Put San Francisco in a deep valley, replace the cable cars with aerial tramways (‘telefericos’), add an enormous amount of latin joie de vivre, and that’s Medellín. A cosmopolitan city of more than three million fashionable people, Medellîn’s location high in the Andes gives it a year-round temperature more pleasant than that of the coastal city of Cartagena. (‘Medellín’ is pronounced ‘May-dah-jean’ in Colombian spanish, with the accent on the last syllable.)
During the day, the city is busy with industry. The modern light-rail system runs along the river at the bottom of the valley. It is crowded with white-collar workers during the day, and with club-goers at night. The light rail connects directly to a couple of sky trams running up the mountainsides, giving people an easy way up the sides of the valley to the upper neighborhoods. Like many such cities, the higher areas are populated by the less wealthy residents, and the wealthy live at the bottom of the valley. (To understand why this is true, imagine life before motor vehicles. Every night the poor needed to climb up the sides of the valley to their homes, and the poorer you were, the higher you needed to climb.)
Like most tropical cities, Medellín comes alive after the sun sets. The plazas are crowded with people strolling, shopping, and checking one another out. The clubs are filled until 4 in the morning, and no one is afraid to contribute to the party atmosphere. Every coffee shop, bar, or restaurant has a sound system, from humble boom box screwed into a corner to the bone-liquifying systems in the bigger clubs. Walking down the street I enjoy Salsa, Reggae, Cher’s International Mega-Hit “Believe!”™, or a Bob Dylan tune.
Medellín is the home of the artist Botero, known for his paintings and sculptures of fat people. In the Plaza Botero there are a dozen of his larger-than-life-size sculptures of men, women, and animals. At night, the plaza is packed with people talking, cruising, and (in a few cases) selling themselves or looking to purchase some company. The energy is amazing, and I feel like I could move to Medellín just so that I could watch people in the Plaza Botero every night.
Walking around Medellín at night, I wonder if the happiness I see in the faces around me is partially because of the end of La Violencia (1948-1958) and the Colombian armed conflict (1964 to approximately 2005 and ongoing…) During the late 80’s Medellín was a city where the FARC revolutionary army, Pablo Escobar, Los Pepes, the army, and the police were assassinating and bombing one another ruthlessly, with no concern for civilian casualties. The police were corrupt, and anyone who spoke out against any group became a target.
Now La Violencia is over, Los Papes have disappeared, and FARC only operates in a small portion of the Colombian jungle. Despite this, Medellín continues to be a violent city, with an average of 9 deaths per day in 2009. (The homicide rate is increasing yearly.) This may be why the people of Medellín, the Antiogueños, celebrate survival every evening.
The first night, most of our group goes to a nearby Thai restaurant for dinner. The ‘comida typica’ (typical food) in Colombia is fried meat, fried plantains, and a dry arepa (cornmeal patty). The Thai curries are a nice change of pace, and everyone has a good meal on the restaurant patio beneath the awning while a downpour occurs around us.
Afterwards we walk a short ways down the street to Hooters. Yes, the same Hooters as in the states, but with Colombian women in the short-shorts and tight white t-shirts. We drink beer and the waitresses begin lip-syncing to the song “YMCA”. Everyone in our group understands the irony of that. A little later, the Hooters girls do a little jiggly birthday dance for Georg, a Swiss member of our group who has just turned 31.
Santa Fe de Antioquia
Sorin and I decided to take a local bus to the nearby town of Santa Fe de Antioquia. From Medellín, you get there by taking a local bus over to the next valley. We take the Metro to the Medellín Terminal del Norte. Like most Latin American bus terminals, Medellín Terminal del Norte is a chaos of people, donkey carts, and snack peddlers all dancing from one place to another. There are perhaps a hundred bus companies serving the terminal, and we go to perhaps a half-dozen before finding the bus to Santa Fe, which is leaving in three minutes. We buy our tickets and climb aboard.
The bus is nearly full, but there are two open seats up front. We sit in them, but a minute later a woman appears and demands that we vacate her seat. When we look confused she patiently explains that there are seat numbers printed on the ticket. Oh. So we’re at the back of the bus. And there is a very large woman and her daughter in our assigned seat. We stand by the seat, and she looks up at us sadly. We just stand there, gesturing at our ticket. After a few minutes, she sighs heavily, gets up, and squeezes past us towards the front of the bus, where she finds someone else sitting in her assigned seat. This shuffling goes on for a few minutes, and ends when the bus driver tells someone to sit in the co-pilot seat up front. And then we’re off, driving an hour over the mountain.
Santa Fe de Antioquia was founded by the Spanish as a gold mining town. The gold has mostly run out, but the Spanish colonial architecture has been well-preserved. It’s a city both pretty and boring… a grid of start white houses surrounding beautiful inner courtyards, as well as the occasional plaza and church.
We hire a chiva pequeña (‘tuktuk’) to take us to Puente de Occidente, a famous suspension bridge about 6 kilometers outside of town. It was completed in 1895 by the José María Villa, who previously participated in the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a beautiful span crossing the Río Cauca, and it’s easy to see the influences of its big city brother. On either side are walkways, with a wooden planked auto lane in the center, just wide enough to hold a small auto. Some of the handrails have fallen off into the river below, but for the most part the bridge continues to be a safe way to cross the river a century later.
Below us the Río Cauca flows fast, high, and deep brown, carrying the debris of upriver mudslides towards the Caribbean Sea. Sorin and I stand on the bridge in the mid-day sun, watching the river flow by, wondering if we’ll see a dead body. It’s hypnotic.
Our return bus to Medellín starts out with only four passengers. The driver takes a meandering path back, driving through every small town along the route, yelling out the window “Medellín! “Medellín! “Medellín!” One old lady climbs up onto the bus, says something grandmotherly to me, and plops a large bag of very ripe mangos into my lap. The smell coming out of the bag is overpowering and I immediately feel a little queasy. What had she said to me? I didn’t understand any of her mumbled Spanish… she could have said “Please, strong sir, guard these for me. They are my only possession and I am but an old woman.” Or perhaps she said “Could you throw these out for me? They stink like a dead dog in the sun.”
By the time we get back to Medellín Station the bus is full, and the passengers pay the driver as they leave, 3,000 pesos or 5,000 or 4,000, depending on some formula which they all understand. The old woman makes her way off of the bus, says something kindly to me as she grabs her mangos.
Back at the GeoHostel, I set up my computer at the top floor and begin working on this blog post. Our group is in bunk rooms on the first two floors of the hostel, and the third floor is a public area and roof terrace. There is another bunk room on the top floor, occupied by a number of 20-something guys.
As I type this, they’re getting ready to go out for the night. An asian guy is wandering around wearing only a towel, taking a shower in the shared bathroom and emerging in a cloud of cologne. A cute little guy (‘Stepan’) who seems to have ADHD is working on his computer, and the other guys tease him endlessly about his farts during the night. He is bemoaning a woman who he bought drinks for the previous evening, who had vanished without sharing his bed. A woman comes out of the bunk room, and they introduce her to me as “one of your people”, but they’re only joking, she’s from Venezuela.
I ask them how long they’ve been in the hostel, and they tell me that they’ve been there 2-3 months. They’re mostly from Canada, but they met here at the hostel, and here they’ve stayed, going out drinking every night, picking up women. It’s a good life for a 20-something.
There is a tall skinny black man (‘Joel’, pronounced ‘Joe-ell’) and the Venezuelan woman tells him that he should shave his chest, an idea that he rejects. “A woman should accept me as I am!” he declares, in a sort of reverse feminism. At this point there are about a half-dozen guys orbiting around my small table as I type. The asian guy tells the black guy that he should start ‘man-trimming’. Another tall guy starts talking about how much he’s been masturbating, and he hopes that he gets some tonight because he’s getting carpal tunnel. Suddenly the Venezuelan woman yells out “I want the Australian to fuck me in the ass!”
I stop typing. The guys stop their chatter. And then the room erupts. “Oh, yeah, he’d do that in a minute!” “Ooooh, how about me too?” “That’s gotta be better than the wanking I’ve been doing all week!”
It’s very distracting, but thankfully they all disappear at some point, like a flock of birds that are there and then aren’t, and I’m left alone on the top floor, typing these words.
The next day we’re getting ready to leave Medellín, heading to Guatapé. As I sit in the lobby with my duffle, I see the Venezuelan woman walk through the hostel lobby and get into a cab. Though she is wearing sunglasses at 7am, there is no shame in her walk, and I think to myself “Good for you, girl!”