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Don’t Worry

I was invited this year to exhibit my photographs at the Museo Universitario, Universidad  de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia. The visit had been arranged by Juan Alberto Gaviria, a philosopher by training, and curator of the gallery at the Colombo Americano Center in Medellin. Juan Alberto Gaviria has almost single-handedly headed up an ambitious program of outreach to artists from around the world to visit Colombia. Along with an exhibit of my work at a museum at the university in Medellin, I was also scheduled to give four talks, several interviews, speak on the radio, conduct a four day workshop, and visit three cities. My sister Joan, accompanied me on the two week trip. Neither of us knows any Spanish, but Joan has been industriously studying the Spanish to English phrase book and rehearsing a few key sentences with her Mexican friends.

The news from Colombia is not promising.  Joan and I check on the Internet and find that the State Department has issued a warning to U.S. citizens against unnecessary travel to Colombia. “Violence by narcotraffickers, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country.  U.S. citizens are currently the targets of kidnapping efforts.” Ninety-five US citizens have been kidnapped since 1980, and most alarmingly, “ It is U.S. policy not to pay ransom or make other concessions to terrorists.”

Our friends are concerned, but I know three other artists who have made the trip, (one in the last month) and all report a wonderful experience and are enthusiastic about my going. In the few hurried phone calls I have with Juan Alberto to discuss the fine points of my show, he is always frantic and saying “My boss will kill me if I stay on the phone any longer,” as we try to clarify dates and time and other details. In the weeks before I leave he has come up with one brilliant idea after another about more places I can give talks and the workshops I will conduct until it seems every single minute I am there will be filled. His latest idea is a workshop entitled, “Shooting the Nude at Night,” that he wants me to lead in an abandoned factory.  “At night?” I ask, “I thought it was too dangerous to go out at night?” He assures me that we will be escorted everywhere and that there is nothing to be apprehensive about. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’m taking care of everything.”

All goes smoothly on our flight to Bogota, but at our arrival at 11pm,  there is no Juan Alberto in sight as promised.  Instead we find three young students holding a little sign to greet us. Marguerite, Maria and Jamie take us to a claptrap car of uncertain age and condition, and the five of us squeeze in with our luggage for a long ride around and down a terrifying spiraling road. The city of Medellin is in a valley. The airport is located on the top of the surrounding mountains.

Marguerite’s  little automobile has difficulty huffing and straining up the smallest hill, and seems out of control flying down the many steep grades. She grinds the gears and often cannot shift into second.  We hold our breath as she pumps the brakes careening around incredible curves, apparently uncertain herself if she can slow the car. On a flat stretch heading to a railway crossing, we notice the light turn red, fully expecting her to come to a stop, only to have her barrel on through, the cross traffic screeching to a halt inches away.  “Don’t you stop for red lights?” we shriek. “Oh, not everytime,” the students explain. “Not on weekends,” they laugh, amused by our wide-eyed terror, and then all three apologetic, seeing our trauma.  Worse, Joan and I begin to suspect after several stops and retracing of our route, that they are lost. Though reluctant to admit it, this proves true.

The roads are narrow, sometimes unpaved, and usually without a street lamp.  We wind through many shut-up villages. Mostly the streets are deserted, but sometimes we pass groups of soldiers or a lone man standing by the road. A young man who appears to be drunk, or just playing a joke, jumps in front of our car waving his arms to see if we will swerve at the last minute. Marguerite does. The scenery looks creepy and scary, and in the middle of the night there certainly is not anyone you would want to stop and ask directions, but the students do, and are told first to go this way, then another. Weary, slightly terrified, excited and exhausted, Joan and I sit scrunched in the back seat.

Finally we seem to be on the right road, and Joan and I are relieved to see the lights of what looks like civilization. It is at this point that the three students ask us where we want to go. Where do we want to go?  Surely to our hotel. But which hotel they politely inquire. Hadn’t Juan Alberto told them which hotel? And by the way, where is Juan Alberto?  No, Juan Alberto had not told them which hotel, and so sorry, he could not meet us because he had a “family crisis.”  But not to worry, they say. Do we want to go to a safe hotel or one that is near the Colombo Americano, they ask.  Is that a choice?  The Colombo Americano they explain is in a dangerous part of the city. We opt for safe, and they take us to a hotel in what looks like a reasonable neighborhood, though in the middle of the night, garrulous groups of men and some women are still mingling in front of dark store fronts.

Exhausted beyond speaking, and desperate to get to bed, we convey what we need to the desk clerk,  and accept a small neatly furnished room. The students promise to return in the morning.  Joan and I quickly get out of our travel clothes, draw the blinds against the bright street lights and lively revelers just one story below, and discover that while there is a bath there is no hot water. We don’t care. We are more concerned that the only lock on the flimsy door to the room does not actually lock. The small pin is misaligned to its counterpart on the door jam.  Clearly it has never worked. Whoever installed it has placed the receiving parts a quarter inch in the wrong direction. No jimmying up and down can fix it. We despair of calling the Spanish-only front desk, and tilting an uncertain chair under the knob, fall unconscious into our narrow beds.