Death, baby! Death.
That’s what’s was on my mind here in the unmanly station of second seat on a moped hurtling down a rolling Colombian highway, somewhere in Medellín.
But beyond the mild seating indignity is the discomforting presence of twelve chainlink fence posts sitting in the truck bed to the front left of us.
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The posts in the truck bed are a mere arm’s reach away, as Colombian roads are much narrower than I-95, and the vehicles are smaller than the Ford F-150 by a long shot. The hollow ends of the fence posts are dark as gun barrels; they seem capable of lance-like flight at a sudden stop. This helmet with its scratchy visor simply isn’t enough.
Cars and trucks merge on and off the highway with all the order of popcorn kernels on a red burner rocketing upward to burst and bloom.
Now Colombia’s mountains are a joy to see, a delight to hike, and no doubt a thrill to motorbike through, but second seat gives you no control over your fate, it’s more of an act of surrender to each steep tilt and turn.
Why then, am I here? I was promised a monumental and world-famous piece of Colombian history, something I would never forget seeing. My friend and guide at the hostel, Andy, told me about it, but he didn’t tell me exactly what it was or where we were going. Who can say no to a mystery? Off we went.
We finally shoot off an exit and roll onto commercial streets, followed by a short road with little development on either side of it.
Surprisingly, we then pull into the parking lot of a church and park there. Where are we going? Confession?
We walk around to the back of the church to a cemetery.
“Now you will come face to face with a man who shaped this nation.”
We walk over well kept grass, then a border of black marble with white patterning, then a bed of white polished stones till we finally come to a black headstone with cursive gold lettering.
“Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.”
Here they are, six feet below. The bones of a guy who drowned Colombia in blood. The wealthiest criminal in history.
Now here I am, a Gringo whose mental image of Escobar is the Netflix actor more often than his historical face, but our fellow visitor to the grave feels much closer to Pablo.
The other visitor is a bald, heavier guy in an old collared nightclubbing shirt, jeans, and black dress shoes. He is keying himself up, tipping forward on the balls of his feet, trying to absorb the atmosphere around the grave.
He speaks suddenly, his story bursting out of him like shaken up soda. Must be something about my appearance, because he knew to use English.
“I am Escobar’s blood,” he says. “I am his nephew.”
Andy the guide and I nod, and give him a little space.
“Yo brother, this guy’s trash,” Andy mutters to me. “Every bastard in Colombia calls himself the son of Escobar.”
Maybe he’s Pablo’s blood and maybe he isn’t, but pacing and prowling around the white stones on Pablo’s grave, the so-called nephew is surely hunting for a haunting, the type of haunting that will bring him, perhaps, a little respect.
Nephew baldy seems to think Pablo is Scarface or Don Corleone, the type of gangster he can admire on the far side of a flatscreen.
And admittedly, it is hard to process that here lies the grinning coke warlord who murdered nearly the entire Colombian police force in a single night and bombed randomly targeted pharmacies. After all, if Pablo couldn’t have the whole world, no Colombian could have baby formula. It’s difficult to believe it was all real, and not too long ago.
But if Escobar’s tomb by day is chilling and suspect, consider the following scene by night.
Same church, same graveyard, bright moonlight shining on the same white pebbles, and black marble border. But around midnight, a gathering begins. Do you hear the chainlink fence rattling? Figures in hoodies are clambering over it. There’s a low murmur of hoarse voices. Pablo’s acolytes are assembling for a street seance. Andy is hanging back eagerly yet uneasily, as am I.
The guys in hoodies walk up to Pablo’s grave, and unzip their backpacks. Out come clinking, tubular glass objects. A flick of a lighter, and orange firelight show some of the objects to be Virgin Mary and Lazarus candles, and others to be 40 malts. One incense stick in a sandalwood board with a curled end. Flame for wicks, for the incense tip, and a blunt which they pass to the left in their circle.
Now silly with liquor and screwy with weed, they sit in dark communion with Pablo’s bones. With enough chemical distortion, it seems believable that Escobar’s ectoplasm will ooze out between these white polished stones. He will give you a Mercedes and me a speedboat, and we will all live in penthouses. He will be our father, he will once more be El Patron. We have nothing and he had everything, and for that magic trick, we will ignore his every wrong.
Like for nephew baldy, Pablo is something of a folk hero to them. But if you ask most Colombians, under these polished white stones are the white coals of Hell.
Well, burn all the candles and blunts you want, it doesn’t look like any ghosts are coming out tonight. But what does manifest is sidelong looks, and a cold, weighty sense that Andy and I do not belong here.
So quietly, we leave.