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The First Day

In the morning, about 7:30, we awaken to loud noises in the street. “A car backfiring,” I wondered. “You haven’t watched enough TV!,” Joan opines, leaping across my bed to pull the curtain back on the window. In the middle of the street a man stands firing a pistol directly ahead of him. We cannot see what he is firing at. People come running from every direction, all yelling and speaking excitedly at once.  Surely, we think,  someone is about to wrestle the man to the ground and take away his gun. But that does not happen. More people pour into the streets, and the man stands there, the gun now by his side, trembling and saying nothing, while everyone chatters around him. He then walks somewhat shakily to a car and sits in it for a moment. He has dropped something in the street, his wallet and some papers. Another man picks it up and walks over to the car and hands it to him. Everyone else continues to point and yell and mill around talking to each other while even more people appear in the street. The man in the car drives away and only very gradually does the crowd begin to dwindle, some of them taking chairs and ordering coffee in the outdoor cafe that is just opening. We watch from our second-floor ringside seat, waiting for police who never arrive.

Falling back into our humble beds, Joan and I prepare to take cold showers. It is our first day in Colombia.

Hi and Low

At eleven our three student guides arrive with good news. They now know the correct hotel where we have reservations, and yes they assure us, it is safe, and also close to the Colombo Americano.  Juan Alberto still isn’t around, but the students take us to three banks where we learn that we cannot cash our travelers checks. This proves a difficult problem everywhere. Colombia has no American currency. They are very happy to accept dollars, even offering discounts, but we have cautiously brought only a little cash.  The bank tellers make frowning faces at our travelers checks.  Again not to worry, one of Maria’s five sisters knows somebody somewhere who will cash the checks and we troop over to her house to make the arrangements.  Maria’s mother kindly offers everyone lunch and we all sit down to a delicious meal of chicken stew and birthday cake. It is Maria’s birthday. She is twenty. Joan practices her Spanish.

Afterwards the students take us with our luggage to our new hotel, the Nutibara. We are cautioned once again not to go out of the hotel by ourselves. We must wait for the students to come back to escort us wherever we would like to go. The Nutibara is a large hotel in downtown Medellin,  perhaps once grand, but no longer. Everything about it has gone to seed. There is wall to wall carpeting on the cement floors, but it is without padding and uncleanable.  All the walls are in need of new paint and repair. It’s something we notice in nearly every building and home we visit.

It’s hot and we are assured our room is air-conditioned. Indeed, on the wall is a knob with “Hi, Low” written on it. Near the ceiling is a metal vent emitting a whirring noise. However, the room is stifling. We rush to open the windows. This lets in the noxious smell of diesel and pollution from the street as well as the din of traffic and the shrill noise of numerous street venders hawking their wares in a market four stories below. We think this is bad until the evening when the disco across the street begins booming “music.” It doesn’t sound like music because all that comes up is the bass. No one speaks English at the front desk but we manage to indicate that the air-conditioner is not working and, shortly a bellboy comes to our room to show us the “Hi, Low” knobs. Here is hi, and here is low, he carefully explains in Spanish, turning each knob this way and that for our enlightenment, and pointing at the noises (but no air) coming out of the vent. How to explain that indeed the knob does turn from hi to low, but does not make the room any cooler. Two more bell boys (all are men in their forties) are sent in succession to the room with the same results, and finally we manage to communicate that we would like a new room. We are shown five different rooms on three different floors and in each one the hi, low knobs are happily demonstrated to the same effect. It turns out that yes, this hotel does have air-conditioning, and these knobs are the Nutibara version of it - their function is to make noise and that’s it. They do nothing to make the room cooler. We wonder, did they think we wouldn’t notice?  We begin to understand the meaning of “third world.”

Opening Night

Roberto Montoya, a professor of photography at the Universidad Antioquia, contacted us and making further apologies but no explanation for Juan Alberto, took us by subway to his apartment on the outskirts of Medellin. Roberto is gracious and friendly and speaks excellent English.  Unlike the streets and the air, the subway is clean, well lighted, fast, and modern. Roberto serves us tea and shows us around his modest apartment which he has recently purchased. We spend the afternoon talking of photography, books and teaching. He showed me his work and his bare-essentials darkroom and the collection of photocopied books he has made for his students because it is too expensive to buy the originals.

In the days that follow we are taken to dinner by another teacher, Luz Piedad Gonzalez, and Maria Morales shows up to take us to our appointments for speaking engagements and sight seeing and shopping around Medellin. It’s still unclear as to what’s happened to Juan Alberto, and it becomes apparent  that some of the talks and the workshops must be canceled because of his absence.  Nobody appears to be in charge, and we become aware of a slight undercurrent of anxiety about the arrangements,  but we have a pleasant enough time and are relieved at the slower pace.  We even venture out into the streets by ourselves, and take taxis to restaurants, careful not to carry a purse or wear any jewelry as we have been instructed. At the Colombo Americano,  Juan Alberto’s assistant, again apologizes for his disappearance but gives us no further information. “A family crisis,” she says looking at her feet. She handles the details for the various talks and radio interviews I will give in the city and makes sure that I am picked up and escorted on time to each appointment.

At the University de Antioquia nothing has been prepared ahead of time and the staff is in a scramble to see that everything is finished for the scheduled opening.  Everyone is full of good intentions, but like the air-conditioning in our hotel, nothing is quite right.  I am shown mats which look like cardboard cut with a hacksaw and frames with scratched Plexiglas. The labels are often incorrect and frequently placed next to the wrong picture. But overall, the show does not look so bad if one stands back. The museum exhibition hall is big, well lighted and impressive. I am aware that is the best they can do given the economic conditions and lack of budget, and Joan and I try to be appreciative.  We learn that some of the teachers have not been paid in three months. Surprisingly they have produced a handsome catalog to the show. It is attractively designed and printed. There is no original text, (due again to Juan Alberto’s absence) so they have lifted in its entirety the introduction from the catalog to my show two years prior, and of different work. The introduction was written by Robert Sobieszek of the Los Angeles County Museum and was never one I enjoyed much, but there it is translated to Spanish making it look like Sobeiszek had something to do with this exhibition. Even so, the pictures reproduced well, and I have been told the English to Spanish translation adds a new dimension to my work. The opening night of the reception was very well attended.


In the morning Joan and I left for Cartegena, a resort on the north coast. Juan Alberto had already scheduled this part of the trip and I expected to give a talk at a local museum, but no one met us at the airport and we found our way into the city in a taxi. We’ve been told that Cartegena is safer than Medellin and we feel confident enough to find our way around. The hotel where we have reservations proves unsatisfactory, so with the help of Joan’s trusty guide book we make reservations at another hotel, the El Dorado, for $100 a night figuring it couldn’t be too horrible, however, the friendly cab driver insists he knows a better, cheaper place and despite our protests takes us to the home of a friend of his who has a crummy room to rent in his house for $95. We loudly protest in our best phrase book Spanish and insist he take us to our original destination which he finally does, the long way, (we discover later that we are only two block away). He charges us triple fare.

The hotel faced the ocean and was in a huge cement high-rise that outwardly looked OK, but our room reeks of some chemical cleaning agent.  It might have been an airfreshener coming through the air-conditioning, which here, actually works, but what ever it is, it is overpowering. We are too strung out to try to find another hotel, and dropping our bags, opened the windows, which did overlook the ocean. We study our book to figure out how to say, “Please clean the black hairs off the floor of our room while we go to find lunch by the pool.”  The buffet consists of a leatherette carne in a shiny sauce, ossified chicken, queasy rice and three flavors of cool aid. We tasted bits of everything and came away hungry.

I had been given the name of the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Cartegena with instructions to call as soon as I arrive, but with repeated trys there is no answer. Joan and I take a taxi to the Old City where the museum is located and find that it is closed from 12 - 3. It is now 1:30. At exactly three, the museum reopens and with some difficulty interpreting the Spanish of the guard we learn that Eduardo Hernandez is not there now, would not be in the next day, nor the next, in fact would not return until Tuesday, the day we are scheduled to leave.  It is a bank holiday. Everything, including the museum, would be closed. Was he not told of our arrival?

The next morning we checked ourselves into the big beautiful and very expensive Hotel Caribe, also right by the ocean, but clean, unairfreshened, and with HBO TV. We could breath. We have a view of the ocean, a refrigerator in our room, an honor bar, clean sheets, and a big beautiful pool at our disposal. It was hot and muggy, but our room is cool, the bathroom capacious, the water hot, the big double beds comfortable. Hotel Caribe is a “walled city” surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Unlike Medellin, we have no appointments, speaking engagements, people to meet, or students to accompany us everywhere. At first this is a relief.  Because it is a bank holiday, nothing but the hotels in the city are open. We spend our afternoons lounging by the pool or getting massages from the extremely capable 300lb masseuse.  At dinner one night we discover the only other American couple visiting the hotel on holiday from their home in Costa Rica. He is a retired veterinarian who with his wife, must leave Costa Rica every three months before he can settle the papers for permanent residency there. They take advantage of a special deal at the hotel Caribe.  We uncover a six-degrees-of-separation mutual acquaintance in their next door neighbor who is a long time friend of Joan’s - the one person she knows who vacations in Costa Rica.

In the evenings we roam around the old city. People are about and it seems safe enough. On our way back one night we stop to talk to a beautiful young girl and her sister selling weavings and crafts in the street. The two are Ecuadorian Indians, separated from their family and working in Colombia because there is more of an opportunity to make money. We are amazed to find that, Claudia, who is eighteen, speaks excellent English. Poised and articulate, she says she has learned English from her father and practiced in the streets. She has never been to school. Her sister is just twelve. They send what they earn to Equator to their parents and nine brothers and sisters. Each week they receive a shipment of goods from home to sell.  It’s almost midnight and we wonder about these two girls far from their home, alone in the streets.

Through-out our stay we have been besieged by other apparently homeless or destitute people asking for money or offering something to sell. It’s been a big drawback of walking the streets in Cartegena outside the walled compound of our hotel, and we have quickly learned to march purposefully forward to deflect the persistent approaches of men asking for something or pushing jewelry, sunglasses and trinkets in front of us. At sunset we want to walk on the beach by the ocean but find it so dirty and unpleasant and filled with men who come up to us the second they recognize that we are not Colombian, that we turn back.