Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
34Trip End Jul 26, 2011
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Where I stayed
The reaction when I told people I was going to Colombia was often a mix of surprise and worry, followed by vague facts about kidnappings and drugs. However, my Colombian family friend, Randy Cauthen, reassured me I would love it, as well as other travelers I had met in Central America. My brother had also put me in contact with a good friend of his, Matt Walters, who had traveled extensively throughout South America. In our series of emails he gave me advice for all over South America and recommended I spend plenty of time in Colombia.
I took his advice and flew into Medellin the 29th of January landing at 9pm. I had no hostel booked and knew virtually nothing about Medellin. Three months ago, no way would I fly into another country with no plans on where to stay or knowledge especially this late at night, but I have learned that in travel things seem to work out. As the plane landed, I started talking to an American named Pat who was sitting across the aisle from me in the plane. We decided to split a cab with another American from New York, Alex. Alex knew the hostel owner at Arcadia, Spyros, and let him know I would be joining them at the hostel. Thirty minutes later we were navigating switchbacks overlooking the vast city of Medellin.
We arrived late, exchanged info with Matt as we dropped him off at his hostel (his name was not Pat), and settled in. I found a cheap Tapas bar where I ran into Matt again. After eating, he gave me a little tour of Parque Lleras, the local bar scene of El Poblado- the barrio where I was staying in Medellin. We enjoyed a Tres Cordilleras, the local Medellin brew, as Matt took me through this vast expanse of bars, loud music and beautiful woman; staying for a few beers was more than appealing, but neither of us slept the night before at home decided we needed sleep.
After lunch the next day Alex and I ran into Matt again and decided to get a couple beers as to not waste the beautiful Spring-like day. We made plans to go to a roof-top party that night through some friends- both Matt and Alex had spent time in Medellin. Alex, a graduate of Columbia University from New York, has been working as an English teacher in Medellin for almost six months after first teaching English in China. He also has a beautiful local girlfriend, Linda- which means pretty in Spanish. Matt, from Houston, had traveled throughout South America but was just on vacation in Medellin for three weeks from work He decided we should order a pitcher of beer for the two girls that just walked onto the patio my first Medellin afternoon. We obliged, and shared a few drinks with these local girls. All of us spoke Spanish, mine being the worst.
I realized I would be using a lot of Spanish in this city, which was exactly what I wanted. That night at the CouchSurfing party, I met locals and travelers using only my Spanish. From the the rooftop, I watched Matt show off his Gringo salsa moves and admired the city lights of downtown Medellin as it all looked so safe nestled between the surrounding valley
The next day after paying the 5000 pesos bill and finally beating the hangover, Alex and I contemplate what could be amiss this New Years Eve. At the hostel I got online to let my family know I hadn't been kidnapped or killed yet, and decided to find Matt on Facebook. I put in his email- which felt all to familiar- 'MattWalters99@gmail.com', into facebook and my Spanish facebook alerted me I have. '3 amigos en comun'. I eagerly clicked to see who we could possibly both know: William Getschow, Mary-Rose Getschow, Georgia Getschow- 3 of my siblings.
Before all the puzzle pieces fell together I quickly checked my Gmail account to see who I had been emailing the last 3 months for this travel advice: MattWalters99@gmail.com.
“NO *@%(@(%$(@#( WAY!”
Had I really just spent the last two days with my brothers best childhood friend that I have been emailing for the last three months without ever realizing it?
I had. Back at Matt's hostel, his hysterical “WHAT THE @#%$@%” as he nearly fell over in his chair was enough to have the neighbor come running in. A ridiculous form of coincidence was at play here, and to think we were sitting one aisle away from each other in the back of AA flight 343 without having a clue.
New Year's Eve, unfortunately, is very family based in Medellin so it was little more than a traveler's New Year's. The night started off with an Asado of grilled chicken and salad at the hostel and a bottle of Ron Medellin. We still celebrated appropriately with drinks, a Spanish countdown, and a late, late evening. It wasn't every night, but a fair-share of Medellin was taking advantage of the great night-life and having some wild nights: partying at Blue with a deaf Japanese guy only talking through cell phone typing, slowly becoming accustomed to Aguardiente, the Colombian guaro with a kicking black licorice flavor which became the catalyst to a few great nights, refusing to pay for local girls drinks that were trying to take advantage of the gringos, putting my somewhat nonexistent salsa skills to the test at La Octavia, and drinking with some locals in 'a place we should never go to' at Parque Periodista only to find out we are the first gringos they have ever met.
Finding myself in places like Parque Periodista is what makes Medellin so unique; it has depth. They call it “La Ciudad de Primavera Eterna”, the city of eternal Spring, and it really is just that. Every day is sunny and every night is crisp, perfect for dressing up in jeans and a nice shirt. One beautiful day I spent the afternoon at Parque Botero exploring Francisco Botero's art museum and statues outside
That night Alex and I went just down the road to Parque Periodista to find a crowded half block park full of hippies and wash-outs in what is apparently a dangerous part of town. I think the Colombians are afraid of their own country, having much to do with the resonating fear of Pablo Escobar's reign.
Another afternoon Alex and I took the MetroCables, a cable car line off the train cutting through town, high into the barrios of Medellin. We hoped to go to Parque Ari at the top of the line, but it was closed, so after enjoying a mora y leche jugo (blackberry and milk, delicious), and postre de guayaba, we decided to hike down the 30 degree incline from the top back to the train station. It was exhausting walking down, I couldn't imagine walking up. Before the MetroCables were built the residents had to hike up and down the hill to go to and from work.
The barrios were well kept and still had Christmas decorations up
Alex and I also explored the life of Pablo Escobar through a local city tour. At the beginning of the tour, the young local tour guide told us that Escobar was the worst thing that ever happened to Colombia, going on to say “I am going to tell you all the truth, the real story of Pablo Escobar.” But as her stories during the tour progressed, I felt more and more like they were fabricated truths. I had read Mark Bowden's “Killing Pablo” about the years long hunt and eventual kill of Pablo Escobar, and when I brought up facts and questions relating the book to what I was seeing, our tour guide never gave me a full answer, and her occasional twitch may have made it all feel less believable.
Most of the time you can meet and visit with Pablo's blind brother through the tour, but this week he was busy. We visited Escobar's old house, his grave-stone in the middle of a public cemetery (touring a cemetary is an uncomfortable feeling), and went to the front of the house where he was shot and killed. We didn't get a real good view of where he was shot because another story on the house had been built in front of the roof where he was killed
To contrast the entire tour, and our guide's anti-Escobar viewpoint, the driver, who spoke no English, kept telling Alex that Pablo did great things for this country. A definite Pablo sympathiser. The irony was strong, and the de-personalized tour from looking through fences and not hearing true facts made it feel somewhat fraud. We ended the tour by looking through fences at some old planes that used to be used to transport cocaine. She didn't have a lot of the answers, like how much he transported, how rich he really was. She did say that the gov't took a good majority of his money that they found, but that he successfully hid another good portion of it.
We finished the tour looking through a chained link fence at an old drug-plane graveyard. It all felt so impersonal as I realized I could have driven to each of these spots myself. I would have enjoyed meeting Escobar's blind brother, but hearing the Spanish-only speaking bus driver give his sympathetic opinion behind the back of our tour guide added to the irony of the whole tour. At the graveyard, the bus driver told Alex that Escobar was the greatest thing for the people of Medellin, as he crossed himself over his tombstone
That night we forgot about the terror Escobar unleashed twenty years ago, and went Salsa dancing with three Americans we met on the tour. That night Kayte (pronounced Katie), Amaha, Zach and I planned for a trip to local vacation spot. The hour and a half long bus ride took us through the countryside towards Guatape and a giant rock called El Penol which sticks out of the world like a God-made skyscraper. Its unbelievable. We took a Chivas like bus to the top of the road for 1000 pesos ($.50)and started the 740 step ascent. The view got more and more beautiful towards the top, and at the top it became absolutely breathtaking. I was reassured I wasn't out of shape when I saw the majority of people heaving and working for every last breath at the top. In the next couple days I was invited by two different people to join their family for a Guatape vacation but unfortunately had to refuse. Its okay though, I decided I'm moving there one day.
On top of the sight seeing and night life, I started going to the free outdoor gym a couple blocks from my hostel. It was unlike anything I had seen before. When I first arrived, three shirtless Colombians eyed me down as I walked into the tennis-court sized outdoor weight room. The weight bars were chained to the bench press, dip bars, and bench press, and had various weights welded on to the bar so they couldn't be stolen
After eight days in Medellin, Alex and I planned on leaving for Cartagena and a big music festival for the weekend. Alex has lived in Medellin for five months and hasn't seen any other parts of Colombia so joining me was a good excuse to travel a bit before heading further south to find more work.
We had heard the bus tickets were a whopping 130,000 pesos ($70) for the nine hour bus to Cartagena, but we decided it would be worth the trip and last minute we decided to go to the terminal and try to get the price down. If we couldn't, well, we would see.
At the terminal nobody budged. It was Christmas season and that means expensive travel. Alex decided he couldn't afford the $130 round-trip fair, which put me in a predicament. I could either pay full price and go to Cartagena alone, or stay in Medellin for one final weekend. I couldn't make up my mind, so over a burger and a Pilsen I flipped a coin.
One time flip- 200 pesos side means go, design side means stay.
I tossed the coin in the air as my future was being decided with each rotation. The coin landed and slowly rotated on its axle, deciding my fate.
“Looks like were heading back, man”
The coin always knows best. Back at the hostel I met Chris and Rachel, two Brits who were heading to Cartagena at the end of the weekend, and more importantly Alex and I had an amazing weekend with toasts over Aguardiente and some unforgettable night, all of one will remain anonymous.
At four AM on Saturday morning I was swaying my way back to the hostel. I turned left off Calle Diez as normal. I walk two blocks or so on the stretch of about four blocks towards the death trap interchange just before Arcadia Hostel. Suddenly I arrive at the end end of the road quite confused as the road should take me straight to Arcadia. I look around and figure out I turned one street to early. I knew it wasn't the safest area, and the sudden darkness before me made it that much more ominous. Alex had been robbed at gun point twice and Spyros, the hostel owner, had been drugged and robbed in his own hostel.
Kicking myself for not paying attention walking back, with all these thoughts running through my head, I started feeling nervous. I had to walk through a dark patch on the road to get back on the right street when suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere and began walking towards me. My heart raced as I felt my camera in my pocket. “Why did I bring this out tonight?” I thought as I awaited this certain robbery. The guy starts asking me where I'm going and gets real close to me, shakes my hand and pulls me in
Two days later I left for real with Chris and Rachel. The prices didn't drop, but I knew it was time to go. My first days of 2011 in Colombia I will never forget. I said good-bye to the motley crue that had taken over the hostel. Spyros, of course, loaded me up with cards for the hostel, that I have been quickly distributing around northern Colombia, and Alex told me he was sad to say goodbye. I will miss Aradia Hostel and all its antics; The Black Brazilian Airline Pilot/Pimp, Roy's (other Roy) anarchical antics, losing my blue blockers, The drunk terrible English speaking cleaner, stories of breaking into the suites, listening to 80's underground Europe/Greece style pop music, waiting for Spyro's Gyros to open, making lots of ham and variations of eggs, tomatoes, avocados, cheese, and onions and bread, and nutella, the asados, coming back from the terminal Friday to have a hell of a weekend, and meeting Chris and Rachel- whom I will travel with throughout the coast of Colombia and will truly become great friends.
“The cure for unhappiness is happiness. I don't care what anybody says!”
-Elizabeth McCraken, Niagara Falls All Over- Again.