Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A New Colombia

Medellin - the soaring apartment buildings and the hills behind.
Politeness pays off!
The poorer suburbs.
Before coming to Medellin, I didn't have much idea what it would be like apart from what my Colombian friends had told me. They were all from Medellin, so only good things of course, but that's what Colombians are like - positive, happy and always so proud of their country and city. In fact, the locals sometimes don't think of themselves in the national sense, but rather split themselves up by cities - here in Medellin they are "Paisas," who are renown for having a superiority complex. I don't know if I would go this far, but they do have a slightly different attitude, always seem so happy and full of smiles and energy, and I was always being told that Colombians are the happiest people in the world. I'm not sure about this, but they are happy people and very friendly and welcoming. Some people say that having a short memory is the key to being happy, and with all that has happened here in the last 30-odd years, maybe forgetting the past and looking forward really works. When we were on the walking tour of the city, people constantly approached us to say "welcome to Colombia!" say something in English (after asking our guide to translate for them), and some just stood there and watched us. Everyone thinks Colombia is dangerous, but I felt very safe, and well, just welcomed! Thank you Colombia!


The Plaza de la Luzes.
Guinea Pig betting.
Horses in the poor suburbs.
With 3.7 million people, Medellin is not a small city. It was also home to the Medellin Cartel, run by Mr Escobar, and at one point was known as the most violent city in the World. Things have changed. Homicide has decreased by 95% and poverty by 65% since those dark days in the 90's, and in the early 00's the city built it's Metro system - a rail service that provides cheap and reliable service to everyone, even opening up the poor suburbs in the hills, giving them access to work in other parts of the city as well as bringing tourists in. The Paisas are extremely proud of their Metro system (the only metro system in Colombia) - it's like their baby - and their city in general, and are happy to tell you about it. I guess that's where the 'attitude' comes from - a little bit of pride in your city, and there's nothing wrong with that! In 1950 there were just 350,000 people living here, but grew to nearly triple that in just 22 years due to work and construction in the city and now can boast being one of the most innovative cities in the world - changing it's reputation as a 'drug hub' to a dynamic and ever-changing city that people want to live in. The weather here is just perfect - sunny and warm during the day, but not quite enough to work up a big sweat, even while walking around, and by night you don't even need a jacket - it is just so perfect that you don't even think of the weather, it's just as it should be! They do speak differently here, and I had trouble understanding them and they me - there were a few instances, one was when I ordered 'dos Colombianas,' 2 locals beers, and received 2 Coca Colas instead. There was no problem, drinks changed, and everything was fine. Taxi drivers are the friendliest though, and most spoke a little English, but all just wanted to chat - one guy even was trying to educate us on the different types of music in Colombia (Cumbia, Regaton, Vellenato...) and finding radio station to give examples. I love Colombians!


Mass transport opened up the city of Medellin.
Music on the street.
This old building used to be a drug den, not it's a photo opportunity.
The Free Walking Tour of the city, one which I did in a few different cities in South America, was worth it. It's free, but a tip is kind of expected at the end, but after 4 hours of walking us around and telling us all about the city and answering questions, these people deserve it! Security was tight in the centre the day we did the tour, as the President was coming in from the capital - this didn't stop the security guards and police being super friendly with us, and a few people in the group even posed with them for photos. A strange mix of old and new, this city is cool and confused at the same time. There are many churches in the city, but here in Colombia they are different. A very religious country by nature, nearly everyone visits the church, even working girls. Yes, prostitutes are nearly always found right out front of the church here - why you ask? Well, when a man (or woman) commits adultery, the church is very close to go in, say your Hail Marys and have your sins forgiven. Rinse and re-do. It was hard not to look at the girls working there, and they didn't like a big group of tourists with cameras taking pictures in their general direction, so we moved on to another church and found Disney DVDs being sold right next to hardcore porn DVDs (with very graphic covers too!). You could pick up Finding Nemo for your kid and a nice little movie about ladies with very large breasts for that special uncle... again, convenient! Loads of books were also being sold around this church too, but not the graphic kind, but more educational, including a whole series of sex education books, "All of your questions regarding menstruation" and "Combat a myth: Frigidity" being two of my favourites. Something else I saw was Cuy gambling - there was a rather fat guinea pig on the street, and all you had to do to double your money was put a bet on which cone the little fella would hide under. He was busy munching his carrot and I didn't have the patience to wait for him, but he had quite a crowd building!


Some interesting reading.
The Robot street performer.
Cowboy!
Most people think Colombia is dangerous, and I admit that it probably was a few decades ago and occasion incidents happen at the border, but in general the streets are safe. On the other hand, if you're carrying around a big lump of a camera like I was, people do give it a good looking at and heads turn too. The Golden Rule here (as with anywhere really) is to not "give papaya." This is a local saying, basically meaning to make it easy to steal from you - flashing your stuff around is just asking for someone to rob you, and it would be your fault. The people from Medellin are not known as thieves, but within Colombia they are known as great business people, thus 'robbing' you with their trading skills - they claim this comes from the Jewish immigration a couple of centuries ago.


The church where you can get 'dirty' and then 'clean' again, all in the one place!
Botero's 'fat' people.
Classics like The Little Mermaid and Debbie Does Dallas on the one table.
"Giving papaya" anywhere can get you in trouble, and when you walk in busy areas known for being a tourist area, or a slightly rough neighbourhood, bags go at the front and valuables you don't need should be left at home. Same goes when you go out drinking in a city, keys, a bit of cash, ID and your ATM card is enough - you don't want to lose everything as well as having a hang over right? We stopped in one plaza, Plaza Bolivar, towards to the end of the tour, and this was considered a bad area and you had to be careful here. I disagreed, and even came back the next day to chill out - people selling coffee in flasks pushed shopping trolleys around the plaza (400 pesos - 17c a coffee), there was a street performer dancing like a robot, old men sitting around smoking and chatting - a general, friendly, South American atmosphere. Maybe people who aren't used to it would feel a bit unsafe, but plazas here, especially on the weekends, are full of people sitting around doing nothing and that can seem a bit shady. You get used to it - just like when you visit Berlin, for example, you can find nude sunbathing parks, some just for men and others for women - the first time I saw this I wasn't sure what to think. In Barcelona in the summer time you often see foreigners lying in Cuitadella park in their bikinis getting some sun, and of course most beaches in Spain women also go topless. Travel broadens your mind for these things, and soon they become normal.


The site of the 1995 Medellin bombing.
The now Palace of Culture in Botero Sqaure.


Yum yum! Fried dough balls, some with cheese!
You can still get a glimpse of what it was like here not that long ago - not all of the city has been cleaned and renovated. The Parque San Antonio saw a terrorist attack in 1995, a bomb exploded within a steel Botero statue. The explosion was devastating, killing 30 people and wounding 200, the number so high because it deliberately went off during a music festival. The statue was replaced, but the artist wanted the old one to remain there as well, so nobody would forget the tragedy - the two now stand side-by-side for all to see. Not of Medellin's history is sad, some of it is funny too. Belgian architect Agustín Goovaerts was employed to design and build a cathedral for the city in Gothic revival style, and contruction was started in 1925. In 1937 the project was costing so much that the government stopped the project, sending the Dutchman packing, but it was later finished by local architects. The result was a half Gothic church, the side of the building and the last part to get built, is just a boring wall. The square, Plaza Botero, is also home to the Museum of Antioquia and dozens of statues by the Colombia artist Fernando Botero - famous for his 'fat' statues and paintings. It is a meeting place for locals, a place to hang out and eat street food and we also picked up a 3,000 pesos ($1) beer on the street and ate some buñeulos.


The Government building in the centre of the city.
The city and the hills.
Some of the new and interesting architecture in this city.
So my time in this cool city had come to an end. The hostel we'd stayed at was great, the people were so friendly and the cat and the dog (Tequila and Mango) were really starting to grow on me. The weather was so pleasant, the city flat and easy to walk around and the taxis were also cheap and drivers lovely. My two travelling buddies, whom I'd been bumping into since Chile, were leaving me (for now). I was heading to the capital of Colombia, Bogota, and Laurel was off south to the coffee region and Ellen was off somewhere (I can't remember, sorry Ellen!), but we were going to meet up again in about a week's time in the city of Cartagena, right up on the Caribbean Sea. The weather in Bogota would be colder than here, and cloudy and possibly rainy too due to the altitude, which was not going to do me any favours when I went right up North and hit the heat and humidity that is the Caribbean. IN Bogota I would get my fill of art and history, architecture and food, and hopefully meet up with some friends and family of friends along the way.


Colombia - always looking to the future,

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