elevator.  I continued on past thumping human hearts, electric roosters, dancing fruit, inflamed lovers, and creatures that had never existed before coming to life on these walls.  There were bars to stop at and meals to eat, but I was just walking.  Once I began passing from escalator to escalator, the ascent to the top was fast.  From there you could see miles of red rooftops, stretched out below.

I’d seen that tours to Comuna 13 also included cable cars, but those were separate, an actual part of the transit plan, as opposed to an amusement park attraction.  To get to them, I had to return to the Metro station, but then was able to use the same card I’d used for the train to get on a cable car and go swinging out above the streets.  A couple sat across from me, blocking most of the view.  That was OK.  Just to be that high, looking down at what I could see, was exhilarating.  Some of the houses below were only being propped up by shaky looking wooden stilts.  It seemed like the slightest tremor could cause whole neighborhoods to come crashing down.

art is a war 10

My Haunted Rock YouTube channel and WordPress blog have long been the elephant graveyards of my dreams.  It’s where they all go to die.  In theory it sounds like a good idea.  Travel off into the unknown with an instrument.  Don’t force anything.  Document the unexpected things you happen across.  Let the words come as they do.  Make field recordings that are low-fi, but authentic.  Mix them up with images from the journey.  Put them up on social media to deafening silence.  Drive the nail in the coffin by making an announcement on Facebook.  Repeat.

It was better in the days before the internet, when it was only records and magazines.  At least then I felt like I had a chance.  I’d read an interview with an artist and think I was kind of like them.  All I needed to do was get in touch with the right people.  By the time I got any attention for my work, and by that, I mean a very small amount of attention, it was right at the end of the print age, where sales were still driven by physical copies as opposed to downloads and streaming. 

I’d made a record with a few friends and had gotten a list of critics and radio stations from the mail-order distributor that had agreed to take on my project.  I sent a few hundred CDs to people on the list, and had been over the moon when I started getting some positive reviews.  What I was to discover, however, was that many of the critics who claimed to like the record and independent radio stations that were playing it, didn’t have a much bigger audience than I did, and that was none at all.  It felt good to get some affirmation, but nothing changed.  After a few weeks the small wave of attention passed and it was like it had never happened.

Since I couldn’t afford to make records that no one was buying, I decided to focus on poetry, since I could do it by myself.  I traveled around the world, only writing what came to me and then recording it live, on streets, buses, airplanes, trains, in hotel bathrooms, tombs, churches, anywhere I could find an ambient atmosphere.  The indifference to the videos I made out of these efforts almost bordered on hostility.  I concede, my work was rarely riveting, but didn’t anyone else out there feel the same way?

The answer perhaps is that everyone was too busy creating and sharing their own content, even if that was just selfies and memes, to care.  What is gained by likes, outside of an ego-stroke.  It becomes an exchange.  You like their post so they’ll like yours back.  You post a selfie and everybody likes it.  You put up a four minutes song and no one bothers to respond.

What was the point then?  What was I now trying to accomplish by creating two galleries of images and words?  I guess I was trying to prove to myself that I’d done what I set out to do.  As a young man, I was always telling everyone my plan was to ramble, that I’d need at least twenty-five or thirty years under my belt before I might have something to say.  It had always been about having real experiences, adventures as you will, that might have made for difficult times, but later made for great stories.  No one had cared about my mission statement back then.  Did it matter what they thought about it now?

I often think about the last days of Che Guevara.  Everyone loves the picture of the young Che in his black beret.  When he was finally captured in Bolivia, however, only managing to attract a few followers for his latest revolution, he was bedraggled and delusional.  They shot him like a dog and paraded his body around for the press.  How many people would read his Man and Socialism in Cuba manifesto if it appeared on Facebook?  Probably not very many.  How many would like the picture of him in the black beret?  There would be too many heart emojis to count.

art is a war 11

Even though they were different men with entirely different motives, Pablo Escobar has nearly achieved the same stature in pop culture as Che Guevara has.  He killed and hurt a lot of people on his way to becoming the king of cocaine and wealthiest criminal in history, but is also seen by some as a Robin Hood figure, someone who stole from the rich to help the poor.  In Colombia, you see his image emblazoned everywhere.

The second most popular tour in Medellin is the Pablo Escobar one.  Here they pick you up, take you to the neighborhood where he grew up, to another where a famous car bombing took place, to the cathedral where he allegedly went to bless his bullets, to the building where they finally shot him to death, on a rooftop, and lastly, to his final resting place at the Cementerio Jardines Montesacro.  I asked my roommate, the African living in France, if he’d been on the tour, but he wasn’t interested in that kind of thing.  I was only a little interested.  All the pictures I saw of the tour showed the tour members posing like they were the real gangsters.  Now that I knew something about the Metro system, I figured I could make it to the cemetery on my own.  That would be enough.

The cemetery was not difficult to find.  It was just taking the A train, the blue line this time, to the Sabaneta stop and then walking a quarter of a mile.  I could see the cemetery from the platform.  Once I got inside, however, I had no idea how to find Escobar’s grave.  I asked a security guard and he led me over to a chapel where a service was taking place.  The grave was right beside it, not only that of Escobar, but those of some of his family members as well. 

Two guys from Bucaramanga approached me as I was standing there.  They were in town for a Daddy Yankee concert and dressed in hip-hop fashion.  I didn’t know if that meant they were down with gangsters.  Apparently, not.  When they asked to take a picture with me, and I jokingly flashed a gang sign with three fingers, to represent the three of us, they solemnly informed me that Escobar had been a terrorist.  I asked them if they liked Bad Bunny.  They didn’t like Bad Bunny either, only Daddy Yankee.

When I got back to the hostel, there was a girl lying down in bed, already hungover.  She’d had to transfer from another hostel and didn’t get up until the next morning.  By now I’d established my space as being the chair in front of the reception area.  People thought I was very serious, perhaps sitting there writing business proposals.  What I was doing was looking through old pictures, starting at the beginning, trying to find matches for the song and poem galleries I was working on. 

Some of the pictures I knew well and had used before, the Haunted Rock one from Machu Picchu, the Li River and umbrella in China, the image of Kali in Kathmandu.  It was easy to track those down and file them away.  Others were not so obvious, not at first.  I had to keep all the pieces of writing in mind and then recognize a match when I saw it.  After too long, none of the pictures looked good anymore, and the words began to sound uninspired.

It was the rainy season, so every afternoon it had rained, long and hard, and then cleared up in the evening.  That continued to be the case.  When the rain finally stopped, I went out looking for something to eat.  There was a place with broasted chicken on the corner.  I ordered a quarter chicken, which came with two small potatoes, and arepas, which are something akin to tasteless biscuits.  After I’d finished eating, I was approached by a homeless man, who basically demanded whatever was left on my plate.  I had no problem with that.  He took a few bones and started crunching them between his teeth.

art is a war 12

A woman from the Netherlands was looking for someone to go to Guatape with.  The main attraction there is a giant stone with steps to the top.  Not only was it a Sunday, the next day was a holiday, Dia de Raza, which combines Columbus Day with a celebration of the indigenous population of Colombia.  Someone suggested that the traffic might be badly impacted, but the woman was set on heading out anyway.  I decided to wait a few days and go when I bought my ticket to Cartagena, since buses to both places leave from the same station.  That gave me the day to mop up what I hadn’t seen of Medellin already.

There was a park close to the museum that I’d strolled through a few times.  It was full of graffiti and murals, and a dirty river ran through it where young people squatted on the banks, drinking beer and smoking weed.  A little further along was a museum called the Memory House.  It dealt, largely in conceptual terms, with the country’s long history of armed conflict, as well as the thousands of people who simply disappeared during that time, and have continued to do so, even after the signing of the peace accord.  There were glass boxes of small possessions that had been left behind, as well as a spinning wheel with the manifold consequences of having someone you love just walk out one day, never to return.  In one dark room, pictures of individuals and families appeared on television screens that then went blank.

Exiting the museum on the ground floor brought me back to a trail that ran around the park.  In one dark corner of it, beneath a freeway underpass, was a small homeless village, where beyond just importing easy chairs and couches, someone had scraped together the means of running an auto-repair shop.  This was all done beneath a mural of a grimacing skull, decked out in a bandana and baseball hat.

Walking in the direction of Parque Berrio, which by now had become a daily routine, I happened across a standoff between a homeless man and a few attendants of a parking lot.  They had evicted him from the premises, but he came back with a piece of scrap wood, threatening, perhaps, to teach them some respect.  He advanced with his stick and they all stepped back, but then they surged forward as one to force him back into the street.  Later I was to see the same man with some fresh scrapes, confronting another homeless man and following him down the street, recycling the same insults and challenges that hadn’t worked on the attendants.

Up until now I hadn’t gone beyond the outdoor market beneath the Berrio Transit stop as the intensity of it acted as a sort of natural border.  Breaking through on this day, however, made me glad I had because it brought me to Plaza Botero, where dozens of the fat sculptures that are the artist Fernando Botero’s signature design clutter the square and create a festive environment for visitors looking for photo ops.  A fat woman on the back of a fat bull, a fat angel, a fat hand, a fat cat, a fat couple facing each other, a fat dog, a fat horse, a fat mother with a fat child on her knee, any creature conceivable, made fat and thereby recognizable as a Botero.

Also on display, outside of the Museo de Antioquia, interspersed with the sculptures, were hookers of all ages and stripes, creating their own outdoor gallery.  A few of them, curled up inside one of the sculptures, called to me.  Others in doorways made kissing faces from a distance.  One, as voluminous as a Botero, a priestess in high heels, stood in my way, determined not to let me pass.  If they could’ve seen my bank account, they all would’ve scattered like flies.

On my return, the folk musicians with the amplifier were at work in front of the Metro, getting people to dance.  In a corner, three guitarists stood facing each other, still working on their act.  One old man with a Bible and microphone was delivering a sermon to those seated on the steps leading to the station.  Another woman, perhaps a healer, had those in a circle around her with their hands raised over their heads.

That night at the hostel, I talked to the girl who’d been determined to visit Guatape.  She said because of the traffic it had taken her six hours just to travel one way, and that by the time she arrived she’d needed to immediately hop on one of the last return buses, so she hadn’t even been able to make it to the top of the famous stone.  That had been a bullet dodged.  There are reasons to travel alone.

art is a war 13

It was not my first time in Colombia.  I’d been there in 2008, right before quitting my teaching job in Los Angles and dropping out of society for the next fourteen years and counting.  Back then I’d flown into Ecuador and traveled overland all the way to Cartagena and back.  The government had only recently signed a peace treaty with FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the atmosphere had still been tense.  Traveling though the high mountain roads there’d been numerous military checkpoints, and you were never really sure whose soldiers you were talking to. 

Now the plan was to return to Cartagena once again.  The final thing I wanted to do in Medellin was to go see Guatape, but after hearing how bad the traffic had been that weekend, and fearing more of the same over the holiday, decided to go on the same day I checked out of the hostel, and then take the night bus to Cartagena.  By then I’d passed the Terminal Transporte de Norte a few times on the Metro, so knew how to get there on the blue line.  Buses to Guatape left every twenty minutes.  Before hopping on one, I tracked down a company that serviced Cartagena and bought a ticket for a bus leaving at ten that night.

It is common in Latin America for traveling salespeople to hop from bus to bus.  Usually, they are selling food, which they carry in baskets or coolers.  If it is a product, like toothpaste, they usually have a speech attached to it that they will launch into once the bus starts moving and they’ve had a chance to hand a sample to everyone, whether you’re interested or not.  After wrapping up the pitch, they come back around, either taking back the samples or collecting money from those they’ve convinced to make a purchase. 

On the bus to Guatape, a boy rapper got on with a beatbox and personalized rap for everyone onboard. The ones who couldn’t bother to give him a few pesos got the biggest laughs when he managed to rhyme cheap with whatever physical characteristic most defined them.  I was too easy a target.  I almost threw money at him to avoid getting called out, and in return just got a fist bump, as opposed to becoming the unwilling star of a clown show.

It only took two hours to get to Guatape, and I was doubly glad I hadn’t gone two days earlier, only to sit in traffic for six hours.  You could see the famous rock from a long way off.  It’s six hundred and fifty feet tall and surrounded by a man-make lake, the result of a dam that made peninsulas and islands of the countryside thirty years earlier.

The bus dropped us off at a stairway, surrounded by a few vendors and food stands.  These were the stairs just to get to the rock, not to climb it.  It wasn’t far to the entrance, but was all uphill.  Just walking a little way, however, you could already see the lay of the lakes and the land below, both different shades of green, the water almost emerald.   It was a cloudy day, but not a rainy one.  It could’ve been a tropical planet in a science-fiction movie.

Reaching the parking lot and entrance, the rock was now right in front of me, at the end of a strip of restaurants and gift shops.  A metal staircase ran like a zipper all the way to the top.  The fee to climb it was twenty thousand pesos, about four dollars.  All in all, there were over seven hundred steps.  Right away I got busy.  There were a few viewpoints along the way to stop and take a picture or catch your breath. 

At the top there was a platform where you could look down on the land from four directions.  One man was having his girlfriend take pictures of him from every angle.  I’d already waited for him once.  Now he was at it again, not smiling, just looking cool for the camera.  I brushed past him for one quick shot and he turned very serious, saying would I mind, they were trying to take a picture.  I told him I didn’t mind.  He’d taken many pictures already.  At that point he just stared, but I shrugged it off.  There’s a difference between taking a picture and staging a photo shoot.  I wasn’t going to try to explain to him what that is.

The bus back to Medellin was full, with some people standing in the aisle.  At one point I tried to meditate, but must have dozed off because the next thing I knew the man next to me was stuffing his jacket into the space between us.  About ten miles outside of the city, the traffic began to back up.  I still needed to take the Metro all the way back to the hostel, grab my bags and then return to the terminal to catch the night bus to Cartagena.  My legs and lower back were aching from the climb.  It almost seemed like too much to process.