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.