In the fall of 2013 I spent about 3 months living in Medellín, Colombia. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and Pablo Escobar’s old stomping grounds, has seen incredible improvement and transformation from what it was just a few decades ago. Medellín should never be discredited for the progress that has been made. That being said, the city still faces many issues made complicated by its difficult recent past.
Working as an English teacher there, I had an amazing time, lived with fantastic roommates and met many many wonderful people. Colombians are some of the most extraordinary and warm people I have ever encountered.
This article, featured in its Spanish form in the Argentine magazine CLAP, depicts my first impressions of the city of Medellín a few weeks after my arrival. I hope that fear passed on from my parent’s generation does not inhibit those who wish to experience a city full of innovative, generous and patient people from visiting.
I check the time. It’s almost 6 o’clock in the evening and I can see the clouded sky above the mountains from my apartment’s balcony begin to fade to a darker gray. I can’t put it off any longer. I have to walk several blocks to the supermarket to buy dinner ingredients for myself before the night falls because I live in downtown Medellín, Colombia a.k.a. “El Centro”.
In September 2013 I departed Seattle where I attended the University of Washington for the last four years in order to travel to Medellín and teach English to Colombian students at CENSA, a type of community-college. Before I left I scoured the internet searching for articles about the city’s perfect climate and breathtaking mountains, but articles and pictures can never paint a complete picture. I arrived in Colombia determined to educate my friends back home that had told me I would surely die or be kidnapped in Colombia. I wanted to uncover the “genuine Colombia”.
The organization called CENSA for which I am volunteering, provides a grandiose apartment for me and six other volunteers from several countries around the world and two meals a day in return for our assistance in helping out primarily underprivileged students. I have a room to myself with four unnecessary beds and our apartment has two balconies, a massive kitchen, peculiar decorations including a quartet of antique hole-punchers and it is the entire 17th floor! Despite our apartment, the majority of downtown Medellín bares no resemblance to excessive luxury.
During working hours, the downtown is an endless stream of people coming and going. There are people here from all of Colombia’s six social stratums (which are defined by the area where one lives), there are vendors on the street selling ice-cream with fruit and cheese, sugarcane juice with lime and of course the local delicacy: arepas de queso (a bread made with corn and the local cheese). During daylight hours, you can find anything on the street between wind-up toys for children, cigarettes, perfume, watches and movies within a few blocks of my apartment. You can even pay about $0.25 to make a local call from a man wearing a sign with a cellphone attached to his shirt that stands directly in front of my apartment. It is loud, it is smelly and the black diesel exhaust of buses zooming past is unavoidably in your face as you impatiently wait to cross the street with people swarming all around you. But El Centro is never short of entertaining and if you relish people-watching and overloading your senses like I do, this is the spot to be. I love to people-watch outside the Museo de Antioquia in the plaza where the artist Botero donated more than a dozen eight-foot-tall bronze sculptures (also just several blocks from my apartment).
After living in Seattle for the past four years, living in a Latin American city with abundant commotion, ceaseless noise, bustling venders, students and businessmen alike, endlessly fascinates me. However, it is not just the lurid colors, the unusual smells or the booming and indecipherable commotion of people in the streets on microphones selling their cheap fruit that captivate me. To me the phenomenon of downtown is the alarming and ghostly transformation that I witness outside my apartment each night after 6pm. After the working day halts at 6:00, all of the commuters ascend to their homes in the hills above the city or take the sophisticated and lustrous metro system to one of the numerous stops. This leaves El Centro deserted, dark, quieter, sluggish and quite unnerving once the sun sets.
I can take the metro from El Centro to another part of town provided it is before nightfall, but even if I am returning from a neighborhood where I feel extremely safe riding the metro, I would never get off after twilight at Parque Berrío, the metro station closest to my apartment. I am faced with the same problem if I decide to leave my home after 6. Fortunately I don’t have to linger for too long before I can hail a taxi out front of where I live, but in Medellín you won’t find me taking my safety for granted.
After sundown near our apartment, my roommates and I have witnessed countless homeless people sleeping on crumbling concrete, rummaging through massive bags of rancid trash, injecting drugs to themselves and others and eternally staring at me as I pass them and tightly clutch my purse, keep me eyes straight ahead and march with a purpose and a scowl on my face. In El Centro there are drug dealers, child, adult and transvestite prostitutes and robbers and they tend to congregate alarmingly close to the metro station near my apartment. Although the transformation that takes place between the day and nighttime is unlike anything I have observed, I still prefer El Centro during the daytime.
I have only been here in Medellín for a few weeks and yet from the start I have been transfixed by a feature of the city that is always on my mind. It is the fact that each of the city’s neighborhoods that I have visited are so unique, I can never tell if I am Medllín or if I am in a different city entirely. I struggle to find where the “real” Medellín hides.
El Poblado is the neighborhood where the wealthy inhabitants of Medellín reside, dine in fine restaurants and head to discover the boisterous and lively nightlife. The locals in Medellín would describe the yuppie and the spoiled rich people that spend their time in Poblado as “Pupi”. In El Poblado you can find gourmet restaurants with cuisines from around the world and bars with fancy cocktails that approach US prices. El Poblado feels like Europe. It is safe, I feel secure whipping my phone out of my purse to snap a photo and after dark there are no drug addicts or terrifying people to be seen. El Poblado is also where the majority of the hotels and hostels are located and consequently where many tourists spend most of their time in Medellín.
I enjoy El Poblado for all of the reasons I enjoy places that have a village feel, rows of bars and restaurants and exciting nightlife, but it doesn’t quite feel how I would imagine the real Medellín to be. During the day the neighborhood is rather quiet, there are nice shops to visit, lovely parks and even a castle. For some travelers this area is their only impression of the city of Medellín. They return back to their respective countries and they write articles for newspapers and magazines describing how much more safe and lavish Medellín is than they ever imagined and how they had no idea why they might need to be on guard in this city. A part of me is envious. They have a clear image in their minds of what Medellín is like. When they think of the city they can conjure a series of related images in their minds of what Medellín represents to them. Although as any local will tell you, El Poblado is not really Medellín, but what is the real Medellín? Each neighborhood in this city is so vastly different from the others that it is almost impossible to know what represents the real Medellín. When my friends from home ask me if the city is safe, if the city is fun, advanced, scary etc. it is so difficult to answer them.
El Poblado and El Centro appear to be two different cities and if you familiarize yourself with the gondolas that loft you over the mountainsides of the favelas, you can see tiny cinderblock houses, chickens wandering the streets, children playing in the rubble, satellite dishes on shacks and clothes set to dry on grooved tin roofs. Many of these neighborhoods perched in the hills are deceivingly much safer than they initially appear when compared to other neighborhoods in the city. And when you travel to Aurora where the government has recently built project apartment complexes, a beautiful hospital and commissioned art work for this peaceful and breezy mountaintop neighborhood, you can see how far the valley stretches and how thousands of people cover every inch of the mountainsides. There are so many different neighborhoods each with a distinct vibe and I cannot wait to see how different cities within the country begin to vary also.
One feature of Medllín that has remained constant since I have arrived, is the kindness of the people I have met here. Strangers on the street have time to speak with me, help me with directions or even personally show me the way to go. The friends I have made here already are kind, curious and wonderful company. Colombians have the patience to listen to my broken Spanish and the interest in learning about my life in Seattle even when they themselves are so misunderstood by people from around the world.
Colombia is a country unfortunately misconstrued by the rest of the world. Even when I told my international studies roommate in Seattle that I had been offered a job teaching English in Medellín he could only respond with “you can do coke?”. I could tell that the film “Blow” was the extent of his knowledge on the country. In part my roommate was right, but in so many ways he could not have been more wrong. I wanted to come to Medellín to try and understand it, but the truth is that it is not a city easily understood. I wanted to find a clear image of what Medellín is like so I could return from my experience here, and tell everyone I knew exactly what Colombia was like. I wanted to find a fill-in-the-blank answer to describe the city, but I since I arrived I have been asking myself “is this Medellín?” “Is this Colombia?”.
The most significant aspect of Medellín I have discovered is that there isn’t just one image of Medellín that I can bring back to the U.S. and share with my friends and family. Medellín is El centro, Medellín is El Poblado, it is the countless of other neighborhoods that range from the favelas, middle class and commercial areas, the neighborhoods with contract killers, the fancy libraries, museums and the incredible metro system. You cannot understand Medellín without knowing that the city represents its dangerous past as threatening parts still resonate, but you cannot understand Medellín without acknowledging that Medellín represents its optimistic and bright future filled with innovation and social projects. It’s not necessarily wrong that people from the U.S. and around the world associate Colombia with its historical perils and drugs, but I can only hope they will soon begin to see Medellín not only for its existing poverty and lingering troubles but for all of its variety, its constant improvement and the difficult task it has been to develop the city to where it is today and especially for its amazing and friendly people. I don’t care if there isn’t one simple answer to describe Medellín. I want people to know how multifaceted the city is because the variety of the city and the wonderful people who inhabit it are precisely why I love Medellín, Colombia.
The Spanish version of this article and other great articles can be viewed in Clap’s first edition here: http://issuu.com/clapmagazine/docs/clap_magazine1