I was pissed when I arrived in Medellin. The bus journey here from Manizales was supposed to take five hours and it took six and a half because we were stuck behind a town’s Saturday night “procession”, the bus driver insisted on keeping his front two windows rolled down completely nullifying any cooling effect the air conditioning might have brought those suffering in the back, a really cute guy sitting in the front got out only an hour into the journey (obliterating my plan to ask for assistance on arrival and thereby become acquainted,) there was a deafening hip hop concert taking place at the bus station upon arrival, and to top it all off, once I’d found the taxi rank, after five or so sweat-inducing laps of the entire bus station with all my luggage, listening to the thwamp thwamp of the loudspeakers and some dude screaming at the crowd instead of singing, it took seven cab drivers before I found one who actually knew where The Black Sheep Hostel was located. Well, he didn’t know where it was. But his response was at least more than a shrug of a shoulder and silent dismissal; he was willing to wait and look at my guidebook map and hear me explain the actual address.
Cab drivers in Colombia, I have concluded, will do anything to ensure that you take a different cab.
Now I’d left the girls at the beautiful Hacienda Venezia because it was Saturday and I’d heard a lot about how legendary Saturday nights are in Medellin – the dancing, the music. It’s supposed to be a really great night out with the locals. By the time I arrived at the hostel it was 8:30 pm, and guess what? They didn’t have my reservation and they were full. So I was sent to the Casa Blanca just down the road – which turned out to be a shitty hostel filled with very pale 18 year old English college students, wearing dirty clothes sitting around plastic tables gulping cheap vodka with Fanta and shrieking with laughter. I enquired around, meekly, to see if anyone was up for heading out on the town, but not getting any response, I decided that I’d had a long day and got a private teeny tiny room and passed out.
I immediately regretted my decision the next day when I re-packed my stuff and checked back in to The Black sheep, only to hear and see everyone talking enthusiastically about what a great night out had been had by all. Well, surely Colombians go out on Sundays too?
No, apparently. They do not.
After finding some breakfast, I asked the sardonic Kiwi at reception for ideas on what I might do on a Sunday in this city. He suggested a walk around The Poblado (the modern side of town where the hostel was located) and a visit to the botanical gardens for a quiet nice afternoon. Since there wouldn’t be much open today, that seemed like a good plan and I quietly also devised a plan to go watch a movie that evening and treat myself to some nice air conditioning, popcorn and diet coke (bliss – a fast cure for the little bit of home sickness I felt for modern life)
I was thoroughly impressed right away by the city. It was clean, modern, bright and had well landscaped public spaces and parks. On this Sunday, the main ‘Avenida’ in Poblado had been closed to traffic and I joined the throngs of joggers, cyclists and families taking a Sunday stroll, visiting a lovely market along the way and relishing a Maracuya juice.
The other impressive feature in Medellin is the Metro. On the walking tour (which I would take the following day) our guide explained that it was the building of the metro that gave this city the glimmer of hope it needed to pull itself out of it’s horrific history of drug violence and murder of the 80’s and 90’s, and give it’s citizens something to be very proud of. And they are – on the metro today you will see no sign of graffiti or trash anywhere. It’s extremely efficient, and what I loved most of all – it connects all neighborhoods with the economic core centers of the city for the same price. This means that someone living in the poorest neighborhood, which is typically far away from downtown, is not forced to pay more money for a longer commute, thereby excluding them from lots of job opportunities.
Why couldn’t they instigate this same concept in, say, London? Or New York?
In any case, I rode the metro each of the four days I was in Medellin and though it still involved a lot of walking to and from each station, it was a highly efficient, though jam-packed nut-to-butt experience. I rode to the Botanical Gardens only to discover that there was some sort of massive music festival going on, together with the typically deafening music and pulsing beat that Colombians seem so attracted to. It was so packed full of people, but I persevered looking for the orchid complex, only to be told that they had been removed for the festival!
So I opted instead to visit the aquarium which also surprisingly was a Science Center, not unlike the one in Seattle or Portland. My cost of admission also included a short movie about the inner world, and entrance to the many exhibits on the science of the human body, reptiles, football and so on.
The aquarium itself was very impressive, focusing mostly on freshwater fish, they had very large tanks full of fish that you might find in the Amazon River, including piranha.
At the movies that night, I got the last seat to the Greg Kinnear flick called “Heaven is for Real”. It was so strange to be transported back to the US and Nebraska culture with a Colombian catholic audience. They seemed to really enjoy the movie, and my aching feet were very grateful for the respite as well.
Upon returning to my hostel (to which I walked from the mall in the dark, feeling surprisingly safe as I did so completely alone) I found the hostel cat, Rufus, asleep on my bed. It was lucky for Rufus that I like cats and we snuggled up all night, waking throughout when Rufus needed more attention and stroking which he indicated with a jabbing paw to my neck.
Once again, I didn’t really connect with anyone in particular in Medellin. I spent most of my days alone or in tour groups, which was fine. I did a walking tour with Real City Tours, which I highly recommend. Their owner, Pablo, has lived and studied in France, the UK and Hungary and at only 26, shows a thriving entrepreneurial spirit that is extremely refreshing compared to the service-absent mentality of almost everyone else here involved in the booming tourism industry.
At 26, Pablo, as well as Paola, the guide I had on my Pablo Escobar tour the day before, each remember very well a Medellin that during their childhood, was the murder capital of the world. Shootings and bombings were daily events. People didn’t go out at night. Everyone lived in fear. Those in powerful positions in the cartels, at that time, were literally untouchable. Anyone that stood in their way, a politician who spoke out for change, a police officer, any man, woman or child that happened to be in the general vicinity of someone they saw as a threat to their flow of substantial drug cash was killed without regard for any consequences. They were above the law. Paola, in particular spoke with an extreme amount of passion about seeing people shot to death on the street, her two uncles among the victims. She is obviously still extremely bitter, and was much less optimistic about her country’s ability to fight corruption still inherent in the system.
Pablo, on the other hand, believes that things are really improving and that there is a future now for the youth of Medellin, a chance to get educated and improve their lives free of that kind of fear. Much of the drug violence has moved up the chain to the distribution phase, the majority of which now occurs in Mexico. Most of the coca plants are now being grown in Bolivia and Peru because it’s cheaper to do so. The city has invested a lot of money into it’s infrastructure and now builds libraries and community centers in neighborhoods that used to be too dangerous to walk through in the daylight.
Of course, Pablo helped to dispel the myth that is still so pervasive in the world, that Colombia is such a “dangerous” country. It’s not dangerous anymore. Sure, there are areas deep in the jungle one would still want to avoid, but here is the issue. Drugs and their production have resulted in the kind of bloodshed that could be likened to a civil war – countless hundreds of thousands have died. However, until the demand lessens or ceases, there will still be a fight to supply. In other words, it could be argued that those that bought and still buy the cocaine (which incidentally is only about 2-3% pure by the time it reaches, say, the States) are the ones with blood on their hands. That’s where the money came from to buy the bombs, the guns, and created the wealth enjoyed the most notorious drug lord of all – Pablo Escobar.
The tour I took about him was very enlightening. Not only did I learn about the Drug trade from this perspective, but out guide also talked about the rich plentiful resources that are still available here in this country. Colombia is number five in the world for country’s with the most freshwater. There are minerals to mine, incredible flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. Including incidentally, Hippos.
What? – you may ask.
Well, along with seeing many of Pablo’s organizations’ buildings, the house where he was finally caught and shot dead, his mansions, and his final resting place (the most visited grave site in South America after Eva Peron) we also learned about his hacienda out in the countryside, which among it’s lavish, opulent staples was a zoo which Pablo insisted should also contain hippos which he had flown in from Africa.
After he was caught, the police seized his compound and rounded up most of the animals and found homes for them all in zoos across the continent. But the hippos were too big to move. They figured that if they just left them, they’d wander off and die from hunger somewhere.
But they didn’t. They survived. And reproduced.
There are now approximately 40 hippos roaming the countryside of north east Colombia and if they continue to do so, will start wreaking havoc on the local animal and human populations.
My time in Medellin wasn’t all learning about history. I also took a private Salsa lesson and hit the dance floor with Lillian and Fabrizio at Eslabon Prendido on Tuesday night. Despite the fact that the place was packed, I was pretty proud that I managed the steps without too much fumbling or looking stupid. I will have to find another place in Bogota later in the trip where there is more room to spread out. I had the typical Paisa dish of “heart attack on a plate” better known as Bandeja Paisa with a couple of boys after the walking tour.
I also learned that the poor service in restaurants doesn’t just stop at the food trying to make it’s way to your table. Every morning, after my Rufus cuddles, I’d plod on down the street to this little coffee shop for breakfast. One day, I just upped and left and forgot to pay! I didn’t realize until that afternoon, at which point I returned to buy a brownie and settle my bill.
They had no idea that I hadn’t paid. They didn’t even care. It was all very strange.
I enjoyed my four days there. I would have to say, that of all the cities I’ve visited in South America – this is the first one that I could see myself living in.