Miami to Medellín, Colombia, I saw Cuba below, Jamaica, then the translucent Caribbean Sea. My first view of the Colombian mainland was flat, tropical terrain. Banana plantations, swamps and small villages dotted the countryside. Colombia looked like Florida. I imagined the plane door opening to the same hot, sticky feeling that had lingered from my stay in Miami. Midwestern girls need time to get accustomed to tropical humidity.
Traveling further south, hills began to rise, terraced with fields of vegetables and grains. Soon the foothills gave way to rolling mountains. It was the same rounded peaks as the American Appalachians, but this green, endless green, was a stark contrast from the gray-blue tranquility of the Eastern United States. These jungles were a dark emerald color, like the precious stones that run through the veins of Colombian earth. From the plane, the mountain waterways would sparkle and slither, then dive back into the earth.
Soon, little towns appeared. Each with a white colonial church in the center protected by sentinel red brick shops Tropical plantations of mountain crops were on the outskirts. When the plane rose, the blinding beauty of the clouds made me close my eyes. I felt the hum of the engine, the excitement in my body and listened to my fellow passengers speaking in their slow Spanish dialect.
I opened my eyes to Medellín.
Modern skyscrapers in the center, red, tin-roof neighborhoods growing like poppies on the periphery. The mountains enclosed the city and the city sprawled to meet them.
To my surprise, the air had a 60 degree, spring-like chill. I loaded my two suitcases onto the back of a bus and began the hour-long trek down to the heart of Medellín.
My seatmate told me about his experiences living in Medellín the past four years. By the end of the ride, I had been invited to the small farm of his gay lover the following weekend. We exchanged numbers then he took me to the metro and said goodbye.
As soon as I entered the metro, locals looked at me with concern and said to be careful with my suitcases. After living here a year, I know carrying all your belongings through the center of the city and across town on the metro is not smart. That first day, it had seemed smart to save money by not taking a cab.
Safety and frugality are both things you learn quickly in this city.
When I arrived at my hotel in the Poblado neighborhood, the area looked like Chicago. I wondered why I had left the Midwest to come to a place with the largest shopping malls I had seen in my life. Armani suits, Gucci sunglasses. Addidas and Puma athletic gear. There was even a Converse shoe store.
The mysteries of the Colombian jungle were different than I had anticipated. After a year, they are still unfolding. I am currently discovering the theater scene in Medellín. I had a friend who used my voice in her poetry exhibition me Medellín’s Museum of Modern Art. I dance at Tibiri, the best salsa bar in the city with amazing regulars who dance like I can only hope to do after 10 years of practice. I learned how to identify prostitutes and I am friends with two women who rehabilitate them. In a classist society, I learned how to mingle with people that had gold spoons in their mouths as a babies and gold mines in their hands as adults. I also learned to navigate the dangerous areas with friends from the outskirts.
I walked through mountain streams that had looked sensuously ominous from the plane. They weren’t. They were clear and cold and fresh and beautiful. I rode a horse up the steep terrain. Taking a motorcycle up to the highest peak with the majestic, streaming views of the city had me grinning like and idiot for most of the journey.
There is more to Medellín than its legacy of the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s a living city. One that is breathing well again, a city that is growing and creating itself. There is so much more to the city than can be shown in a single post. More to the city than a years worth of exploring.
Colombia is consistently rated one of the happiest countries in the world. Perhaps it’s because of the music on every corner that people dance to on a whim. It might be the dozens of varieties of tropical fruit that keep even the displaced fed. My theory is that happiness reverberates through the city because the culture is at its heart, Dionysian. Most of the city is poor. The minimum wage is a little less that $2.00 per hour. But the people of the region, known as Paisas, live for today. Medellín still has problems, but the city has learned to address them and the inhabitants have learned to transcend them.
After a year, I am as safe as I would be in a middle class Chicago neighborhood. I’ve caught the vivacious and infections Colombian outlook on life. I plan to stay. Medellín had magic to discover, but also to create. It’s a city that every traveler should have on their bucket list.