Musings about one of my favorite cities in the world
Flying the short distance from Bogota to Medellin, I am reminded once again how incredibly mountainous and empty this country is. The rugged landscape spreads below me partly under the clouds, partly peeking out through them. I have been thinking about the city, the small tienditas, the panaderias, the people sitting outside the drinks shop (small store that serves booze through metal bars with rickety plastic tables outside on the pavement) watching futbol on the 5 big-screen TVs propped up on the tables, chatting and catching up on their days. But I have forgotten the vast swaths of land that no one inhabits because it’s too high up, or too remote. But even in those most remote high altitude places, there are cities, and pueblos, and a people too resilient to give up. I really do love Colombia.
When I leave the Rionegro airport and head over the mountain and down into the city, I am prepared to be terrified and thrilled in equal measure. As we finally begin the descent from the mountains, I look over to my left and see nothing but clouds, air, and sky. But that’s the city, spreading out below me. I keep looking, and finally, start to see the red high rise buildings thrusting up out of the hills on the far side of the bowl-shaped city.
As we wind and twist our way down the hill, I see beautiful artworks painted on and carved into the cement walls built into hills from which the road was carved. Each curve separated by pylons so cars don’t switch lanes and race down the hill at top speed. (I remember when they did!) One of the things that always amazes me on this ride is the number of cyclists making their way up and down this mountain highway. It’s steep and twisty and there is a lot of traffic, but there they go in their bright bike pants and helmets — up and down. I don’t know how they do it!
The first time I really see the city it’s when we come around a huge corner and boom, it’s there on our right! But I don’t blink or I’ll miss it as my taxi careens around the next curve and I see more high-rise buildings instead. But I don’t worry, it’ll be back. I’ll see it again. As I look out over the valley, I remember there’s often a low hanging haze, especially on a sunny afternoon. I wish I could tell you that it IS haze, but it’s probably smog. The air quality here is one of the biggest health and safety concerns for the city.
Before I know it I’m winding through the busy streets of a vibrant South American city. Estimates from the United Nation shows the 2019 population to be 3,966,906. A population density of more than 10,351 people per square kilometer! (2018) No wonder there are so many skyscrapers! But there is a peaceful feeling in the city. Despite the TV shows you watch and the drama we all saw unfold here in the 1990s, that is not what Medellin is now. That is not what the people want you to remember. We don’t even say “his” name. We call him “he who shall not be named” around here if we find ourselves talking about him. (In general, the Colombian people don’t appreciate us Gringos watching these shows and being so interested in this. For them, he was a terrorist. Someone who almost single-handedly ruined their country, killed their families, destroyed and stole their lands. Just stop with the obsession already!)
This is my third time in this glorious “City of Eternal Spring.” The temperatures are almost always 27–28 degrees (that’s 80–85ish for my American friends!) Somehow I find myself here each time in April. April is the beginning of the rainy season with a good soaking rain (sometimes awesome thunderstorm coming across the basin) every afternoon and most nights. But the humidity is low, the storms are short-lived, the temperatures remain consistent, and the breeze is refreshing. Today I am sitting out on my balcony, enjoying the fresh air and a beautiful view of the mountain surrounding the city, writing and listening to normal life go by on the street.
Sometimes I can’t tell why I like it here. There is not much by way of public transportation. The city is BIG and the traffic is awful. It’s not super walkable (though my neighborhood is nice and easy to walk in.) There is a lot of pollution. But usually, the thing I like least about it, is that my friends aren’t here. My beautiful little life in Berlin is just that, my life in Berlin. It has taken me the past 2.5 months to finally wrap my head around being here and not there.
Today I got up, went off to a cool brunch place I found on GoogleMaps, had yummy food and then went to a cafe everyone raves about and sat there to write for a while. I got out and enjoyed the amazing weather, the super nice people, the fun more vibrant touristy, active part of the city. But after a few hours, I was happy to come back to my own place, sit out on my patio and finish my writing. That’s what I like about living here. In particular, in this barrio. It’s comfortable. It’s homey. It’s a normal upper-middle-class neighborhood where people live and work and raise families. It’s not the tourist trap of the north part of the city. While I enjoy going there and having things to do, At the end of the day I like to come home and sit on my patio and be home.
Here is just a shortlist of some observations and things about Medellin to entertain you:
- Women with babies, pregnant women, or the elderly are always encouraged to go to the front of any line.
- When people get on or off the elevator they always say “Hello” and then “See you later.”
- Every day vendors of all different kinds walk up and down the street hawking their wares: fruits, brooms, ice cream, one day a guy had lamb in a cooler, another day strawberries.
- This city prides itself on being super clean. So much so that a street sweeper comes by every morning… AT 5 AM!!!!! EN SERIO! Crack O Dawn early!
- If you want to smoke pot, you go to the park and talk to the guy who is selling Chiclet (gum) he can usually hook you up.
- There are wild Macaws here in the city. Huge red and blue birds living in the trees. You never know when you will see one.
- Uber isn’t legal, but it’s a thriving business. You just have to get in the front with the driver like he’s your friend picking you up to go somewhere together.
- There are quite a few indoor huge pools that are free and open to the public. There is also outdoor gym-like equipment that anyone can go to the park or corner area and use.
- Every doctor I have ever interacted with here (this is a good easy place to see medical professionals) will chat with you on WhatsApp to make appointments or ask questions.
- Malls are a thing here. I mean really! There are quite a few very big and very fancy malls all over the city.
- Empanadas! Not those floury Argentinian things either. I am talking about greasy cornmeal fried with meat and potatoes inside! YUMMY!! You sit at a counter, pass the hot sauce back and forth with strangers, and eat with your hands.
OK well with that- Off to get me some of those yummy empanadas for dinner!