Medellin-The Good, The Bad, The Beautiful

As per my usual modus operandi, I'm writing about Medellin after I've been back in Montreal for a few days. The various memories 6 or so weeks I spent in The City Of Eternal Spring have had enough time to soak amongst the various synapses that connect them to each other. I'm going to write about some random, disjointed events I happen to remember from my trip, and then some overall impressions on the city and the country. I will limit my thoughts to those lucid enough to make sense when written down. This generally - but not always - excludes those wherein I'd already consumed a certain amount of Club Colombia or, more unfortunately, aguardiente.

1 - The Bright Lights

This wasn't my first Christmas away from home. But it was my first one without any snow. The night time brightness of streetlights reflecting off the snowy, quiet streets, the discreet ``crunch, crunch" of boots or shoes walking over newly fallen snow, the bulky-yet-somehow-still-fashionably-sexy winter clothes that Montreal's beautiful women wear... these are all cues for what the holidays are supposed to bring. Medellin had none of these signs. As temperate, snowless cities go, though, I imagine you could do worse in Latin America for the holidays. From the giant, ominous, slightly disturbing inflatable Santa Claus climbing up the side of the Bancolombia building near our flat, to the billboards of smiling little Afro-Colombian girls encouraging parents to buy their gifts from Exito, Christmas was in the air. The city's pride and joy for the holidays, however, are the Alumbrados - lights strung across the river that cuts through the heart of the city, lined on each side with an endless array of shops, stands, and souvenir peddlers. As per usual on this trip, the company was what made it fun - David, his junk-in-the-trunk-lovin' friend Noah, Joanne, Jules, and her sister Liz and I eventually made it to the light at the end of the tunnel of meat, corn, and junk food stalls - but not before stopping to take photos with the least genuine Santa Claus ever, seeing a dizzying array of meats staring us back in the face and ``enjoying" a hot dog which must have been 88% bread and 'special sauce'. We eventually made our way up to ``Pueblito Paisa", a recreation of a colonial town on a hill in the middle of the city. Montrealers, think Mount Royal with movie-set prop buildings dotted around the landscape. We had gone to Santa Fe de Antioquia - a ``more really" colonial town - the first few days we got to Medellin, so prop-town didn't really feel all that special. I did get a candy apple for 50 cents though, which made me smile wider than I usually do.


 

2 - On being alone

 

For a number of reasons, I spent lots of time exploring the city alone. Of course I hung out with David and his friends often too, but we had different working schedules (he'd be up at some freakishly early hour off working at Juan Valdez, while I do my best work between 1am and 4am, hence no fucking chance would I be up at, like, 9am or whatever it was), he had some friends visit (Eddie and Noah) and had to show them around as well, and he also had lots of work and meetings around the city, while I was usually girl-watching sightseeing or working out at the gym. Some cities are better ``loner" cities than others. Medellin is pretty good in this respect - especially in centro. There's always enough going on to keep your attention span jumping all over the place. Like most other places I've been in Latin America, the girls make extended eye contact with you when walking by; either I had spinach in my teeth for the entire 6 weeks I was there, or the paisa ladies know and appreciate true manliness when they see it. I think it's the latter. One of these walks brought me a few stations away from our El Poblado metro stop, where I then walked about 20 mins past 2 other stations to get to the Museo de Antioquia, which is in essence a big shrine to Fernando Botero. Botero paints and sculpts fat people. He's apparently one of the most famous artists living today. He claims the proportions of his subjects are exaggerated, but he obviously have never been to Texas. On the way back, I stopped in Plaza Cisneros, which has a column installation by some artist who's been to one too many Star Wars conventions.


 

3 - Beauty and the Breast

 

I apolgize in advance for the lack of photographic evidence to support my claims in this part of the post, but I'm not about to stick my Pentax between a girl's fake tits to prove a point - well not that Pentax. And not that point. At any rate, physical beauty is not at a premium here in Medellin. I have seen firsthand why lots of people say that `` some of the most beautiful girls in the world are from Colombia". While I won't disagree with that statement, I have to fall back to defend my beloved Cuba yet again - and, yes, Montreal as well. Some say that the wealth of female beauty here is largely due to how chauvinistic many paisa men are. Just on the walk from the metro station back up to our flat - only a 12 minute walk through a mostly residential neighborhood, mind you - you can count nearly a dozen beauty salons, hair dressers, estheticians, modeling academies, and other tangentially beauty-related shops and services. In the subway itself, there are Public Service Announcements reminding people that women are worth more than just their body measurements. Of course, these ads are placed next to photoshopped ones of supermodels in bikinis advertising the latest fashion trends, but who's counting... At times excessive makeup, surreal breast enlargements, botched liposuction and obvious nose jobs are far too common here. The most beautiful girls here were - as they are everywhere else - the naturally beautiful ones. Thankfully, there was very little conflict between David and I, woman-wise. He'd always look like he was about to fall for the cute hipster girls studying some crazy obscure major like ``Mythology of Citizen Journalism" or ``Folkloric Gender Studies for Chicano Luchadores" or some shit like that, whereas I'd always be drawn to the super-high-maintenance, jet-set telenovella girls in the Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. To each their own I suppose.


 

4 - It's the little things

 

I'd used a gas stove before, but never owned one. After using the one in our flat for 6 weeks, I'm a convert - gas stoves bitchslap electric ones. Being the real men that we are, we didn't even use a lighter to ignite the stovetops - we just lit a match and flung it at the burner with defiance in our eyes. It's the kind of thing you can only get away with if you have a big pair of huevos. Of all the chores to do around a house, the one I enjoy the least would have to be washing the clothes. The washer I have at home is a cast iron relic from some gulag in Siberia that must've been used to wash animal skins instead of clothes. By contrast, the washing machine we had in our flat was one sleek piece of Korean sexiness. I was blown away by the mysterious, convoluted user interface, the homoerotic soft rounded corners, the finicky touch-sensitive buttons, and my complete lack of understanding of anything that was going on inside apart from ``dirty clothes and white powder go in, clean clothes come out". In other words, it was, for lack of a better comparison, the Apple Mac of washing machines. What counts is that it got my clothes very clean and it looked / sounded / acted like a Korean paraplegic R2-D2. A clear winner in my book. Medellin trash cans come in threes - non-recyclable, recyclable, and organic / biodegrable. I love how the 'biodegrable' one has photos of uneaten hotdogs. It's like even the trash can graphic designers are confident that you won't be finishing that 3000 peso ``saucy-bread-dog". I don't have many phobias [see: big huevos] but for some reason I hate the sight of razor wire or barbed wire. I immediately associate the imagery with oppression, fascism, imprisonment, Facebook, etc. Problem is, it's literally *everywhere* in El Poblado. Nearly every single building of any value or importance is surrounded with layers of razor / barbed wire. Walking up in the park towards Parque Lleras is a lovely alcove inset with the Virgin Mary - set against a charming background of Dachau-style razor wire. It's one the photos I took, personally, that will stick with me for a long time.


 

5 - Dysphemisms for food

 

What is it with us brown people and our strange insecurities that make us feel that we need to take credit for everything? It's like we always have something to prove to the white man. Do we really feel so inadequate as to require us to label each part of our existential physical reality with a little tag that say ``WE MADE THIS, WITHOUT US THE WORLD WOULD NEVER KNOW THE AWESOMENESS OF X."? Arabs / Middle Easterners are the worst / most hilarious offenders (``We were the first Christians!" ``No we were!" ``We invented couscous! "No we did!" etc). Us Middle Easterners have our ridiculous, baseless, unverifiable religious claims, and Colombians have their Sancocho and their Bandeja Paisa. Here's how it goes: take a whole bunch of different foods that have no business being near each other in the first place (chicharrones, eggs, salchichas, arepas, beans, umm, ``miscellaneous", corn, and rice) throw it all onto a plate, and Voila! - you've apparently just invented a new local delicacy, Bandeja Paisa. Sancocho is a similar offender, but it's a soup with a random assortment of parts thrown into it. Admittedly, the Sancocho I tasted in La Loma was fucking delicious, though it still didn't seem quite 'Colombian' to me. Do not get me started on the the Arepa, whose quality varied from "this belongs in my mouth" to "who forgot their cardboard?". You wouldn't like me would like me even less when I'm angry. There were some pleasant surprises though. The roasted and fried chicken is rather good. Coca Cola, as most people know already, tastes *SO* much better in Latin American than it does in the US or in Canada, mainly due to the fact that they sweeten it with Cane Sugar instead of yucky corn-based Glucose-Fructose. And Coca-leaf-based drinks at Le Bon Cafe were always delicious. Also, there are some ``real" local foods that were really great finds, like the delicious Mondongo stew with local Aji spice, or any of the various carnes a la plancha. Meats were generally of high quality. Of the local beers, I liked Aguila and Club Colombia. The most widespread (and marketed) one, Pilsen, was a bit too weak for my tastes. Besides, the slogan for Pilsen was ``Every hero deserves a Pilsen". By that rationale, I'd have to consume a case every couple of hours. The flip side to my hit-and-miss experiences with the culinary side of the city meant that I worked on my own cooking more than I though I would have. I made some unholy good fajitas with leftover roast chicken, and used whatever ingredients we have left in the house to season them, made different health[ier] foods like greek salads or veggie sandwiches, and made my usual hearty Canadian breakfast - when I finally found *real* bacon, and not that rancid ``lomo de cerdo" crap that turns to tungsten as soon as it touches the frying pan.


 

6 - Bogotá knows me, and she knows I'm right

 

The title of this post is slightly misleading; I'm not only talking about Medellín, but about the couple of days I spent in the capital as well. Less then a week before leaving this fascinating country, David and I flew to Bogotá. His account of the trip is far better written than anything I can manage, so go read it. The metro area of Bogotá is home to over 8 million people. Each neighborhood, or division, has its own distinctive flair and can feel like it's a city in itself. We stayed in La Candelaria, which was eerily deserted the Sunday night when we got there. We met a few friendlies walking around the barrio - and lots of beggars. In lieu of a proper subway system, the Transmilenio is a bus system with its own dedicated lanes. Watching the double-articulated busses effortlessly roll through the city made me wonder why more cities aren't doing something similar - the cost of such a system has to be several orders of magnitude less than a similarly effective subway / metro system. This is a colder city than Medellín. I had brought what I thought were warm enough clothes (I was traveling light, with only my laptop backpack), but I wasn't ready for the Bogotá nights. I felt like a bit of an asshole complaining to myself that the hotel room was too cold, after walking past at least a half-dozen homeless people sleeping on the pavement. As with many big cities, people here are somewhat distant and cautious. Everyone seems to be going somewhere with something important to do. It has a less relaxed, more business-like feel to it than Medellín. I can see how it can feel like a stifling environment to some, and how that would lead the younger, more hip members of the community to create some of the most impressive, expressive and relevant street art I'd seen in all of Colombia. When a city grows to a certain size, your mind starts getting used to being constantly bombarded with new faces, voices, and sounds every time you walk through it. It grows difficult, if not impossible, for us to consider that each of theses faces and voices has a life behind it. Each face conceals a storybook - filled variously with non-sequential pages about love, hatred, joy, sadness, surprise, melancholy, ambition, resignation, and all of the other words we've tried to create to describe those pinches we feel on our heartstrings... those catalysts of tears or laughter, apathy or pity, dancing together or murdering one another. Some of these pages are bookmarked, some have post-it notes with ``Remember This Always..." scribbled hastily on them, and some have the corner of the page folded in to make a specific passage easier to find when we are forced to refer back to it. These pages are what we tend to call 'defining moments'. The irony is that we don't bookmark them on purpose, nor do we always like it when we go back to them. These parts of the book are seldom written the way we want or expect them to be, but they are there all the same. We don't write our stories - they write us. That right there is why we try and hide them - because we're not comfortable with the idea that we're not always in control of our own lives. These parts of the book remind us of that fear. Every face in Bogotá conceals a beautifully written tale. It's fun to guess at the chapters in the story when looking at them, but it's nigh impossible to get it right. Easier, though, is to imagine whether the story is one of love, of suspense, of sadness, or - ultimately - tragedy. I imagine that a good deal of these stories would fall into the latter genre. Throughout everything we did in the city, shooting footage for the Canguro program at Hospital Universitario San Ignacio, meeting up with Carolina and Alvaro for a delicious lunch and even more delicious site-seeing, and just wandering aimfully around the city, I kept telling myself that I should've found a way to stay longer. David seemed in his element back in Antioquia. I felt like Bogotá was more mysterious, more captivating to me for some reason. Or maybe it was more the lack of time to really see enough of the city to satisfy my curiosity. Or maybe Bogotá is a loner city, finely tuned to accommodate a loner like me. Either way, Bogotá, I will be back someday, hopefully sooner rather than later. Keep the Mondongo warm for me.


 

7 - Strange Days

 

I returned from Bogotá with only a few days left. Mostly a blur, I do have great memories from these times though. Hanging out with great people like the charming / beautiful / brilliant Cane (pronounced ``Kanay"), going on an urban-guerilla-photographer jaunt with David, and shooting some more pool in Parque Lleras... the end of my trip dovetailed nicely into my return back home to Montreal. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed and admired Colombia - and Colombians - with all its different faces. I can see why paisas are so proud of their region and their city, and I would be too if I lived in such a lovely place. Spending so much time in one place reminded of something very important - no matter where you go, who you are, or what you see, we are all the same. From Eastern Europe to Antioquia, from Cuba to Cleveland, from London to Laval, we are the same. We have the same hopes, dreams and desires, and we are all part of the same family - and of the same movement. Children are always playful, the middle class is always distracted, liberals and conservatives and those in between are always bickering, and - most importantly of all - people are in love. They hold hands, have the same nervous look on their faces when they're about to kiss, and look into each other's eyes with the very same gaze, from continent to continent. Love is the layer that gives eternal pessimists like me some hope that we're pushing towards ``something better(tm)", a future that actually will become a better tomorrow. And so we tread on, each of us trying to make the world - or our little slice of it - a better place. For ourselves, those we love, our friends and families, or the entire human race. In my case, all four of those are one and the same. Peace.


 

Epilogue

 

I wanted to end this with some photos about one of the places whose people touched me the most - La Loma. I'm not going to write extensively about this experience or the feelings I got when I met all of these incredible, inspiring young people; David already did a great job of that. These photos are untitled, because they are stronger than any group of words I could tag onto them. So, to everyone in La Loma, thank you.


 

Comments

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008
mir's picture

That was beautiful, I especially liked your description of the stories in peoples faces. Frankly that was kind of a startling passage considering you lead into to it by telling us that you like to flick matches with your cojones.

Anyways I was happy to get such a nice sense of your trip.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008
Medellin Traveler's picture

Thanks for the great trip report. I was just surfing the net and came across your blog report on the lovely and magical city known as Medellin. It sounds like you had yourself a great time and experience. I fell into its spell upon my first visit in 2007. I have dedicated a webpage to Medellin, Colombia for all to see where Medellin is today... visit http://www.medellintraveler.com for more informatioin. Vive Medellin, Colombia!

Monday, February 4th, 2008
oso's picture

Where to start?

OK, so your nickname for your weewee is Pentax? That is so good. I think, however, that it's time you bought yourself a zoom lens chiquito. ;)

The picture of you with the candied apple always makes me laugh. The one with me, Santa, and Gilligan is a keeper as well.

Joanne = Joan.

The Google Images search result for "Telenovela Chicas" is much more interesting if you turn "safe search" off.

I'm extremely curious as to why the rounded corners of our washing machine are homoerotic? Was this part of your "work" between 1 and 4 a.m.?

Chapter 5 was fantastic.

I'm the loner around these parts. Why you trying to cop my steelo?

Really amazing shot of that spiral staircase in the design center. I didn't think I'd say this, but it was worth you going up to the admin offices and asking permission to snap some shots.

This whole post is beautiful. Medellin just isn't the same without you - that is, I have no one to introduce the ugly girls to. Hiyo! But seriously, it isn't. And for the most part I've been working freakishly early until freakishly late. Looking forward to seeing the Kangaroo footage. Un abrazo.

stevenmansour
Tuesday, February 5th, 2008
stevenmansour's picture

OK, so your nickname for your weewee is Pentax? That is so good. I think, however, that it's time you bought yourself a zoom lens chiquito.

Don't you mean a telephoto? Your zoom is what, like 28mm-70mm? I have a fixed length telephoto at 300mm.

The Google Images search result for "Telenovela Chicas" is much more interesting if you turn "safe search" off.

Ha, true dat. Though the real life search for Telenovela Chicas is even more interesting.

I'm extremely curious as to why the rounded corners of our washing machine are homoerotic?

Whatever. Anything that's not steampunk or viking goth isn't manly enough to garner my approval.

This whole post is beautiful. Medellin just isn't the same without you.

Same here brutha - couldn't have asked for better company. I still owe you a poutine (and you owe me several fancy haute cuisine dinners, for all those several 2000 pesos snacks I bought you). Don't forget to send me my hemp back scrub! Hope you're enjoying the bath salts as much as I did.

Man. You take amazing pictures. And you tell even better stories about them. Loved this post.

Thanks Jules - coming from a great writer like you, that means a lot. :D

Sunday, February 10th, 2008
Medellin Traveler's picture

Steve, if you click out my website, you will see that I have recently set up a message board dedicated to Medellin, Colombia. I would love to invite you to post your travel adventures on The Medellin Chat Room for others to read so they can better understand that the media has definitely not been fair to this lovely little-big city in Colombia, that's all in the past. You can also share some of your wonderful pictures as well.

My only question, when are you going back?

Saludos!

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008
Isabel Batteria's picture

I liked your account. Seeing the photos, I feel it looks exactly as Puerto Rico, where I live. Still, I know Colombia is a very different country in almost every aspect except the base language.

In Puerto Ric, we also have barbed wire and all that stuff everywhere. So it didn't strike me as odd. Actually, those are the pictures that reminded me of here more.

You should try Dominican sancocho. It's the best in the world. It's full of stuff, but well-balanced and, if well done, it's very thick and hearty.

The image-obsessed women reminded me of Iran. I read the autobiography of an Iranian woman in which she says plastic surgery is so common, it's expected. It's curious, because Iranians are Indo-European, not more Latin like the Greeks, yet they share many cultural traits, as much as we, Hispanics, share many cultural and ethnic traits with the Greeks. But the truth is, Hispanics in general are image-obsessed too. If you don't dress up enough or take care of your appearance (if you're a gal), people think you are religious. (I mean Pentecostal or one of those very restrictive Protestant branches, which are very popular in Puerto Rico.) I have been told that I "look religious" just because I prefer to sleep another half hour instead of spending it applying make-up or doing my hair.

Anyway, in general, I liked your observations. I will keep reading you. Regards.

stevenmansour
Wednesday, February 13th, 2008
stevenmansour's picture

Hi Isabel,

Thanks for your kind words. Many parts of Latin America can feel eerily similar to one another, especially to an outsider such as myself.

I will try Dominican Sancocho, I hope. Anywhere good to have it outside of the Dominican Republic?

Yeah, I saw a documentary about the huge amount of plastic surgery in Iran. I think it's a different social peculiarity than it is in Latin America, though - in most Latin countries, girls dress far more liberally and openly than in Iran, so they "show it off" more.

I agree that Hispanics are very image-obsessed. Didn't know about the religious angle though; that's a funny thing to hear. Religious people don't take care of their appearance?

Monday, February 16th, 2009
Helen Edwards - Good Credit's picture

Wow. I just loved the food shots, Steven. Can't help but salivate. LOL

Haven't been in those parts yet, but I might as well take a look around there next week. I think the homogeneous look of Latin America is just like when an outsider ventures out for the first time in Asia. Be careful though, as some people might take it as a degrading remark. I look forward to more of your adventures. ;-)

All the best,
Helen

stevenmansour
Monday, February 16th, 2009
stevenmansour's picture

Thanks Helen,

Yeah, for the most part, the food was decent in Colombia - I just preferred cooking at home most of the time.

I don't really feel Latin America is all the homogeneous, though there are definitely common themes from country to country. It takes a while to notice all the little differences.

I think most people who read my stuff know well enough not to get offended by any of it. :)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
Isabel Batteria's picture

Hi there! Sorry for coming back after more than a year. I just wanted to follow up on your question. The thing about religious people not taking care of their physical appearance is due to treating the body "as a temple" and rejecting vanity. Here in Puerto Rico Protestant denominations are very popular because of the United States' influence. It is said it's the largest religious community after Catholicism, even though it depends on the region. The most hard-core Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists, make their women wear only skirts and not wear make-up or earrings and stuff like that. I had a Pentecostal friend at school who told me that some of those things are "a calling". For example, she said, she shaved her legs because she didn't feel the calling not to do so. Now, as an adult, she wears pants and make-up. People who don't see her since high school (10 years ago) tell her "You look so pretty". But it's just that she's changed her appearance. I think most women keep the custom to avoid judgment from their congregation. But hey, that's my outsider's point of view. Thanks and luck!

stevenmansour
Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
stevenmansour's picture

Hi Isabel - thanks for the clarification. I didn't know that there was such a large protestant denomination in PR. I thought that everyone was pretty much catholic.

Luigi
Tuesday, September 8th, 2009
Luigi's picture

I´m from Medellin-Colombia.thanks for your text.

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
Isabel Batteria's picture

Hi again!! I come too late, don't I?

There are numerous Catholic churches in Puerto Rico. All Latin American countries have many old churches built by the Spaniards. I dare say I'm not wrong when I affirm most Latin Americans are Catholics. Puerto Rico may be an exception, because of the American influence. I find that most middle-class and poor people in the island are Protestant. On the other hand, most expensive, private schools are Catholic, as well as the members of old Puerto Rican families who send their kids to those schools. 

Puerto Rico seems mostly Catholic for outsiders because every single town has one big Catholic church in its main square, because of the Spanish heritage I told you about. But there are towns and sectors where you may find—I kid you not—five Protestant churches in one road. Cities tend to Catholicism.

Anyway, I feel I've been talking about religion with you for two years! Have you had the sancocho yet? If you ever come to Puerto Rico, contact me and I'll get you some sancocho.

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