Tag Archives: Medellin

Vans, Planes, Trucks, and Horses

After our stressed-out rush to get to the airport, we found a line hundreds of passengers deep waiting to check in.  Many had multiple oversized suitcases.

“Maybe the line will move fast,” said Lynn.  She’s such an optimist.  After 15 minutes it hadn’t moved at all.

More than one woman in stiletto heels, sprayed-on makeup, acrylic nails, and wearing 10 pounds of gold jewelry marched up to the desk and demanded to be taken to the head of the line.  They tried lines like, “Do you know who I am?!” and “I have very important business in Bogota!”  The Avianca agent said tiredly, “I’m so sorry madam; you must wait in the line like everyone else.”

Another Avianca agent came along, asking if anyone was there for the 10:30am flight to Bogota.  This is one of those times when knowing some Spanish is really helpful.  I raised my hand, and Lynn and I were led away to the front of the line.  Heh, heh, heh. Or jeh, jeh, jeh as it would be in Español.

We had two hours to kill in Bogota airport, so naturally we reverted to checking on what our friends and family were up to back home via social media.  When traveling in an exotic place, it’s important to keep up with the new Tater Tot hot dish recipe your aunt has tried, the political views of a friend of a friend you talked to for one hour five years ago, and the antics of your ex-coworker’s cat.

I often find the airport network choices amusing. “No me pidas la clave,” means “Don’t ask me for the key.”  Someone is obviously tired of strangers asking, “How do you get on line here?”

In the four Colombian airports we visited, the wifi networks were straightforward.  Maybe this is, ironically, due to fewer terrorism regulations than in the US and Europe, where—at least the first time—you have to give them you name and email and sometimes your address and phone number, and sometimes create a user name and password, and it still takes forever to actually get access.  So “Zona Wifi GRATIS para la Gente” (Free Wifi Zone for the People) isn’t secure. So what?  It’s not like I do online securities trading at the airport.

“I always find it amusing,” said Lynn, “when I land somewhere I haven’t been in years—like Bangkok—and I am immediately connected to a wireless signal because it remembers me.”

Responsible Travel had messaged several times to check we were on track and apologizing for the morning’s no-show driver.  In retrospect, knowing everything turned out okay, it doesn’t seem that stressful of an occurrence but it was at the time.

“He was clearly unhappy about something when he picked us up in Medellin,” I remarked to Lynn.

“Yes.  Do you think he feels they don’t pay him enough?  To not show up at all is grounds for dismissal, so it’d have to be some pretty serious issue.”

“Maybe he had a heart attack?”

“Or slipped on a banana peel …”

We shrugged and turned back to Facebook.  It was one of those mysteries that happen when you travel that you’ll never get an explanation for and it doesn’t matter, as long as ended well.

We exited the second flight in Santa Marta mid-afternoon, and I couldn’t help sighing happily out loud because it was hot and humid, even inside the airport. You could feel we were near the sea.

Our driver was there to take us on the 1.5-hour drive to Tayrona National Park.  He pulled over after a minutes and a second guy jumped into the truck.  “Mi amigo,” he explained.  Just going along for the ride, apparently. Santa Marta was not particularly scenic, at least along the highway.  It’s a beach holiday destination, so I’m sure it’s much prettier close to the beach.

I realized the driver was talking to me.  “I will keep your suitcases with me this weekend,” he said.  “You can’t take them into the park.”

I translated for Lynn and she looked chagrined.  Our itinerary said, “You can get a horse service for the luggage and for the people for approx. 6 EUR.”

Damn, another mystery.

Someday Soon I’m Gonna Tell the Moon

While the minutes ticked away as we waited for our driver, I talked to the hotel receptionist in Spanish.

“You liked Medellin?” she inquired, clearly proud of her city.

“Yes,” we loved it,” I replied.  “It’s nice that this hotel is so close to Park Lloras, because everyone knows where it is and that made it easy to get around.”

Actually, I probably said something like, “This hotel it nice close by Park Lloras, because all people are wise about it and it was much easy for to travel around this place.”

She gave me a blank look.

I had done it again—in addition to my crap Spanish, I had called it Park Lloras, which means Crying Park, instead of Park Lleras, its name.

“I meant Park Lleras,” I corrected myself. What a difference one little letter can make.  The evening before, Lynn and I had hailed a cab back to the park to meet Roxana and Ricardo.  I told the driver we were going to Park Lloras.

“To where?” the driver asked.  I repeated the wrong name several times, slower and with clearer enunciation.  How could this guy not know about Park Lloras!  He must have figured out what I meant because he laughed and turned the radio up to drown me out.  It took almost an hour in rush hour traffic, but he dropped us off in the park.  The park, as in a deserted wooded area a few blocks from all the bars.  It had grown dark and was pouring rain, but we got where we needed to go in the end despite my best efforts at speaking Spanish.

About an hour later it suddenly hit me what I had been saying; I told the group and they had a good laugh at my expense and we all started laughing about how there could have been a place called The Crying Park in that old movie The Crying Game.

Responsible Travel kept messaging me to say they were working to find our driver.  By now he was almost an hour late.  I told them we would call a taxi.  Then there was a knock at the front door of the hotel, which was kept locked, and there was a man with a van.

He was young and had braces; his hair was wet and his clothes were damp but impeccable.  The van was deluxe and appeared just-bought.  He wasn’t in any hurry until the receptionist explained the situation to him with much urgency and arm waving.  Apparently he hadn’t been briefed that we were running an hour behind.

And so he drove fast, and texted nonstop.  He had placed his phone on a dashboard holder, but still—we were going 50 or 60 mph on winding roads overlooking steep cliffs. Every few minutes he would jerk the steering wheel to keep us from drifting into the oncoming lane or the cliff edge.  Lynn and I, through a series of silent facial expressions meaning, “We’re going to die!” to “We have to get to the airport!”, agreed to let it pass.

Then he pulled over onto the side of the road.  Was this it?  Was this the real Medellin, still full of criminals and murders?  Was this where he robbed us and buried us in a shallow grave?

Instead, he spoke into his phone, then turned it around to face us in the back seat.  A canned-computer-generated voice translated, “You must pay 60,000 pesos for this ride.”  He beamed at us, proud of his app.

Just think.  On the positive side, you may never make a mistake speaking another language by using a translation app.  On the negative, you’ll never know the exhilaration of trying to master a language.  And you’ll never have the laughs from making mistakes.

I explained, more cautious to get my Spanish correct this time, “We already paid the tour company.”  He was off like a bullet again, this time yammering with the phone to his ear to confirm we had paid, swerving as he drove one handed.

This was the most memorable thing in the airport: screens over the sinks with ads and public health messages.  Ugh. Is there no escape!?

Horrid Little Men

We returned to the coffee shop we’d been to the previous day and people watched.

Lynn commented, not for the first time, that the Botero statue of the fat man with a little dick dressed as a gladiator reminded her of a certain president.  “Such a horrid little man,” she said.

This was the second time this day she had used the phrase “horrid little man.”  Over lunch we’d had a long conversation about the Me Too movement and our different experiences.

Lynn’s mum had made it clear to her three daughters that they should put up with no nonsense from anyone.  “Remember, you’re a Rutter!” her mother would admonish them.  Rutter is Lynn’s last name, no relation to the famous composer.

“We didn’t even know what that meant,” Lynn said, “But it had its effect.  When Jan and I were traveling around Europe …” (Jan is her older sister) “… when I was 17, we slept on a hillside in Italy with a bunch of other broke young people who were sleeping rough.

“I woke up in the middle of the night to find a bloke unzipping my sleeping bag.”

“Did you know him?  What did you do?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know him! I yelled at him—‘Get away from me, you horrid little man!’  It just came out of my mouth.  I don’t think any bloke wants to be called ‘little.’”

“What did he do?”

“He scurried away.  I went back to sleep.  No one bothered me again.”

“And no one ever hit on you at work, ever?”

“I don’t think so,” Lynn replied thoughtfully.  “If they did, I didn’t realize it.”

“Well if you had had any of the experiences I’ve had, there would be no doubt about what was going on,” I replied drily.

I wrote a post last November detailing some of the incidents where men have stalked, groped, exposed themselves, or otherwise sexually harassed me, including at work.

I think, due to my early childhood experiences, I had a big V for “vulnerable” or “victim” stamped on my forehead until just a few years ago.  My mother never told me, “Don’t forget—you’re a Maertz!”  But then, she had been an abused woman herself.

As I write this, a month after this trip, Colombia is in the news because its peace process is in danger of falling apart.  The US is trying to extradite one of the FARC leaders to face cocaine trafficking charges.  The 2016 peace deal promised immunity to FARC leaders, all of whom were wanted in the US, if they quit the drug trade.  The US says that Seuxis Hernandez-Solarte (great name!) has continued in the coke biz. FARC claims the US and Colombia are in cahoots to frame him.

Sigh.  More fat men playing at gladiators. And why was the drug trade so lucrative?  What was the economic incentive?  It was the US demand for drugs. And rather than get people into drug treatment which would have dried up demand, we tried to arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.  My son is Exhibit A.  What a waste of lives, money, and time, in both countries.

We had a last supper with Roxana and Ricardo and Gaby at the same restaurant we’d enjoyed the previous night.

The next day we would fly to Santa Marta, on the northern coast.  We would have to make a connection in Bogota.  Someone would pick us up in Santa Marta and drive us to Tayrona National Park.  It became unclear from that point out, but somehow we would then spend an hour traveling on foot or by horse into this park.  It was going to be a long day.

The driver didn’t arrive at the agreed time, 7:30am.  He hadn’t showed by 7:45, so I What’s App’d Responsible Travel.  It was an hour-long drive to the Medellin airport, there was only one route, and we had seen miles of backed up traffic going in the other direction on our way in.  If we didn’t get to the airport it would set off a cascade of missed connections and we didn’t want to know where that would land us tonight.

Bottles, Botanics, and Boteros

I realized after my last post that I write a lot about drinking.  I, and many friends and family members, enjoy a happy hour drink and drinks during lunch when on vacation, but I am more and more aware these days of the effects of excessive drinking.

You can’t go into anywhere without seeing signs like these, which are marketed to women and sold as “art.”

They’re all over social media, too.

Now you know me—I’m not one to be cynical—but is there some plot afoot by the Wine Bottlers Association of America to get women to drink more?

According to “the experts,” one drink per day should be the limit for women.  That seems restrictive.  That’s on average, right?  So can I have two drinks per day three days in a row and then just one more the rest of the week?   Does it mean I’m an alcoholic that I am asking these questions?

Before saying our good nights in Park Lleras, we conferred on the plan for the next day.  Ricardo, Roxana, and Gaby were going shoe shopping at a mall.  Lynn and I exchanged a nano-glance and declined to join them.  But we would meet them the next evening for another meal.

I was fixated on visiting the Botanical Gardens.  In the depths of winter, I become obsessed with plants.  I buy plants at the grocery and make plans based on whether there’s a greenhouse nearby where I can buy plants.  I repot the plants that have barely lived through winter, spreading dirt and tools and rocks all over the kitchen floor. My bedroom is so full of plants that the windows fog up.  Still, I want more.

First we had to find the Metro Station again.  Lynn and I managed to walk to Park Lleras, then using my unfailing sense of direction, we struck out in what I thought was the path we’d followed with the guide the day before.

Of course we got lost, but we saw some great plant sights along the way.

I asked for directions, in Spanish, and actually understood the simple answer.  It’s times like these I am so grateful for the four years I studied Spanish.

In minutes the Metro had whisked us to the stop for the Botanical Gardens, where we appreciated yet more murals—these were on pillars under the train platform.

The gardens turned out to be a work in progress.

“It’s not exactly the Lost Gardens of Heligan, is it?” Lynn commented.

The much ballyhooed orchid house held only a few puny specimens, although the building itself was impressive and I’m sure it’ll wow in time.

There was one column full of enormous Stag Horn Ferns.

Of most interest were the yoga class and photo shoot for … a quinceanera?

We had read that these gardens were home to “more than 1,000 living species and 4,500 flowers.”  I thought flowers were living species?  Regardless, we highly doubted if there were anything near that many species, unless—which is entirely possible—we missed some huge swath of the park.

There was a bamboo forest.

I have this plant at home but it’s about 1/10 the size.

The ever-popular unfurling fern photo.

After half an hour we headed for the restaurant, which had plant-covered pillars.

It was a very good restaurant and we spent a couple hours there consuming yet more ceviche and fish main dishes and a bottle of wine.  The girl in the fancy dress and her family—the women attired in bedazzled dresses and the men in suits right out of The Godfather—were seated at the table next to ours.  It turned out the young woman was graduating from college.

We hopped back on the train and returned to the square with all the Boteros, which had a museum we hadn’t had time to visit the previous day.

We saw this sign from above.  Hatikvah means “hope” in Hebrew and is Israel’s national anthem.  I had seen several stores with Jewish names but when I asked Daniella if there was a Jewish community in Medellin it was as if she had no idea what Jews were.

There was a collection of (surprise!) Boteros inside, including this voluptuous sculpture.

Rain, Snow, and Pesos

Here we are on our walking tour of Medellin.  From left, that’s me, Roxana, Lynn, Daniella our guide, and Ricardo.  See how sunny it is?

The sun didn’t last.  On our walk back from the Metro to Park Lleras, it began to rain buckets.  I was glad I had my packable poncho from the UK—and that I had actually brought it along.

As I write this, the sun is out in St. Paul and it’s supposed to hit nearly 60F/15C today.  Six days ago, we had a record-setting blizzard with 14 inches of snow that closed schools and businesses for the day.  I spent hours shoveling wet heavy snow and trying to get my car moved because the city had declared a snow emergency and there is a complicated set of rules for where you can park or you will be towed and have to pay a nearly $300 ransom to get your car back. I found a spot to park four blocks from my house then had to wade home through calf-deep snow.  The next day I had to move it again.

A guy who lives a few houses from me, and his adult daughter, came and helped.  He wore New York-style tortoise shell glasses and we made small talk about how the post office had accidentally delivered my issue of Foreign Policy magazine to his house. He was wearing gloves so I couldn’t see if he was wearing a ring or not.

My car was parked on a slight incline and the spinning tires had worn into shallow grooves of sheer ice.  It wasn’t just my car; there were people stuck kittywampus up and down the street.  A plow truck was jackknifed across the street, spinning its tires.  After an hour of shoveling and pushing back and forth with no results, another neighbor came along—a large guy with missing front teeth and a cigarette dangling from his unshaven face. “It’s a Mini!” he pronounced, as if we didn’t know that.  “Just push ‘er from the front on the side and spin ‘er around 180 degrees into the street!”  Which is what we did and “she” was free 30 seconds.

“I know cars!” the big guy crowed.  “I’m from Chicago, Illinois!”  I don’t know what being from Chicago had to do with car knowledge, but the next time I’m stuck, I’ll seek his help first.

Later, I helped another neighbor move her car.  When she lowered her window, a billow of pot smoke hit me in the face.  That evening I was so exhausted I could barely pour myself a drink, but at least I had waited until after the herculean physical exertion of car pushing and shoveling.

I got to my yoga class a few days later and realized I had no mat—because I had shoved it under one of my tires to get traction.  It hadn’t worked.  The spinning tire had just sent it whizzing through the air into the street, covered with black tire marks, blue ice salt, and crusty snow.

The point of this long detour of a story is, we Minnesotans tend to idealize the weather everywhere else and arrive unprepared for the fact that it can be bone-chillingly cold in San Francisco or Mexico.  Maybe, in my late 50s, I was finally gaining some common sense. Still, the poncho didn’t save my feet from getting soaked.

We made it to the Park of Bars, as Park Lleras should really be named, soaking and laughing and ready for some drinks and dinner.  We tipped Daniella generously (I hope she thought we were generous).  Roxana’s daughter Gabriella joined us, and we had a great long dinner with fantastic Peruvian-Venezuelan-Colombian food and several pitchers of Sangria.  Ricardo kept refilling my glass. Look how happy we all look!

When it came time to pay the bill, the tab was something like 350,000 pesos.  “I know it’s real money,” I said in a low voice.  “But it feels like we’re playing Monopoly.”

“Just take off the zeros at the end and divide by three!” Gaby kept saying, exasperated.  We eventually figured out we each owed $25 for a three-hour-long, fantastic meal.

Fat Cats, Fat Ladies, Fat Men

Daniella led us from the light tube square past a lovely old warehouse that was now the Education Ministry.

We entered a pedestrian mall lined with stalls selling everything from “Adidas” to batteries to bananas.

Here is Daniella explaining the significance of some indigenous jewellery.  “My mother doesn’t believe in religion and isn’t superstitious, but when I was a little girl and I got sick, she did buy one of these charms and tied it to my foot—just in case,” she ended with air quotes.  I bought two for the little kids in my life.

After a few blocks we began to enter an more open area leading to a very large square.  There was a beautiful colonial church—tainted by the fact that slaves had been sold in front—next to an art deco-era office building.

And then the Boteros began. I’d always thought of Botero as a novelty artist—an artist for whom it’s true that “a little goes a long way.”  But somehow, seen outdoors, in situ in the country of the artist’s birth, I became a fan. Here’s Ricardo taking a snap of Roxana.

This part of the tour must drive guides crazy.  We stopped every 10 feet to take photos.

This was my favorite.

We stopped for a coffee in a café overlooking the square. There were a lot of LLLs (large ladies in lycra) strolling by.

“I wonder if Botero was inspired by the women of Medellin,” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound like I was fat shaming, “or were the women of Medellin inspired by Botero?”

Daniella pointed out that all his figures looked like they’d been inflated with an air pump, not just the women. “He means to represent bloated political figures, and egos, and sometimes he’s just being humorous,” she said.

Our waiter had really been hustling to keep everyone served.  “He is Venezuelan,” Daniella said quietly. He is probably working illegally so they don’t have to pay him full wages.  It’s a big problem.”

“So there are Venezuelans here, in Medellin?” I asked.  “In the US, we read that they’re all on the border.”

“No!  They’re everywhere,” Daniella replied emphatically.

“And in the US they’re referred to as migrants,” I said, “probably because if they were officially declared refugees then the UN and US and other countries would be obligated to help them with funding.”

“Yes!” Roxana added, “They are refugees, not migrants!  ‘Migrants’ sounds voluntary.”

“They have no food, no petrol, no toilet paper,” said Daniella.  “How could you choose to stay if your children are hungry?”

We walked across the square toward the Metro.  This building, which looks like a cathedral or palace, is a government office building.

We rode the train a few more stops then got off to take the cable car system to the top of a mountain.  This is not a sight seeing ride, it’s public transport.

Up we went, over sprawling shanty towns. Six or eight people could sit comfortably in each car.

There was a stop midway.

We stayed on and kept going up, up, up.

Daniella kept saying the last stop was “RV Park,” which had me wondering if there would be trailer homes at the top.  Finally I consulted my Metro map and realized it was Arvi Park.

We wandered around the neighborhood at the top.  I imagine the cable cars solve any number of problems, like shrinking people’s commute times and helping women get around without being harassed, or kids being bullied or recruited into gangs.  Imagine, just sailing over the heads of your tormentors!

A little boy was running a street pet shop selling ducklings, rabbits and hamsters.

We walked to a cliff-side park where men were pushing little kids in what looked like go carts and young lovers were trying for a bit of privacy.  The smell of weed was pervasive.

There was a lot of poverty, but also a lot of art and people having fun out and about and clear efforts by some to improve their lots by adding second stories to their homes or painting them bright colors.

This mural says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Medellin by Metro

Our tour was billed thusly: “You will take the public transport—the symbol of the city of Medellin, and visit the most important squares and learn about the extreme change that this city went through from being considered as the most dangerous city in the world to becoming the most modern city of Latin America.”

Daniella actually didn’t say much about “the drug thing” or Pablo Escobar.  I would have been interested to hear about it from a first-hand account, but having had a son who personally contributed to the international drug trade by being an addict and drug dealer, I was okay not knowing the details of how the US demand for drugs had made life hell for the residents of Medellin.

Daniella led us along the streets toward the Metro.  It was Monday, but a holiday, so traffic was light.

The walkway to the Metro itself afforded fantastic views of the city, with misty hills in the background.

The Virgin Mary stood guard at the entry to the station, blessing our travels.

While inside, there was a 10 by 30 foot ad for tampons.

I snapped a photo of the Metro plan since they didn’t have artsy little handouts like in London.

Daniella paid for our passes and away we went.  The station and the trains were spotless.

This was amazing, given that so many vertical surfaces in the city were covered with murals and just plain graffiti.  Daniella explained that the residents of Medellin felt proud ownership of their relatively-new Metro system, and thus didn’t want to see it go to pot like the filthy, tattered, litter-strewn systems in Washington, DC; London, Naples, and elsewhere.  I liked that.  A social compact.  If only we had more such things the US.

We rode the train a couple stops and emerged near the old central train station.  Daniella glanced around shiftily, then led us across the street to some metal barriers on the side of the station, which she proceeded to try to slide open.

“We will see if we can get in,” she said.  “Sometimes we are lucky, sometimes not.”

“Hey, hey!  Stop!  No entry!” a man in some kind of uniform yelled in Spanish from down the block.  He wasn’t threatening, but he wasn’t joking either.

Daniella looked momentarily deflated.  She turned and beamed at him as he approached, and they had a brief consultation. She led us around to the other side of the station, where she conferred with more guards.

I didn’t see any money exchanged.  I think we just caught the guards in a good mood. Regardless, they moved one of the metal barriers aside so we could scoot through to the plaza.

And what was so important here that it was guarded so closely?  This square was the site of Medellin’s city office buildings.  In St. Paul, you have to go through a metal detector to get into city hall, so Medellin is no more of a security state than we are.  In fact I thought there was much less of a military/security apparatus on display than in many other places I’ve traveled—notably London, Ramallah, Addis Ababa, and even Copenhagen.

But we were there for the art, not a lecture about government or Medellin’s recent history.

This soaring piece is by a sculptor named Betancourt. It contains all the elements of Colombia’s development, from natural resources, to horses and the rail road, to the indigenous workers and Spanish conquistadors. The four of us are very well traveled, and we were in awe.  The photo doesn’t do justice to the humbling feeling of standing beneath it.

We left the square, and Daniella thanked the guards who again moved the barrier so we could exit.  Across the street was another square filled with light tubes.

“The idea was to have 328, for the days in the Inca calendar,” Daniella explained.  “But they ran out of money so there are only 300.”

There was also a charming display of posters featuring children’s books, since the main public library was here.

“Are the tubes lighted up at night?” I asked.

“Yes, but don’t come here after dark; this square is full of drug addicts and robbers.”