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Hitchhiking in South America from Florida flight to Medellin Colombia and crime.

How I Went From Safety with Granny to Danger with Sammy to Forgetting at Party

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Bogota, Colombia - 11, Friday, March 11, 2011


Back on the road. Go.

    Goodbyes are quick, because we seem to be only ever going and going and then were gone. It is not my own obsession with the Now, it is humanitys. The tyranny of the Time. And forever human dreams of frozen watches under a plaster sky. What has happened and what will happen are endless, like a salt sea on a scorching hot day, bands of heat blurring the horizon, such that you cannot tell where the world ends and the heavens begin. Yet that is important, because we are all going to die. Our end; it is our merciless awareness of it that keeps the clock always ticking ticking tock. And so goodbye mom and dad, goodbye winter, goodbye city, goodbye friends, and goodbye romantic dreams hidden by the times!

    I boarded a flight with a soar throat. That's a horrible thing to do, but there was no choice in the matter, I was leaving and the plane would have to deal with it. At midnight the doors opened and the tropical heat blasted my face and reminded me of hotter times from earlier along on this voyage. Times like when I was snaking my way along the coast of Mexicos states of Michoacn and Oaxaca, railing on unyielding coastal curves in the back of pickup trucks, smiling at the thought that my journey was so bizarre. Do you ever stop to just think how you ended up where you are? And then, when that thought crosses your mind, did you try to think back to all the other times in years past you caught yourself standing alone somewhere, thinking the very same thing? What it would be like years from then? Wondering what it would be like if your younger you met you now?

    Alas Florida it was and then taxi ride to my grandmothers house in one of the gated communities of the Naples area. Growing up, we visited my relatives in Ohio perhaps once a year. Of course it was never enough. But we were so far away! Distance, though, is a relative thing; relative, that is, based on the time youre willing to spend getting from A to B. Needless to say my understanding of distance has changed somewhat.
    I call my grandmother Granny. Shes a very simple and very sweet woman. I stayed with her for four days. I drove and we went and saw the sights; the docks, the shops, the grand avenue of incredible excess in million dollar mansions. We saw the beach and I shied away from the frigid water.

Downtown Naples
South Naples Downtown. Source.

     Granny doesnt get along with electronics, and her childlike responses to the mysterious workings of the VCR make me smile. I showed her the eject button on the remote and as the tape came out, she cried with excitement and wonderment, Up! Why there it is!
    Granny could talk family for hours. We talked about second cousins I never met and she remarked, well the boy looks a little like his father, unfortunately, but sometimes the genes just dont come out how you want em to. Part of my Grannys wonderfulness is that she just says the darndest things, like her choice of words: Theres mutilated ice cream if you want I dig out the chocolate chips see. Or calling a box of peanuts by their brand name: do you want to try one of my Nut Clusters? The whole time I was there I had to suppress my urge to blurt out Yeah thats what she said!

    Alligator Alley is the i75 corridor that connects Naples with Fort Lauderdale. Granny dropped me off, still unconvinced that hitching will work here in south Florida. She left. 15 minutes passed before a big pick-up truck hauling what turned out to be a staircase tied down to the trailer (and which pulled the truck from side to side violently when we got goin too fast) pulled over on the ramp and I hopped in. Billy had a wavy blond Mohawk, and was convinced to pick me up because he thought my sign was funny. It read Tokyo.
    The drive was a swift two hours, punctuated by several stops to check the straps of the giant metal apparatus. Alligators were everywhere in the ditches paralleling the highway. They sat out, sunning their leathery backs and probably without a thought on their mind.
    Sometimes the hitch has you talking until your jaw is sore. Other times very little is said. But the talk usually gets goin. Raspy voices, sullen voices, voices that squeak or peel or draw. Talk of anything, everything; whatever is important to whoever thinks it ought be. Stories, sometimes. Sometimes its just me rapping away at my new friends, as they drive me to where theyre driving to. With Billy we talked on and off. Our common ground was that yachts are ridiculous and neither of us could ever feel justified in owning one personally. Redistribution of wealth, then? Maybe not, but theres such a thing as too much stuff. Not enough shame, maybe.

    In Fort Lauderdale Billy dropped me on the Federal 1, which I would walk on until the chubby towers of downtown. We said goodbye with that ever so popular man nod. I never give the nod to gals so I figure its either a man thing or a thing meant only for among the same sex. The man nod, like the knowing of the way it is. Right on, man. Yea, man, you are there and I see you, and we know its all good.
    Well the heat scrapped at my neck but I made it to the apartment building where Sierra lived. I gave an electronic signature, had my photo taken, and finally was given the go-ahead by the front desk receptionist. Floor 16, high in the sky. The building had 29 floors. Sierra wasnt home but she had told me to go in. I was welcomed by a floor littered with sheets of paper with directions written on them, bathroom this way, my room, balcony, etc. I ate a granola bar and lounged out to read Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.
    I spent three nights there. Sierra was a doll, and had profound life experience for her age, which she shared with me in exchange for road stories. Actually we just talked like old friends. That is one of the great things about CS, the barriers are already broken down, and, in fact, since you already have in common the fact that youre completely open to strangers sleeping in your personal space, you are somehow already friends.
    Sierra worked during the days and I walked around, swam in the pool on the roof overlooking the distant shore, or lounged in the hot tub and read.
Condo Roof
The pool and tub. Source.
One day I showed up at Andrews apartment, another CSer, with a six pack and made another friend, just shooting the shit about Oregon. Then I got sick and sat around the last day in Fort Lauderdale.
    The last night Sierra and I talked into the early hours of the morning about everything from the demographics of Florida to the rules of engagement, as it were, about extra-personal relations between hosts and guests. And then the night closed accordingly, and we slept like rocks until dawn.
    The next day Sierra drove me to the airport. We embraced in farewell, she handed me a box of nasal spray, and then our time together was over.
    A hot dog and a 30 minute wait in line for the bathroom later and I was taking off. Off to Colombia, the land of cocaine and coffee, our biggest vices in America. But theres so much more than what can be read in the news. I want to see it all, know it all, or at least try to learn it, all of it! So goodbye America! Goodbye all you people all you red white and blue lifers!

    Being sick on a plane is the worst. I even had a swollen lymph node and swallowing was tough, not to mention nasal congestion that blocked like a veto. I pulled the nasal spray box out and opened it, but there was no spray bottle. What was in its place surprised me, to say the least. It was a roll of money. A little pink post-it note read, Ive had this money for a long time. It is filthy to me. But not to you. Do something you wouldnt normally do. It was three hundred dollars.


    So, back in Colombia. I flew over the northern tip of the country and I could see where it was I would be going. The plan? Hitch back north on the same road I hitched from Cartegena. The destination? The Carnaval of Barranquilla. I thought Veracruz, Mexico was the second biggest outside of Rio, but then I heard it was Barranquilla. Last year, Veracruz, this year, Barranquilla, home of Shakira.
    The Medellin airport is small. The plane was not full. I was the only white guy on the flight. Now Im back in Colombia, feeling a bit taller, and already I sense the eyes as I walk the streets. Sweating again. Spanish again.
    I picked up a free city map at a tourist stand in the airport, changed over some dollars (which have a lesser value now than before), and jumped on a bus to the center of the city. I sat next to a kind woman, curiosity in her gaze. She complimented my Spanish but I knew it was rusty, and besides, when you speak with someone in a different language, your abilities are always a talking point. I told her I was headed to the Buenos Aires neighborhood. So was she. She said I should follow her. So we got off together and she used a special ticket to pay for us on the next bus.
    Harrowing steep streets the second bus grasped at and grunted, and eventually transported us over the hill and into Buenos Aires. We filed off the bus, said our goodbyes and I was on my way once more in the gallant city of orange block masonry. Medellin. At night it gleams, and its hills look like a second set of amber stars, a backdrop that puts you on your drunken ass.
    I found the apartment of Yeison (Jason), my host for a few days. Time had it that we should both arrive at his door simultaneously. He was full of smiles and the clicking began before we could take note. The clicking of getting along friendly, if that wasnt clear.
    His apartment had a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and two bedrooms, one of which was simply his computer room. Through the fat broken window I looked down on the downtown heights and the distant sleeping giants of the hills. Hello again, my friends! I said to myself.
    I stayed four nights with Yeison. We talked and talked and watched South Park in Spanish (on this point we got along extremely well). And we cooked. He for me a ricey jambalaya, and I for he my turmeric spaghetti. We spoke of Colombia, of poverty and waste and rich and truth in social mobility. We spoke of giant parties and festivals like Carnaval and Medellins flower festival where white go blackface and black go whiteface (we laughed heartily at the idea, I being white as cloud and he being Choco black).
    One day I met a friend who I have written about previously in these accounts. My tall collected friend from Cinncinati, Samuel. He played host to me three months ago, but has since moved into a room in a family home, unable to have guests. He came to Chicago while I was there, and we had a blast with old friends in new digs, and fell drunkenly asleep on Katies futon.
    And now our reunion! We strutted around the center of Medellin, and later met up with another guy from stateside. Then we went to the one popular area of the city I hadnt
Medellin at Night
A similar bridge in Medellin. Source.
seen, El Poblado. Hours passed as we sipped on Aguila Beer, the beer of Colombia, in parks and walking, or under awnings and out of the rain showers. It was really good to see my friend again, and to share in the quasi-ceremonious ritual of Beering.
    It became dark early, and just Sam and I hopped the metro to a CS gathering at a bar, a polyglot language exchange. We had a beer there and didnt really mingle much, so we decided to leave.
     Come on, Sam, lets walk back to the center and we can catch our buses from there.
     You sure this road goes to the center?
     Yeah, I said, Ive walked here before.
     Dude, the part over the bridge, before you get to the center is pretty sketch, but Im down. Samuel spoke matter-of-factly, and we both hesitated.
     Whatever lets go.
    The street we were walking was the main drag that led all the way to downtown. It was busy, but no street is very well-lit, and there are few pedestrians. 20 minutes of further walking beyond downtown would bring me back to Yeisons. The night was shivering almost, like an aftershock of the rain. We walked briskly. The first bridge came, and we spat into the river below as we traversed. Street people and homeless lined the river walk, hidden in their shelters or scraping at something on their feet. Sam and I got to talking about homelessness, begging, and muggings.
     Have you ever been robbed here? I inquired.
     Yea man, but it was so fuckin stupid. These guys had us show them everything we had cause they said there were some robbers in the neighborhood and they were trying to catch them. It was in a super sketchy part of town.
     Like where we met up?
     Yea dude thats totally sketchy over there. I really just try not to walk at night. Its risky shit here. But sometimes weve gone around with street people who are our friends and they know how to talk at people. Also you just gotta keep walking, dont get stopped. I know one guy who just straight up got stabbed and then they robbed him. Samuel talks without a lot of emphasis in his voice; he speaks softly, and does not corrupt his words with dramatic oration. It adds a degree of realism to what hes saying.
    We began walking over the second bridge. Wed go down and through the nearly abandoned market district, dark and desolate, until we reached the center. There were a few bodies here and there, shuffling like zombies, and every once in a while a decently lit bus stop where little crowds gathered beneath the cradling light.
    We passed a man leaning over the railing, smoking a cigarette. I glanced at his face as he stared hard at us as we passed. His face was scarred, and he seemed decidedly uninterested in general.
    Suddenly, halfway across the bridge I glimpsed the man running at us from the corner of my eye, but it was too late, he had slammed into us both, grabbed us and shoved us forcefully against the railing. He was frantic and wild-eyed. Things happened so quickly it was hard to tell what came first. He sneered hard and cursed and threatened, and then swiftly reached behind his back while still stiff-arming Sam and shoving us with his body weight and looking at our chests. And without really thinking, Sam and I both lunged at him. I went for the hand he was reaching behind his back, and Sam grasped the other. I pulled up his arm with all my strength, having no idea if he was reaching for a knife or a gun. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. All this happened in a matter of seconds.
    We had the guy in our control. The man began pleading with us as he wriggled trying to loose himself from our grips.
     Ok ok ok ok ok ok, esta bien esta bien! He cried.
     Fuck what the fuck! Get the fuck outta here! I yelled at him in Spanish.
    I didnt think he had a gun so after a few more seconds we released him and shoved him back. He pleaded and kept saying Gringo? Gringo? Esta bien mi amigo esta bien! I pointed at him angrily when he took steps toward us, and finally he began to walk away, and so did we.

    Needless to say we were full of energy and began rapping back and forth about all the possibilities that could have come of the latter jumping.
    Man we really are nuts. You think we did that cause we were just talking about muggings and shit? That dude was a wreck, that should scare the crap out of me! I was excited, my heart was pumping.
     Sam said, Dude he couldve had us if he had pulled his knife earlier. Sam is always calm but I could hear the excitement in his voice too.
     Maybe, but he was pretty stupid to attack two of us, and he definitely wasnt strong enough to take us both on.
     Man he was just coked out of his mind or something. Shit we couldve really fucked him up!
     Yea but we wouldnt want that. I mean I was thinking about pulling my knife! I always carry a knife on my belt that I could whip out in a second, but I was glad I let it alone.
    By the time wed had our fill of imaginings, wed crossed the sketchy market area and were walking among crowds in the centers Parque Berrio. We said our goodbyes and I walked the 20 minutes back to Yeisons. I was glad that I had just come out of my second attempted robbery without getting robbed, or stabbed.

    The excitement of the moment has since faded, of course. I think back on that volatile situation and wonder why it happened. Some rob because they want to eat, and some rob because they want to get high. This guy was the latter. His eyes were blood shot and dry, but he avoided looking us in the eye. We can never know how merciful he might have been if he had ended up with the upper hand.
    Do I believe that some robbers are justified? Aren't they themselves the victims of a shitty system that has them kneeling for scraps? Their knees are constantly bleeding, and they shuffle their fate in order to eat and survive. Not all. No, not all. But yes, isn't it? I suppose human nature has a lot to do with how Sam and I handled the man. I am thankful that I did not pull my knife, because the man does not merit it's wrath. But then, after all, no, I do not believe in any form of violence. I can talk it, but I do not desire it. I can play it but I can never act it. Any violence I showed that man was more a reflex than a conscious decision to hurt. As wrong as are the entities or catches that put innocent people into desperate situations, so too is it wrong to resolve to use the same violence to try to cut out a living. Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," and that is how I also see it.

    After one last night at Yeison's I moved on. The first time I had arrived in Medellin, I had been excited to see a friend who I met years before in Istanbul. He was not there. His girlfirned, Tomasa, was there, but her roommate didn't like the idea of inviting strangers to come to sleep in her space. I guess she also thought I had bedbugs. Well, this time around I randomly received a message from Tomasa offering her place to crash. So, I spent two days at Tomasa's place.
    The apartment had a balcony overlooking the street one floor below, and shared a corner with a group of older men that seemed constant. They gathered and talked and yelled and played chess. Colombian streets are very alive. In fact most Latin American streets are rumbling with activity. You can buy anything you want second-hand, and some vendors stand on the street with a vest reading "200 minutos", signifying how much a minute of using their cell phone will cost you. This is how I contact everyone, it's easy and quick. Besides, I'm useless when it comes to pay phones.
    I cooked for Tomasa, and she worked on her thesis. One night her friend picked us up and we cruised over to El Poblado to go clubbing. Soemtimes I think I like doing that, and sometimes I don't. No excuse. This time, my mind was elsewhere, and Tomasa's and her friend's proclamations of intent to find me three girlfriends went through one ear and out the other. At one point I hopped on a bus back to Belen, where I met up with Camilo at his place. Remember Camilo? I left half of my gear with him. By the time I had all my stuff packed up again, I wasn't sure how I'd fit the other half I'd left back at Tomasas's.
    Enough of these logistics! I was wrapping up loose ends before the big journey north to Barranquilla got underway.

    I would stay one more night in Medellin. I wanted to hang out with Samuel again. He and his friends had invited me to come up into the hills to a house one of them had. Before hopping on the metro to go meet Samuel, I decided to do something that I don't usually do, using part of that money Sierra put in my pocket. I had sent a message to her saying that I couldn't keep such a huge amount, and she responded simply "then don't". I went to the store and bought a gallon of aguadiente, the local licorice-flavored hard alcohol. Here, this size is called a "garafa". This turned out to be a swell house-warming present.
    I went with Sam and his friend Andres up into the hills. The bus seemed only barely able to grip the road as once again it became angled at a dangerous degree. We had risen out of the city and then walked along a ridge straddling valleys on either side, and the city of Medellin spanning out like a drop of water splattered on cardboard.
    The house was spacious, empty, and crumbling. Perfect. There were 5 of Samuel's buddies, one of their girlfriends, Andres, Sam and I. The night was excellent. I presented the aguadiente to them, along with my old boots that could be put to good use in their garden. I also gave them the half bottle of waterproofing I had left after respraying my tent at Tomasa's. It was a good way to make a good impression. The house:

A video from the Medellin House. Videos.


    Sam cooked up some churizzos (sausages), and the guys fixed up some potatoes and rice, and I heated up some curry carrots I'd had leftover from cooking at Tomasa's. It was a veritable feast. We threw around a floppy frisbee my ma gave me for Christmas back home. We toured the garden and I recounted the exploits of my brother's organic vegetable garden. I thumbed a little thumb piano made from a Nestle cafe can, another present my parents thought up for Christmas. Later it rained and we sat on the concrete floors watching football, or playing old videogames on a laptop (King Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario). The house was a shell, but with good company and laughable Oscar translation on TV, we were contented all of us.

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