Medellin and Me

My journey to Medellin has been intense, fun, frustrating, wild, emotional, interesting, and adventurous (and many more adjectives).

When we got in the car to go to the shuttle in Prescott, I was excited, nervous and sad all at once. Sheri and I will be apart for 4-1/2 months, by far the longest stretch since we met in 1998. I was dabbing tears in my eyes as the shuttle driver made his way to Prescott Valley to drop off his coworker. At that point I switched to the front seat, and fortunately the shuttle driver dude was quite chatty, otherwise I might have been tearing-up all the way to Phoenix.

At the airport I was a little nervous about whether my checked bag would come in under 40 lbs. and avoid the Spirit Airlines hefty surcharge, but I was grateful to have a very nice (and chatty) ticket agent who even allowed me to stuff more things in my checked bag. As I awaited for my 1:48 AM departure, I thought more than a few times that this was way past my bedtime.

When the plane landed in Dallas, I got up from my seat and was struck by how ethnically diverse we passengers were … Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Europeans, Texans (who seem to stand out), Indians, a Muslim women in hajib, other folks, and some fellow gringo mutts. This is the USA that I love.

The flights from Texas to Florida and then from Florida to Medellin were uneventful if not a blur, and I arrived at about 2:00 PM. I was hoping that I could convince the customs agent to give me a 6 month tourist stay, but alas I got the normal 3 month pass, which means that in March I get to wait in one of those wonderful Latin American lines to get my visa extended. (Yesterday I waited in line for 15 minutes at the grocery store to buy a bottle of water). Its all part of the fun.

I let myself get frustrated at the airport while waiting for the shuttle bus that would take us on the 45 minute drive from the airport to downtown Medellin. Almost all of the people I meet in Latin America are nice, which is true of everyone I meet everywhere for that matter; but occasionally you’ll meet service agents who think that rich gringos should not push themselves to the front of the line or even be in the line. So when I got to the shuttle bus there appeared to be plenty of room for big me and my big bag, however the driver was unwilling to pack me and my bag, so I stood at the curb and watched for at least 10 minutes while at least 4 other people (and their bags) got on that shuttle. After waiting a long time for the next shuttle to arrive, a new crowd of people surged to the luggage compartment in the back of the bus, and I was in danger of missing that shuttle were it not for a travel agent who saw me get bumped off the last shuttle.

It is also true that some Latin America entrepreneurs see dollar signs when they see a gringo, so if possible it is helpful to know the approximate price before you make a purchase. My host here in Medellin told me that the taxi from downtown to her house should only be 15,000 pesos (which is about $5 USD), but the bag helper and taxi driver told me that I would have to pay what the meter showed upon arrival. So I told the taxi driver what my host said, and on the way I watched as the meter gathered speed … ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-thing … we were at 40,000 Colombian pesos and not even home yet! So I again told the taxi driver that my host said that the fare should only be 15,000 pesos, and that – oh by the way – my host just happens to be an attorney, and thus when we arrived I gave him a 20,000 note and waited for change … and he gave me 5,000 in change.

Yesterday was a wild ride. I’m not sure how many people live here – 2 million, maybe 3 million people – but as you can imagine, this is one big, fast-moving, lots of people, sights, sounds, and smells kind of place. Just a little different than Prescott, Arizona. So I launched myself onto the public transport system, and took a bus from the suburbs to the heart of the city. They let me off at the metro, which is every bit as nice as the metro subway system in Washington, DC. Then I took the metro out and away from the city to a lower income area, then exited the metro train and got on a metro cable car which took us high up the mountain to the fringes of the city. You’ll just have to Google “Medellin Metro Cable” to learn more about it, but what happened is that visionary city leaders years ago worked to dramatically reduce the crime rate in this city by tying all the neighborhoods together. The poorer areas had been isolated, so the city invested millions in infrastructure to build not only the metro system, but also libraries, parks, schools, and other services. One of the promises made and kept by the city was regular trash pickup throughout the city, which obviously was well received especially in the poorer areas that had been regularly neglected in the past. One of the most remarkable comments I read before coming here was made by the former mayor of Medellin, one of the key people who spearheaded the transformation of this city … he said (and I paraphrase), “We must build our most beautiful and expensive buildings in our poorest neighborhoods.” How many people in power think like that anymore? That’s a beautiful thing … and the city has been rewarded for this visionary consciousness through less crime, more civic pride, a booming tourist industry, and much more. The city still has plenty of issues, just like any big city in the good old USA, but many positive changes are complete and still in process.

Back to my wild ride … so after riding the metro cable to the top of the mountain, I watched as thunderstorms moved into the valley and city below. It was pretty awesome to watch lightning bolts flash across the sky, but then it started to rain so people made their way back to the metro cable. However, due to the lightening and rain, the city shut down the system for the night and hundreds of us were stuck up on the mountain in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo. So I took a city bus down the mountain, which was quite the harrowing, wild ride, on wet slippery twisting streets … I was actually sitting in the front seat beside the bus driver, and he was calmly flying down the mountain, singing along to the music, avoiding all the motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, bicycles, taxis, animals, and whatnot that seem to dart from every direction in Latin America while at the same time avoiding collisions … I figured if the bus driver could be calm, then so could I … and I made it back home safely at about 8:00 PM.

I’m not sure what today holds, but I will soon find out as I wander out into the city … Medellin and me.