As I wind down my three-week, three-city tour of Colombia, I am reminded of a few things. First, a preface about the country I fell in love with:
When I set my mind to visit Colombia, most everyone I knew wanted to stop me, or at least heavily caution me. It was as if the ghost of Pablo Escobar was still operating people’s projections in a cinema looped on 1980’s Medellín. Granted, Colombia has seen some serious shit, no one’s denying that. But what I find even more fascinating is humanity’s ability to hold onto things as if it were yesterday. In the US, we’re perpetually clenched in fear, afraid of the unknown, and it’s being driven through our brains like a captive bolt pistol in a slaughterhouse. We live in an unrelenting cycle of “everyone’s out to get us” because “we’re the best.” Well, allow me to shed a little light on that. Yes, the USA is remarkable, but not because we say we are, and unquestionably not because we think we’re better. We are incredible because of our profound gift of aid, infinite opportunity, and our welcoming spirit (of yesteryear). The policy of generosity exuded by the US when she’s acting on her best behavior far surpasses any country I’ve ever been to. The problem is, we’re in the middle of another growth spurt, and the best way to sell a used car is to make it seem better than all the other ones on the lot. It’s just that simple. I’m neither mad at her, nor sad for her, and most importantly, I’m not influenced by her scorn. As with all things, this too shall pass. With the grace of future generations innocently steeped in imagination, ingenuity, and of course an abundance of love, she’ll be back to her old, welcoming ways, this you can be sure of.
When I flew into Medellín, I didn’t really have an idea of what to expect. I mean I knew what everyone else knows: the aforementioned drug lord and his reign of terror, and the 1990’s label that Medellín was widely considered to be “the murder capital of the world.” But what did I actually know about the place, and its people? Nothing, really, and that’s just the way I like it. I choose to go places where I can immerse myself free of expectation. I like to refer to it as a “Baptism of Culture.” Well, Medellín was just that. From the moment I stepped foot onto Colombian soil I felt my disposition change, I was immediately welcomed in.
Medellín is a bustling city at the outset of its metamorphosis with an authentic commitment to 21-century means. With a dignified public transit system, The Metro, reaching far into the neediest and most vulnerable comunas (common areas), hillside escalators veining communities with its Metro, Internet “mesh networks” connecting non-service areas by a series of routers and antennas mounted on rooftops, the design of 5 library multi-parks, new museums, cultural centers, and schools to enrich the impoverished, Medellín is leading the world in initiatives, and its primary focus is building social wealth through investments in early childhood. The urbanization and globalization of Medellín are so unbelievable, it’s no wonder The Wall Street Journal named this city the most innovative in the world in 2013, and why it was chosen to host the World Urban Forum 7 in 2014.
The two echoing pillars of Medellín today are democratic architecture and education with dignity. It’s their strongly held belief that they must find the will to find happiness in tragedy. Truer words have never been spoken. Medellín even offers free walking tours of the city as a rebranding of sorts. This was eloquently articulated by the outgoing Carlos, one of the many bright, young tour guides on the scene today: “The new Medellín is not only yours, mine; it’s ours. And together, we are working very hard to show the international community that we are not only safe, we are also desirable.”
There is a famous children’s book indoctrinated by Colombians, written by David McKee called, “Ahora no, Bernardo” which translates to, “Not now, Bernard.” The story is about a boy named Bernard who is constantly ignored by his parents. Even when he tries to tell them about a monster outside in the garden, they still don’t pay attention. Bernard is subsequently eaten by the monster, who then takes Bernard’s place in the house and still, somehow, goes unnoticed. The moral of the story, again, as told by Carlos, and as seen through the Colombian Biblioteca’s public schooling programs is, “Our children are our future and if we don’t take care of them, teach and listen to them, we will be creating a whole new generation of monsters.” So simple. So pure. So true! Bravo, Carlos. Bravo, Medellín. Bravo!
Bogotá was a very curious read to me. It felt exactly like what one might expect a capital city to feel like: sprawling, historic, and systematic. This high-altitude hub, located on the Bogotá savanna (the uplands in the center of Colombia in the Eastern Ranges of the Colombian Andes), is the largest city in Colombia and features colonial-era landmarks, some of the country’s most popular museums (Museo Botero, exhibiting a personal favorite of mine, Fernando Botero’s art, and the Museo del Oro, displaying pre-Columbian gold pieces), and is the home to senior agencies of the executive (Office of the President), the legislative (Congress of Colombia), and the judicial branch (Supreme Court of Justice, and the Constitutional Court). Taking a 5-hour private tour through the city included the following: touring their financial, legal, and executive district, seeing the President’s house (Casa de Nariño), exploring the aforementioned museums, the graffiti district (which is an extensive and picturesque walk), trolleying up a hillside to Monserrate, and finally, the Assumption of Mary observed holiday-turned-street fair where the entire downtown was closed in an “Escape from New York-esque” doomsday parade where anyone and everyone could sell just about anything you could think of, and that they did. I feel like I learned quite a bit, most notably, what it’s like to patronize the largest, most chaotic, and unsettling garage sale I have ever attended.
Highlights include La Candelaria, Zona T, and Monserrate. La Candelaria is a historic neighborhood in the downtown district. The architecture of old houses, churches and buildings had a Baroque and Art Deco feel to it. Super cool! Zona Rosa de Bogotá (or “Zona T” named after its T intersection) is a neighborhood with many pubs, restaurants, malls, shops and nightclubs. This neighborhood is also known as one of the most exclusive quarters in Latin America and it felt like it. And finally, Monserrate (a 17th-century church with a shrine devoted to “El Señor Caído” or, as it was translated to me, “Fallen Lord”) is a majestic and holy lookout 10,341 ft. above sea level. It’s a stunning, and romantic observation post with an 180-degree view of the city’s skyline. All in all, a pretty amazing reveal into the republic’s capital.
Cartagena, the “old city,” or “walled city” as it’s commonly referred to, is a colonial, historic and heavily fortified fortress town with narrow, cobbled streets, and a settler’s structure. This open-air sanctuary has a constant stream of music, dancing, and busking, a killer restaurant and mixology scene, and is overflowing in notable architecture. The street performers were truly on another level. First, there was the hip-hop element, my personal favorite. While the kids seemingly didn’t have many instrumentals to choose from; Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” and “The Next Episode,” 50 Cent’s, “In Da Club,” and one other I didn’t recognize, they were still spitting, fluent and fresh new rhymes daily. Then there was the sea of mimes. From traditional mimes (as we know them in the States), to old-world theatrical mimes, real actors awaiting any denomination to be dropped in the hat, sometimes for hours, before they sprung into show. Lastly, you have the characteristic Victorian violinist, local artisan’s selling their hand-crafted chachkas, food vendors in the streets, and all somehow harmonizing to a cacophony of laughter, and the metronomic clock of recurring Horse and buggy movement, the old world clatter as it does. Plaza Santo Domingo acts as the heart of the city hosting outside restaurants, performances, and it’s helmed by Botero’s statue, “La Gordita.” The never soon enough breeze, food and drink, and a ceremonial backdrop of the surrounding buildings make Cartagena a magnificent fairy tale!
From taking a free city tour into underprivileged neighborhoods and getting to see Medellín’s next generation willfully learning in a public forum, liberally expressing their questions and watching their creative minds allowed to flourish in front of a world stage of visitors (without question, my favorite part of the entire trip), to walking on set of the world’s largest anarchic flea market, to the sound of thousands of people celebrating symphonically in the streets, I am reminded of a few things:
• Wearing shorts in Medellín makes you look like a tourist. Wearing pants in Cartagena makes you look like a tourist. Bogota doesn’t give a shit what you wear.
• Every city has a busking Iron Man. I don’t just mean Colombia; I mean everywhere, which prompted me to think, there’s got to be a business model here…The International Busking Iron Man’s Union?
• Don’t slam the doors in Taxies. This is not an exaggeration; every cab driver in the country doesn’t like it. They really don’t. Like, it’s a thing…and no, I don’t know why either.
• In Colombia, there is an 11th commandment: “A papaya dada, papaya partida.” It’s a colloquial expression, which basically means, “What has been given, can be taken.” It translates into watch yo shit, and don’t give people an opportunity to take said shit. I feel like everyone, everywhere knows this without the use of prop-fruit in an idiomatic example.
• It’s my my experience thus far, that no matter where you dine or drink in Colombia, you can take an unfinished bottle of purchased alcohol with you when you leave. Like, “I’ll have 5 shots of Don Julio Reposado, please.” “You should just buy the bottle, it’s cheaper.” “But I only want the one round of shots for me and my friends- I can’t drink that much tonight?!” “No worries, take the bottle with you.” It’s legal. Everywhere!
• Buying a size 11.5 shoe in Colombia is like trying to publicly talk about Pablo Escobar and I didn’t even try to publicly talk about Pablo Escobar.
• Some of the local street vendors selling fruit have microphones to apparently tell you their fruit is better than the guy‘s fruit *right* next to them. Loudly, and on a continuous loop. How does the guy without a mic stay calm? Or, sell any fruit? And why doesn’t he just move down the street?
• Directional or guidance tactile paving is used on every single sidewalk I walked on, in all three cities. It begs the question: Is it really that hard to take care of our blind? Colombia doesn’t think so.
• No matter where you are in the entire world, everyone loves the song “Yeah,” by Usher, unless it comes on at your place of employment. Then, apparently, you have the right to hate it. Otherwise, it would seem like it’s your civic duty to act a foo when it hits.
Recurring excerpts from previous works:
• Electric razors for men are harder to find in Colombia than gold and I didn’t even look for gold. Forgetting your charger renders your electric razor useless after an unfortunate switch-on during flight.
• A kind smile and gentle disposition are all you need to communicate across the globe. Well, that, and the Google translate app.
In closing, be kind, it’s the only form of currency accepted worldwide.