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Friday, May 6,2016

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  

History is like a mountain of knowledge that stands quietly behind us with an abundance of information waiting to be mined by those curious enough to dig. I crave the perspective that the past shines on the present. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know, creating more space for my endless quest to understand the world I live in. It’s a never ending game of connecting the dots for me.


My husband surprised me with a last-minute trip to Medellin, Colombia over spring break. As a teacher of Modern European history, I lacked the depth of knowledge I’m used to on our sojourns. All I knew was that Medellin was ground zero for drug cartels in the ‘80s. My memories of the ‘80s consist of MTV, Madonna and all things neon. Big hair, legwarmers, and vague notions of far away troubles going on in the background like a war on drugs and fighting Communism.

So (and I feel guilty admitting this) we binge-watched Narcos on Netflix before we went. Despite the city’s aggressive efforts to distance themselves from the past, the curiosity of Pablo Escobar’s impact was too tempting to ignore. I read a lot of articles before we left and was excited to visit a city on such a rebound and so proud of its newfound legitimacy and extremely competitive participation in the travel and tourism market.

I found it to be a foodie’s paradise in one of the most gorgeous mountain valleys I’ve ever seen. This, coming from a girl who grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York, so I have a strong prejudice when it comes to such attributes.

Gliding in a cable car above the barrios of what was only ten years ago considered “the world’s most dangerous city”, looking down onto the rickety roof tops and donkeydrawn carts full of avocados and mangos, I saw Escobar’s escapades, catastrophic as they were, as more a product of an earlier era than a situation unto itself. The numerous Misiónes and tributes to the Holy Mother Mary were indicative of an earlier time when the conquistadors of the 16th and 17th centuries wreaked havoc on the native peoples of this hemisphere. And I’m sure it could go deeper. But I digress. Back to the drug cartels.

One thing people who are not addicted to history may not know about the drug cartels of Colombia in the 1980s was that they were a replay of a similar situation in China at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From 1839 until 1860, the Manchu Dynasty of China was conducting its own ´war on drugs.´ There sat big fat China with so much trading potential and yet the trade deficit between Britain and China was so lopsided in China’s favor that the only product they could seem to unload was opium. The dynasty tried desperately to keep the drug out of China, but demand was just too great. Who knows, maybe Reagan and his advisors were history buffs and they saw how the opium trade ruined China’s trading ports and many of its people and decided America could not fall like the Manchu dynasty. That would be a convenient chapter in a history book, but, as with everything, there is so much more to the story.

And that’s what I’m talking about. If you’re still reading, then you are curious. And I’m here to tell you that there are mountains and mountains of stories out there for you to chip away at to gain a broader perspective about the parts that interest you. If I didn’t stop here, I could go on forever. But I’m only allowed a half-page per month. Welcome to my world. The rest is up to you. Happy searching!


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