Sometimes all you need to do to hear someone’s story is ask. I spent an Uber ride, with an ordinary person, who had been through extraordinary things. She had fled her country, left her children far behind, and hid out in America.
One bright hour, with a woman who had a lifetime of stories.
Latino, in her mid-forties. Seemed like so many drivers I had met and left before. She was cheery, with a calm voice. Like she could break into a whisper at any moment, and you’d have to lean in to hear her. Since it was rush hour she said wanted to go around the highway, and we started chatting about the route. Talking as the new uncomfortable do. Asking about them, but really trying to find out about you, and what kind of situation you’re in. Will this be a fun conversation, or is this person going to attach their particular brand of crazy to my brain stem like some kind of hungry space worm? I’m typically very trusting. My baseline, maybe to a fault, is to assume people are good and interesting, and that I’ll be rewarded if I dive into a conversation with them. I’ve spent enough time traveling alone to have my guard up but look relaxed while I’m doing it. It’s also taught me how to not feel awful about tuning people out if I get a conversation that’s not going anywhere.
There’s a pause in our conversation. I could have done what I’ve done so many times before, and just shut up and sifted through emails for the next 45 minutes.
Me: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Oh, which city in Columbia?”
“Meh-day-EEN”. The way she said it was how a narrator would say it in my head. How a native would say it. Like the way my friend corrected me yesterday saying “Tee-U-wanna”, with “Tee-HWA-na”. I wanted to smack my friend when he did it, but some part of me thanked her for not letting me embarrass myself.
Me: “Is it still dangerous? Did you grow up there? How long have you been in America?” I spewed out my next questions all strung together.
Her: “I’ve been in America for 15 years now. But yes, I did grow up in Medellin.”
This was the answer that let me selfishly uncork. I wanted to know what it was like to be there during the Narco days of Pablo Escobar. What was what was it like to live in a war zone. At ground zero in the 80’s for cocaina, murder, and all the political subversion and terror that came with that drug war. But with all my selfish questions, she was gracious and revealing about herself. When she was young, she had told the father of her children to take her children away from Medellin. To somewhere they would be safe. She had grown up in Medellin while it was a war zone and did not want that for her children.
I was enthralled. Absent minded about where I had come from, or where I was going. Just hoping that she would keep talking and that the drive would go on forever. She had opened a door and transported me (some guy she just met 10 minutes ago) to a past that I can only imagine wanting to run from.
Her: “Some people in Rionegro (the small town near Medellin where Pablo Escobar was born) did love Pablo. You know, I can understand if you give someone food and shelter that they can love you. I can understand this. But what he did to the rest of Columbia, was terrible.” He had brought wealth and security to his family and friends. Made is inner circle strong while taking it away from the rest of the country.
“We all cheered on the day Pablo was killed. I can remember, you know, walking through a shopping mall when I was young where a family had been killed by, by a bomb. The mother and two children all dead, and the father lost his legs… I saw a judge, like a city judge who was killed by a hitman on my street. In front of his house, on the street where I lived. He (Pablo) was a bad man.”
A perspective I now more fully understand. We have glamorized the story of the Narcos in Columbia. To the level of fable, maybe to some even hero worship. But actually living through something like that would take all of the glamor out of it, and leave you with the cold reality of the decisions you have to make. To protect yourself, and those around you.
The same questions that you may have right now, were nagging at me. Why couldn’t she go with her kids? Why didn’t she leave Medellin with them, and why would she come to America? And now, 15 years later had she seen them or been back to her home country.
(To be continued…)