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Friday, January 23, 2015

Medellin 1

WARNING: this post is wordy.

The first thing, if anything, that comes to most people's minds at the reference to Medellin, Colombia is DRUG CARTELS! Ooooooo, scary. Yes, it's true, just two decades ago, Medellin was the most dangerous, murderous city on the planet and home to Pablo Escobar, the powerful and notorious cartel kingpin. With many US dollars and much weaponry, the cartel's influence was brought to heel, Pablo Escobar was killed and the city embarked on a mission to become a model of urban progressiveness. Now, Escobar's neighborhood is a tourist attraction and Medellin has a trophy shelf in danger of imminent collapse for all the international awards it has won. The city spends 85 per cent of its budget ($2.2-billion this year) on infrastructure and services for the poorest parts of the city. That spending includes community programs, and also some truly imaginative public transportation solutions and startling pieces of modern architecture that have been erected in new breathing spaces forced into the once impenetrable hillside shantytowns. While immense changes have taken place and there is a strong spirit of optimism, there is still a flourishing drug trade and fierce violence that has the potential to reverse the new "urbanism" as it is called, at any time. Called "the city of eternal spring" for its temperate climate, Medellin lies at the bottom of a bowl and sprawls up the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains.

I've read a lot about Medellin and thought I might enjoy it but it surpassed my expectations, right from the get go. My flight landed at the new airport 35k from town and on the bus ride into town, down a long steep highway, I was blown away by the number of cyclists grinding up the highway on the uphill side; scores of lycra clad guys on high end road bikes. Quite impressive. I'd booked an airbnb for my stay and was graciously greeted by my host, Sabastian, a techie from Germany and his Colombian wife, Diana. After a quick briefing and tour of their modern apartment, they took me down the street for a good pizza dinner accompanied by their dog, Natasha. Sebastian worked from home but was very generous with his time acquainting me with the neighborhood and city.

Sebastian and Natasha

One minor disappointment with the neighbourhood was the lack of good groceries. The only real option was a big Walmart style store, Exito, that seem to have spread all over Colombia like a plague. They had a decent selection of veggies but were most notable for the glacial speed of the checkers. Standing in line at the till was easily the longest part of the shopping. And that seems to be the norm. No one seems impatient standing in this human gridlock. The first time I experienced this, when I finally got to the till after an interminable wait, the person in front of me turned out to be an employee who was turning in a big, thick wad of bills. So, as I stood there waiting, the checker counted the stack of cash. I was stunned. And, god, he was so slow. Argggg. The next time I was in there, by some misfortune, I got the same checker. Slowly pick up an item, scan it, if it's bigger than an apple, put it in its own bag, tie the bag, set it aside, slowly pick up the next item, and so on. Sometimes there's a glitch, if the process wasn't already sufficiently slow, e.g. someone has a bill to pay, utilities or phone or something (which, I deduced is a service they provide), or someone doesn't have enough money on their credit card so has to go out of the store to a cash machine while the line stalls. For Sebastian, my German host, or for North American me, this just doesn't work. This is when one goes postal. And, no matter how few items one has and how many the people in line ahead have, it would be inconceivable to let you go first. Enough about grocery store lines. On to Medellin. My first full day there I didn't really do a lot. Had the great store experience accounted above and wandered around the neighbourhood admiring the many parks. Later in the afternoon, Sebastian took me and Natasha for a walk on Cerro Nutibera, a big pimple of a hill nearby, owned by the city and used for recreation and sightseeing. There are trails all around the little mountain as well as a road to the top where there are the usual array of fast food Colombian style vendors, a nice little colonial style courtyard and great views of the city.


The next day I had my first experience of the great public transit system when I went for a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. Just a couple of blocks from Sebastian's there was a bus stop for the metro bus, one of those systems like Bogotas with a dedicated lane in the middle for the bus. So I grabbed a bus to the three week old terminal two stops away, very slick and modern. From there it was a short walk to the museum which was a disappointment. A small exhibit of some incomprehensible (to me) modern art.

That didn't take much time so I decided to go downtown to the Museo de Antioquia, an art museum housing works of artists from the department (like a state or province) of Antioquia where Medellin resides.

This is the building next door, the Palacio de cultura

Most prominently featured are works by Fernando Botero whose home was Medellin. Outside are many of his sculptures and inside, many of his paintings as well as works by other artists and some historical stuff. See the next posting for images.




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