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One Week to Fall Back in Love with Colombia: Part One, Medellin

February 23, 2012

Although I usually only share my positive work experiences with all of you, as I’ve alluded to before, there are in fact also many frustrating times as well.  After a few particularly frustrating weeks at the office (in part due to the fact that I was the only one in the office as everyone had neglected to provide me with closing and opening dates for the holidays and once they finally did, still no one showed up until 2 weeks after the “opening” date. No one but me, that is).

As in any long-term relationship, sometimes you just need to do something to spice it up and this time,  I knew I had to find that spice outside of Bogota.

Bogota and I were on a Break.

So, after these particularly frustrating weeks I finally decided that was enough and I needed to get out of town to re-motivate myself.  Of course the very day I finally made that decision, EVERYONE showed up in the office, completely refreshed and ready to work. But by that time there was no turning back, I was taking a much needed week to fall back in love Colombia.  I would visit my friend Cesar in Medellin and then head to the Coffee region. I would read, write, relax, explore, and fall back in love with Colombia.

Of course, the major flaw in my plan was that I’m a foreign woman, travelling alone in Colombia….two things that together, do not make for a “relaxing” experience!

My first stop was Medellin, Colombia’s 2nd city, the home of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and more importantly, to my good friend Cesar.  My main reason for visiting Medellin was to visit Cesar but I was pleasantly surprised by the city itself.  Medellin is completely different from the rest of Colombia; it is a clean, modern, progressive city that was really unlike any other I’ve ever been to. Given the dire public transport situation in Bogota, I was probably most impressed with its modern and easy to use metro system.

The view over Medellin from Copacabana.

Tropical flower in Medellin's beautiful botanical garden.

I wandered around the streets of Medellin trying to get relaxed and into vacation mode.  My first stop was the Plazoleta de las Esculturas to see all of the famous “fat” statues by the beloved  Botero.  However, I learned that although the world knows Botero’s work by his “fat” characters, he actually refers to them not as “fat”, but as “voluminous” and the more time I spent with these statues in the plaza and in the Museo de Antioquia (which houses a huge collection of his paintings and sculptures) I came to agree that this adjective was much more fitting.  I couldn’t get enough of Botero, something about his figures are just so cozy and comforting, I kept going back for one more look.

Botero's El Caballo overlooking the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, Medellin.

One of Botero's voluminous ladies, Medellin.

Another fun Botero statue, Medellin.

Most of you probably haven’t heard of Medellin, and if you have it probably wasn’t because of Botero but because of one of Medellin’s other most famous characters…Pablo Escobar.  Escobar was the most well-known organized crime and drug kingpin of his time and was the face of Colombia’s cocaine scene to the outside world. He is also from Medellin and was once a prominent politician there.  He was eventually shot dead on the rooftop of a Medellin building, in very dramatic fashion, by the Colombian National Police (and there is actually a famous Botero painting portraying this event entitled “the Death of Pablo Escobar”). Not much more than a decade ago Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, largely run by criminal gangs, and now, not even 20 years later, it is the modern, sleek city. It is almost unbelievable.

One of the moments that really marked this difference for me was visiting the “Pajaros de Paz” or Birds of Peace statues in a park in central Medellin. These birds were sculpted by Botero; the original one stood in Medellin during its dark ages and was almost entirely destroyed when a bomb attack hit central Medellin.  Botero later sculpted an identical bird to stand beside its’ injured friend to emphasize how far the city has come. The most striking thing for me was not only seeing these two birds together but being there with my friend who is only a couple of years younger than me and who lived through the conflict in Colombia.  I just could not imagine him and my other friends from Medellin, being the same age, living with this danger everyday while a few countries away my biggest worry was  what colour of hair dye would most annoy my parents.

The two Pajaros de Paz, Birds of Peace, one on the left after being hit by a bomb, one on the right intact as a reminder of just how far Medellin has come.

Me in front of one of the Birds of Peace.

No doubt the best part of my visit was staying with Cesar’s family.  It was the first family I’ve stayed with in Colombia and after a lonely few weeks in Bogota, it was so comforting not only to be with a friend again but to have a “mom” for a few days.  Cesar’s mom also renewed my appreciation for Colombian food; she made arepas from scratch every morning, even making the cornmeal herself from corn on the stove. For breakfast she served wonderful hot chocolate, empanadas, and cheese “straw”s (fried dough with melted cheese inside, who wouldn’t love that?).

Colombian Arepas (photo from Google).

Their home is in Copacabana, a northern suburb of Medellin, so between that and my trips to El Poblado, the fancy area in the south of the city, I got a pretty good lay of the land. Even though he was busy with work, Cesar made time to tour me around the city. The city lies on a valley, north to south. Along the hills to the east and west rise the poorer areas of town. One particularly striking experience was going up the new cable car they’ve built from the metro station up one of these “communs”, into the poorer areas.  The contrast between the modern, sleek gondola and the sights of poverty below was wild.  It was like being in an Imax Colombia movie, with the sounds of children laughing, music playing and dogs barking reaching up into our gondola.

We also took a trip out to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a sleepy colonial town that was once the capital of the Department (province/state) until it was moved to the present-day capital, Medellin. We wandered around the sleepy town in the midday heat and finally settled in at a restaurant overlooking the town square where we had a traditional meal of frijoles (beans) and chicarrones (pork rinds). I love the beans but as hard as I try (and although I always keep my undergrad anthropology prof’s words in my head Eating someone’s food is eating their culture ), I just can’t do the chicarrones.

Church steeple, Santa Fe de Antioquia.

View of the Plaza Mayor, Santa Fe de Antioqua.

Cesar and I after a traditional lunch of chicarrones and frijoles.

After lunch we took an asian Tuk-Tuk (very out of place in this colonial South American town!) to a famous bridge, only to find out the bridge had been closed after two pedestrians had died after falling/jumping (one fell, one jumped to save her) from the bridge.

View from our Tuk-Tuk.

Stopping for gas in the tuk-tuk, Sante Fe de Antioquia

Cesar and I on the kind-of-closed bridge.

After a few wonderful days in Medellin, it was time to move on and off I went by bus to the Zona Cafetera or Eje Cafetero, the coffee region.  I ended up sharing the first 5 hours of the ride with an older gentlemen, Javier, who is from Pereira, the largest city of the coffee region.  At first we just chatted but as he asked me more about my work here the conversation took a much more serious turn.  Javier told me of his experiences during the conflict.  He had bought a beautiful farm outside of Pereira and built up a beautiful life with his wife and their 7 children. That was until the conflict really took hold of the region and armed groups forced them off their farm and they lost everything. With tenacity in his eyes he told me the story of how instead of letting himself be victimized he moved to a new area, acquired another piece of land, and built another farm…only to have it taken from him a second time.  Later when telling me about his family he told me he has 6 children, but that he had 7, one was killed during the conflict.

Once lunchtime came around and he saw that I didn’t have anything considered appropriate for a Colombian lunch with me (my granola bars are not a proper almuerzo (lunch)) and he insisted on sharing his arepa, chorizo, and some kind of meat fried in dough, that his daughter had packed for him.  These first 5 hours of the ride were very enjoyable, however once Javier got off in Pereira (leaving me with his phone number and an invitation to stay with his family), some much less friendlier Colombian men got on and being a foreign women travelling alone, I was of course their chosen target and had to endure their harassment and sleazy looks for the next portion of the trip.  I had purposely avoided the Pereira bus station after reading that thieves target foreigners and “relieve” them of their belongings on their arrival to the coffee region.

So this is it I thought, my luck has finally run out, all I hoped was that robbery was going to be the extent of it.  This was obviously a very stressful couple of hours on the bus, I was going through in my head exactly what I was going to do and the directions I had for my hostel. Luckily I had safety-pinned by bank-card and extra cash inside my sports bra, so I hoped I would at least make it away with that.  I re-arranged my phone and credit card into various pockets of my cargo pants and lululemons and hoped for the best.  On top of my new friends, it was absolutely pouring rain and there were mudslides along the road.

This “relaxing” vacation had quickly turned into a bit of a nightmare.

But then, as one of my favourite Colombians, Shakira, would say, just when you least expect it, Sale el Sol (the sun comes out), not literally, but figuratively because out of nowhere one of the thugs yelled at the driver, stop here! And as quickly as they had entered the bus, the two of them hopped out at a farm along the highway before we arrived in town.

When the bus door closed behind them I unknowingly let out a huge sigh. The driver, seeing my ghost-white face turned to me and said, sick?, no I said.  Tired?, yes, just tired I said.  I had dodged another bullet. Somehow I had made it again but I couldn’t help but wonder, just when would my luck run out?

Stay tuned for Part Two: La Zona Cafetera (The Coffee Region)!

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