Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Is this really Pablo Escobar's Medellin?

Panoramic view of the City of Eternal Spring
We all have preconceptions and fixed ideas that have been formed by what we have seen and heard and read. Without a fair amount of what one could also call prejudice, we would have a hard time making it through life. We pigeonhole and sort our experiences, and we continually redefine them along the way. My idea of Medellin, Colombia, was based on the 2014 movie Escobar: Paradise Lost as well as all those news stories we all read and heard about the drug capital of the world.

Well, what a readjustment I was in store for!
Cars and pedestrians wind their way
The metro has just unloaded another few hundred commuters
Tiny taxis make up more than 50% of car traffic
Medellin is a vibrant, modern city that is called by Colombians the City of Eternal Spring, thanks to its moderate climate at about 1,500 meters elevation. It is beautifully situated in a wide valley, surrounded by steep, verdant mountains, and it is anything but a backwater marked by obvious sleaziness and shootouts. Yes, the doctor who is traveling with me to help me in my work warned me sternly that this is a very dangerous city and that there are ladrones--thieves--everywhere. I certainly did not dismiss his admonishment by any means, but at the same time we know that every city has its "bad" areas where one should not walk alone, sometimes during the day, more often at night.
Medellin is littered with modern shopping centers and malls
By what I was told, the area of Medellin where our GHL Hotel was located is considered one of the safer areas of town, and only the locals can truly judge such statements. But even though the immediate neighborhood featured an ultramodern large US-style mall (certainly nicer than the one in Lubbock), there were plenty of run-down bars, muffler shops, and shuttered storefronts just down the street to remind me that this was not Park Avenue. We spent two nights in Medellin, and both evenings I walked around by myself, exploring the 'hood and sitting in small eateries and kiosks watching Copa America soccer and feeling as welcome and as safe as anywhere. OK, maybe I was just lucky, but I came away with a tremendously positive impression of Medellin.
Young people having a TGIF drink close to one of the metro stations
This second-largest city of Colombia is well-to-do, as I was told, quite likely thanks to the drug business. It (and the department of Antioquia) retains a certain independence from Bogota and is said to be progressive. With about 2.5 million inhabitants (the metroplex has about 3.5 million) there are obvious traffic problems. But a modern metro is in place, trying to assuage the thick molasses of cars, buses, and trucks. Even more progressive, Medellin has a bike-share program and dedicated bike lanes that are actually being used by cyclists and respected by the drivers! Unfortunately I was not able to use my one off-morning to try out the system since it is geared toward locals who use it for transportation, not for tourist who want to rent a bike for a few hours. To get enrolled in the program with a permanent ID card was more trouble than it seemed worth, but it would have been interesting.
Rush-hour traffic snaking by one of the many modern buildings in Medellin
From what I have seen in the cities where we have stayed so far, Colombia's middle-to-upper class loves to shop. There are malls and shopping centers galore, and they are modern, clean, safe, well-lit, and a meeting point for people. Pretty much all feature open WiFi service (nice bonus for me when I walk around), and the food courts are always full--frequented even by our commissaires who seem to love them! Men and women are fashionably dressed, and the prices are not exactly low. Colombia certainly has its rural side, but it's not a backwater, either.
Bike share station
Bike route map with bike share stations indicated
Because of my limited time I have not been able to mosey around long enough to run into opportunities to talk with locals about their lives. Yes, there are my driver (by now it is Ernesto) as well as Cristobal and the doctor, but unfortunately they don't speak any English and my Spanish is not good enough to carry on a deep conversation--also a bit tough to do in the car when you're being tossed around in the curves. I would like to know a little more about the average middle class Colombian, job security, cost of living vs. income, school and health insurance issues--and of course the touchy subjects, politics and drugs.
What about it, Lubbock?
I am writing this in Pereira, two stages away from Medellin, which we left on Sunday. Pereira is much smaller and it is not as beautifully situated, there are none of those red-brick building that climb up the mountain sides of Medellin, and there are only few large, modern buildings (although I marveled at the elegant viaduct that connects two parts of the city). Still, it's quite vibrant here, too, and there are lots of small shopping centers and arcades. Colombia continues to surprise me. Tomorrow night we'll be in Cali, and who knows what it will hold in store for me.
The streets of Pereira
That's it for my second update from Colombia. We have five more stages ahead of us, and that means getting lost a few more times at the hands of Ernesto and the guys. Stay tuned!


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