< HAPPY 2012 ONE AND ALL! Sorry. Hopelessly behind with el blog so I’m on a New Year catch up. We’re still in Colombia right now; I’ll bring you back over to Europe pronto.>
In an effort to stop the drift, I decided on a new focus. No longer was mere sightseeing enough. Fiestas were a good start, but in a bid to kick off my new mochilera style, I slowed the pace right down and signed up for some Spanish lessons. Whistlestop touring be gone; I wanted to get under Colombia’s skin.
After a Baltic cold, overpriced, 15-hour night bus I arrived in Medellin and settled myself in a new friendly neighbourhood hostel, the Wandering Paisa, conveniently offering Spanish classes, salsa classes and karaoke nights. Why go elsewhere?
Medellin is not a beautiful city – the city centre reminds me of the 1960s Broadmead monstrosity with which they replaced bombed-out medieval Bristol – but it has a lively cultural scene, pretty parks, interesting drugs history and, for the weather-buffs, a climate of ‘eternal spring’. For many travellers in Colombia it becomes their favourite city by virtue of its laid-back attitude, mellow vibe and fun nightlife. It’s nice, but I wouldn’t say it was my favourite. I found Bogota more spirited. However, it did have an Olympic sports complex around the corner from the hostel that was completely free to use. Brownie points. I think it’s to keep the kids off the streets and out of trouble but it’s a super community facility and great place to mix with all the locals. Old and young, everyone comes here to exercise. Lordy knows who pays for it – it’s enormous and incorporates five swimming pools, running track, football pitches, volleyball, tennis courts and more.
It was here too that I glimpsed Colombia’s dark side. I met Chloe, an Australian English teacher who had moved into a large apartment in Medellin with a bunch of other expats and a live-in landlady who seemingly ran a taxi firm from the house. There was a large balcony at the front of the property where they enjoyed hanging out, chatting to folks at home online or messing about online. The amount of electronic equipment in the house was obvious. One day a month, the taxi drivers would come to the house to drop off the cash owed to the jefe. Having observed the house, this also became the day that a gang decided to stage a mini-heist, entering the house and holding up three of the girls at gun point while they spent several hours rinsing the house of any electronics and taking cash cards to go down to the ATM and withdraw as much cash as possible.
“They were quite nice to us,” Chloe told me. “They let us keep the sim cards from our phones.”
I disagree, Chloe. ‘Nice’ is not nicking all your stuff at gunpoint. Then the landlady begged them not to involve the police, a necessary step for anyone that has ever tried to file an insurance claim. Interesting to see that violent crime has not wholly vanished from Colombia, but it’s pleasing to know that it’s far from common. That’s probably got something to do with the security presence. I can’t find stats but a whopping proportion of the Colombia population is employed in security of some kind. In Bogota, every single bus has at least one police officer on it, often two or three. Most premises have some sort of private security too. Although a legacy from shakier, more vulnerable times, I found it reassuring, and a reminder of where I was.
Another dark side was glimpsed in the barrio triste, essentially ‘neighbourhood of sadness’. It’s a run-down, impoverished neigbourhood where people with no hope hang out. I suppose as an insight into the real damage that cocaine can do, this neighbourhood is included on the Escobar tour (driving slowly through with doors locked and photos forbidden) since you can see people lingering on the streets smoking basura cocaine in rolled cigarettes for about 50cents a hit. You have to be really desperate to smoke this. The refinement process for cocaine has several stages. You can see them here. The discarded crap from the second level of refinement is what is sold internationally as crack cocaine (basuco in Spanish). Basura is the discarded crap from the first level of refinement. Basically petro tinged with coke. Crap so crappy that it’s discarded by drug barons. It rots your face and is highly addictive.
Having made some lovely friends at the hostel, we hit the tiles for a couple of nights. The first a follow-on from the in-house karaoke night (insanely popular with locals as much as dirty layabouts) which saw us proceed en masse to a small smoky club, Carboncito, for mandatory salsa/grinding. The second where we were guided by Colombian pals to a strange bar in the grimy centre of town, followed by a club up in one of the hill barrios. You couldn’t possibly find it or know about it without the locals. I definitely couldn’t find it again. It made the five honkeys in attendance quite a novelty. Super fun times dancing til dawn, although at approximately 5am the place went feral with dry humping everywhere you turned and three girls dancing on the bar with their boobs out.
Contrary to popular belief, I am not a party fiend. No no. I am old now and I can’t take the pace. Instead I loved the swimming pool, checking out the Botero sculptures, the botanical garden (complete with Butterfly House – hoorah!) and the mirador at the top of the metro-cable car.
One day, I met up with Gloria, the kindly friend who had adopted me back at that bus stop in Zipaquira and taken me along to her family’s party for the weekend. Remember? Anyway, I went for lunch with her and her friend Oscar one lazy Sunday afternoon. They invited me to return to Vegachi with them, found in the Antioquian hinterland. My intention had been to get out to Choco for a bit and see the Pacific coast, but the rainy season and attendant mud slides had made the roads practically impassable. Furthermore the whales and their tails – a famous addition to the Pacific coast – had already done a runner for the year. Binning off that plan, I’d vaguely intended to head Southwards, eventually winding up in Quito for a few days of the December fiesta, said to be one of the best in South America, before catching my flight on to Argentina.
Instead, convinced by the news that I could travel up the Rio Magdalena in the fashion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s characters, I abandoned all half-hatched plans and headed on a chicken bus in completely the opposite direction.