Medellin cable cars

1 City, 4 Saints, and a Homesick Wanderer

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Couchsurfing with Sonya – 2 days

I arrived to Sonya’s house after walking through the rest of the sports park, where for the first time in Latin America I found a roller hockey rink, and for the first time ever I saw roller figure skaters, complete with tan tights and airy pink skirts. Sonya was not at her apartment when I got there, but the doorman gave me the key.

“13th floor.”

Medellin is a city in a bowl of a valley, the walls the sleeping giants that I mentioned before. The city is a climber. It climbs up the hills from the valley floor, and the buildings themselves climb skyward.

Travel drawing of downtown Medellin, Colombia

From the Antioquia Pueblo hill, I drew the building of downtown Medellin, Colombia.

 

The city is built mostly of red and orange bricks, and cylindrical clay tiles typical of warmer climates guard the cityscape scalp.

I was mounting one of the hundreds of apartment buildings dotted not in a particular region of the city, but all over. Sonya’s apartment was wonderful, clean and homely (I need to stop using that word!). The view was of course spectacular, the taller office buildings from where I’d walked off in the distance, and the hills omnipresent.

I ended up spending two days with Sonya. She came back to the apartment later in the evening. Unfortunately, my last pill had worn off and the stomach bug was still attacking me. I’d walked to a pharmacy to get some better pills, and on the way I felt jealousy when I saw a pile of dog poop. I’d never felt jealousy about poop consistency before.

Sonya and I had long conversations about Colombian culture and Rotary scholarship. Sonya is on a Rotary for one year, all expenses paid. I’ve thought about trying to do some kind of scholarship before. For the moment, I cannot be in any one place for longer than a month it seems, but if I were to do so, I would either utilize my degrees to teach English or French, or I would take advantage of my college record to get my hands on a free year abroad.

Sonya is a tall beauty from Massachusetts, and we got along well. When I told her I’d walked from the center, she described it as, “I didn´t know that was possible.” Of course she did, but what she meant was that she simply never thought to do it. The second night she decided that she wanted to try, so we walked all the way to the center, then all the way to her university where we saw a free concert of Afrocolombiana music. Sweet concert, the dancers were the best. They were dancing faster than I thought was possible, it was almost hypnotizing, albeit they were wearing almost nothing.

The view of Medellin from Sonya's apartment.

The view of Medellin from Sonya’s apartment.

I met all her friends, including two girls from Denmark (I joked to Sonya that we shouldn’t play cards with them, after I’d played Gin Rummy with two Danish girls in Mexico and all the rules were different). In the morning the girls cooked a big meal of fruit pancakes, salami, and papaya smoothie, and a few more guests came over. It was ironic that Andres, from New Mexico, was a giant. We shared some conversations about playing hockey. Also some more Colombians showed up. I drew a picture for Sonya while I eaves dropped on the conversation. Couchsurfing is a very useful tool. I can´t take everything my American host says as fact, as she was smart to note, but she has lived a few months in this country, and she can relate what she has learned about the culture to me. I might not find such a person in a hostel. Hostels are bland, and the conversations are the same, and the intentions are always to drink beer. They can be refreshing from time to time, but after using couchsurfing or staying with random folks I meet, it’s frustrating when I end up in a hostel. (Disclaimer: sure, hostels can bring fun times).

At the end of the two days that I stayed with Sonya, I threw my pack over my shoulder, said goodbye to everyone present, and left. I walked halfway across the city to an area called Belen, where I would meet my new host, Camilo.

 


 

Couchsurfing with Camilo – 3 days

Camilo had never used the website to have guests at his place. Often, when I use CS to find a host in a city, I search for the newest accounts, because it is hard for them to get started with the website, which can be frustrating. And as a picture says a thousand words, that too it a consideration. In his photo he had a strange almost Mona Lisa smile.

Medellin cable cars

Medellin cable cars.

Some might call it a gamble to contact someone with no references at all and only a little information. I might not recommend doing so to my young sister for example (the unavoidable brotherly protection syndrome), but I enjoy meeting unknowns, if that isn’t already apparent through these writings. The old saying, “don’t talk to strangers”, is one of the biggest tragedies when the children who learn it adapt the advice in their adult lives. CSers and hitchhikers are experts in strangers, if it is not too bold to say. If I can offer advice to anyone about strangers, it would be to talk to them. Spend time with strangers. A stranger is most of the time a friend you have yet to get acquainted with. Sometimes it’s just a guy on the street that’s trying to get money out of you, but that, my friends, is not always the case. We neglect the world, because we live in microcosms. We’re afraid of anything outside our normality. We’re afraid of change, or of living differently. We often consort with like-minded people or at least with people of our financial ilk. It’s a shame, because there’s so much to learn from the unknown, from the things we feel are untouchable. What is normal? What is normal? Normal is the bars that restrict you, that you can’t see but you can’t remove without understanding that they’re there. Much good can come from strangers and strangeness.

While waiting for Camilo to come outside after the library where he works had closed, I admired the Japanese architecture that characterized the buildings. Instead of a grassy space in the courtyard, there was a half foot deep square of water about 100 feet wide mirroring the sky, surrounded by covered walkways. It screamed of a culture that I had never known, but hope to someday experience.

Then I met Camilo. Camilo is my age but he has a much younger face. He is a calm person, and fancies white hot chocolate and brightly colored shirts. He is openly gay, and so is his roommate and friend Andres. On the walk back to his place we talked; the conversation went down like warm soup, smooth and delightful. Before long you could call us friends.

The neighborhoods of Medellin are not unlike Mexico City in that they seem like completely different cities. Belen has its own central park with a cathedral. We walked past and on to their apartment.

Medellin at night, an amber city.

Medellin at night, an amber city.

In the first floor apartment there was a computer, a flat screen TV and a 4 foot fish tank. Andres had been skeptical of a stranger at first, but soon we too could be considered friends. I spent some time staring at the fish with Andres, and in one of the many ironies of the technological and capitalist age, I learned that these genetically modified fish were originally from the Amazon, but imported from the States.

Camilo and I watched The Pianist on the flat screen. That night was Halloween but we hadn’t the energy to go out. Children in costumes kept knocking on the door singing, “quiero paz, quiero amor, quiero dulces por favor” “I want peace, I want love, I want candy please.” Maybe that has something to do with the violent history of the country, mostly caused by the fact that the country produces most of the world’s cocaine.

Speaking of, Pablo Escobar called Medellin his home. He ran the Medellin cartel, which was notorious for cocaine trafficking, murder, and, curiously, breast implants. Walking around Medellin, sometimes you might get the idea that it’s always Halloween; there are so many fake tits. They say that it’s a haul-over from the Escobar era, when drug bosses would pay to get their babes fake titties, which transformed the popular idea of beauty, or so it seems. Gotta be careful, the day girls want implants before they’ve reached puberty is gonna be a scary day.

Fake boobs drawing in Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia is famous for plastic surgery. I drew this women because her breasts were fake.

 

Camilo was overly friendly and informative. He taught me all the names of the neighborhoods and the city libraries, and suggested interesting places to visit. He treated me to arepas, the traditional tortilla-like fried maize patty of the region, which usually is served with butter (the idea of butter here seems to be margarine). I’ve eaten a lot of arepas since, and especially like those ‘chocolo’ arepas served with a fat serving of cheese on top.

Travel drawing in Antioquia Medellin Colombia

Medellin is located in Antioquia. On a hill of the city there is a reconstruction of a typical Antioquian pueblo, so I drew it.

 

One night Camilo invited me on a trip up the side of the sleeping giants in the metro cable. We flew in a gondola a hundred and fifty feet above rolling hills of shantytowns down below. The bowl of the cityscape burned orange in the valley. The conversation was whether new developments such as libraries or metro cables, built in poor areas, bring more money, or just end up pushing out the poor. One can discuss poverty alleviation until their vocal cords shrivel, but looking down at the makeshift shacks makes the task seem impossible. Not to mention that Colombia has the second highest number of displaced persons in the world. Maybe that’s what Freddy had been talking about when he suggested that the misery in Colombia was different than in Central American countries.

Back at the apartment I cooked up a meal. I should describe this meal, because I’ve cooked it a hundred times for hosts. It’s spaghetti.

  1. Boil the water, throw in tomatoes
  2. Peel the skin off the tomatoes while the spaghetti cooks
  3. Fry a cut onion in a skillet, add mashed tomatoes
  4. Add salt, butter, milk, and mixture of spices
  5. Mix a bit of water with flour and add to the sauce
  6. Throw it all together and it usually comes out pretty well
  7. If you have bread, spread some butter and chopped garlic on it, throw it in the skillet

Everyone liked it, and in the morning I cooked eggs in a basket (fried egg whites trapping the liquid yoke in the middle of a piece of toast), which everyone ate slowly–a good sign!

On the third morning I hit the road, but I wasn’t going very far.

 


 

Couchsurfing with Samuel – 3 days

Up in a hill neighborhood of Medellin.

Up in a hill neighborhood of Medellin.

Camilo had told me there was one part of town he just didn’t like: Bello. That’s where Samuel lived. I met Samuel downtown, after spending some time at the public library, a beautiful new building with a concrete forest out front as decoration. I strolled through the crowded streets, eating a chocolo (“chocolo” is a kind of soft corn) arepa along the way, and met Samuel, an American from Cinncinati, in Plaza Botero, where there loom dozens of fat people statues, representations of the painter Francisco Botera’s characters. Samuel. Cool. Cool cat. Is it luck that has it that I always seem to get along royally with my hosts? Right when I couldn’t possibly meet someone else who I would get along with any better, I meet Samuel. He showed up and looked like a substitute teacher from the eighties, brown slacks, black tie on blue shirt, and sporting a puffy mini fro. He had some cool experiences to share. A graduate of Brown, he travelled south until his account ran dry, conveniently in the shifty but cool city of Medellin, where he picked up English teaching, and has been here for 2 years. We didn’t stroll, we strutted. We strutted and chatted like long lost friends, that initial barrier of ice having already been melted away. We talked travel, school, hitching, weed, brothels, girls, Colombia, and home.

My mom is from Cinncinati, and so I spat out some of the names of neighborhoods I knew. He said he lived close to Amelia, and close to one of the Mount-somethings. I told him I was from the Chicago burbs and that he ought to come hang out sometime. Settled.

Later, we jumped on a bus to Bello. The access to his apartment was a narrow concrete stairwell that went uninterrupted until his floor. At night it is impossible to see. His was a traveler’s apartment. Meaning, it was the bare minimum by choice. There was a hot plate, a skillet, a mattress, and the luxury of a small TV and DVD player. It reminded me of the small room where I lived in France, only I didn’t get a private bathroom and my sink and fridge were half the size of his. Pout.

Travel drawing from Bello, Medellin, Colombia

I stayed with Samuel in Bello, Medellin, and made this travel drawing in the city’s square.

 

We walked around Bello, which was about 20 minutes by bus from Medellin center. I didn’t mind. He showed me some of the haunts and we munched on some ham and cheese croissants. Hey, I’m a rapper and I didn’t even figure.

The roads and bridges of Medellin.

The roads and bridges of Medellin.

One day two of his past CS friends showed up, Sean and Davin from Colorado. They were some cool cats from Denver, and we went on a stroll around Bello while Samuel was downtown working. They treated me to a beer and we sipped on some aguadiente liquor. Walking the main road in the city.back to the apartment we came across a statue hidden away in an obscur corner of the street. A strange statue. It was a giant pussy, and it seemed to be almost spilling out of an… an open book. We struck pondering poses and rubbed our chins until we had our fill, and continued back to the apartment.

The next day we split up and I spent most of my time back in Plaza Botero. I gave a short interview to a government worker conducting a survey about Medellin tourism. It was awkward in that most of the questions I couldn’t truthfully reply to. For instance, “apart from transport, hotel, and alimentation, how much money do you spend a day: 5-50 dollars, 50-100, 100-200, or 300+?” Well, apart from transport and food, I spend nothing. Really, apart from food I spend nothing since normally I walk. “How would you evaluate the tourist services in Medellin?” “On a rating of 1-10 how accessible are the hotels in the city?” The lady didn’t seem to take me seriously.

After the lady left I noticed that across the plaza there was a large crowd in the intersection, and thick black smoke was rising amongst tall flames. They were chanting something. Suddenly there was a burst of water and the distinct sound of gun shots. Everyone in the street and the plaza began screaming and running in the opposite direction. I sat still, interested. Then a long line of police in riot gear rounded the corner, escorted by a big black armored vehicle with a dripping water canon. The people regrouped and walked back toward the line of police. More gun shots were fired in the air “BANG BANG BANG,” the noise echoing off the office buildings. The crowd was routed once and for all as police gave chase to a select few of the rioters.

Plaza Botero in Medellin, Colombia

The Plaza Botero in Medellin. Botero’s plump figures come to life in the form of huge statues.

 

As it turns out, the police were cracking down on illegal DVD street vendors, who responded by burning tires in the road and throwing molotov cocktails at the cops. I was about 150 feet away, sitting by one of Botero’s fat-legged men. I didn’t mind. I didn’t really know what to think, if there was a right or wrong to this. The vendors are just barely scratching out a living, but they are doing so by pirating movies. Then again, I don’t think Hollywood is losing much money anyway. Most who buy the DVDs in the street wouldn’t be able to afford the movies in any case, or otherwise just wouldnt spend the money. So, theoretically, in the end no harm is being done.

Plaza Botero in Medellin.

Plaza Botero in Medellin.

On the last night with Samuel, Sean, and Davin, we went and met some others downtown (after having feasted on Sean’s homemade arepas). There was a winding brick walkway next to a bar that ran for roughly 300 feet to a perpendicular street. Next to the walkway was nothing but a pair of liquor stores and ample grass space. This was the underground hangout. We bought some beer and mingled on the grass with the people. There were skaters, punks, rockers, metalheads, geeks and freaks. Nearby housing complexes rose to the stars, and seemed to lean over us like an urban canopy. I enjoyed this spot. 24 hour transportation and legal public drinking make this open hangout possible. Too bad the law is such a bummer elsewhere.

The concrete forest in front of the Medellin library.

The concrete forest in front of the Medellin library.

In the morning the guys escorted me to the metro. Sean was a bit tired from staying out later and having to whip out his knife to scare off a robber. We wished each other well. I was off to spend a few more days with another new friend from CS.

 


 

Couchsurfing with Vanessa – 4 days

I had woken up too late to meet Vanessa’s friend with whom I might’ve gone with to get to Vanessa’s house. I had no idea how to get there. After spending too much money making phone calls from street vendors who sell minutes, I took a gamble and spent more on the internet. Sure enough I found Vanessa logged in to Facebook. You love it and you hate it.

An hour later I found the bus she told me to take. Up we went, crawling along the sides of the sleeping giants, up over the hazy city and into the mist. Goodbye Medellin. Hello ear-popping plateau of strange climate.

The river in Rionegro Colombia.

The river in Rionegro Colombia.

At a crossroads I called Vanessa from a pay phone. She instructed me to take another bus to Lago Grande where she would meet me in fifteen minutes. Having failed to hitch a ride in the time I spent waiting for the second bus, I hopped aboard and got off at Rionegro. A brief mishap occured when I walked down a long road next to the “Lago Grande” sign and sat at the entrance waiting. Apparently I was not at the right place, as I found out when a girl came out of the complex and offered to call Vanessa on her cell phone (the irony being that this girl was also a CSer). I had to meet Nessa back at the road.

She was in the passenger seat of a white pick-up. Her blond-mohawk brother Eddie was driving, and two friends were in the back. I hopped in. As it turns out everyone was extremely friendly. They were clearly used to having strangers. Vanessa lived and hosted people in Argentina, and now she lives at home and they’ve already had two guests through the website.

And what a beautiful home it was. On the other side of a rusted gate sprawled several acres, and nestled among fields dotted with horses and cows sat a rustic-looking house framed by distant forested hills. It looked small compared to it’s surrounds, but looks can be deceiving. When we entered I was dazzled by soaring vaulted ceilings of sturdy mahagony, earthen tiles below, and beautiful and various paintings adorning the vanilla-colored walls. A wide fruit basket on the kitchen counter bore strange eats that I’d never seen before and can’t remember the names of already. Vanessa gave me her room.

Travel sketching in Colombia

Travel sketching in Colombia, this is a field somewhere in the Antioquia countryside.

 

“No, I can’t take you’re room. Look I have this blow up mat I’m used to, it’s no problem-”

“I insist, sleep here! I don’t even sleep here usually, I stay with my mom.”

It was settled. I met the family; Eddie, Vanessa, Gunther the younger brother, and the petite mom had a full smile and was pleased to have me. They made an exception in letting me stay for 4 days, as originally the plan was for only two. I love staying with families. Right away a meal was put under my nose and I got to sipped on freshly squeezed raspberry juice.

It was Saturday. Vanessa and her good friend Melanie got dressed up. I put on my best shirt (of the 3) and donned my hoodie. I even brushed my teeth for a second time that day!

Drawing of a Colombian Woman

Vanessa hosted me in her country home in Rio Nego, above Medellin.

The destination was a bar at a place called the “Mall.” Although it was basically a bar in the corner of a strip-mall, there were several other bars, and it was clearly “the place to be.” The night was chilly, but it wasn’t long before rum and cokes were being handed to me. Now, you have to understand that I almost never spend money on anything other than basic food. What this means is that I do not drink. Almost never. A beer here and there when it’s offered, but otherwise I’ve become something we like to call a “lightweight.” So, what I’m saying is that the night was pretty fun. I learned everyone’s names and promptly forgot them. Then I was shock-put back into adolesence when Vanessa whispered to me, “Catarina thinks your hot.”

“Really?”

“Yea, she told me to tell you.”

I looked across the table at the cute girl who had made me slam one of my rum and cokes earlier.

“Mm, how old is she?”

“17.”

Well, I had a fun time anyway and the company was pleasant. The next morning I was told that when Eddie and the others were getting rowdy with another group of dudes, I started to shout that “quiero pelear yo tambien!” “I want to fight too!” No bruises, oh well.

 

4 days have come and gone. The day after the party I slept all day. Then we spent a day lounging around. Then we wandered around Rionegro, the nearby town, for a few hours, and then returned to our lounging.

I had some interesting conversations with Vanessa’s mom about money-making and why it is unimportant to me. She couldn’t wrap her mind around why I didn’t want to make money. If ever I was anything but simple I can’t remember what I must’ve been like. I don’t care about money. When I need it I’ll do something to make a little, but I’m not going to spend half my life worrying about getting enough dough for the second half of my life. What matters to me is happiness. I’ve thrown the idea out to good friends that if ever they need help in some kind of business that I’ll work for them because it would be an opportunity to work for a buddy, not for a boss. My incentive is amistad. My goal is happiness. …Happiness. I suppose I have neglected a thing or two about my own goal, it seems. Let me explain what I mean…

TO HELL WITH the traveler’s status quo that seems to give merit to being away from home for longer. Since when is that one of my goals? Just as I chastised myself for letting my budget convince me that not spending money was a goal, I chastise myself for thinking that for a voyage to be true I have to stay away for longer periods. It is wrong, because it has nothing to do with anything else than pride. “I stayed away for longer than you.” “I spent less than you.” Somehow I let myself think that that matters. Not anymore.

There’s a lump in my chest, and it’s preventing me from progressing in this journey. It’s preventing me from enjoying this journey. It’s preventing me from being happy.
This voyage is not over. I love traveling. But I’m going home.

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