7/31/19 – 8/10/19
From the Gondola that takes you to Parque Arví one can glance into windows of homes just fifteen feet below. Women in bathrobes cooking breakfast, men getting drunk to start the day, children in uniforms skipping down the neglected streets of the hinterlands. Striking to me was the fact that Medellin was the first city in all of Latin America in which the magnanimous application of pastels to housing did not seem to be mandated in municipal code. Instead, undecorated leftover bricks are used to hold garbage bags taped together over leaky roofs and liberally mortared joints overflow with the grey concoction of lime and gravel. Retaining walls of sandbags redirect floods to the road or a neighbor’s backyard. Powerlines and networking cable leap from traditional wooden piles and poles to trees and into homes. As you hit the outskirts, the resonance of traffic is replaced by the breeze and bird chirps. Roads turn to dirt; footpaths wind between rattily front doors. Stray dogs wander wilderness roads. The primitive Colombian highlands; overlooking modern Medellin.
I could see the freeway upon which we’d entered town a few days prior. Carrera sixty three. It looked relatively peaceful. We’d ended up on it by accident and found ourselves stuck dead center in eight lanes of sixty mile an hour traffic as the road we were on merged with the highway to our right unexpectedly.
“Well this is fucked.”
We stood at the nose of where each side’s barrier met. Traffic was coming over a hill not much more than a hundred meters away. It was impossible to see the cars coming and with the rate of traffic a Hail Mary kind of dash seemed to carry a high propensity to end in a Darwin Award. Unexpectedly, a car in the lane behind us stopped and turned its hazards on. Then another in front of us. We tip toed in front of it and tried to peak into the next lane. One by one this repeated and we were ushered to safety on the shoulder. From the gondola I could see the roads with bike lanes and a relatively easy path through the city.
We’d met a guy named Shaun through Couchsurfing and he graciously offered to host us for most of our stay. Shaun and I had quite a bit in common. His mother was an antique dealer and his father a finance guy. We both sported hipster beards. We swapped millennial sob stories about being over paid by companies that we didn’t really feel passionate about and the benefits of taking a year, or seven, “to figure it out.” We’d read the same books. We each had a bag of business ideas that we knew could work, “although I’m just not sure that it’s the sort of thing I want to dedicate my time to.”
We’d both worked for lighting companies and could philosophize into the darkest hours about photons and wave particle duality and how efficacy is sorely overlooked. “I don’t know what it is, but the Colombian culture is just predisposed to dropping a bomb of cold white light in the middle of every restaurant and have yet to implement the finer points of diffusion or the use of fenestration to provide a baseline ambiance.”
For all the similarities though. To me we couldn’t be more different. He had a maid that came once a week to clean the house, make seven days’ worth of meals, and clean his shoes with a toothbrush. I respected this level of tidiness, but also found it difficult to navigate. A box of Angel hair pasta had spilled out of a cupboard I opened and I found myself scouring every corner of the kitchen to make sure I’d found every last piece. After taking my shoes off I realized that my feet must have been dirty and had to mop the footprints I left on the polished marble floors. We both made our own furniture, but he contracted everything out in order to find the best craftsmen and made sure that the end product was exactly as he envisioned. I, on the other hand, have been known grab the saw and the paint and get to work, knowing that I might not have the tools, skills, creativity, or patience to build exactly what I envisioned but that the satisfaction for me was in the exploration. He seemed more in search of the last sofa that he would ever have to own; taking comfort in knowing that whatever else happened, at least he had the sofa sorted out.
Our main plan for Medellin was Spanish classes. We did this for four hours every morning. On top of that, I had a bit of work dropped into my lap that I couldn’t pass up so most of my time was spent on the coffee shop circuit.
We had a bit of free time though and visited Comuna 13. Foreigners are drawn to it as the place where Pablo Escobar was from. We quickly learned that narco trafficking is a part of Colombia’s past and present that most people would prefer not to discuss. Perhaps the Netflix specials don’t do a good enough job of explaining this as I was told off for bringing it up. In 1991 Escobar’s cartel set off more than a hundred explosive devices in Medellin. Low estimates of the number of deaths he was responsible for are often around five thousand. More than 3,500 kidnappings by cartels and paramilitary groups were reported in the country in 2000. In the thirty years from 1985, more than five million civilians were forced from their homes, many fleeing to other countries. All told, nearly a quarter of a million people (mostly civilians) lost their lives over the course of fifty years of internal conflict.
Comuna 13 has transformed into a vibrant tourist destination filed with restaurants, coffee shops, and public art. Most prefer not to discuss those times, but anyone willing to will likely tell a story about someone close to them that was kidnapped or killed. Many people say that those years have left them with a very short term outlook.
“We never knew if we had a future, so we just live for the moment,” one person told me. I asked about places to visit and he said, “Go to Cali, it is the capital of Heaven.”
I watched a parade roll by on one of the streets. A military float rolled past. Soldiers draped in floral necklaces danced to salsa. A man passed bottles of beer to a young woman in the apartment below his for a barbecue. It was hard to imagine what it was like twenty years before.
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