The jungle had begun to claim the roofless walls and incongruous pillars that lured my eldest daughter. She likes taking photographs of derelict buildings and these ruins on the outskirts of Leticia in the Amazonas department of Colombia were irresistible.
Naturally I couldn’t let her venture in alone, but those voices I’d dismissed as ignorance and prejudice before leaving for Colombia began to stalk me:
‘The Amazon! What do you want to go there for? It’s just jungle and guerrillas,’ a friend from Medellín had said. ‘Dangerous’, ‘deathwish’ and ‘crazy’ were words some associated with our trip.
‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’ I’d reposted.
I’ve always prided myself in my fearlessness and courage (except when it comes to spiders). I’ve never shied away from physical combat when the need has arisen, which was frequently in a previous occupation. No-one has ever physically defeated me, though many have tried. Even shortly before becoming chronically ill, I broke up a fight; and, in a separate incident, dragged a man from beneath a train. It would be fair to say that I’ve suffered from a Batman complex from an early age.
But now, for the first time in my life, I had to face the fact that I was too physically ill to be capable of defending myself and my daughter. This was quite a realisation for me – no intrepid prowess or swaggering machismo was going to get us out of whatever lay in store for us within the ruins. I had to come to terms with the fissures appearing in my Batman complex.
My daughter swiftly dismissed my attempts to persuade her to photograph the ruin solely from the outside and in we went.
Graffiti and rubbish battled with advancing foliage for the dilapidated plaster and crumbling brickwork.
We took a few photographs before realising we were not alone.
The voice that spoke belonged to a wiry, bearded man lying on some flattened cardboard boxes, his few possessions by his side.
‘Come in,’ he said, as if inviting us into his home. There was pride in his voice as he encouraged us to look around. We had a brief chat with him before taking a few more shots. Then I cautiously asked him if we could photograph him.
‘Of course. Shall I stand up or stay here?’
‘No, no, stay where you are. That’s perfect,’ I said.
We took some photographs and another man appeared and wanted to be photographed too. He smiled and laughed as he pressed himself against the wall in his chosen pose.
I spoke a little longer with the first guy. He was a gracious host whose hospitality was humbling. I felt guilty I’d even considered being afraid when I’d entered the ruin. How wrong I’d been! This man who had so little welcomed us with generosity of spirit. He put our curiosity above whatever his own desperate situation must have been.
My Batman complex cut in again – I wanted to ‘save’ him, but I could give him nothing in return. I didn’t even have money on me, not that he asked for any.
There are over 5 million forcibly displaced people in Colombia. I don’t know if he was one of them. I wanted to stay longer – to find out his story, but felt too ill to continue conversing for long. I thanked him profusely and we left.
I can still feel his dark, soulful eyes – expressive of whatever ill had befallen him, but which he put aside to show us courtesy and kindness. I will not forget this humbling experience – a lesson that the unexpected need not be bad, and further lessons in humility and letting go of the Batman complex. Looking at his photograph still provokes feelings of gratitude, respect and connection.
Both the dispossessed and the chronically ill are often invisible in our societies. Maybe this common ground strengthened our connection.
I hope by writing this I can express that connection and validate this man, as validation is all I can offer him. And as a chronically ill person, I know how important that is.